September 16, 2013

Old Man In the Library: When Knowledge Is Rendered Pointless

Late sixties or early seventies I'd guess, capped with a hat my younger brother would buy from a thrift store and dressed in a shirt and blue jeans he has probably owned for years, his big, hairy hands were frenzying about stacking and re-stacking numerous audio books he had picked out for himself atop the shelf, as if organizing them into some system only he knew. I was curiously browsing the rows, nonchalantly.

I glanced at his stack, hoping the direction of my eyes remained unnoticed by him, wondering what in the world this old man was after. War history, economics, politics, science, his interest ran broad. Toward the bottom of his stack I recognized Christopher Hitchens' Mortality and decided to comment since I had been listening to Hitchens' memoir Hitch-22 in my car that week and since he seemed inclined toward conversation.

The exact comment I made I do not recall. What I do remember is he bounced into conversation with me, as though he had been eagerly desiring it, as though he could hardly wait to tell me about his great stack of audio books. In a bewildering flurry, words and stories flew from his mouth.

He is a Vietnam veteran and a retired chemical engineer and completely obsessed with learning - that stack was all his! He told me he agreed with Hitchens. Religion poisons. I slipped in that I was a christian, which, in retrospect, I suppose was my way of informing him that I wasn't going to be hostile or argumentative (particularly since I, too, think some religion poisons quite resolutely). He wasn't phased, though I thought he might think it strange I would read Hitchens, being a popular fundamentalist atheist while he was alive.

This man reminded me of my friends Jeremy Strain and Ben Prindle and also myself, though my friends could actually hold a mature conversation. He continued talking, passionately commenting on Richard Dawkins - of course! - and having heard him lecture twice, somewhere in the area, Oliver Sacks, whose Hallucinations he recommended to me, being open to the truth, which I told him was a passion and concern of mine as well, and a variety of other topics he deemed suitable to bring up in this crash-coarse "conversation" I had been sucked into.

There was no break between his words and hardly time for taking a breath. Apparently, there was just too much to say to ease up and actually be present with another person, to receive what someone else might have to offer, however simple, however profound. Anything I wanted to say had to be coerced through his near impenetrable sentences.

His insatiable appetite for knowledge, and at his age, though at first was inspiring, quickly became, for me in that moment at least, his downfall. Once, I came close to stopping him mid-sentence - there was no other way - and offering him advice on how to actually converse with a stranger, or anyone for that matter, if he cared. Does he talk like this to everyone? My god! To me, knowledge about social and political issues, historical events, or ancient metaphysics amounts to nothing - as in who cares! - if that person is unable to hold a normal conversation with another human being.

I'm not saying this man sucks or I hate him. Nothing of the sort. If anything, I'm glad I encountered him. I just find the acquisition of facts or truth or reality coupled with the inability to shut your yapper and listen backwards. Wisdom is quick to listen, slow to speak, I'm nearly certain.

Eventually, I had to cut him off because it was time for me to leave the library and meet up with some friends who were by now surely waiting for me. I never got his name but I shook his burly hand and told him to enjoy his audio books. He assured me he would, though for some reason now I doubt he will.

Inside my mind or my heart or both there is a pitcher, sometimes empty, sometimes full, sometimes partly filled. And for a reason I am unaware and outside my control when people talk to me and for long periods of time, for me, my pitcher fills up quick. After this I begin to wane and need to pour out. But if someone talks with me, when they pour and I receive and then I pour and they receive I am energized and strengthened like little else.

This dance, this flow, this art - why, I don't know - has become a rare gift, possibly even among those in our society we should expect to find it. Like words and sacrifice emptied of love, knowledge and a searching for truth doesn't mean wisdom and maturity is the soil from which such a pursuit should flower up. It's a shame.

photo credit: Dietmar Temps via photopin cc / photo credit: ohhector via photopin cc

September 2, 2013

Thinking on Christopher Rollston a Year Later

I've written about Christopher Rollston before, former professor of Old Testament and Semitic Studies at what is now called Emmanuel Christian Seminary, formerly Emmanuel School of Religion. Like I've previously said, my friend Ben and I became interested onlookers to the situation as it began to unravel a year ago (If you haven't already, it will be a good idea to read at least the few beginning paragraphs of my previous post).

