Saturday, December 5, 2015

Requiem from a Student to His Teacher

The first formal instructor I ever had in my academic training for the pastorate has died.

I was a fresh-faced eighteen-year-old in 1988 when I entered Dr. C. W. Christian's Honors Old Testament Survey course (see his official Baylor obituary here). Prior to him, my instruction had come at the hands of parents, pastors, and Sunday School teachers. I had read a little Arthur Pink, a lot of Warren Wiersbe, and a heaping helping of Matthew Henry and Flavius Josephus (two of my father's favorites). Oh, and Dad also had a copy of Clarence Larkin's Dispensational Truth, complete with illustrations. For eighteen years, with perhaps a handful of Sundays missed in all of that time, I had attended that classroom we know as the church.

A twenty-four-hour span in 1988 took me out of the world of Wiersbe and into John Tulloch's The Old Testament Story. Week after week in a classroom on the ground floor of the Tidwell Building, Dr. Christian told me that my parents, my pastors, and my Sunday School teachers had been wrong. They had been wrong about the creation of the universe, because, according to Dr. Christian, by 1988 the question of creation vs evolution had long been settled decisively in favor of evolution and against special creation. Adam and Eve weren't real. Cain didn't slay Abel. There was no Noah, no ark, and no flood. God didn't really tell Abraham to sacrifice Isaac.

Oh, and Moses had nothing to do with writing about any of that.

Dr. Christian did not advance any of these ideas as his favored contenders in a close race among competing theories; he presented them as the only viable options for understanding the Bible. He never showed disdain for conservative scholarship in the classroom, because he never acknowledged that such scholarship existed.

Would you believe that we got along, sort of? I never was the student who fought tooth-and-nail with liberal professors in the classroom. In the first place, I was there to learn, not to teach. Learning means submitting yourself to someone, even if you disagree, just so there's room for someone to be a teacher. In the second place, I believe in showing respect to people in authority in most circumstances. My dissent appeared in my assignments and in out-of-class dialogue. Only rarely did it appear in classroom discussion, and never was it disrespectful even there.

Somewhere along the way in my academic work at Baylor I applied to the University Scholars program (from which I graduated). I needed a faculty reference, preferably from my department. I went to Dr. Christian. After a brief conversation, Dr Christian said (and I've never forgotten this, down to his exact wording at key passages), "Bart, I'm going to go ahead and recommend you to this program. I'm going to do it because I believe that you are intelligent enough to work your way through [your conservative upbringing] and become a sound academic religion student."

That moment.

That's the moment when the Conservative Resurgence began for me (a decade late). That's the moment when Dr. Wally Christian made me a Fundamentalist (I honor him in death by using the term he would no doubt favor). I had been a good Southern Baptist conservative all of my life, not really knowing that anything else existed (except for Campbellites, Methodists, and Yankees). I was a jovial conservative without any known adversary. In Dr. Christian I met for the first time something that I wanted to defeat, or at least see defeated. Alongside the calling of God and the encouragement of some mentors, one reason I hold a Ph.D. today was to disprove Dr. Christian.

I wanted to defeat it because it seemed so blatantly small-minded and unbefitting a scholar of such evident talent and skill to fall victim to a self-ratifying certainty that all those who disagree with you must be less intelligent than you (and yet the number of otherwise-intelligent liberals who do this is mind-boggling). I wanted to defeat it because I had already read just enough conservative scholarship (like Gleason Archer's Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties) to know that there was a stream of evidence that Dr. Christian was selectively withholding from us. I wanted to defeat it because it was so brashly disrespectful of the spiritual leadership of my upbringing, and even I already recognized that the faith of simple farmers and factory workers was more likely to be similar to the faith of the unlettered apostles than was the faith of cloistered academes. Prompted to choose between trusting Dr. Christian and trusting the people who had led me to Christ, I was never going to choose Dr. Christian. I wanted to defeat it because apart from my head, in my heart I knew that it would be a betrayal of Christ to agree with Dr. Christian. I wanted to defeat it because I knew that, left unchecked, it would weaken the churches and leave lost people in their sins.

Dr. Christian was my original frenemy. And now, reading of his death, I want to say how thankful I am for Dr. Christian.

I'm thankful for him because I realize that he shaped me more than one might think. Like Dr. Christian, I am an advocate for a way of reading the Bible (albeit the very selfsame one that he was trying to supplant). I don't fault him for taking his place at the lectern as an advocate rather than some disinterested, dispassionate docent of religious curiosities. The stakes are too high in Christian theology and biblical studies for any responsible person to seek refuge in some feigned neutrality. Either the Bible is what it claims to be, in which case you'd have to be a monster not to implore people to accept its message, or it is an imposter making false claims about itself, in which case no moral person could refrain from warning people to read it with caution. If in my blogging I don't seem very good at straddling the fence, it's partially because I'm not trying to do so (and perhaps partially because I lack the skill).

I'm thankful for him because I've known some Southern Baptists who needed a Dr. Christian. Occasionally I'll run into someone who will say that the Conservative Resurgence was utterly unnecessary. Occasionally I'll run into someone who will say that there never were any liberals in Southern Baptist schools. Occasionally I'll run into someone who will allege that the leaders of the Conservative Resurgence completely fabricated these trumped-up charges for whatever reason—to accrue power, to settle old scores, to smuggle arms to the Contras or raise the price of Middle Eastern oil or whatever the conspiracy-theory-du-jour might be. Whenever I meet people like that and hear their cockamamie conspiracy theories, I think back to those weeks in Dr. Chrsitian's classroom and that moment in Dr. Christian's office, and I remember that it was real. I wish that some of the rest of you could have had the experience and could have known just as well that there was a real problem with liberalism in Southern Baptist educational institutions (and it's not altogether gone yet). Some of you would be more liberal than you are if Dr. Christian had been an early influence in your life, but some of you would be more conservative than you are.

I'm thankful for Dr. Christian because although he disagreed with me sharply and was dismissive toward my beliefs, he never penalized me for disagreeing with him. Not only in the grades I received in his class but also in that University Scholars program recommendation, Dr. Christian believed in and practiced fair play (although perhaps he might have considered it mercy).

I'm thankful for Dr. Christian because he and my other professors at Baylor University gave me a doggoned good education. There was wheat and there was chaff. Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for the wheat. There was enough of it and enough quality in it to be worthwhile, and then some. And for you, Dr. Christian, requiescat in pace.