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.