Experiences of an Evangelical Theologian 6
*If you have not been following this series, this installment may not make very much sense*
My two years on the faculty of Oral Roberts University—my first fulltime teaching position—was a surreal time. Every day that I went to campus to teach, I had to steel myself for what unexpected thing might happen—not to me but to everyone. One day came the announcement that Oral (and sometimes his wife Evelyn or a surrogate) would deliver “devotions” over the campus speaker system at a certain time every morning (except during chapel services). That meant during classes. We all had to stop teaching and be silent as we listened involuntarily to these five to ten minutes “talks” and prayers by Oral or someone he designated to take his place that day. One day (and this is just an example of the many unexpected and unwanted events) the dean of the Graduate School of Theology barged into my classroom and almost demanded that I dismiss my students to go down the hallway to a large lecture hall where Oral was speaking. I asked why and he said “Because Oral doesn’t like to talk to empty seats.” I told him I would permit students who wanted to go listen to Oral’s unscheduled and unannounced talk leave class if they promised to go hear him, but I refused to dismiss my class for such a purpose—just to fill empty seats. Several students went to fill the empty seats while most stayed to discuss the day’s subject in theology. One day I submitted to the provost a completed proposal for a minor in philosophy. (There was no major or minor in that subject at ORU when I was there.) I found enough courses cognate to philosophy (I taught philosophy of religion) throughout the university that they, together, could make up a minor. I knew several student who wanted a minor, if not a major, in philosophy. The provost kindly turned down my proposal saying that Oral would never approve of a major or minor in philosophy at “his university.”
*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*
I know that some people experienced Oral and ORU differently than I did, but I am telling here what I experienced during those two years. People can make of them what they will. Having just come from Rice University (as a student) and the University of Munich (as a guest hearer), I found the atmosphere at ORU “from above” oppressive, arbitrary, capricious, almost cultic.
I must say, and gladly say, that I believe Oral himself was sincere; I do not believe he was a charlatan or phony or anything like that. I admired his deep sincerity. While I was there, David Edwin Harrell was writing his biography of Oral Roberts that came out with the title An American Life. Of course, I read it. While it’s not quite a hagiography, it did put Oral in a favorable light. Another book I highly recommend is Give Me that Prime Time Religion—by a man my family knew who worked very closely with Oral—before I arrived at ORU. I read it before going there and simply couldn’t believe it. After two years, I believed it. You critics (of mine) need to know that my family was close friends with three top administrators of ORU. I’m not going to name them here, but if you claim you “worked closely” with Oral and his family around the time I taught there, you most certainly knew these three men. One of them worked with Oral on a daily basis and was fired two or three times—for daring to challenge Oral’s plans for the City of Faith which drained the university financially. Apparently Oral considered him indispensable. Unfortunately, he died of heart disease at a fairly young age. His father married my parents and officiated at my mother’s funeral. My stepmother was his father’s secretary and helped raise him.
Enough about ORU except to say that I left with a heavy, sad heart—glad for me that I was going to Bethel, a dream come true, but sad for my colleagues some of who wanted to leave but felt “stuck” at ORU. The only reason I was able to join the faculty of Bethel College and Seminary (Minnesota) was that my mentor Al Glenn convinced everyone involved in the hiring process that I did not fit at ORU and was “not like that.” Still, at least one Bethel colleague dogged me for years with the greeting “There’s the man from Oral!” Finally, another colleague took me aside and said “You should know that he taught at Bob Jones University before coming here.” Next time I saw him, before he could say “There’s the man from Oral!” I said “There’s the man from Bob Jones!” He looked sheepish and said “Who told you?” We were friends.
My transition to Bethel went well. I was eager to meet and get to know Millard Erickson, then one of the premier American evangelical theologians and dean of the seminary. I had used his three volume systematic theology (Christian Theology published by Baker) as my primary textbook in my two semester introductory course in Christian theology at ORU. I know that I was the first person to use it as a textbook, perhaps the first person to buy it, because the publish sent it to me and my students in unbound “signatures” (sections of pages) because they had promised to get it out in time for my students to buy it. That didn’t happen so Baker graciously supplied us with signatures and then sent the bound volumes when they were available.
