Larry W. Hurtado Is Gone

This is the 30th year of my friendship with Larry Hurtado, Professor of New Testament Language, Literature & Theology at New College, the University of Edinburgh. Larry died at home from cancer this past Monday.

It was, indeed, in the spring of 1990 that Larry and I spent two long phone calls during which he persuaded me to leave my post at Northwestern College, Iowa—where fair spouse and I had just put a deposit down on our first house—and head 500 miles north to the University of Manitoba. That department would prompt many, many more long conversations between us over the ensuing eight years.

I agreed to come. Larry was a hard man to out-argue. And he and his spritely wife Shannon put us up in their basement while we transitioned. They then readily entertained us that summer and fall. I recall recordings of “Beyond the Fringe” figuring largely in more than one such occasion.

When the academic round resumed, we strapped on our armour, took up our shields and cudgels, and went to work together in the wacky world of a department that has prompted me more than once to write a roman à clef about its shenanigans, in the category of “you can’t make up stuff like this.” 

We finally endured an annus horribilis in the mid-1990s, getting outvoted in three crucial department meetings that indicated a terrible decline in academic rigour, and we both started for the door. Larry was first, heading to Edinburgh, and I soon afterward left for Regent College.

But we had a pretty good time over those eight years nonetheless. Larry introduced me to the faculty club—in its last, financially fraught years—and to the campus Christian faculty fellowship. He offered me sage counsel in negotiating our very odd department and then stout comradeship during the preposterous, frustrating, and often hilarious departmental battles.

Indeed, Larry would frequently stop by my office for a quick word…that usually ended in us laughing (a sound not typical of our department). And sometimes the word wasn’t quick. I’ve never had a friend so enjoy telling stories that even when one made it entirely clear that one had heard the story before, perhaps several times, Larry would grin, twinkle, and press on regardless. And it was always fun to hear it again.

Larry set an excellent example of campus leadership, not least in founding and directing the Institute for the Humanities at the university, and of scholarly networking and accomplishment. I am sure he has been badly missed at the annual meetings of the Canadian Society of Biblical Studies, and he is now missed at the Society of Biblical Literature. Latterly, he wrote a weblog that was chock-full of interesting, reliable fact and interesting, provocative opinion in equal measure. And the books poured out of him once he got to his high post in Scotland—but I was there when they were gestating on Manitoba’s fertile plains!

Larry was a prince of a fellow, an exemplary scholar, and a fine big brother in the profession. I miss him, many do, and because I share his faith we look forward to our next reunion—likely over something delicious, in a room filled with laughter.

Do Appearances Matter?

Politicians know—or they should—that appearances matter. Rachel Notley, former premier of Alberta, recently got herself tossed out of the Legislature for accusing a cabinet member of lying. And over what? Over the government’s firing a senior civil servant who was investigating apparent irregularities in their party’s leadership contest.

Maybe all is actually in order, as the government maintains. But it looks bad. And Ms. Notley knew it was something she should pounce on.

My late parents raised me in the strict piety of the Plymouth Brethren. Among the many other gifts this tradition gave me was seriousness about not only doing the right thing, but appearing to do the right thing. One’s “testimony” must remain clear.

So we avoided card playing not only because it might lead to gambling, but because it was associated with gambling and other people might conclude that we were gamblers. We avoided dancing not only because it might lead to illicit sex but because other people might simply assume we were enjoying a prelude to fornication. We avoided cinemas not only because we might see something we shouldn’t but also because others couldn’t know how circumspect we were in our choice of films. And so on.

One of the favourite phrases in such circles, in fact, comes from the King James Version (of course): its rendering of 1 Thessalonians 5:22, “Abstain from all appearance of evil.”

Christians in Canada today have to negotiate a tense public space. Last week I wrote about prayer breakfasts, wondering aloud about not only what they do, but how they look to a Canadian public many of whom are understandably nervous about anything that looks like a resurgent church-state nexus, anything approaching a Religious Right cozying up to political power. Appearances matter.

As virtually any more modern translation makes clear, however, Paul’s admonition wasn’t about appearances, but about varieties. The New International Version says, “Reject every kind of evil.” And the New American Standard Bible, the New Revised Standard Version, and even the New King James Version actually agree on a wording: “Abstain from every form of evil.”

One recalls that the Lord Jesus himself developed a reputation as a “glutton and a drunkard” surrounded by wicked people (Matthew 11:19). Not only was he willing to be misunderstood, he seemed to positively cultivate a reputation of someone who frequented the company of the morally dubious as he sought friendship with those who might actually want to listen seriously to what he said.

[For the rest, please click HERE.]

Prayer Breakfasts Are No Big Deal—Right?

Calgary Herald columnist Catherine Ford recently wrote a spooky column invoking the spectre of William “Bible Bill” Aberhart to scare her readers into antipathy toward, of all things, the upcoming Provincial Prayer Breakfast, to be held in Edmonton later this month.

Ford is fair-minded and competent enough to note that the speaker at the breakfast is not all that frightening: “Pat Nixon, an ordained Baptist minister and founder of the Mustard Seed, the valuable and much-admired ministry for street people.”

Still, the premier himself is also scheduled to speak, and that fact, plus the sponsorship by two MLAs, has set Ford a-wondering whether Alberta now teeters on the brink of a conservative Christian revolution of the scale that brought to power radio preacher Aberhart and the Social Credit Party he founded in 1935. Indeed, her fears get the better of her as she pushes the Wayback Machine to “a retrograde society based on 19th-century morals, attitudes, sexism and racism.”

“This is happening right here, right now, right under our noses,” she breathlessly announces, although “in plain sight” would be another way to put it, since the prayer breakfast is a public event and anything featuring the premier as speaker is likely pretty apparent even to the attenuated newsrooms of what’s left of Alberta’s major media.

Poor Ms. Ford continues: “Do we really want a return to the so-called glory days of an almost all-white, all-Christian province (except for the owners of Chinese laundries and restaurants), ruled with one hand on the Bible and one voice on the radio every Sunday morning?” But the slippery slope downward from a prayer breakfast to a Christian theocracy has got to be both slick and steep in Alberta for anyone to take Ms. Ford’s agitation seriously. I’ve been to several such breakfasts in various parts of Canada, and the level of conspiracy between clergy and politicians has been…slight…and the resulting cooperation between Christian churches and governments has been…not obviously changed.

So let’s chalk up her worries to the typical paranoia of Baby Boomers that Mom and Dad’s religion will once again rise up to wag a finger in their faces and tell them what to do. No, Christianity isn’t that sort of social force anywhere in Canada today—not even in Miriam Toews’s southern Manitoban Mennonite towns—and we can all calm back down.

Still, once we’ve discounted her excessive anxiety, Catherine Ford yet poses an interesting question.

What precisely is the point of these prayer breakfasts? Are they anachronisms left over from a Christian Canada that hasn’t existed for a generation? Then they ought to be retired.

[For the rest, please click HERE.]