NOTE: In late summer/early fall 2007, I interviewed Dr. E. Glenn Hinson for the religious satire magazine The Wittenburg Door. Contract signed and article sold – it was to appear in a spring 2008 edition. I never got paid as promised. But to be fair, the interview was never published as promised. The legendary Wittenburg Door just sort of disappeared into the night and has not been heard from since. Portions of this interview were released elsewhere online; but here, for the first time, as it was to have been originally published, is my full interview with Dr. Hinson for The Door.
Dr. E. Glenn Hinson. World-renowned church historian. Respected and sought-after leader in Christian Spirituality. And, everyone's favorite living Baptist heretic.
When the opportunity arose to meet with Dr. Hinson at one of Louisville, Kentucky's finer pizza establishments, we jumped at the chance. Of course, if Albert Mohler offered to buy us pizza, we'd jump at the chance, too. (Call us when you're willing to talk, Al.)
But, to sit down with one of the legends of Southern Baptist academic life – back when Southern Baptists had an academic life – and discuss everything from his former seminary (the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville) to the President, and everything from the Pope to flatulence (yeah – it comes up) . . .
C'mon! This gentle and unassuming 76-year-old man was personal friends with everyone's favorite Trappist monk, Thomas Merton. He has written what seems like hundreds of books (if you expect specifics, shouldn't you be reading something else?), including such classics as Jesus Christ, The Integrity of the Church, and everyone's favorite answer to “why pray?” – A Serious Call to a Contemplative Lifestyle.
And, during those years he was actually ALLOWED to teach Church History and Christian Spirituality at Southern Seminary, he was under constant attack for his heresies. Since that meant he didn't toe the Southern Baptist line, we knew we'd like this guy. We think you will, too. If not, you truly may be reading the wrong magazine (but keep subscribing, it pays our bills!).
DOOR: Tell us about teaching at Southern Seminary.
HINSON: I taught church history, and I tried to help the students to embrace church history as the history of us all. At that time Southern offered freedom to do things like I did in 1960 – taking my first class to the Abbey of Gethsemani. That was Providential in my view.
DOOR: Did you take them to meet Thomas Merton?
HINSON: I didn't really know about Thomas Merton. I took the students to expose them to the Middle Ages. I thought they'd learn more about the Middle Ages by going to a monastery than they would about talking about it. Merton was our host. Immediately after we were there he wrote to me, “Glenn, I'm coming to Louisville, I'd like to stop in and see you.” I got our faculty together, and we spent two hours with Merton. That was great because it meant that many of those that were very suspicious of my taking students to Gethsemani got to know him.
DOOR: How long were you a Southern Seminary professor?
HINSON: My formal tenure on SBTS faculty was from 1962-1992, but I did teach three years before that – a full load.
DOOR: When did you become a favorite target of the fundamentalists?
HINSON: I became a target when I responded to Bailey Smith's comment in 1980, “God Almighty does not hear the prayer of a Jew.” I was really a “fair-haired boy” before that.
DOOR: Your response was . . . ?
HINSON: I made five points in response to Bailey Smith: (1) Jesus was a Jew – you may have disenfranchised Jesus' prayers; (2) You disenfranchised everybody from Abraham to Jesus; (3) The Bible teaches that God hears the prayers of unbelievers; (4) This conflicts with centuries of Baptists' respect for every person's religious belief; (5) This is the stuff from which Holocausts come. I think the last point may have ignited the tinder. Paige Patterson came out just after that with his list of four liberals connected with Southern Baptist seminaries – I was one. I didn't really take that seriously. I mean, who was Paige Patterson?
DOOR: Yeah! Really!
HINSON: I met with Paige Patterson. At that time I heard he had been making noises about my book Jesus Christ, and so I asked him to meet with me and my D.Min. seminar, and to discuss this. He did, and at that time he couldn't cite anything that he found wrong; but he later turned out to be taking quotations that I was refuting and presenting them as my views.
DOOR: So much for taking the Bible literally – what was that about “not bearing false witness”?!
HINSON: These are very dishonest people; they are not the kind of people who are really interested in dealing with the truth. At any rate, from that time on I've been on the “hit” list.
DOOR: And they finally pushed you away from your Baptist tradition?
