A Pilgrimage of Faith for a Midwesterner

Randall Stephens

Check out an article by Krista Tippett, of Speaking of Faith fame, on her conservative, Southern Baptist grandfather. The Christian Century essay powerfully deals with her changing views about her Oklahoma family's faith. Many who have migrated from the South or Midwest--geographically and/or ideologically--have undergone similar changes in outlook. For Tippett, the dictates of strident, exclusivist Christianity made less and less sense.

Garry Wills wrote about another Midwesterner who started to rethink his religious upbrining after he made the exodus. Gary Hart graduated from Bethany Nazarene College (Oklahoma City) in 1958. In Under God: Religion and American Politics (1990) Wills described the metamorphosis of the young holiness student from Kansas. "When Hart went to the Yale Divinity School after graduating from Bethany," writes Wills, "it was with a desire to become a Christian scholar, like Prescott Johnson," a college mentor.

[Hart and other] Bethany graduates had all married fellow Nazarenes (as was the pattern at Bethany), but they were intellectually restless young people. The barriers that Holiness doctrine reared against the world stood in the way of their sampling the cultural explosion of the 1960s. These questing Nazarenes risked such "existential" acts, for them, as going to the movies. . . .

Already at Bethany, according to Professor Johnson, Hart thought the Nazarene scheme of life an imprisoning one. As the 1960s began, Hart told his Bethany classmate Tom Boyd, "My life is slipping away from me." He was twenty-three, and he still had the young years to live that he had lost among the Nazarenes. (Wills, 47, 49)

Reading about Tippett's more mellow pilgrimage I wondered if there are some commonalities in stories of a loss of faith or a faith remade by new experiences. (Of course, there are real limits to comparison. And, certainly, Tippett is not Hart, and vice versa.)

Krista Tippett, "My grandfather's Faith: Contradictions and Mysteries," Christian Century, 27 July 2010.

My grandfather was the Reverend Calvin Titus Perkins, known by all as C.T. He was a Southern Baptist evangelist—a traveling preacher in Oklahoma, the former Indian Territory. He arrived, when he was a very young boy and it was a very young state, in a covered wagon. That famous dry Oklahoma dust seems embedded in the few black-and-white photos I've seen of him and his unkempt, unsmiling siblings. Several of them went on to drink and divorce. He was a man of passion but also a lover of order, a believer in rules. The bare bones Calvinism that flourished on the frontier offered him not only a faith but a way beyond the chaos and poverty he knew as a child. . . .

I saw with my own brand of judgment that there were questions that he would not ask—contradictions too frightening to name. I would leave. I would ask. read on >>>