Under-Credited Theological & Spiritual Influences
We all have people who have been theological influences or influences on our spiritual lives whose names don’t show up much in our footnotes (if we are writers). They don’t get quoted much in our sermons. We may acknowledge them, but strangers examining our work wouldn’t quickly detect their influence–either because their influence is subtle, because it came at an earlier stage, because it is overshadowed by the large presence of other influences, or even because we’ve mentioned disagreements in print or sermon and this has masked the areas of agreement. For whatever reason, these “under-credited” influences can be unacknowledged, too–and that can be mistaken for ingratitude. Lest I be guilty of ingratitude–of failing to be thankful to God for the gift of these influences–I want to acknowledge as many as possible today in one blog post. The tributes are brief–maybe too brief–but the “thank-yous” are very large, I assure you. There is no conscious ordering of the names that follow.
- Lynsey Ray White & Jean Marie (neé Coddington) White. My adopted father and my late mother nurtured my rebellious self in a Christian home–at least from my early teens onward. My biological father was not Christian (his religion was alcohol and chasing other men’s wives!) and our church attendance prior to his divorce from my mother (when I was 11) was sporadic. But after he left, my mother took us to a United Methodist congregation and she always modeled a life of prayer and faith and caring toward others. My adopted father taught me that being a man didn’t mean hurting women (or anyone!) and that God wasn’t just for sissies. Papa practiced “Christian hospitality”–sharing our home with others until they could afford to move out on their own (the only rent was contributing to the grocery bill of our large family!)–long before I knew it had a biblical name. Both my parents stood up for racial justice in the South when that was neither easy nor typical of Southern white folk. Both stood up for the poor and marginalized and taught us to put others and the common good ahead of personal gain. I owe them more than I can say.
- Rev. O. R. Rice. My pastor during my late teens and earliest 20s (after I had returned to the church as a convert from agnosticism), he was pastor of First Baptist Church of Jacksonville Beach. A native of Eastern KY, his thick accent couldn’t hide his love of God. He first saw in me a calling to the ministry–long before I did. He connected me to Southern Seminary (he was an alumnus) by bringing in some of its stellar faculty to preach our revivals–Frank Stagg, Dale Moody, Penrose St. Amant. He also first connected me to Clarence Jordan and Koinonia Partners in South Georgia. He practiced a grassroots ecumenism in an anti-ecumenical denomination, since one of his closest friends and fishing buddies was the local Methodist minister and he attended the Jacksonville and Florida Councils of Churches when many Southern Baptists boycotted them. He promoted choir and pulpit exchanges with African American churches when this was unpopular, too. Even my FIERCELY Methodist mother (who always had a negative view of Baptists) liked O.R., despite her views about “swimming pools in church sanctuaries!” (This was how my mother referred to baptismal pools in Baptist churches.) O. R. gave me my first preaching opportunity (I presented some warmed over version of Bonhoeffer’s Cost of Discipleship which was doubtless more sincere than deep), too.
- Dr. Craig L. Blomberg, now Distinguished Professor of New Testament at Denver Seminary, Denver, CO. Craig was my undergraduate advisor, Greek and NT professor. Here is one of those cases where someone might be forgiven for failing to see Blomberg’s influence. A casual glance could reveal our differences more than our agreements: Though holding a very nuanced definition, Craig uses the term “inerrancy” to describe the Bible’s authority, whereas I have always found the term misleading and unhelpful. Craig restricts this to the lost “original autographs” whereas I don’t. He defends “historic premillenialism,” while I am basically an amillenialist, but think that the main point is an inaugurated (not overly “realized” or overly futuristic) eschatology. Craig believes the NT restricts the roles of women in ministry (though not as much as many evangelicals believe it does) whereas I believe in biblical egalitarianism. But these differences mask our greater agreements: We both hold high views of biblical authority as the final norm for faith and practice in the church combined with an openess to all useful methods of scholarly study of the same. (Craig deepened my love for the Greek NT.) We both are horrified at the Scripture-twisting of Dispensationalism and its militarist-nationalist offshoot “Christian Zionism.” Craig’s actual marriage to Fran is one of the most egalitarian in practice, I’ve ever seen, and Fran has held missions-related church staff positions and is pursuing a doctorate in missiology. And far more: Craig was one of two college professors who introduced me to Liberation theology and he has defended some forms from evangelical caracatures. A centrist in politics, he pushes evangelicals to care more for the poor, for justice, for healthcare, and for peacemaking than is typical of U.S. evangelicals from the ’80s onward. Blomberg doesn’t just defend biblical authority–but clearly places himself under that authority. I have adopted his classroom method of using at least one “conservative” or traditional text and one more “liberal” or boundary-pushing text and having students wrestle with them directly. Too many evangelicals critique liberal theology or biblical scholarship at second-hand, repeating a list of talking points. Craig is clearly a conservative evangelical, but he reads and learns from the likes of Bultmann, Marxsen, Dibelius, Conzelmann, and their more recent counterparts without defensiveness–and without reading just to look for places to play “gotcha” games. In fact, Craig models for his students a rigorous intellectual honesty that says whenever one is expositing the views of an opponent or adversary one must bend over backwards to make sure one is correctly expositing those views before rendering any critique. He also shares with the best of my other teachers the admirable trait of always seeking to make disciples for Jesus Christ–and not of Craig Blomberg. Our differences never disturbed him. I never felt that I was expected to become an echo of his views.