HINSON: The Baptist tradition has to do with the voluntary principle of religious liberty, separation of church and state, and voluntary association to carry out the mission of Christ. I thought all of these were endangered by what was happening in the Southern Baptist Convention, which had become the Catholic Church of the South – numerically so dominant that I could no longer consider myself Baptist in that way. As I saw it, I didn't really leave the Southern Baptist Convention, the Convention left the tradition that I belonged to.
DOOR: Then you're still a Baptist.
HINSON: I still see myself as very much a Baptist. Although I am a Bapto-Quakero-Methedo-Presbyterio-Lutherano-Episcopo-Catholic. The Baptist tradition depends on a minority consciousness. And having become the majority, Baptists in the South could no longer think like Baptists, they thought like medieval Catholics.
DOOR: Well, either that or like big-whig, power-hungry CEOs . . .
HINSON: My first published article was in 1973, “How Far Can the Churches Go Using the Business Model as a Pattern for Church Life?” I pointed to a problem that I call “corporatism” – and this is a result of Baptists in the South growing up with American business. It goes back to just before the Civil War. The Transcontinental Railroad drove a spike in Odgen, Utah in 1849, just on the heels of the forming of the Southern Baptist Convention, and Baptists in the South really got caught up in corporatist development. Gaines Dobbins at Southern Seminary became Professor of Church Efficiency and published a book, The Efficient Church, in 1923. He followed it up with subsequent books all based on this idea: Jesus was the “great entrepreneur.” This whole thing – the church – is the most important business in the world, you have to operate it like a business. The Southern Baptist Convention would do anything to achieve the bottom line which is always, of course, how many souls were saved; how many buildings are we building. Very pragmatic things.
DOOR: They never put it like this in our Baptist history lessons back in the days of Training Union on Sunday evenings.
HINSON: We need to take a new look at what the object of the Landmarkists was. The Landmarkists were really the farm crowd who had their reservations about the corporation model. And, they were right! You keep on with this . . . it's a mentality that has serious moral problems. Mainly, you have to get rid of anybody who makes waves in the corporation. See, just like big business. Huge salaries, bonuses, everything. All that feeds into my ability to turn loose of the Southern Baptist connection.
DOOR: Did you have any connections with a young seminary student named Albert Mohler?
HINSON: (laughs) Interestingly, in 1982, Mohler asked me to serve as his Ph.D. Supervisor – he would have majored in church history. But, I could not do it because I was going to Wake Forest. At any rate, up to that time when he would have been my student, there was no evidence that Mohler was a fundamentalist.
DOOR: So, one of your former students is now the president of an institution where you aren't allowed to teach anymore. Yet, you still live right next to Southern Seminary.
HINSON: Yes, it's a little uncomfortable. I don't know whether it's uncomfortable for me or for Mohler; it may be more uncomfortable for him. (laughs) But my backyard backs onto the campus.
DOOR: You've since been a part of two new seminaries – the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond and now the Baptist Seminary of Kentucky.
HINSON: Put them all together, there are at least a dozen of these moderate seminaries which have reacted to what happened with fundamentalist dominance of Southern Baptist seminaries. You always regret the changing of great institutions. Southern Baptist Theological Seminary has always been one of the most prestigious seminaries in the world.
DOOR: You sound a little mournful.
HINSON: I look on that with great regret. But it was a loss – such an important institution to these narrow-minded, parochial . . . . But on the other hand, there is something we have gained by having to form smaller seminaries where we can do things that are almost impossible to do in older, established seminaries. One is to emphasize spiritual formation for ministry as the heart as to what is being done. I think that must be seen as a plus.
DOOR: Back to Merton. How did he influence you.
HINSON: Living life informed by prayer out of this attentiveness to God in all of life. I put this together in my book A Serious Call to a Contemplative Lifestyle. That was in a way a tribute to the influence of Thomas Merton in my life.
DOOR: They say Merton had a great sense of humor.
HINSON: You know, had he not ended up at Gethsemani, he could have been Jay Leno.
DOOR: The Tonight Show with Thomas Merton – that'd be something worth watching! What do you think of the new Pope?
HINSON: He seems to be confirming the worst fears that most had . . . essentially going back to the pre-Vatican II position, that the only true Christian faith is the Roman Catholic faith, and only the church you can rely on is the Roman Catholic Church, so he sounds sort of like the Southern Baptists, and I don't think that is very good.
DOOR: What do you think of President Bush?
