I had to ask. If you saw one kid, then another and another walking around campus with an "I Am A Whore" T-shirt, wouldn't you want to ask?
My chance came when a student wore the eye-popping black shirt to class. But a big red patch now hid the bold letters of sexual provocation. The new message? "FORGIVEN."
Was it a film? A scent? An all-night bar? No. The reference was to the biblical story of Hosea, the Hebrew prophet whom God commanded to marry a faithless prostitute. The account, understood as an allegory of God's unwavering love for Israel, is shocking on many levels -- which is why about 250 students were wearing their witness.
The students, members of Campus Crusade for Christ, wanted to be asked what the shirts meant. They wanted to share the good news that God loves and forgives us, whether or not we deserve it.
I work at USC, where 70-plus religious groups, representing everyone from Asian evangelicals to pagans and Wiccans, vie for student support. That support is both greater and more tenuous than in years past.
According to two new surveys, Generation Y -- which includes today's college students -- exhibits a deep and thoughtful commitment to religion and spirituality. But because today's young people are also, in the words of one study, "redefining faith in the iPod era," they expect to create their own playlists.
The import of that independence initially confounded me. As a reporter and historian, I have tracked American religion for more than two decades. I thought I knew what an evangelical was.
Sarah Glass, who'd worn the black T-shirt to class, obviously was one. She'd averred the need to reach people -- however, wherever -- with the Gospel message. But then she said she wanted to be a minister -- an unlikely career choice for a female true believer.
"The Bible is full of contradictions," she said when asked about the evangelical prohibition against ordaining women. "In 1 Timothy, women are told to submit to men, but in Acts, women teach men. God changes his mind all the time."
That's not the standard view at Campus Crusade, a 54-year-old mission "to turn lost students into Christ-centered laborers." One of the largest Christian ministries in the world, the U.S. arm of the international organization works on 1,300 campuses with more than 55,000 students. The group is not known for pushing the envelope on either social or theological issues.
But Sarah's mix of religious commitment and social progressivism squares with "OMG! How Generation Y Is Redefining Faith in the iPod Era," a survey by pollster Anna Greenberg as well as data collected by UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute, which asked more than 100,000 incoming freshmen about religion and spirituality.
Both studies found a high level of religious tolerance and acceptance among college students. The UCLA survey focused more on people's beliefs, while Greenberg examined social and political attitudes too. Her survey's bottom line? "Respect for difference and diversity" is a core value. Members of Generation Y -- even the most "godly" tend to be more liberal on social issues than their elders.
This coincided with what I heard in class. Religious conservatives were eloquent in defense of gay rights and women's ordination. They were happy, even eager, to discuss their own faith, but went to great lengths to understand others: a staunch Catholic gingerly explained Mormonism's three-tiered heaven, an evangelical explored why Muslim women were veiled, and a young Jew grappled with the religious right.
They also seized on teaching opportunities.
"If Jesus came back, he would be just as liberal for today as he was for his time," Sarah told me. "He'd go to the people whom nobody loves just like he went to the prostitutes and those who were unclean and unworthy. That's his example."
To drive home her point, Sarah wore a different black T-shirt to a Campus Crusade meeting. This one read, "Gay? Fine By Me."
The leadership immediately pulled her aside.
"They wanted to talk about it and look at the Bible," she recalled. "I never saw anything in the Bible that said being a homosexual is evil. It says two guys having sex is bad, but not that you're going to hell if you're born gay."
After much discussion, Sarah and the leadership agreed to disagree.
"They give me the postmodern view that everyone has to come to the truth their own way," she observed. "But I'm socially liberal, and most of them aren't."
Me, I'm still coming to terms with a generation that doesn't automatically tie biblical truth to social conservatism. If my students are indicative, and surveys suggest they are, these young believers may have more in common with 19th century evangelicals, crusaders for abolition, suffrage and labor reform than with today's Christian right.
Can somebody say "Amen"?