I took my place at Bethel as Assistant Professor of Theology at a time of crisis in the institution. (The college and seminary were one institution under one board of regents or trustees and with one president but two separate deans.) Enrollment was down and the college was downsizing. I was treated with some suspicion or reluctance by some faculty members simply because some of their beloved colleagues had been released. However, I was just delighted to be there and did my best to fit in and make friends. I went out of my way to meet people—including the new president George Brushaber. I called him “George” right from the beginning and he didn’t seem to mind. We became friendly if not friends. He opened doors for me that nobody else I knew could open and I think God was involved in that.
George was becoming “somebody” at Christianity Today and introduced me to the editors who I became well acquainted with. Because of him, they asked me to write some pieces for the magazine which I did and what I wrote was greeted with warm appreciation and almost always published. I will talk more about CT later in this series. Eventually, largely because of George, I was asked to become a consulting editor and then contributing editor of the magazine and many of my articles were published in it during the 1980s and 1990s and beyond.
To me, Bethel was a breath of fresh air after ORU. The faculty ran the faculty meetings and decided whether to invite the president and deans to attend or not. Which is not to say there was perfect harmony on the faculty or between the faculty and the administration; there was not. But I kept my head down and did my best to be a team player. In the faculty lounge, when some of my colleagues groused about the administration, I told my “ORU stories” and they looked at me with almost disbelief and agreed that whatever was happening at Bethel was nothing bad compared with what I experienced at ORU.
(Again I want to make absolutely clear that ORU was a good, even great university except when Oral interfered with the academic affairs or the faculty. There I had extremely competent colleagues and I had no disagreements or conflicts with the provost or deans. And most of my students were outstanding in terms of their conscientiousness, dedication to the learning experience, respect for me and other teachers, and intelligence. And I want to make clear that since I was at ORU it has changed dramatically—at the top and all the way down—because at the top. From what I hear and read it is an outstanding Christian university today and if it were located where I am retiring to I would probably be delighted to teach there again—part-time.)
While teaching at Bethel my main area of research and teaching was historical theology. I loved reading and teaching about the church fathers, the medieval theologians, the reformers, and post-reformation theologians. But my main love was contemporary or modern theology. My “bread and butter” (core) courses were “Church Fathers and Reformers” and “Contemporary Theology.” I also taught “Christian Apologetics” and “Christianity and Western Culture” and “Cults and New Religions” which I promoted (because it was an elective) as “Unsafe Sects” which was purely tongue-in-cheek. I did not present most of the new/alternative religious movements as unsafe or dangerous. I taught that course every January during the one month “interim” between fall and spring semesters. Through that course I became a “go-to guy” speaker on cults and new religions in numerous churches throughout the Twin Cities. I strictly avoided the sensational anti-cultists and the cult apologists and did my best simply to present facts about the religious movements people asked me to talk and write about. Some of my writings about little known alternative religions were published in edited volumes and scholarly journals.
One thing that attracted a good deal of attention—about that course and my teaching of it—was that I invited representatives of non-Christian (or heretical “Christian”) sects and alternative religions into the class to speak. The class was either all morning or all afternoon so there was plenty of time for that. I was successful in getting even some reluctant speakers to come to my class by asking them whether they would prefer that I alone present their religious beliefs and spiritual practices or that they come and present them to my students. I even had a Wiccan priestess come several years in a row. She would not reveal her given name but called herself “Lorelei.” Her coven, she said, met in the basement of a large mainline Protestant church in downtown Minneapolis. It was an exclusively female coven. (Once when she couldn’t come I managed to get a male Wiccan to come.) A student asked her if they sacrificed animals in their rituals. Lorelei said not. The student than asked what they sacrificed and she said “Vegetables.” The students then asked what vegetables and Lorelei said “Pomegranates.” Why? Because they symbolize male fertility. (Oddly, she was married and had a son!) I never allowed any of the speakers to actually practice anything in the class and I always allowed students who did not want to be present when, say, a Wiccan spoke to be absent that day. When parents or pastors complained I asked them (usually on the phone) whether they would prefer their students to first encounter these religions out in the extremely pluralistic world without my help or to first encounter them in my classroom where, after the speakers left, I explained what was wrong with their belief and practices from an evangelical Christian perspective? Without exception they agreed that it would be best for their students to learn about these groups within the context of my classroom where we not only learned about them but prayed for them.
George Brushaber fully supported my teaching of this course, including having the guest speakers into the classroom. He trusted me which was a good feeling.
In the next installment I will write about how my publishing endeavors began. Stay tuned…
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