- Dr. James (“Jim”) Gilman, now Professor of Religion and Philosophy at Mary Baldwin College in Virginia, who was my college philosophy professor (obviously not at Mary Baldwin since it is a historic women’s college!). Jim introduced me to Kierkegaard and Dostoyevsky and he took a group of us to hear a speech by Gustavo Gutierrez–thus beginning my encounter with Latin American Liberation Theology. (Now that I think about it, I think he also took us to hear Fr. Daniel Berrigan, too!) In a very conservative setting, Jim introduced students to Evangelicals for Social Action and to Sojourners and The Other Side (sadly, now defunct). Jim came from the Conservative Baptist Association, but studied with Edward LeRoy Long at Drew and is now an Episcopalian–one of the evangelicals who traveled the Canterbury Trail. I haven’t followed that route, but I appreciate it. Along with Craig Blomberg, Gilman had me read Ron Sider’s Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger during the time of the Ethiopian famine of the early ’80s. That was one of the few books that literally changed my life. I’d always been against greed and hoarding wealth, but my eyes were opened to the sinful opulence of most U.S. Christians in the presence of the abject poverty and starvation of so many of God’s children globally.
- Dr. David Kling, now Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Miami (FL), teaching courses in the history of Christianity and American religious history. Kling was one of my history and church history professors as an undergrad, introducing me to the concepts of “civil religion,” the cultural captivity of churches (especially through Rufus Spain’s At Ease in Zion which showed that Southern Baptists seldom challenged the social mores of the South), H. Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture (despite the many flaws Yoder and others later taught me to see in this book, it focused for me the question of the relation between discipleship and citizenship with which I have wrestled ever since). I had been interested in early Church history and Reformation history already, but Kling showed me that American religious history was also interesting–and illuminating for the problems of contemporary U.S. Christianity. (Bill Leonard would later reinforce that for me.) Kling also helped me get past the stereotypes of Jonathan Edwards and encounter the theologian of the Great Awakening. I also learned from Kling both HRN’s motto that “history is the laboratory of ideas” (a motto my Doktorvater, Glen Stassen greatly reinforced) but also the limits of historiographical methods–so that faith may have to confess things which historians cannot prove. (This prepared me for the Barth/Bultmann debate, the debate of Barth’s followers with Pannenberg over the limits of historiography, the skepticism of Van Harvey’s The Historian and the Believer and much of the entire debate over objectivity and perspective in the “postmodernism wars” of the ’90s. Thanks to David Kling, I already had a place to stand in wading through all that!)
- Dr. Ronald J. Sider, Professor of Theology, Wholistic Ministry, and Public Policy, Palmer Theological Seminary (formerly known as Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary) and Director of the Sider Center for Faith and Public Policy, and founder of Evangelicals for Social Action. My rather large fight with a person who no longer works at Evangelicals for Social Action in the mid’90s put a real strain on my relationship with Ron Sider (as well as putting me at odds with others, which was my antagonist’s intention) and my eventual, reluctant, decision not to renew my membership in ESA because I can no longer unequivocally call myself “pro-life” on abortion, has masked how much I owe to Sider. As mentioned above, his Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger changed my life. I have continued to try to balance personal piety and evangelism with passionate work for social justice as Sider models. I am glad that the 2000s allowed for Ron and myself to heal our friendship, though we continue to disagree on the meaning of religious liberty and church-state separation.
- Dr. Anthony “Tony” Campolo, Associate Pastor of Mt. Carmel Baptist Church, West Philadelphia, PA, founder of the Evangelical Association for the Promotion of Education (EAPE), and Emeritus Professor of Sociology, Eastern University (formerly Eastern Baptist College), St. Davids, PA. As my friend, Michelle Tooley, says, Tony Campolo fits political philosopher Michael Walzer’s definition of a “connected critic,” a social critic who is not “above it all” but who deeply identifies with the place/group/movement which he criticizes. In Campolo’s case, he is deeply connected to the American Baptist Churches, USA (since childhood), yet critical of the way it, like many mainline denominations, is declining. He is deeply connected to the evangelical subculture of the USA, but a major critic of its social and political conservatism, it’s lukewarm response to Jesus and the prophets’ call for social justice and peacemaking, and its self-righteousness. (Campolo’s book, A Reasonable Faith led Campus Crusade for Christ to cancel his speaking engagements and led to an evangelical parachurch “heresy trial” conducted by conservative Anglican theologian J. I. Packer! No heresy was found.) In addition to being a popular speaker and author, Campolo is both a traveling evangelist and a sociologist and social work professor deeply committed to America’s inner cities and crafting strategies for suburban and urban churches to partner in renewing the cities. He is deeply committed to the world’s poor and to Christian care for the environment. I share most of his commitments, but I did not get them from Campolo. What Campolo did give me was a roll model for effective evangelistic preaching. I am not among the millions moved by Billy Graham–but Tony Campolo demonstrates a seamless union of evangelism and social justice that I have adapted–though doubtless not as effectively. ( I also love his humor.)
I notice that, except for my mother, no women are in this list. I hope that’s because I usually acknowledge the female influences on me. This is illustrative, not exhaustive, and I may do a similar post at another time.
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