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Confessions of a Middle Aged Professor, Part 1

professor 1In studies of cross-cultural communication, I have never ceased to be amazed at the potential for a disconnect even between those raised together. The unique struggles between nature & nurture, between innate personality & individual experience causes people to assess shared events differently, fostering frequent misunderstanding of each other’s responses to those events on numerous levels. What one perceives as healthy debate, another perceives as dangerous contention. What one feels is a vital process in obtaining truth, another feels is a destructive attack against truth.

Understanding how one is being perceived, however, and not merely focusing on one’s own intentions, is a fundamental part of good communication.

Thus, my own journey as a Christian, being what some would call an Introverted but gregarious, emotionally sensitive, thinking, perceiving personality, has colored a good deal of how I view the world, of how I assess and respond to situations, of the stances that I take and of the methods that I employ to achieve the ends that I envision. I am an artist by nature, blue collar by upbringing, and a scholar by training. I am a born and bred New Englander.

All this entails both particular strengths and weaknesses in the way I have conducted myself over the years. While I do not wish to disparage my work in the ministry, and won’t, for I labored hard in the Lord with much fruit, I would be remiss not to acknowledge areas in my journey that need and have needed growth, some of which, I believe, I have experienced over the years.

I started teaching fresh out of my first Master’s degree in Biblical Studies at the age of 30. Many of my students were within a few years of my own age, shared a similar background, and seemed as eager as I was to encounter Scripture as honestly as possible in their theology, worship, and practice.

I was raised in a Charismatic church by ex-Congregational parents who were themselves raised Presbyterian and Church of Christ, being mentored by a Baptist minister until falling into the Charismatic renewal of the ’70’s. Don’t try saying THAT on pain medication.

In my early 20’s, I lept from charismatic congregations to Pentecostal… Yes, they are quite different most of the time. Based on my own upbringing I have always ministered cross-denominationally, and I little guessed how much of the subtleties of Pentecostal culture I did not fully grasp. My charismatic heritage… just kidding, we didn’t value heritage in the churches I attended… so… my lack of a sense of the importance of heritage did not prepare me for how heritage conscious older Pentecostals are, and how my lack of commitment to “denominational traditions and denominational founders” would color me in the eyes of my fellow professors. Many profoundly negative and frustrating church experiences in my youth provoked me to develop a skeptical reserve about those claiming great spiritual gifting, and a palpable discomfort with that persona, though I hungered for its reality all the same. Unlike my Charismatic friends, I had a passion for the Scriptures, believing that in them, one would find a surer guide to theology & worship & practice than ecstatic experience alone could claim. My mantra might have been, “Let God’s Word be true and every Christian denomination & Theologian a liar… if it come to that.”[1] Discussion, debate and conflict with ancient Jewish writers, the whole history of Christian thinkers, biblical scholars, and both past and present denominational authorities seemed the prescribed means of fleshing out the truth to which each believer is called to adhere, all done for the good of the denomination, church, and believer, of course.

This tends to be the greater thrust of the scholar, whose social entanglements almost always come second to his or her academic pursuit—that all important holy grail… “Rightness.” NO, I didn’t write righteousness, but RIGHT-ness.

And so I came to my first teaching post, young, eager, freshly sharpened from a Charismatic university that often validated my skepticism, while providing me for over five years the means and opportunity to cultivate a vision for ministry as a scholar. I arrived determined to guide those confronting similar struggles to my own through the minefield that is the intersection of Biblical & Christian literacy.  I arrived determined to be a mentor in the Word, helping those hungry for the Word onto an accelerated path through the minefield, inciting a passion for the Word in those lacking it, challenging those who “unquestioningly accept in faith” to learn the maturity of and to reap the rewards of faith-filled questioning.

Did I succeed? Was I successful as a professor? Yes… and no…

My classes were well constructed, challenging, and, even, transforming.  I believe they were transforming by the nature of the material and not merely by my persona. I had a large “following” of students—other people’s depiction not mine—who gravitated to my methodology. They have gone on to get advanced degrees in Biblical Studies, to become PhDs, Professors, Pastors, Chaplains, Missionaries, etc. They serve today as men and women of faith the world over, actively involved in the life of the global Christian community. I remain in personal contact with many of them to this very day.

There is, however, another side to the story. Frankly, I could have done better 1. with weak students, 2. with ruffled faculty, 3. with administration, and 4. with denominational culture. I could have been wiser by valuing different sorts of results and paying better attention to the impact that I had on my larger environment. Here, I don’t lay claim to “wrong doing” so much as to acting, like most, with a lack of wisdom in certain areas.

