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I was raised in the small town of Barnesville, Georgia, where I was born in 1958. My parents were high school-educated textile mill workers who loved the Lord, who loved their only child, and who loved their church. As a result, my presence at the church was perpetual.

The church was the Midway Baptist Church, a nominally Southern Baptist Church with Independent (fundamentalist, premillennial, and all that) Baptist leanings that was located several miles from town on City Pond Road (although throughout my childhood I thought it was on County Maintained Road since the only sign on it said “County Maintained”). In ninety-five percent of the families at Midway, at least one and often both adults worked in a mill; I can remember just a small handful of people who had any education beyond high school.

Our pastor, the now late and much missed but then beloved Rev. Herman J. “Bill” Coleman, was an energetically evangelistic preacher and caring pastor who had no college or seminary training; I don’t think he finished high school.

Preacher Bill, as everyone called him, would have been shocked and dismayed had he ever been exposed to any sort of critical approach to the Bible. Once I saw an ad in one of my comic books for a book containing “Lost Books of the Bible”; I asked Preacher Bill what he thought about that and he said, “That’s the imagination of some man’s mind!” I imagine that’s what he would have said had someone tried to describe the Documentary Hypothesis to him.

When I was fourteen I announced to my church family that I had been called to preach; a couple of years later I found myself in Macon at Mercer University, then the flagship university of Georgia Baptists (but now free of denominational entanglement).

During my first semester in the fall of 1975, I enrolled in “Introduction to the Old Testament” which was taught by Dr. Howard P. Giddens, then a sixty-something year old professor who some ten years earlier had come back to his alma mater to teach after many years of service as a pastor. The textbooks for the course were the Oxford Annotated Edition of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible and James King West’s Introduction to the Old Testament.

Within the first couple of weeks, we had covered many significant introductory matters including the Documentary Hypothesis. My head was set to spinning.

On a trip home I decided to broach with my Baptist deacon, long-time men’s Sunday School class-teaching father the subject of the liberalism to which I was being subjected. I figured (and probably hoped) that he would tell me to go pack my bags, come back home, and enroll in some safe state school.

The conversation went like this:

Me: “Do you know what Dr. Giddens and my textbook say about the Pentateuch?”

Dad: “About the what?”

Me: “The Pentateuch. The Torah. The first five books of the Old Testament.”

Dad: “Oh. No, what do they say?”

Me: “That Moses didn’t write everything in those books.”

Dad: “Really?”

Me: “Yes, really.”

Dad: “Huh. Well, I always wondered how Moses managed to write about his own death.”

And that is how it took a college professor with a ThD, an introductory Hebrew Bible textbook, and my high school-educated textile mill-working father to open my eyes to all the biblical wonders to which they are still being opened …

Michael L. Ruffin (MDiv and PhD, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is the former pastor of First Baptist Church of Fitzgerald, Georgia and former professor in the School of Religion at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee. He is the author of Prayer 365, Living on the Edge: Preaching Advent in Year C, and Living Between The Advents.

This post was originally published in 2014 as part of the “Aha Moments ” series. 

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If you’re a pastor who is in the midst of a faith transition, who is learning to read the Bible in new ways and needs to learn to pastor from a new place, who wants to understand how to bring good biblical scholarship to the folks in the pews – we’ve designed a course just for you! “Pastors for Normal People” is a six-week course for any pastor whose beliefs about God and the Bible are shifting as they also try to address those issues in their churches.

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.

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  • Brian P. says:

    Great story.

    I greatly appreciate the family aspect of the story. Often, these stories of conversion, ah-hah, confusion, and resolution and growth can feel detached in their individualism.

    For me personally, I had many of these ah-hahs relatively late in life, in my early 40s. Socially, my family is set in a commonplace conservative Evangelical experience that–in my opinion–uses and needs incidental and willful ignorance to thrive.

    No one in my family would want to talk about the Documentary Hypothesis, or textual criticism, or anything in general that wouldn’t be comforting and confirming of the type and nature of faith held. My megachurch pastoral staff has more exposure than your Preacher Bill, but yet they are limited in their theological and experiential exposure even within the Christian faith, never mind the ways of thinking within other religions or non-theistic world views.

    I go to church with family. The megachurch production quality is really good. The lyrics of the song service are 7-11 songs, the kind that repeats the same 7 words 11 times. The preaching is to the audience. Think Preacher Bill with high quality production (actually it’s not quite that bad as someone can have more historic, pre-Darby faith at my church). I do my best to tune out the whole experience.

