Experiences of an Evangelical Theologian 2
Note: If you have not read the first installment of this series (Experiences of an Evangelical Theologian 1) you may have trouble understanding this and later installments.
I have often been asked how and why I became a theologian. It’s not exactly an “expected” profession. That is, hardly anyone says “Don’t you want to be a theologian when you grow up?” I know I was never asked that! Still, and nevertheless, somehow or other, it happened. I became a theologian. Or so people tell me. And an evangelical one, so I still say even though some who claim the authority to decide who is and who isn’t an evangelical theologian deny it.
I grew up in a relatively poor, uneducated environment—family, church, neighborhoods. Occasionally I overheard hushed conversations about a distant relative who went off to get a doctorate in something or other and never came back. Occasionally the hushed conversations were about a fellow minister—within our “fellowship of churches”—who earned a doctoral degree in theology and “lost his faith.” The implication was that the loss was at the very least predictable, if not necessary, given his education. When I was about to leave the U.S. to study theology in Germany, one of my many pious uncles took me aside and said “Always remember, Roger, there is such a thing as an over educated idiot.”
I grew up in an intensely religious extended family. When they were all alive I had 65 first cousins. I’ve never actually counted all my aunts and uncles but, needless to say, there were many. And most were very religious in their own ways. Two of my uncles and aunts and their families were devoted, passionate Calvinists. They were members of the Christian Reformed Church. My cousins were members of the CRC’s youth group called “Young Calvinists.” My parents and many of my aunts and uncles were Pentecostals. Needless to say, some family gatherings were interesting if one was interested in different Christian theologies. Somehow, I believe, listening to those conversations helped propel me into the study and teaching of Christian theology.
One of my uncles was a member of a little-known religious group known to outsiders as Two-By-Twos and to themselves, among themselves, as “The Truth.” Many people, including my parents, considered that group a cult and prayed that my uncle and his family would find the true Truth and leave that group. I was curious about that and it also propelled me into the study of Christian denominations and “sects and cults.”
*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.*
Sometime during adolescence I came to realize that some other Christians considered our denomination (and others like it) a cult. I became intensely interested in the subject of cults and read Walter Martin’s The Kingdom of the Cults—a massive tome—when I was in high school. Eventually I went on to a more scholarly study of cults and new religions and wrote some articles and book chapters that were published.
All that is to say that I can hardly remember a time when I was not at least interested in religion and especially Christianity. I peppered my parents and some of my relatives with questions about the Bible, hymns, Sunday School lessons, sermons, things heard on Christian radio (which was almost always “on” in our home). And especially about things I overheard during family reunions and visits to intensely religious relatives’ homes. One relative was my father’s oldest sister who was a Presbyterian elder. She had her own, independent opinions that had nothing to do with classical Presbyterianism. Later I would come to think of her worldview as “dualism” (Manichaeism). She believed in two eternal, opposite, equally powerful principles—one good and one evil. She and my father, a Pentecostal minister, often debated the Bible and theology. I listened to those conversations whenever I could.
Was I born with a mind somehow wired to love theology? That doesn’t seem to make sense. I don’t think science has ever discovered or even hinted at such a possibility. However, I was, to say the least, intrigued when I read that Dietrich Bonhoeffer announced to his mostly secular family that he would become a theologian when he grew up. He was only fourteen at the time! What inclined me toward a life of studying, teaching and writing about Christian theology? I suspect it was my family and church. My two churches—in sequence, growing up—were spiritual hot houses, separated from “the world” and everything “worldly.” We were taught from the earliest age possible—Bible stories, Sunday School songs, Bible verses, Christian clichés, even “evangelegends”—religious equivalents of urban legends. Our heroes were literally evangelists like Billy Graham and Oral Roberts. I remember receiving colorful “cartoon style” booklets featuring evangelist Roberts. At least once I got into a fight on the school playground defending him against accusations that he was a “fraud.” (Roberts had an every Sunday afternoon television show and many people watched his healing services just to make fun of him and them.)
During high school I wrote a thirty-five page research paper about Pentecostalism! Of course, I had “inside information.” My uncle was president of our Pentecostal denomination (Open Bible Churches) and knew a lot about Pentecostalism. But I also consulted books and chapters and encyclopedia articles. Eventually I attended and graduated from a Pentecostal college, majoring in “Christian theology and ministry” and then somewhat reluctantly left Pentecostalism while attending a Baptist seminary. I knew that many of my family and friends were praying for me—that I would return to the “full gospel.” They thought I had lost my way entirely when I earned a Ph.D. in religious studies from a secular university and then studied theology under a world class Lutheran theologian in Germany.* Then they were surprised and even shocked when my first full time teaching position was at Oral Roberts University! That surprised and shocked me, too.
Somewhere along the way, probably during late adolescence or early adulthood, I decided that my goal in life was to climb the mountain of Christian theology and understand it all as much as anyone can, stand at the pinnacle and look down and eventually say “I get it.” Then, of course, all the while, know that there is much above the mountain that nobody will ever understand until they see face-to-face and know as they are known. At the end of this career I can truly say that I still only see through a class (or in a mirror) darkly. I have studied Christian theology in all its varieties—Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, traditional Protestant, Anabaptist, Pentecostal-charismatic, Western and non-Western, liberationist and right-wing, liberal and fundamentalist, etc. I cannot say that I stand on any pinnacle, but I think I have learned and taught Christian theology about as much as anyone can in one lifetime. I have not sought to construct new ideas or systems but only to understand others’. My goal has always been to help Christians understand Christianity intellectually as well as spiritually.
None of this would have happened had God not opened doors for me in very unusual ways. How did I go from being embedded in a kind of hillbilly church and family (no insult intended; those people were the salt of the earth!) to holding a named chair on the faculty of a major research university? I believe it couldn’t have happened without God opening doors for me. I almost literally stumbled through some of those doors. Now I look back and just shake my head in wonder at how that happened. Which is not to say that I didn’t work hard at this. I did. But, normally, those doors would not have opened to me—given my background and lack of preparation.
*For anyone who might be interested: Recently I have been reading (or actually listening to) a novel about a boy growing up in an Irish Travelers family and community in the 1950s. I see some parallels between him and me. First, his mother died when he was young and because of giving birth to him. He was intensely interested in knowing about his mother but no one, not even his father, would tell him about her. So he sets out on a “journey” toward finding out about her. When I was a child nobody would tell me anything about my mother who died when I was two years old. I was told only years later that she died because she gave birth to me. The doctor told her not to have another child because of her rheumatic heart disease (resulting in congestive heart failure). Her pregnancy and my birth severely damaged her heart or sped it toward terminal failure. My father remarried and I was always told “You have a new mother now, so don’t even ask about your first mother.” Years later I went on a journey to discover as much as I could about her. Second, more importantly, the boy belonged to a distinct subculture within the larger (Irish) culture, one that was looked down on by others. He became interested in reading classics and writing. At one point in the novel his cousin, his best and possibly only friend, said to him scornfully “You want to become one of them!” Reading books and writing was not part of their, the Irish Travelers’, tradition and stepping outside the tradition was considered an act of betrayal. That is how I was treated and felt when I entered seminary and then pursued a doctoral degree. I was becoming one of them—the non-Pentecostal, non-Spirit-filled, even perhaps unsaved and “worldly” world.
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