I just returned from a week at Glen East, a workshop-based conference for artists. Fine-art master printmaker, Barry Moser, confessed in a vulnerable address that his Tennessee family forbade him from pursuing art. He figured God could only use him if he was a minister. So Moser took a detour as a minister (that destroyed his faith in the church) before he went on to become an artist.
Moser’s conviction that ministry pleased God more than fine art is precisely the kind of thinking that Soulation is working against. I once told a close friend that her husband’s work in graphic design for a commercial company was not less significant than the work I’m doing at Soulation. She disagreed.
“His work is really meaningless besides the paycheck it brings,” she said. “And he would agree with me.”
I could share some theology here, about working for the Lord, no matter what we do, about the priesthood of all believers. But the hierarchy which elevates “full-time Christian ministry” above lucrative, secular jobs is too pervasive to easily overturn. Instead, I have another strategy: telling the story of my friend and one of Soulation’s writers, L. James Everett III. For in stories we are invited to identify which is the root of change.
What Counts as Ministry?
An adjunct professor of philosophy, L. James Everett III teaches with the cultural awareness of Hudson Taylor and the compassion of Mother Teresa in his Calcutta: the West Coast. Some days Everett teaches five classes across three different schools, sometimes requiring 15 hour days weaving the labyrinth of freeways to make every class in time. He talked with me about the most difficult days where he leaves at 5am and returns home at 11pm. He knows his culture, from the cleanest bathrooms, the 24 hour fitnesses, the coffee houses that can be found along his routes to the students’ skepticism about truth.
I’ve shadowed Everett during one of his grueling days of lecturing. Even with a Masters in Philosophy, I found myself taking notes, laughing over the way he played cat and mouse with his students. They know his classes take them beyond themselves. Because of his pioneering work in teaching, because Everett’s sacrifice goes largely overlooked as “secular work” (he has not and probably never will be commissioned by a church as a missionary), I asked Everett for an interview. I expect his story will push you to consider the creative ways Christians must re-approach our ideas of full-time ministry.
When we think of a philosophy prof we all have an image in our minds. I’m sorry to say, it’s not a very flattering picture. Could you share a little bit about the way you teach philosophy?
Can I just say that I cuss?
I’m really heavy-handed on confidence. The students like that their prof is so confident, so arrogant, so cocky about the fact that he is passing out wisdom. It really is wisdom. It’s not BS. And if you put your mind into it you’ll get something out of that.
I think a lot of philosophy profs would hesitate to do that.
I use a lot of humor. I’m very theatrical. I vary back and forth. Sometimes I like to personify the different theories (dualism, monism, atheism, theism), change voices. Sometimes I’ll work on identifying a voice during my drives. It will be so different from how I look that it will throw people. It will be someone’s voice, but not mine. Students have told me that just remembering the different voice helps them remember the different views within philosophy.
What is the best part of your job?
I get to be a part of people’s lives at a crucial stage in their intellectual and moral development as not only adults but as citizens. I’m trying to show my students how to be more informed, more engaged voters who can take charge of community, take responsibility for the shape and direction of their communities. For example, I like being present when students realize that there’s more to an issue than they thought, like abortion or same-sex marriage or whatever it is. That the typical little things they’ve heard don’t really fully capture the depth of the issue. They haven’t thought through it carefully enough. It’s nice to see that. I do not work in conservative places. These are some of the most liberal places in America. I get to see a newfound respect for tradition. Not just because it was tradition, but because sometimes folks got things right. And just because it’s old doesn’t mean it’s wrong.
The second best thing is getting to see spiritual awakening in some people. Very recently a student came back and asked what my religion was. I asked him why he was asking. I had told his class during the semester that I’d tell him afterwards if he still wanted to know. He said he was taking a world religions class and thinking of leaving his Catholic faith. I was able to sit down with him for a half hour or so and help him think through it.
At another time a group of atheists who for some reason love me, I don’t really know why. They came up to me during a logic class and they said I reminded them of Christopher Hitchens. I said, “Why would you think that?” They said,
“Because you’re witty and cynical and you’re a careful thinker. But we can’t figure out if you’re for or against anything: abortion, gay marriage, God. That’s actually why we like you, because you’re so hard to figure out and keep us thinking.”
Sometimes I drop a cuss word here or there, it’s never a throwaway, it’s always intentionally, to emphasize a point. I think its part of the undercover work I do. Sometimes I think swearing is one of the most appropriate ways to get a thought across. At least my students seem to think so. I try not to use the F bomb. But I’ve had to in rougher areas. For instance, at one college students regularly ask me to sign documents for their judge which allows them to remain in class and stay out of jail. Once at this college, I could feel the beginning of losing control of the class. I’d have to get angry and drop an F bomb. It always resulted in the complete and irrevocable surrender of the classroom.
Third is how my schedule changes every semester. I get bored easily and I can’t imagine sitting at a desk 8-5. I like being out and about. I get to see all parts of the cities, from the poorest to the richest, be around all sorts of people.
Over fifty years ago, Deitrich Bonhoeffer did undercover surveillance work even while he seemed to be working for Hitler’s regime. While there is not a Gestapo wanting to silence you, in what ways are you an undercover agent working in enemy occupied territory?
First, conservatives are so rare and wary, no one knows who they are. At one secular university where I teach, I’ve met an economics professor who is conservative, a libertarian. It’s a big deal. She’s been seared, she’s had to protect herself with attorneys, nasty stuff with unions. So in this primary sense, I’m a conservative because I’m a Christian, not the other way around. They’re linked in my mind. In philosophy there’s a “you have your beliefs, I have mine” approach. At some of the secular schools I teach at atheism is dominant. I do feel that my particular brand of Christian feels undercover.
Second, I sense that I’m on a comprehensive mission: spiritual, physical, economic. I feel like I’m a missionary for truth in all its dimensions. In teaching, I have a full-orbed missionary deal. Often, I feel like I’m sitting as a sheep in a den of wolves. I don’t wish anybody any harm, but I sometimes feel they wish me harm, and would wish me harm if they knew more about me.
Out of the 40 faculty that I get to interact with, I’ve met two Catholics whose view of God is similar to mine and one evangelical. While there are possibly others, we are a distinct minority.
So I’m holding my cards close.
Everett would be a star at a Christian university, he would be loved and groupie-ified. But Everett doesn’t work for Christian colleges alone, he works among several campuses where he is often the first to suggest wisdom is alive and well, that God may exist beyond wishful thinking and that beauty can show up in Philosophy 101.
Everett and I spoke further about what steered him into philosophy, the worst parts of his job and why adjunct work is as grueling as missionary work in Africa. If you care to hear more about this interview, ask in the comments.
And, I hope many of you will pick up on Everett’s belief that conservative thinking and Christianity are linked. If that bugs you, please ask. Finally, if you’d like to read more about how Soulation is re-defining what ministry and even church look like in the 21st century, read here.