Searching for Purpose—and Finding God
Dreams are foundational for our lives, providing purpose and driving our plans for the present and the future. My dream was to be a mathematician. To clarify, that was my dream for many years, a dream that stayed with me throughout my high school years and into the first two years of college. I loved math and logic problems overall. But dreams have a way of sometimes changing or being shifted into trajectories that were not originally anticipated, and that was what happened in my case
Dreams are foundational for our lives, providing purpose and driving our plans for the present and the future. My dream was to be a mathematician. To clarify, that was my dream for many years, a dream that stayed with me throughout my high school years and into the first two years of college. I loved math and logic problems overall. But dreams have a way of sometimes changing or being shifted into trajectories that were not originally anticipated, and that was what happened in my case.
I was raised in a small northwest Florida town, an Air Force bedroom community where my family started attending a new Episcopal church that began meeting in the city hall building as a church building was constructed. The church was meaningful to me in many ways, including being baptized there, going through confirmation, and serving for several years as an acolyte. I experienced some high spiritual moments in many of the church services and was drawn to God and enjoyed participating in the church even when my parents did not attend. The church provided both stability and a challenging alternative to the other factors that were starting to influence my life in my teenage years.
In the late 60’s as many in my circle of friends began experimenting with various types of drugs and with behaviors that were way out of bounds from any traditional morality standpoint, my life hit a crisis point. In a not uncommon story, I began searching for meaning in life in the midst of the chaos and wasted lives of many of my friends, a chaos that was starting to dominate in my own life as well. To be sure, my struggle was primarily an intellectual one that became a spiritual one. The crisis of purpose began to consume me, and that’s when I finally agreed to attend a small home Bible study where some friends from the church and a few others were gathering. I did not know who she was at the time, but Corrie Ten Boom was a regular guest for several months each year with the folks in that house, and she was speaking at the Bible study. This was on the front end of what later became known as the Jesus Movement, a movement that brought some answers into my life. At that study but in a different room from where Corrie Ten Boom was speaking, I became a broken teenager before God and made a life-changing commitment to follow Jesus. It was a natural step in light of my past in the Episcopal church, but was also a revolutionary step into a new level of Christian commitment that thrust me into years of intense study of the Bible, Christian theology, and the Christian lifestyle. And this shift broke the grip of the lifestyles of my friends in a decisive manner.
For about 3 years I drifted to different settings with the Jesus Movement, ranging from home Bible studies to coffee houses to beach gatherings and even sometimes in churches. While in college, my sense of a need for a more settled context for my Christian life grew, and so I began searching for a church home—my parents had left the Episcopal Church, so I was no longer attached to that setting. The influence of several friends and my own convictions brought me to the local Baptist church in my hometown. It was a setting with a seminary-trained pastor who was an excellent Bible teacher and open to a long-haired “Jesus Freak” asking a lot of questions and becoming an accepted member of the congregation.
At this time I was pursuing a double-major in college, both a math major and a business major. But the real joy of my life was increasingly found in my spiritual life, with a desire to pursue that becoming more focused. My search for purpose was leading me to God, with an increasing enjoyment in that area of life, including the desire to serve others, to learn, to teach, and to share with others. This call to ministry was followed by becoming involved in as many ministry opportunities as proved feasible, including working for a summer in inner-city ministry in Buffalo, NY, a summer working with children and youth at a church in the Mojave desert setting of Ridgecrest, CA, and a summer in Malawi, Africa, working alongside missionaries. My study shifted to a minor in math, a minor in religious studies, and a major in business adminstration, with seminary training following directly after my college degree.
I had no intention to go past a Master’s degree since I wanted to get involved in ministry sooner, not later. But in my second year at seminary, a friend asked me to travel with him to look at a seminary in Texas that he was considering for his Ph.D. On that trip, he mentioned a statement from his dad that had prompted the trip and the idea of doing Ph.D. work: “if you have the ability to do it, you at least should be open to the possibility.” This statement challenged me to consider the interplay between ability and stewardship for my own life. In fact, my friend did not do Ph.D. work, but I did, feeling that it was a stewardship call for my academic abilities. In the midst of this, was a driving desire to seek the truth, not to just repeat tradition but to delve into the depths of what being a Christian was really about. So I followed my M.Div. with entry into the New Testament Ph.D. program at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.
In considering why Biblical Studies versus another discipline, I have to go back to my roots in both the Baptist Tradition and the Jesus Movement of the early seventies. At a critical point in life, I felt transformed through the reading of the Bible. I won’t say that the exegesis was always good (it wasn’t), nor that the Bible was more than a means to an end, but the reading especially of the Gospels spoke in powerful, life-transforming ways to me during that time of my late teen years and early twenties. This experience attracted me to Biblical Studies even before I began formal studies in the area.
The specific decision to study Biblical Studies related to two major events. First, I loved theology perhaps even more than New Testament studies, but knew that I would never keep up in the New Testament field unless I made it my major focus. In my doctoral studies I nearly shifted to theological studies, but in the end I majored in New Testament and Greek because I needed the disciplined study of the text and language and was, quite frankly, afraid that I would never excel in the Greek New Testament without constant contact through formal study and teaching in the area. And second, on the local church level of Baptist life, knowledge of the Bible was essential for being an effective and impacting minister.
I must say that I did not begin my doctoral studies with the intent of teaching, much less teaching overseas in another culture. But upon coming to understand the need overseas for more depth in biblical knowledge at both the lay level and among the clergy, I felt that this was both a calling from God and a worthy investment of my life. And the experiences in Latin America (primarily Colombia) served to confirm this, and served to cause me to confront my own hermeneutical tunnel-vision. I returned from Latin America with a different outlook on the Bible and reality in general, a different worldview. In Latin American I first became acquainted with the impact of sociological studies on Biblical interpretation. That planted the seeds for my interest in social-science approaches to the Bible. And I’ve continued working in the field of my dissertation research, textual criticism and the study of ancient manuscripts.
Having taught now for 32 years in Latin America, New Orleans, and a few other settings, I must admit that I also enjoy teaching. I enjoy the experience of seeing students becoming enthralled with the New Testament and their own spiritual pilgrimages and ministry possibilities. And the study routine, the work schedule, and the summers for reflection and research are priceless. I enjoy the intellectual challenges that students bring as well as the opportunities that teaching provides for service to the Christian community and beyond.
I am deeply disturbed by the trend in at least some segments of the Christian community to denigrate worship of God through the mind, or heart as the Hebrews would have understood it. My dedication to research in the areas of textual criticism, social-science, and gospel studies is an attempt to live out a commitment to worshipping God with my mind in a demonstration of the wonder and awe of that form of worship. Also, I engage in research out of a sense of responsibility to both past and future generations. The excellence of many past researchers and the needs of the future compel me to seek to leave a worthy inheritance in Biblical Studies. Plus I enjoy the research.
Finally, I’m engaged in Biblical Studies in an effort to show the ongoing relevance of the field to the issues of today. In part this is an effort to supply an alternative answer to my own frustration at the misuse of the Bible within the Christian community and the lack of understanding of it by many. The human transformation that I’ve seen aided through solid biblical studies efforts, especially as highlighted through the social-science approach to the text, motivates me to continue in the enterprise.
New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary