It had been exactly a quarter century since Alan and Nancy Bean said goodbye to the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and now we were returning to the scene of the crime.
Nancy had grown up in Seminary Village, the housing complex a half mile from the Louisville campus, when her father, Charles Kiker, was working on a doctorate in Old Testament Hebrew. Nancy and I were married in Crescent Hill Baptist Church in 1977 while we were both M.Div. students. Together, we had lived in six separate homes in Louisville and now, in the summer of 2019, we were retracing ancient steps.
And as we drove from one familiar scene to another, Paul Simon’s “Graceland” was running through my head. At the time, I didn’t see the connection; now I do.
“Why did you decide to come back to Southern?” Bill Leonard asked me shortly after the Bean family set up shop in Seminary Village. “I’m not sure,” I said. “Southern has a really strong church history department, and I guess I’ve always had a morbid fascination with slow motion train wrecks.”
“In that case,” he replied, “you’ve come to the right place.”
The Southern Baptist Convention was in the final stages of a messy divorce when Nancy and I returned to our alma mater in 1989. Or, to shift the metaphor, my professors spoke like children who were being disowned by the mother who once birthed and nurtured them. Which brings us back to Mr. Simon.
“Graceland, Simon gradually realized, was a metaphor for resurrection, or what some call ‘the kingdom of God.’”
“Graceland” was recorded in 1986, shortly after Simon’s divorce from Carrie Fisher (better known as Princess Leia). The attraction was mutual and immediate when the pop star and starlet met on the set of “Star Wars” in 1977. They dated on and off until, in a desperate attempt to keep their love alive, they got married in 1983.
It didn’t work.
By 1986, Simon’s career was as broken as his marriage to Fisher. He hadn’t had a hit record for years and, rumor had it, the day of the singer-songwriter was long gone. Desperate for a new direction, Rhymin’ Simon stumbled across a cassette tape featuring the work of several African pop artists. The music was mesmerizing, like nothing else he had ever heard. He found himself composing whimsical rhymes around the strange new rhythms. Finally, he booked a flight to Johannesburg and spent several weeks hanging out with the musicians on the tape.
Simon expected to replace “I’m going to Graceland” with something less banal, but the line “sang well” and he finally decided he was stuck with it. He dropped by the Memphis tourist trap but came away depressed. Elvis had died in the literal Graceland, an obese shadow of his former glory. That’s not how Simon wanted to go out. He didn’t want to, as he put it in one of his songs, “end up a cartoon in a cartoon graveyard.”
“First I thought I have a problem,” Simon recalls. “Then I thought I have an adventure. Instead of resisting what’s going on I’ll go with it, and I’ll be carried along and I’ll find out where we’re going, instead of assuming I’m Captain of the ship. I’m not. I’m just a passenger.”
Graceland, Simon gradually realized, was a metaphor for resurrection, or what some call “the kingdom of God,” the fabled land of grace where “poor boys and pilgrims with families” will be received without reservation.
The lyrics Simon conjured for the “Graceland” album are a jumble of tiny story fragments. Who can forget “Fat Charlie the Archangel” or the girl with “diamonds on the sole of her shoes”? These images weren’t supposed to make sense, Simon insists; they just popped into his head and made him laugh.
But images created in whimsy often took their creator to a very dark place.
There’s a girl in New York City
Who calls herself the human trampoline
And sometimes when I’m falling, flying
Or tumbling in turmoil
I say “Woah, so this is what she means”
She means we’re bouncing into Graceland
And I see losing love is like a window in your heart
Everybody sees you’re blown apart
Everybody hears the wind blow (emphasis mine)
If anybody ever had a window in his heart, it was Frank Tupper. He had been my theology professor back in the 70s, and, a decade later, I was sitting in his graduate seminars on “the doctrine of providence” and narrative theology. His beloved wife, Betty Tupper, had lost a slow and miserable battle with cancer in the mid-80s, and Frank was still “tumbling in turmoil.”
As he explains in his book, A Scandalous Providence: The Jesus Story of the Compassion of God, this loss of love made theological reflection extremely difficult. Not only did his brain refuse to function properly, his soul-crushing ordeal raised questions that his theological heritage couldn’t address let alone answer. How could a loving, omnipotent God allow such a thing? Why are some people healed and not others?
“If anybody ever had a window in his heart, it was Frank Tupper.”
Tupper lived in Gethsemane, and, slowly, over long years, his close identification with the Crucified allowed him to read the Gospel of Mark with new acuity.
God did not intervene on Jesus’ behalf, Tupper eventually concluded, because it couldn’t be done. Before the foundation of the world God had chosen the way of self-limitation. Tupper found theological warrant for this view “in the experience of Jesus in Gethsemane – an experience corroborated in the pathos and sorrow of lived-Christian-experience throughout the centuries.”
“In the dark night of Gethsemane, he suffered the silence of God. Nothing had changed – God hidden and distant. Deep pathos glued him to the ground, unyielding and immovable…. Death. Rejection. Abandonment. He stood up. He would trust God – regardless.”