I have, since these early years, undergone a subtle, but important, theological shift. This shift has not radically altered my tenets, so much as influenced the things that I value in addition to my scholarship (perhaps I should say, influenced THE WAY I value them). It is a shift away from a fixation on looking at everything as a right and a wrong to a contemplation of life and theology and my scholarship in terms of journey and of community and of wisdom.  This shift has allowed me to see, as I could not in the past, the often roughshod way that I have of “doing my thing” when I forget (as it is easy for me to do) that people and community are as much my business as rightness, that wisdom requires not just rightness, but properly influential rightness, rightness in harmonious relationship when possible.

I often treated my students as colleagues in the journey, involving them in my own theological and scholarly exercises, using them as dialogue partners and sounding boards for my own development. While this had a powerful impact on many of my students, those mature enough, educated enough, and flexible enough to follow me on some level, it also had, at times, a negative impact on those students who were not ready for such exercises. Being overly fixated on the process of my thinking, there were times that I was insensitive to the havoc that I occasionally wreaked in the minds and lives of some of my less adaptable students. I was in the process of “becoming,” straining for all I was worth as a scholar to hammer my Biblical Theology into shape. It is a life’s work, but 17 years later, it is a more accomplished process, my efforts are focused more on refinement and precision than on smashing out fundamental contours as in my early days teaching. Some students, perhaps, were collateral damage of my smashing.

I was often unaware of the particular theological heritage of my students, and was too distracted with my process to discover it, so as to teach to it more effectively.

At other times, I treated students’ backgrounds with overt aggression. Here, I am thinking specifically of students that came from “Word Faith” churches and “King James Only” churches. At times, I would respond to students’ remarks in an academic exercise, grinding away at their ideas, attempting to help them think their way out of those ideas. I did not fully realize the emotional impact of shredding cherished thoughts, and discrediting cherished heroes. These students needed this process badly, but I could have been wiser and gentler in my approach.

I was often unaware of what some students took away from my lectures. I would propose questions, some student’s heard statements. I would involve them in an exercise of debate in order to help them validate their own views, and they would hear only overt disagreement with their views. I would present a variety of opinions on an issue, they would fixate wrongly on “my view.”[2] This is partially the fault of some students’ intellectual laziness, since I was usually abundantly clear about my intentions, ideas and methods… still, as the instructor, it is my job to anticipate and compensate for their weakness.

Though I think these aspects of my labors made up a small percentage of what I did in those years, in time, tensions began to mount, spilling out not only in the dorm rooms, which is normal for any Bible college, but into other classrooms, onto other professors, to parents, pastors etc…  If more aware of much of this back then, I think that I could have eased these tensions, but the fact is that I should have been more attentive and taken seriously the implications of the few things that I heard. I was unperturbed by “ruffled feathers,” believing this to be a necessary part of theological and scholarly growth, and a normal part of college life.

I wish that the few professors that had issues (and voiced them loudly behind my back in closed door sessions with administration) would have opened up dialogue with me on points of supposed contention—many of the things they were upset about were not, in point of fact, real—but most did not. In fact, my worst critics never spoke to me on any point positive or negative, social or professional, and, thus, denied me the chance to defend myself against wrongful accusation, and denied us the possibility of working cohesively as a faculty to set certain issues in the student body to rights. This too falls partly at my door, since I did not address offenses plainly, even when I heard rumors of them. Since I did not have issues with them, I left them to take the initiative to work out their rumored issues with me. This was unwise.

To be continued….

[1] This is a statement of priority not a statement of assessment. I did not regard everyone as liars, but set an honest interpretation of Scripture above every and all tradition.

[2] One interesting thing that came to my attention was the repeated accusation that I held to the two Isaiah theory. I am a strong single Isaiah proponent and stated so clearly in every Isaiah class I ever taught. Honestly, I don’t know how I could have been clearer… I’d introduce the Isaiah authorship discussion saying, “Okay, today we will discuss the debates over the authorship of Isaiah. I hold to one Isaiah. I believe the whole book was written by the 8th century BC, prophet Isaiah.” Then I’d stop and ask the class, “How many Isaiahs do I believe in?” They would say together, “One!” I’d go student to student asking each individually, “How many authors do I believe wrote the book of Isaiah?” Each would say in turn, “One!” I would then present the various positions arguing their strengths and weaknesses. And, yet, every year I was accused again of holding to the two Isaiah position by students in those classes. I even had a pastor of one of my students say upon meeting me, “Oh, you’re that two Isaiah guy over at BLAH.” I nicely corrected him, stating that I held solidly to the one Isaiah position, but he just waved his hand in my face and walked away while I was talking.

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