1979 - The Literalists
Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
“That you, Marco?”
Frank DeMarco nestled the phone between his ear and shoulder and popped open a can of soda.
“Yeah.” Slurping the residue from around the opening, he settled back into the couch and let the cushions envelop him.
“You hear about Troy?”
“What about him?” He took a big swallow.
Marco gasped, gagging on fizz that burned through his nostrils and splattered onto his shirt and pants. As he coughed and tried to clear his throat, he doubled over and the cord pulled the handset from his neck. Wheezing, he set the can on the coffee table and reached back for the phone.”
“…all right? Marco?...Marco?”
“Yeah…” He hacked and coughed trying to speak. “Yeah…I’m OK. Just swallowed wrong…What did you say?”
“He’s dead, Marco. Troy died in a car accident going home from class this afternoon.”
“Not sure. That’s all I heard. Thought you’d want to know.”
“I’m praying for his parents, but...”
“They’ll need it.” He didn't want to talk. “Thanks for calling.” Without waiting for a response, Marco hung up the phone, took it off the receiver, and set it on the table. His hand slowly rose...paused...then fell without feeling into his lap. Dead...Troy dead?...No, that couldn't be!
They were to graduate from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in the summer. Nineteen seventy eight had started out such a good year. He pictured the time just a month ago when his friends shared a meal…at this table…right here…and talked about God’s call on their lives and His special plan for each of them.
Marco laughed. Troy would witness anywhere. They went to the park once. Three bikers parked near them to use the water tap. These guys weren’t just yuppies on motorcycles. Long matted hair splayed out from under headbands. Unkempt beards hung down their chests over sweat-stained T-shirts with pictures of...demons? A large bullet hung from a leather thong around one man's neck. On his arm, another displayed a tattoo of a skull with sword stuck through its gaping mouth. Marco didn't realize he was staring until the biker locked threatening eyes with him. At which point, Marco quickly turned to Troy. The delicate bubblegum scent of nearby hyssop gave way to the kind of rancid odor Marco only smelled in locker rooms full of unwashed gym clothes.
“Hey, you guys want a soda?” Marco remembered cringing when Troy said that.
Frowning, one of them drew his forehead into a knot. “You speaking to me?” he asked turning his hands into fists.
The voice grated on Marco. Why couldn’t Troy just be quiet?
“Hey, you a coach?” asked Troy.
The three bikers stared at him.
“Isn't that a whistle around your neck?” he continued.
No, Troy, no! Just be quiet...please! Marco trembled, glancing up to see what they would do.
Blinking as if not believing what he heard, the man's aura slumped. He fingered the necklace. “It's...a...BULLET!”
Troy shrugged. “We have cokes here if you want some.” In the end, the bikers sat down at the table, drank soda, and listened to Troy explain the Gospel to them.
That was only two years ago. With a swat of his arm, Marco knocked the phone and its receiver off the coffee table. How could God allow this to happen, especially to Troy? If anyone had the gift of evangelism it was Troy. He stood, picked up a cushion from the couch and slung it blindly across the room into the base of his fish tank. Water splashed up the glass as angel fish darted for cover. His breath caught and he wiped his eyes. How could God do this?
He reached for the door handle, but once again refused to pull it. Resting his arms on the steering wheel, Marco laid his head on them and looked out the side window at Troy’s home…well, Troy’s parent’s home. Troy was dead; his home was with Jesus…whatever that meant. He remembered a time when he knew what he believed. Now…? He shook his head. Seminary wasn’t supposed to be like this. Religious convictions were to be discovered and confirmed.
Some convictions! Here he was, sitting in a car, afraid to talk to the parents of his best friend. Matco sighed. Are you there, God? He listened. No answer.
What could he say to them? Their son had just died in a car accident. Someone studying to become a pastor should be able to deal with this. Two years ago…maybe even last year…he would have walked right in, sure of what to say. Jesus died and rose from the dead giving a promise of eternal life with Him. He provides victory over death. And, in conquering this enemy, He assures us that we have a comforter so we can withstand anything that comes our way.
