Monday, October 31, 2011

"Somebody was wrong, and it wasn’t Jesus"


Wayne Flynt
Samford University Photo
I went back to my alma mater last Saturday to hear Wayne Flynt give a talk at the Samford University Library as part of the Homecoming events. He talked about what life was like when he graduated with the class of 1961. He then read an excerpt from his new memoir, Keeping the Faith: Ordinary People, Extraordinary Lives. The reading he chose related his experience of being challenged and seeing broader possibilities as he went from a provincial homogenous community to experience higher education and as he met people on his college campus from other parts of the world and other walks of life. I was especially taken by one quote in particular:

“It was not my parents, peers, school, or church that began to unshackle me from the chains of racism. It was the Bible. I was only a teenager in high school when the first tensions appeared between the teachings of Jesus and the teachings of John Patterson and George Wallace. Somebody was wrong. And it wasn’t Jesus.”

The reason I like that quote is that it resonates very much with my own experience. When I went to Samford University in the mid 1970s, I decided on a double major in English and Religion. One of my friends said at the time, “Not only will you have religion, you will be able to talk about it.” There may have been some truth to that. There has also been a lot of truth in Garrison Keillor’s remarks about English majors on his radio program, A Prairie Home Companion – which is why I ended up making a living as a registered nurse so I could continue to enjoy the fields of English and Religion.

My experience in the two departments became very enlightening and even liberating. The professors in the Religion Department were not the fundamentalist strand of the Baptist faith. "They all," as Wayne Flynt recalls, “held to the neo-orthodox theology as espoused by Paul Tillich, Karl Barth, and Richard and Reinhold Niebuhr; they were all theistic evolutionists; none believed in the plenary inspiration of scripture [i.e. inerrant and infallible texts directly dictated by God]. Those Baptists in 1958 were more liberal than half the country is today.” I indeed found that my professors were all caring people who wanted each student to really evaluate the concepts of life and faith in order to understand how it all works in the real world.  So many of us young Baptists had come to college having been steeped in folk religion, and this was our first opportunity to explore the faith more fully.

One particular professor, Karen Joines, was constantly being vilified by certain conservative students as a liberal bent on destroying faith. I found Karen Joines to be quite poetic as well as thought provoking. It occurred to me, since I was studying in both departments, that if Dr. Joines said the same things in the English Department that he was saying in the Religion Department, he would be hailed as a defender of the faith!  My love of literature helped me to see my studies in theology from a different perspective, and I suppose allowed me to be more open to new ideas than some of my conservative colleagues.

For me, it took most of my college career to really get to the point of being able to think through the concepts I was being exposed to (which is why I also believe in life-long learning – so many of us aren’t really at the stage to gain the most from our education while we are in our late teens and early twenties). By the time I finished college, I decided to go on to seminary. It was while I was at Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary in Mill Valley, California, that I saw a need to truly change my way of thinking.  Like Wayne Flynt during his high school and college days, I was reading the Bible, which I was conditioned to believe as the truth, and seeing a radical contradiction between the words of Jesus and the Old Testament prophets vs. the ethic of my Southern Christian culture.

The ironic thing was that Golden Gate Seminary, even though it was located in California, was more conservative than Samford University back in Alabama. The more I read, however, and the more I saw of society, the more I leaned toward a more liberal take on things. It is certainly possible to be just as fanatical and polemic as a liberal as are certain conservative fundamentalists. The important thing, rather, is to be open to learning. Openness to learning, openness to hearing another point of view, may lead to a conclusion seen as conservative by some. It may lead to a more liberal view. It is possible to be liberal in some things while being conservative in others.  Authenticity is the key.

My personal motto has become, “Honor Wisdom wherever you find it, welcome Beauty whenever it arrives, follow Truth wherever it leads.” I can thank caring instructors who had unswerving integrity for setting me on that path. I can also thank Wayne Flynt for reminding me of my great blessing in his talk last Saturday.



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4 comments:

  1. Hey, I like that quote from Dr. Flynt, too!

    I just bought his latest book and am looking forward to reading it.

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  2. Thanks for reminding me how much I liked Wayne Flynt, and I didn't think I was going to when I attend the SPAFER Lestures last spring. Recently I send a letter to the editor here in Tupelo about our airport and library. In both cases the city is holding on to old thinking and trying to make it work in a changed world, sorta like the Christian religion is doing today. I ended the letter with this comment. "When the world changes those who don’t change with it are always left behind."

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  3. Charlie,
    Your post is a reflection as to why I've always admired you as a fellow Baptist pilgram even though you may have wondered along other paths. While we share some similar experiences with our baptist college experience there are some significant differences. My high school/college was made up of 67 nationalities. I remember an African American student Moses Peace, that was welcomed to our local Baptist Church and often sang Negro Spirituals for special music at Sunday Morning Worship services. Several of us were greatly distressed when the church wouldn't accept him into membership when he asked to join the church. This caused a major revolt on our part but didn't bring the change we sought.

    My world changed upon transferring to a baptist college; gone was the international flavor of the campus. I met several preacher boys that were little models of there pastors. Some were positive models and some were poor models. I found an interesting magazine called Sword of the Lord and I subscribed to it to expand my exposure to other concepts. At the same time our school scheduled a great variety of speakers for our chapel times that were highly attended. One chapel speaker was the world renowned archaeologists Richard and Margaret Leakey. Another speaker was Julian Bond at the time a politician from Georgia. I remember my roommate asking him his stance on legalizing Marijuana. This was in 1973.

    Over the years the pendulum of Baptist life swings back and forth. The majority of my ministry has been in the west so I've escaped the paradigm of the southern christian culture you describe. I am encouraged by the young church planters that I work with here in California. They reflect their culture while representing the best found in faith in Jesus. I can't think of a better time to serve the kindgom of God.

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  4. Very thoughtful. shows growing discernment through the years. I have been on such a parallel track and feel like a real soul brother. we all are a mixture of so many things, capable of change, capable of keeping the best of the past and moving forward in new circles, etc etc. You are on track in how you see old Southern Seminary and those of us who graduated from there. I remember Karen so well. He was a good reflection of the best of that tradition--earnest, dynamic, insightful immersion in scripture without the poison of fundamentalism, racism, "Southern-ism" etc etc thanks, charlie. jerrymoye

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