There are large chunks of academic theology in A Scandalous Providence, but, like Simon’s “Graceland,” the book is driven by stories, large and small. Biblical narratives dominate of course (Tupper is a Baptist, after all), but stories culled from the lives of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Oscar Romero, Marion Wright Edelman and a host of ordinary folks nobody ever heard of dot the book’s narrative landscape.
Before you launch into A Scandalous Providence, be sure to have plenty of Kleenex on hand. Especially when you get to the end of the book where Tupper shares his final, intimate conversations with Betty. She had always rejected escapist religion and believed in facing her doubts without blinking. She was afraid, and she prayed for God to take away her fear.
And then one morning,
“to her utter surprise she experienced the enveloping and uplifting Presence of God. And in the bliss of that majestic Presence she said: ‘I heard children laughing, children laughing on the other side.’”
“Although she continued to experience a Mother’s deep pain and disappointment of leaving her own little children, she never feared death or dying again – never.”
“Tupper lived in Gethsemane, and, slowly, over long years, his close identification with the Crucified allowed him to read the Gospel of Mark with new acuity.”
Because the self-limitation of God is rooted in the love of Abba (the motherly father and fatherly mother), Tupper replaces the traditional “monarchal” image of God with “parental” terminology. The imperial potentate who moves the clouds about in the heavens cannot be love.
“This God who can do anything, anytime, anywhere He chooses without any contextual limitation on His activity – this God cannot be found in the dreadful darkness and agonizing contradiction of Jesus in Gethsemane.”
“Whatever patterns providence takes in creaturely human history will be patterns inscribed with wrenching, twisting, painful, incalculable pathos. Nevertheless, the Self-giving God retains the power to move history, often painfully and slowly, to accomplish specific purposes as well as the magnificent power of love to accomplish the goal of creation.”
Tupper’s view of providence is unflinchingly honest. We survive our personal Gethsemanes, not because we experience miraculous rescue, but because we are not alone:
“Jesus has already gone through Gethsemane, a Gethsemane that we will never comprehend, and he stands with us in ours. That is a great gift, but at times it seems hardly enough, not enough at all. Yet the silent company of our friend Jesus in the midst of the silence of God will have to do. Sometimes this solitary friendship is all any one of us has.”
Tupper’s interpretation of the death and resurrection of Jesus is heavily influenced by Jurgen Moltmann’s The Crucified God, but the Baptist theologian pushes even further into the divine mystery. Viewing the world through the eyes of Jesus, Tupper suggests, allowed God to understand God’s creation from a fresh angle. There is even a sense in which the death of Jesus was the death of Abba God. It felt like the end, even to God; but it wasn’t.
“The God of love went through death with Jesus without ceasing to be, and this God raised the crucified Jesus from the dead, the resurrection of the crucified Jesus ‘for us’ that defines who God is: ‘God is Love.’”
Which leads Tupper to his thesis for the book, his theology, his teaching and his life:
“In every specific historical context with its possibilities and limitations, God always does the most God can do.”
And in the end, the love of Abba God will triumph, Tupper says:
“The church dreams in behalf of all humanity for the messianic banquet of God in the arrival of the Sabbath of New Creation on the morning after death.”
We’re bouncing into Graceland.
Shortly after the publication of A Scandalous Providence, Tupper was informed that he could either resign his teaching position at Southern Seminary or face a heresy trial.
It is tempting to deplore this medieval travesty and long for the glory days, before the “conservative resurgence,” when most Southern Baptists respected academic freedom. But there is no golden age in Southern Baptist life when rejecting the “God who can do anything, anytime, anywhere He chooses” would not have been a firing offense.
If Tupper hadn’t written the book he needed to write, he would have ended up “a cartoon in a cartoon graveyard,” the academic equivalent of fat Elvis cranking out the old hits in Vegas. Instead, he has us gasping, whether in horror or amazement.
“‘In every specific historical context with its possibilities and limitations, God always does the most God can do.’”
In the scandalous providence of God, Bill Leonard was becoming the founding dean of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University just as his friend and colleague Frank Tupper was being shown the door at Southern Seminary.
“Frank is brilliant,” Leonard once told me. “He’s like a fine jeweler holding up a diamond and turning it slowly so every facet shines.” And when the new divinity school opened its doors in 1999, Tupper was teaching theology in Winston-Salem, “openly and unhindered” (Acts 28:31).
I’m glad Nancy and I returned to Southern Seminary this summer after a 25-year absence. Now – not unlike the stories other pre-2000 alumni have shared – we can let go of the place. As Tupper might say, the God of love went through death with Southern Seminary without ceasing to be. The death of the “old Southern” ushered in a new world in which gems like A Scandalous Providence are free to blossom.
We think we’ve got a problem, but we’ve really got an adventure. Like the girl in New York City, we’re tumbling in turmoil; but that’s what happens when you’re bouncing into Graceland.