But the truth really wasn’t so clear, after all. Teachings from his classes, tools to aid him, came to mind. If he gave any credibility to the historical method of Biblical interpretation, much of the Bible was probably just stories. When he complained to his advisor that some professors said the miracles may not have happened exactly as written in the Gospels, Dr. Coleman had told him to grow up…that he needed to get past such childhood crutches. A physical resurrection? That’s impossible. A spiritual resurrection…maybe. And the virgin birth? A beautiful idea, but no one really believes it these days.
The Bible is a good book as long as you filter what it says…you know, read it in light of the superstitions of the day it was written. But take it literally…? Marco shook his head. No doubt God inspired the words--the same way Dante was moved in creating the Divine Comedy…or Milton was stirred to write Paradise Lost. And the Fifth Symphony, Beethoven was inspired when he composed it. Yeah, he grew up a lot that day. And he didn’t like it much.
Marco forced himself to grip the handle. His fingers fought to free themselves, but he would not let them.
Maybe Troy’s parents want to be alone.
No! This is the right thing to do.
Pulling on the latch, Marco pushed the door open and spun sideways, stretching his legs onto the street before he could close the door.
There. He took a deep breath and started across the street.
Maybe they won’t even be home.
Yeah. I can hope.
Except for a light in the living room window, the two-story house was dark. No lights outside. Maybe…
With his insides rolling up and down, he came close to the door and shivered ever so slightly. Was that weeping? He paused on the stoop and listened. A laugh? An instructor once told him that the farthest edge of grief can sometimes manifest itself in all kinds of odd ways.
He knocked softly…once…twice.
The sounds stopped. Troy’s dad opened the door, eyes red, the remains of a wistful smile fading from his face. “Hello, Marco.”
“Hi…I heard about Troy…”
“God’s ways are not always what we would want are they?... Please, come in? Judith and I are looking at family pictures of Troy.”
“Can’t stay long.” He knew--and they knew--that was just a good excuse to leave early.
Harry led him to the couch where Judith dabbed her eyes with a tissue. “Hi, Marco…” Her voice caught. “It's good of you to come.”
“Just wanted to tell you how sad this makes me and to find out if there’s anything I can do for you.”
They looked at each other, and Harry shook his head.
Judith slid over. “Have a seat. You might enjoy these pictures.”
Harry pointed to a photo of a young boy, Troy, standing beside a park bench. His little black cocker, he called him Sparky, sat obediently at his feet.
“Remember this?” Harry smiled at his wife.
Troy’s mom touched it and turned toward Marco. “Troy always saw the world in his own unique way--but you already know that. Just before this picture was taken, he asked me if they really made homeless people pay to sleep on the bench.”
A loosening laugh rolled up Marco’s chest. Across the back support were the words, Rent Me.
“And the spaniels…” A tear rolled down Judith’s cheek. As she wiped her nose with tissue, she nodded to Harry.”
With a wounded smile, his breath caught. “…We went to southern California once…Toured the missions. In a courtyard, Troy glanced up at Judith with a most amazed look and asked, ‘Did spaniels really make these buildings?’”
That was definitely Troy. He laughed and cried over stories and pages of pictures with these parents of his best friend. He relived the life of their son.
“You were an important part of his time at seminary,” said Harry.
Judith leaned back. “He was excited about becoming a pastor.”
Harry put his arm around his wife. “He saw things more clearly than most of us. For the last year, he believed the next Southern Baptist Convention in Houston would be a pivotal point in time. He was excited about going.”
Troy’s mother tapped a picture of him and a number of youth. “Our church made him one of the messengers…younger than any we’ve sent in the past.”
Marco remembered Troy talking about it, but these political things never excited Marco much. “Why did he want to go?”
Harry looked sideways. “Surely he talked with you about the direction of the denomination.”
Troy’s talk of the loss of the foundations of the faith never really interested him. Marco was busy soaking up the teachings of his instructors. He shifted position and stared at the pictures.
