As I get older I learn that most of the people I know with degrees and advanced degrees ‘winged it. We got the grades, we learned what we thought we were ‘supposed to learn’, and we moved on – hoping to find a job that was more fulfilling or exciting.
I am from Oklahoma; so attending the University of Missouri was a a getaway for me (although Patricia, my step mom who I love dearly and isn’t my ‘step mom’, but I don’t want to confuse anyone – wanted me to go to Pepperdine… what was wrong with me at age 19 that I didn’t follow her advice?). I thought education, but the people in that office freaked me out my freshman year. I thought Journalism, but never with any seriousness. Sophomore year I declared as an English Major, and pretty soon doubled that up to Religious Studies. Dr. Steve Friesen was a lot of the reason for the second major.
He taught the majority of ‘Biblical’ and ‘Biblical text’ courses at Mizzou, and during my time there I had him for around 28 hours. His specialty is in Apocalyptic Literature, and he lectured throughout the Humanities Sequence also. In one of those lectures, I remember hearing Dr. Friesen argue and lecture that Paul’s Letter to the Romans might be the most important letter written in the history of the world. Sounds trite on my blog because I am a pastor. Dr. Friesen was lecturing to 400 Honors College Students (I wasn’t in the Honors College, I somehow got into 3/4 of the Humanities Classes anyway). It wasn’t trite there, it was a good lecture.
Dr. Friesen grew up Mennonite, attended Fuller, did some Missionary work, and then got a PHD from Harvard. He made his students buy their books from the Peace Nook in Columbia. I found this hilarious, many students were offended, but Dr. Friesen is a pacifist and didn’t mind pushing buttons. He also had one of the driest senses of humor I ever came across academically. He once offered, as a point in an outline, “Living’ La Vida Resurrecta’ with no explanation, dance, or musical interpretation.
As a friend he was encouraging. I took an Independent Study Class with him my last semester – translating and writing – and enjoyed the time chatting as much as the engagement of Hebrew Verb forms. That semester I had a terrible family emergency that took me away from Missouri for a week. Dr. Friesen vouched for my character to the English Department.
As a professor/lecturer/thinker Dr. Friesen implied, taught, and discussed in such a way that I knew I did not need to leave my mind at the door to remain an orthodox Christian. At the same time, I could engage all levels of scholarship and attempt to think critically in regards to it. In an age of visceral, threatening rhetoric, I still sense my debt to Dr. Friesen. He taught credibly and responsibly; attacking neither side, but letting neither off of the hook. By both sides I am drastically simplifying the fact that there are scholars of the Bible that do not think it is a ‘credible’ book for facts and world view and there are scholars that do think it is credible. It is ironic that I am simplifying, but I’m going to do it anyway 🙂
My sophomore year I took his New Testament class and remember Christians in the class struggling with the canon formation. I remember his pauses when students would quote Scripture at him in defense of Biblical Inerrancy. I wonder how that felt. I remember the white board as he outlined reasons to think Paul did write this or this letter, and reasons to think he didn’t. I thought it was very respectful of the fact that everyone in the room had a personal stake in the lecture. There is room in the class for someone who is an inerrantist, but that line of argumentation is dismissive of the academic environment of a Mid-Level Religious Studies Course. I also remember another student, in an advanced class on Paul and his letters, receiving an A on a paper arguing contrary to popular scholarship about the authorship of one of Paul’s letters. This was the kind of thinking Dr. Friesen encouraged – your beliefs are good, but this is an academic environment and it is only respectful to engage them in this fashion. That was implied, but never used as a backhand. At least not by the professor 🙂
I know there are many professors in many colleges who do not teach in this manner.
Dr. Friesen used to star certain class days as “Brown Bag Lunch Days” when he thought the syllabus was getting controversial and students might enjoy a more intimate setting to talk.
A few years ago, in a Seminary Course on Revelation I contacted Dr. Friesen to ask him some questions. I believe he is now at the University of Texas in Austin. He responded many times, helped me wade through the mountains of scholarship on that tricky book. I graduated 10 years ago, and am humbled that it is so easy to get in touch with him and that he took the time to write me back.
Distilling how someone has mentored me isn’t easy. I get wordy. I use the Passive Voice. I feel like I’m grasping at air. Trying to turn my story into a bullet point or two.
Dr. Friesen loved well, and that from a position that doesn’t encourage or explain how to do that. Dr. Friesen is a good teacher – the kind who instills a lifelong trust in academia. More importantly, he helped me not fear ‘Liberal Scholarship’ as much of Christianity is want to do. I am a better critical thinker because of him. I am also a more thoughtful Christian.