An Individual Renaissance
The academic year that began in August of 1989 did not give any obvious portents of what was to come. Earlier that summer my girlfriend and I had broken up and I ended the student youth ministry I had served for a couple of years. During the summer I had worked on the grounds crew at the local refinery and done some supply preaching to area churches. Toward the end of the summer I sold my first car for a new Ford Tempo. When the school year began, I ended up changing my major to the more solid five-year theology degree (since I already had most of the classes I needed for it). I dated a little bit at the beginning of the semester. And I worked at odd jobs that I could pick up around town.
But two things did happen in the first month that started the process of change that was coming. I saw the movie Dead Poets Society, and was invited to an informal study group led by a local minister and adjunct professor at the college.
For all its obvious weaknesses, Dead Poets Society struck a chord in me that opened up my mind and life to a broader world. (And it did, after all, win an Oscar for best screenplay; and was nominated for best actor, best director, and best picture.) I had pretty much grown up on pop music, read science fiction and fantasy, and read popular Christian books. I was a decent student, but really had no interest in the serious study of the classic works of English literature, or of Greek and Roman literature, and definitely no interest in classical music. But Dead Poets changed that.
I’m not sure why the movie struck me in the way that it did. I wasn’t unhappy with my heritage churches, or my Bible college experience. It’s true that I chafed under campus rules that were stricter than what I’d had when I was at home. It’s true that by this, my fourth of a five year program, I had begun to realize that there was still a fairly strong anti-modernist, anti-intellectual strain at the school left over from the controversies of theological liberalism from the era of the school’s founding, and those tendencies began to be problems for me. But overall I was very happy at Ozark, and had begun to form friendships that were mutually edifying and supportive.
In any case, soon after seeing the movie a couple of times, I began using it as a guide for introducing myself to classical music (by writing down the works from the movie’s credits) and to the poetry read in the movie. I acquired copies of Whitman and Frost, and an inexpensive edition of Shakespeare’s complete works. But what began as something like imitation, soon spread out to other arenas. I became hooked on literature generally, and “found” favorite authors in Dostoyevsky, Annie Dillard, and T. S. Eliot Partly due to my dissatisfaction with my philosophy class, I struck out on my own and focused on those authors generally classed with existentialism: Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Sartre and Camus. I began to think along new pathways and to write more broadly. I began to engage the wider world. For a paper in my ministry class, instead of following the usual path and focusing strictly on church model paradigms or biblical text interpretations for the foundation of the paper, I decided to glean insights from Thoreau’s Walden.
At the same time that this Dead Poets Society-inspired transformation was taking place, the second major catalyst was also furthering that transformation. At the invitation of a couple of my classmates, I started attending, intermittently at first, a small study group of like-minded friends. We began to look at what was to us a new concept: worldview. We utilized recognized evangelical tools: Francis Schaeffer’s How Should We Then Live? movie (and I later read the book), Brian Walsh and Richard Middleton’s The Transforming Vision, and Os Guiness’ The Gravedigger File. We watched Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, read and discussed T. S. Eliot, Flannery O’Connor, Annie Dillard, wrote and read our own poetry (blank verse almost exclusively), discussed linguistics and deconstruction, and pretty much any other topic we wanted.
Our group facilitator and mentor, a local minister and adjunct professor at the college, Kyle Gardner, was a model of open inquiry on solid Christian foundations. Though stricken with multiple sclerosis, his mind was, and remains, sharp, and his dedication to serving the Church and to Jesus Christ have marked me. He is a man who knew, and knows, what it means to suffer for Christ’s sake, and his example was a paradigm for all of us, and remains so for me.
We were about as disparate a group as one could imagine. We had an artist (working in many media, but mainly oils), a poet (who eventually went into journalism), a former self-confessed occultist (my roommate), a future youth minister who had an interest in film making, a future philosophy professor (one of my friends), and me.
At the time I was pretty much your standard ministry student, but was reconsidering what I had taken to be my vocation as the worlds of English literature and philosophy opened up to me. In fact, by Christmas break that year I seriously considered not returning. I began to carefully consider whether God had really called me to ordained ministry. Given the gifts I was discovering I had, could it be that God was calling me to academia to teach literature?
As it so happened, of course, I did return to Ozark for the Spring term after the new year. But that short four-month experience wrapped around Dead Poets Society and Kyle’s study group opened up the future for me and started a serious wrestling with a vocation I had once thought to be so clear. That vocational struggle would last some fifteen years.
But as much as I was going through what was to be something of a renaisance for me (that would last a couple of years), what was shortly to happen upon my return to classes in January 1990 would bring what was to eventually be the end of my journeying among the Stone-Campbell churches, and the beginning of the path to where I am today.