“Harry, surely, he’s seen it in his classes, even if Troy never mentioned it.” Judith turned to him. “What do you think of the professors here at Southern? Do you find them as liberal as Troy did?”
Marco began to sweat and wasn’t sure exactly why. “Well.” His voice was weak. “I…I don’t think it does any good to label people as liberal and conservative. It gets in the way of a higher critical approach to the scriptures.”
Judith got this look on her face, the kind Marco’s mom used to give him when she was disappointed in some answer he gave. “I see.” She glanced at her husband.
“I know it’s getting late and you’ve got to go,” said Harry, “but to Troy this was important. It defined these past eighteen months of his life. And you are…his best friend.”
True. He nodded and sat back. They would have their last say.
Harry had as much a look of satisfaction on his face as agony would allow. “What did Troy tell you about how his concern developed?”
Of course he knew the answer to the question. This HAD defined his best friend. “First, I think he said a liberal trend in northern universities worried him. Then, second, he saw these same beliefs creeping into Southern Baptist thought.”
“Well, yes,” said Judith. “But the root problem is the same in the north and south; it’s the tendency to seek other authorities than scripture. When we take away that standard, we don’t have much left. The real issue is this: what is scripture?"
“Don’t you think there is too much emphasis on which translation is the right one?” replied Marco, “Scripture is the word of God. I think everyone agrees it’s a good guideline for living.”
Harry moved to the edge of the couch. “The issue is not the Bible’s translation or its ability to change lives. This is the question we need to ask, what is scripture?”
Marco felt their eyes on him but stared at the floor.
“Can we really call it the Word of God?” continued Harry. “Is it trustworthy? Is it without error? If so, then we know...” His voice caught. “...Troy is with Jesus now.”
Marco squirmed as one clammy hand gripped the other between his knees. “But isn’t the real issue sin?” He looked up. “That’s what separates man from God. The heart of man is where the problem lies not in our view of the Bible.”
His hosts both lowered their heads. Then Harry spoke. “Two events shaped our son. Oh other things happened, but these were pivotal. In junior high school, he read an analysis of beliefs of Dr. Clark Pinnock. While at our New Orleans seminary in the late 60’s, Pinnock taught that the Bible is generally reliable but not inerrant and that it is not the Word of God. He went so far as to say it contains false prophecies.
“Troy confronted us with these teachings by a Southern Baptist professor. We told him what we believed and encouraged him to study the scriptures. He reaffirmed his faith. But then he asked why the denomination allowed such ideas to be taught in a seminary. Later, while visiting his sister at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, he overheard a discussion on the banks of the Brazos River--I like to think it was Paul Pressler. Troy didn’t know who they were, but the men appeared to be conservatives in our denomination concerned about the same thing that bothered him. And they had a plan, and it sounded good to Troy.”
“I think Marco needs to be going.”
Maybe Judith was more sensitive, being a woman. He didn’t want to argue. He wanted to leave.
Harry stood. “I’m sorry. I was probably coming on too strong.”
“We really are glad you came. You were an important part of Troy’s life.”
“Let me just say this,” continued Harry. “Of our six seminaries, Southern is the oldest and the one Troy thought has the biggest problems. If the denomination is headed down a road that leads to impotency, then our seminaries are leading the way. If we want to remain a positive influence in the world, we must take another path. He felt a split was...”
“Harry,” Judith said softly
Thank you, God, for the wife.
Nodding, Harry walked to the shelf and pulled down a small book. “Here. This is Boyce’s Systematic Theology. He founded Southern over a hundred years ago. I just ask that you read chapter 28 on the Atonement of Christ. It really affected Troy. He picked it up this year at the seminary. The whole book is full of gems waiting to be mined.”
These men were all over campus handing it out. But he never accepted one, too extreme. But this was coming from Troy’s parents. Marco reached out and took it.”
“Please find time to read it,” said Judith.
‘What do you mean you like what they said!” Dr. Coleman puckered his forehead around the bridge of his nose.
“It rang true.”
