I began grading term papers in the fall of 1972, for undergraduates taking courses with C. Allyn Russell, Professor of Religion at Boston University. He paid me $2 an hour, or thereabouts, during our three-year run. Each semester thereof, Russell, author of Voices of American Fundamentalism, would proffer this unchanging speech about grading: “An A,” he said, “is only for the best written, best documented, best analyzed papers.” “It ought to tell you something that stays in your head awhile.” “B’s,” he said, “are similar, but less memorable.” “A grade of C,” Russell insisted, (I’m not lying), “is like kissing your sister. It’s acceptable but there’s nothing really thrilling about it.” I can’t recall what he said about D’s, but the formula for F’s was clean and simple: “You’ll know an F paper when you read it,” adding, “Try to learn from them all.” I seldom enter a new grading cycle without thinking of Russell, late friend and mentor, who taught me to evaluate term papers, and learn from the students who wrote them.
During the last 40 plus years I’ve read student papers from Southern Baptist, Wesley, Northern, Bethany, and Fuller Seminaries; Baptist Seminary, Richmond; BU, Yale Divinity School; Andover-Newton; Samford, Mercer, Baylor, and Wake Forest Universities; and Seinan Gakuin University, Japan. Students at those schools became my teachers through their research and writing; carrying me toward fascinating ideas and individuals, debates and dogmas. This year was no exception, as Christian history students taught many things “that stayed in my head,” and are well worth repeating.
One student wrote of Roger Williams’ sojourn among the Narragansett’s, who rescued him from the “howling wilderness” of 1636, after Puritan-privileged Massachusetts exiled him for suggesting that Natives should be justly compensated for their land. Williams lived among them, describing their dialects and culture in A Key to the Language of America, 1643, writing:
“I have acknowledged amongst them an heart sensible of kindnesses and have reaped kindnesse against from many, seaven yeares after, when I my selfe had forgotten &c hence the Lord Jesus exhorts his followers to doe good for evill: for otherwise, sinners will do good for good, kindnesse for kindnesse, &c. … If any stranger come in, they presently give him to eate of what they have; many a time, and at all times of the night (as I have fallen in travel upon their houses) when nothing hath been ready, have themselves and their wives, risen to prepare me some refreshing.”
The paper cites James Byrd’s comments (The Challenge of Roger Williams) that Williams believed many “so-called ‘conversions’ of native peoples that missionaries boasted of were only outward baptisms—forced rites that did not represent the native peoples’ free acceptance of Christianity. … Williams claimed that, because of his close relations with native peoples, he could have easily forced [conversion]. … Yet he refused because of his respect for both native peoples and the gospel.”
In verse, Williams noted: “I have knowne them leave their House and / Mat / to lodge a Friend or stranger, / When Jewes and Christians oft have sent / Christ Jesus to the Manger.” Like few colonials, Williams listened to native peoples; and found a blessing.
Another paper offers a sobering (equally controversial) assessment of the missionary movement, 300 years later. In My Several Worlds, novelist Pearl Buck, daughter of Protestant missionaries in China, wrote: “I knew intuitively that [missionaries] were not in China primarily because they loved the people, even though they did learn to love a people naturally lovable. No, they were there … to fulfill some spiritual need of their own. It was a noble need, its purposes unselfish, partaking doubtless of that divine need through which God so loved the world that He sent His only begotten Son for its salvation. But somewhere I had learned from Thoreau, who doubtless learned it from Confucius, that if a man comes to do his own good for you, then you must flee that man and save yourself.”
Struggles over the nature of conversion were part of another research paper, related in part to the spiritual pilgrimage of Jay Bakker, son of controversial televangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, and now co-founder of the Revolution Church movement, currently pastoring its Minneapolis congregation. The student quotes Bakker’s comment from his book, Fall to Grace, that “the turning point in my understanding of grace came when [Donnie Earl Paul] convinced me to spend time with the writing of the apostle Paul, especially his Letter to the Galatians… If it hadn’t been for Paul’s message for grace, I would have drunk myself into the ground before my thirtieth birthday. For years leading up to that point, it had been Jay Bakker vs. Jack Daniel’s in a no-holds-barred old-fashioned bar fight. Jack was kicking my ass before grace stepped in to stop the fight.” Meeting in bars or candy stores in various urban locales, Revolution Church reaches out to persons long disillusioned with Christian faith as a viable means of grace.
“Grace stepped in to stop the fight.” That line will “stay in my head” for a long time, thanks to Rev. Bakker and the student who taught me about him.