From the beginning of our visit to Ufa we wanted to understand Bashkir State University.
I was amazed how many students were studying philology and also how many students who had never even left the city could speak English. One evening we were invited to a “student party”. Banish any ideas of student parties in which you may have participated. The only music at this party was soft elevator-type music to enrich the conversation which was to take place around a circular table. The only students attending spoke good English. And, although we were so keen to learn, it soon became clear that they were gasping to learn about the West.
A girl with a loud black and white polka dot dress sat down on my left and, without further ado, asked, “What did you think of the screen-play of ‘The Silence of the Lambs?’” I knew right away that I was going to be a disappointment to her, having never read the screenplay, seen the film, or even developed an inclination to research that genre.
Quite unfazed, she moved on to other topics, asking me what we were doing in Ufa anyway. I told her, without actually saying, “You’re an unreached people group”. Then she surprised me again by volunteering that Bashkir people can be open to new things. “You know, we only accepted Islam fairly recently, around the 13th Century”. “So what did you believe before that?”, I asked. “Oh, we believed in the great Creator God”. I think I looked unconvinced, but she charged ahead, “We still have it in our hearts, and I’ll tell you how I know. When my grandmother is knitting and drops a stitch, she calls out ‘Tengre!’ – that’s our name for the Creator God”.
Meanwhile, my wife Pam was in a group that was researching high culture. Phil, through music contacts, had reached a Bashkir poet called “Salawat” (named after a Bashkiria’s most famous 17th Century liberator). This modern-day Salawat was blind and much celebrated throughout the republic. He invited the group to meet him for a round of discussion in which he duly recited his material and then enquired about their own interests.
Phil realised that the poet was getting a once in a lifetime opportunity and launched forth with an explanation of what motivated the group – gratitude to Jesus Christ for going all the way to give his life for us. Salawat listened intently till the translator had finished and then exclaimed his approval of the Jesus story, “Wonderful – let’s drink to that!” Vodka appeared from nowhere and, despite the fact that Salawat was blind and that the group included some teetotallers, everybody felt obliged to do the right thing, the Russian way. So that’s how Pam drank her first and only toast to Jesus.
Student appetite for contact with us “Jesus followers” was not going to be satisfied by one visit to Ufa so it wasn’t long before various ones of us returned to the university. Because of my science background I was an object of some curiosity, so I got asked to address the issue of Christianity and evidence. What was the evidence for the existence of God? What was the connection between natural selection and evolution? I spoke in English and their eloquent questions showed how accurately they understood the subject.
Before I went to Ufa to give the “Natural Selection” talk I decided it would be enhanced by having a living specimen with which to demonstrate. So I visited the Zoology department in University of Birmingham (where we lived at the time) and asked for a stick insect. They were very obliging and gave me a good big insect, enough leaves to feed it for a couple of weeks and a sturdy plastic box in which to transport it across the 2,600 miles, Aeroflot permitting.
I just don’t know a more obviously visible case of natural selection. A stick insect can contrive to make itself look like a leaf and will even produce an apparent “leaf” which seems to have a bite taken out of it by the beak of a particular South American bird. Our specimen was an instant hit and the audience passed it around from one end to the other, some grimacing, some enthralled. I had once asked the Professor of Genetics in Trinity College Dublin how many mutations it would take to produce such a stick insect and he said, “Too many”. I passed that on to them.
I presented the insect in all its glory and suggested that somehow God had a hand in its design – and in our human design too. After all, nobody wants to be told, “You’re a nice person but, deep down, you’re just a bag of chemicals”. Most people in that lecture didn’t want to be told that either. But one student called Max held out. In the question and answer time he declared that he was going to stick with atheism. I asked him, “Are you an atheist under all circumstances?” “Yes”. I proposed a few theoretical circumstances to him but he was going to be an atheist in all of them.
Then I took a broad guess and asked,
“Have you ever been in the Young Pioneers?”
“Do you ever go on a Pioneers summer camp in Siberia?”
“Do you ever take your sleeping mat out of the tent at night and lie on the ground and watch the stars?”
“Are you an atheist then?”
I was so proud of Max’s courage and honesty in front of all his peers. A real man. Much later I heard that, after some more intellectual thrashing around, Max became an ardent advocate for Jesus.
And the stick insect? I sought out the Ufa Zoology department and asked them, “Would you like to have a stick insect?” “Yes please!” they said. I then explained, “You’ll need more leaves like this to feed him…” but they interrupted “Don’t worry, we know what to do” and showed little further interest in my instructions about the insect’s feeding regimen. On my way out I couldn’t help but notice that they had a display cabinet of fascinating dead insects with some spaces for new entrants.