This situation, I think I can speak for both of us, intrigued us, at least partially because we had learned together about Peter Enns, once an Old Testament professor, as well, at Westminster Theological Seminary before falling prey to it. Upon the release of his book Inspiration and Incarnation in 2005, in which he writes honestly about difficult Old Testament issues, criticism stirred regarding whether or not the conclusions he made fit within the doctrinal commitments of Westminster. Long story short: they didn't. He transitioned out, became an independent scholar, and, like a boss, continued writing important books, like The Evolution of Adam in 2012.

Ever since learning about Peter Enns I've been more empathetic toward Christian academics employed at Christian universities and somewhat interested in academic freedom, admits often strict doctrinal statements, and the possibility of a "Christian" institution.

Well, Christopher Rollston has reflected upon the last year of his life via his website, Rollston Epigraphy, a couple days ago, putting his situation in some much-needed context, context that honestly brought tears to my eyes as I read, trying to grasp the layers of grief and turmoil brewing underneath the surface of his dramatic removal from Emmanuel Christian Seminary as a loyal and inspiring teacher. I've never met Rollston, and doubt I ever will, but my heart felt for him albeit in a very small way.

Back when I first learned about it, I think my interest in Rollston's situation was made immediately compelling because of my interest in Thom Stark, a former student of Rollston's. My respect for Stark was and is huge, first because of his personal blog that, at the time, challenged some of my taken-for-granted beliefs about Jesus and other doctrines students of Scripture should find naturally alluring and second because of his important book The Human Faces of God.

Some books are entertaining and you're glad you read them, though they quickly slip into the realm of forgotten things. Others offer an affirming pat on the back: "You already believe all the right things." But every so often there's a book that will leave you stunned and even wounded, beyond repair, in the best possible way. Stark's book is this and more. It's a loaded canon purposely pointed at the doctrine of biblical inerrancy as most evangelicals have come to know it, consciously or not, which is important to me since I was taught this, more or less, at college and was the general consensus among the student body and faculty. The provocative honestly and rich substance of Thom's book satisfied me deeply. From then on I've kept an eye on Stark and his work and obviously became very interested if and when he ever mentioned his teachers. Who do people I respect respect?

During his beloved professor's controversy, Thom advocated for Rollston fervently and masterfully combated some shallow opposition to Rollston's Huffington Post article, which he obviously defended because it was true, on Religion at the Margins.

I say all this about Thom because if I respect him as I do then I should at least pause for a moment to offer my mental respects to Rollston, his teacher. If you want to know how well a teacher teaches, watch, listen, and engage his or her students. This doesn't mean that the brilliance of a teacher always trickles on down to inspire the minds of students, but it will some of the time. It's obvious after reading through many "Open Letters" from Rollston's students that his brilliance was translatable more often than not.

They wrote over and over about how Rollston taught them, inspired them with his intellectual honesty and faithful scholarship, opened up Scripture to them in a deep and profoundly impacting way, and nourished the skeleton bones of weak, unthinking Christian faith.

This stirs me up inside because I, too, have had such teachers. I recall Charles Lee, as a freshman, sophomore, and junior reflecting on his own life, faith, and doubt in ways that left me bare and astonished. He challenged us to take faith seriously, to ask the hard questions, to grow up and stop acting like pansy-ass Christians and actually follow Jesus. Or, who could forget the varsity theology couch Jim Adams with his stripped sweaters? I am indebted to his realness, his work, his life.

And it was these kinds of teachers that, for me, that had the greatest impact. It was never the ones that affirmed everything I believed nor never called me out for flimsy theology. Real teachers leave you shocked, annoyed, and often with a wounded faith, but only because the faith that was there before was impoverished or needed to be shot. Real teachers know that there's a time for building and a time for ruining. Rollston seemed to have this figured out. This is why I write about this now. We need teachers like him more than ever when institutions seek donors and their donations more than the reason they were established in the first place: to teach.

... I wasn't planning on writing a full-blown post. My plan was to simply share Rollston's reflections on this last year. Even if you're only vaguely familiar, or not at all, it could be a good read. It was for me.