“You can’t mean that. Surely you realize that fundamentalists are trying to subvert the freedom of education. Ultimately, they want to control the denomination. It's politics, not theology. The literal interpretation of the Bible isn’t really the issue. Oh, yes, that’s a part of it, but only a minor piece. In fact, it’s power they’re after.”
“Troy’s parents didn’t seem like that to me.”
“The rank and file may appear sincere. But they’re just naive Christians with their heads in the sand. It’s the leaders of the movement, the ones calling the shots, that set the real direction. You can spot it at the conventions. You’ll see it in Houston. They keep trying to put their people in power. Last year it was Anita Bryant. Can you believe it! They found a fundamentalist woman to run for vice president. They hoped a female would receive the sympathy vote. Fortunately, the messengers saw through that ploy and she didn’t get elected.”
“I just don’t see it from down here.”
“Look. There’s a man, ummm, I think his name is Pressler…Paul Pressler. He’s been raising a stink for years now. I heard he talked with Paige Patterson and some other fundies, pushing their literal beliefs on everyone…”
“Don’t be a butt kind of guy. They’re the fringe now. Watch out that you’re not hoodwinked by propaganda. We’re in an age of enlightenment where truth is finally free from the chains of tradition and closed minds. It's taken years for John Clifford's inclusive view of our faith to blossom. The exclusiveness of creedal belief is finally ebbing. For too long, creeds perpetuated authoritarian dogma and excluded so many who need to know the healing power of Jesus.”
“Didn't you teach us in class that we're not a creedal people?”
“We're not, at least historically. In Augusta, Baptists had no creed except the Bible. But today the fundamentalists would have everyone pledge support of The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. Or, if they gain control of the convention, they would no doubt raise its resolutions and motions to the level of dogma. These people have more in common with an independent fundamentalist like Jerry Falwell than the moderate conservatives of our convention. We have never been a denomination that emphasized the opinions of man. But fundamentalists want to change that.”
Marco was sure his advisor was right. To overemphasize doctrines developed by man tends to squelch piety, fervor, and courage. Anyone can come to Jesus. We shouldn't put stumbling blocks like creeds in their way. This is the kind of truth he learned from professors like Dr. Coleman. These were men who studied the scriptures, after all. That said something. Marco smiled and nodded.
Dr. Coleman's face relaxed as he settled back into his chair. “So, what did you say in response to their argument for literalism?”
Dr. Coleman kept a glass on his desk, right in front of Marco, filled with marbles. Marco remembered his using it as an object lesson in a class. The glass was any person. The marbles represented sin. He filled the glass with water representing God’s character. Removing sin makes more room for God’s love to shine through us.
“I said that sin is the real issue.”
“But they argued the Bible is God’s word and completely true.”
“Well…” Dr. Coleman drew it out with an underlying chuckle. “…We can grant that the Bible is God’s word. But it is expressed in the language of man. There is both a divine and a human dimension to it. Once we acknowledge that people did the writing, boundaries must be placed around it. For example…” Dr. Coleman stretched across the table, leaning on his arms. “…what is the primary purpose of the first chapters of Genesis?”
That was simple. “It’s to provide religious teaching, not to be a history lesson. Based on the teachings of Clifford and Hall, because men wrote the Bible, it is susceptible to human error.”
“Exactly. Likewise, we must offer the gospel in ways appropriate to our time, intelligible and attractive to our contemporaries.” He paused. “Troy’s parents must be fundamental literalists, right?”
Just like Troy. Marco nodded.
“There is a cute aspect to the naiveté of literalists. But we do them a disservice to encourage such narrow mindedness. The world is a big place. We can't close our doors to it. The minds of literalists are closed to the truth that stands knocking. It's been on their threshold for hundreds of years, and they ignore it. Be wary of them. You’ll find such people in most any congregation you pastor. Fundamentalism, by its nature, evokes an intransigent intolerance of others. And this is extremely dangerous. It is much too easy to slip over the line that separates spiritual superiority from physical violence…. Did they bring up prophecy?”
“Well, in a way.”