    Related to my personal church-going experience, I wonder things such as this:

    – How does a scholar receive a popular sermon?
    – How does a scholar discuss matters of faith with family?

    Personally, I could imagine myself being more entertained by a Preacher Bill (as curiosity) than being inspired by a Preacher Bill (as father). Personally, I could imagine myself being unable to discuss Preacher Bill’s sermon with my family over Sunday dinner. Personally, I could also imagine a Preacher Bill not wanting to waste his time learning about things not clearly propelling forward his sense of calling and mission.

    I can imagine that some readers of this blog are somehow in somewhat similar situations where they’ve experienced inner break-though but not yet outer break-throughs.

    Dr Ruffin, is your dad still alive? How honestly did or do you talk with him?

    • Michael L. Ruffin says:

      Thanks, Brian. No, my dad died suddenly about four years after we had that conversation. So I unfortunately did not have many subsequent in-depth conversations with him. I was too busy for the rest of my college career, I guess. It’s too bad. It would have been interesting to talk about my seminary experiences with him. He was a very smart and insightful man …

      • Brian P. says:

        Thanks for sharing that. My dad is still alive. He often speaks with me of matters of faith. Often I wish I could tell him of my faith journey. But there’s no way he’d ever understand.

        • Michael L. Ruffin says:

          I think mine would have understood to a point. My mother, though, who died right before I started college–she would have still loved me but would have thought I’d lost my mind (and maybe my soul) …

          • Brian P. says:

            I think if I were truthful to my family and extended family they’d think both too. And if I were truthful to myself, I’d ponder only the possible loss of the former. / Phil 1

            May your parents rest in peace.

    • Andrew Dowling says:

      Brian, I’m saddened you have to put up with such a service every Sunday . . .not meaning to get too personal, but have you not been able to discuss with your wife about the family attending somewhere else? I’m honestly curious.

      • Brian P. says:

        Tried that.

        We visited a number of churches several years ago. For a while, we attended an Anglican church. The priest remains a good friend. We also attended a Presbyterian church for a while. I think she found out they were on the wrong side of the SSM divide in her God’s opinion. Other churches we visited include Episcopal, Eastern Orthodox, and Messianic Jewish.

        I think I would get more out of progressive theology and/or higher churchmanship of liturgy. Perhaps it’s snobbery but theological awareness and aesthetic seem to matter to me. That and a Gospel centered in cruciform living as a way.

        I think my wife trusts the megachurch experience.

  • Xenia says:

    Loved this.

  • tee kay says:

    That’s the beauty of the bible.
    No matter how much you think you know there will always be “aha moments”
    One subject that has many people confused is…
    The mark of the beast, but is there really a need for confusion?
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v4YGLLStEqI

  • Mark K says:

    Michael, I love the conversation you had with your father. Seems he was well grounded in the real world and passed that along to you. My own father was incapable of such a conversation, so I can appreciate it all the more. And the surrogate fathers I found were horrified when I wanted to go to a grad school outside of the Dallas Th. Seminary “family.” It took me 30 additional years to get to the place your father, your professor, and your textbook took you early on. I’m glad for you and those you shepherd.

    • Mark, thanks for your comment. I’m another, along with Brian P., below, and many others, who only in our 40s (sometimes later) came to “drastically” (from the earlier perspective) rethink our theology, our world-and-life view, etc. In my case, after Evan. seminary education, ministry and much independent study, etc.

      And this thought just hit me: It’s a wonder how pastors, IF they are reading much on the Net or elsewhere (many books also are similarly eye-opening), can continue, outwardly unruffled, preaching inerrancy, penal substitutionary atonement coupled with conscious eternal torment, etc. That is, if they are seeing that not just a few or a few dozen or even a few hundred, but literally thousands of biblically well-educated people (pastors and others) are “ringing the changes” toward more universalist or “grace-filled” views of God and the Bible. NOT “rebelling against God” but against human systems that tend to limit and wrongly encapsulate God and the Bible.

      It’s true (and unfortunate, to me) that a few “apostates” like us go to the extreme of atheism, but my sense is that that is the small minority indeed…. Many more of us retain one kind or another of faith (thus not having “lost our faith”… merely re-defined it). Much of my re-thinking and insights along the way are open to public view, via posts such as these and my own blogging… which I’ve found an important part of finding a new kind of community, in addition to transplanting to Progressive Christianity in a more local way (specifically United Church of Christ).

      • Brian P. says:

        There are pretty good stats on pastors surfing porn. I can’t help but wonder how much they’re surfing theology online.

        Getting them to admit to or talk about one seems about as implausible as the other.

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