HINSON: Well, I'd like to have better thoughts about him than I do, but seeing “W” stickers on the backs of cars just sends me into a rage. I think he has put the country in grave danger. His awareness of the world situation is just abysmal. It's very hard for me to grasp that someone who has such a limited understanding of both the United States and the world could be elected president, but it happened. Will Campbell wrote me a note just after Bush was chosen by the Supreme Court: “Bush is too dumb to be so evil.” (laughs) I haven't seen much that would correct his assessment. The way I assess it is – here is a guy who has failed in five businesses, and we have elected him to be head of the world's largest business, namely the United States government, and he has done to it what he has done to all five business (laughs). And you look at the connection with “Kenny Boy” Lay of Enron. He has depended upon people of fuzzy ethical thinking.
DOOR: But at least he's open about his faith, huh?
HINSON: The sad thing is he's a Methodist. He has used this perverse understanding of Christianity which is focused on the agenda of the religious right . . . I have always had a little ambivalence as to what extent religion should enter into politics. In our American model, we do not want the religious views of even the majority to determine decisions that are made affecting the civil welfare. Now I don't think separation is an absolute, but there is something like a wall of separation, using Jefferson's concept. There has to be. I think Bush has done his best to break down the separation of church and state. As people reflect on his presidency, I think it will be assessed as one of the worst, if not the worst, in American history. It's just almost incalculable the damage that has been done. Of course, I wouldn't favor impeaching Bush, because then we'd have Cheney! If we begin impeaching, begin with Cheney, then go up! (laughs).
DOOR: But now the Democrats are trying to “out-faith” the Republicans.
HINSON: I think that authentic faith does not stand on the street corner and pray, it does not make a big noise about its charities. I'm afraid that there is so much inauthentic where it is done for the wrong reasons. Authentic faith does what it does because of God, not to get elected into public office. I guess it's inevitable, but I would feel better if we had a good atheist. It is so demeaning of religion that this is happening. We have to blame it on the Republican use of the religious right.
DOOR: To be fair to Republicans, Jimmy Carter was the one who publicized that he was “born again.”
HINSON: I think Jimmy Carter sort of started this trend of emphasizing his faith. But, I think he's very genuine, as over against Bush . . . . You have to LIVE your faith, not talk about it. What I see in Carter is someone who does live his faith, yet I wish he hadn't gotten this trend started. Then you had Reagan who used a lot of it . . . he was as I would characterize it a practical atheist, but he knew the buttons to push for the religious right. I think probably Mrs. Clinton is authentic. She'll represent a religious perspective that is close to a position represented by informed Methodism. I think there may be some genuineness about Obama – he's United Church of Christ in Chicago. I just wish that we could focus on the issues and not in terms of whether my god is stronger than your god.
DOOR: Are you hopeful for our nation and our world?
HINSON: Things look very bleak at the moment. But, I'm hopeful, not because of what's being done by politicians. I think hope is in God. I think that if we look at the course of things and history, read the history of civilization, you have to feel very uncertain. What happened in the Roman Empire is happening in the United States now. When you talk about the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, you have to see some of those same things that are present which create concern. One, the Roman Empire had these great disparities with very few rich and the vast majority poor, where you had no middle class. Increasingly, we have no middle class. Things like that make me wonder about the future. We are over-consuming. The sort of thing Wendell Berry and others have pointed to.
DOOR: Excuse me, but can you pass the Prozac . . .
HINSON: I don't see great leadership. When you think at times we had great leaders come along to lead people through periods like this. But for America, we've had worse than the pits! Supposedly we are the one world power, and it's turned out to be nothing but a big fart!
DOOR: What is the one thing the world needs more of that it doesn't already have enough of?
HINSON: Saints! I think that basically, from the church's point of view, what we need to do is form saints – people of faith, hope and love.
DOOR: And football! Wait, wrong Saints . . .
HINSON: I think fundamentalism is a movement that is frightened, instead of encouraging a search for God in the midst of life, it turns to absolutes . . . If that sort of fear-ridden platform wins, then I think we have little hope of making it through. But if we can get people grounded on the reality of God in the midst of life, then I think we have hope. To quote Martin Luther King, “We don't know what the future holds, but we know who holds the future.” That's the faith I have to live by, with reference to my grandchildren. Looking at the world today, at the United States today . . . I feel anxious for them. But we have to trust God.