Craig Keen: Why Am I a Nazarene?

Since this is our first post, here’s a little explanation. Each month our guest blogger’s name, and the title of their submission (if it has one), will appear above. Then one of the admins from the “I’m Nazarene, too” Facebook page will write a little intro–which is what this is. I can think of no person more suited to writing our first post than Craig Keen, and I was so pleased that he agreed to. It would be hard to exaggerate the impact that Craig has had on an entire generation of folks who say “I’m Nazarene, too”–and now that I think of it, that’s really more like several generations. Craig’s post answers the question, “Why am I a Nazarene?” and is autobiographical, so I won’t include those details here. I will just say that NazToo thanks Craig sincerely for sharing with us. (Steve Fountain, admin)

The short answer to that question is, “the inscrutable grace of God.” But there may be some benefit to my answering this question according to the flesh as well. I am afraid that this will take a while to tell.

When I was born on October 5th, 1949, in St. Anthony’s Hospital in Oklahoma City, I came perilously close to dying. I gather that I wouldn’t breathe on my own, but had to be stimulated constantly by nurses (who spanked me, I was told) to be kept alive. My mother, not at the time an especially religious person, promised God that if I lived, she’d make sure I was raised a devout Christian. Well, I lived and though she was not terribly consistent in keeping her promise, she saw to it that I went to a nearby Baptist church from time to time.

In 1957 we moved to the suburbs of Chicago. One day when we felt especially homesick for Oklahoma, were driving through nearby Chicago Heights, and saw a Nazarene church building that resembled the Baptist church we sometimes attended in Oklahoma City, my mother declared, “Nazarenes are good people,” and we started attending. My parents soon dropped out, but made sure to continue taking me to “junior church” every Sunday.

When we moved to Indianapolis five years later, we happened to rent one side of a duplex from a retired Nazarene District Superintendent whose son-in-law pastored a Nazarene church in town. One or another of these people made sure to take me with them to church every Sunday, while my parents relaxed at home. A year and a half later, we moved to Belleville, Illinois, just across the Mississippi River from St. Louis. My mother decided it was time for her to get more spiritually involved and started taking me with her to a nearby Nazarene church (since that’s what I’d been attending). Nine months later, we moved to Hobbs, New Mexico, and, again, she took me with her to the local Nazarene church. After a year or so, she got mad at the pastor and dropped out again. By this time I was in high school, had become connected to other members of the church’s youth group, and was able to drive myself to church. I got more and more involved, as often happens in adolescence. During my high school senior year my pastor talked me into going the following year to Bethany Nazarene College (now Southern Nazarene University) in Oklahoma City, which I began attending in 1967. I had no idea and my parents (neither of whom had graduated from high school) had no idea what selecting a college was about, so the thought of going back to the city of my birth and hanging out with other members of my youth group (who at the time were also planning to go there) seemed like a great idea.

As it turned out, I was the only one from my youth group to go to Bethany that year. I knew no one at the school. That provided me an opportunity to redefine myself and I did so as a rowdy college freshman. I made friends with people whom the self-consciously good and holy people at the college shunned. They and I did quite a lot of damage together and broke quite a number of rules. Of course, the rules were against the sort of behaviors that would have been considered normal at an ordinary university. That made it possible to be both ordinary and a radical at the same time. It was perfect for me.

However, persons in authority at the college were not amused. Although I was treated well (in part because I didn’t get caught), my rowdy friends were not. I watched disciplinary action after disciplinary action, including expulsion. I was, of course, an adolescent and no doubt judged immaturely, but I was revolted by the way my friends were treated—while the cool holy kids on campus seemed to get away with murder. The campus struck me as the nadir of a loveless hypocrisy.

The summer after my freshman year I went through a life changing personal revolution. (I wouldn’t describe it as an “experience.”) Part of that involved remorse for my freshman rowdiness, but it had most significantly to do with my reaction to the events of that time. It was 1968 and the Vietnam War was everywhere—on magazine covers, newspaper headlines, television news, popular music, and movies—everywhere.

My summer roommate and I decided we would study the book of Acts after work every evening. I found in the stories of the early apostles and their converts a shockingly bold articulation of what happens to an ordinary life when it is lived utterly for Christ. These were people who approached the future with a confidence similar to Jesus’ as he approached the cross. It was a confidence that the future was not to be won or achieved, but trusted, testified to, and finally given to us by the resurrecting grace of God. I was determined to live that way and as I faced the constant images of Vietnam, I came to realize that none of the faithful in Acts would ever participate in any war or any other act of fatal violence, especially in order to secure their lives or the lives of their loved ones. Coming from a conservative, patriotic family, having a father who was a veteran of World War II and proud of it, it was a disturbing realization, but one that I could not shake. And so, I began to announce that I was now a pacifist. I did not know what that implied, but I was on my way to find out.

When I returned to Bethany the following fall, I was profoundly different, but no more compliant. If anything, I found the culture of the campus to be even more pharisaically dishonest. I was troubled by what the awakening of my summer meant for my future. I continued in biology, the major that I’d chosen when I first enrolled, but it became increasingly hollow to me. I attended the required (intensely emotional) evangelistic services on campus. They confused me, but also drove more deeply into my imagination the call to be faithful to the God who doesn’t need our help.

I decided at the beginning of my junior year that it was past time for me to change majors. I found myself unwilling to sit through classes, to study textbooks, and to take exams that were about getting some later job, when I was enthralled by questions about what faithfulness to God entailed. I thought that a religion major was for future preachers and I had no inclination to be one of those. So, I became a philosophy major. Elesha and I became engaged to be married the middle of that semester (we were 20). We decided to leave Bethany and its “whitewashed tombs.” She moved in with my parents who lived in the Panhandle of Texas and I enrolled in the spring at nearby West Texas State University to continue my philosophy studies, while we decided what we would do next.

We married in April. At about the same time I decided that philosophy was not enough, that no matter what profession a religion major was for, I was in peril unless I much more consistently studied “God.” All of this, of course, was naïve and childish, but it was sincere.

I didn’t know where else to study “God” except my old school, Bethany Nazarene College. So, that summer we moved back to Oklahoma City and rented an apartment and then later a tiny, tiny house near to the campus. I discovered that there was a major that combined philosophy and religion. I chose it and I threw myself with great passion into my classes. My hand was up all the time in class. My classmates must have found me a curiosity. They were polite and conservative people, by and large, some of them dressed in black suits, wearing skinny black ties, and carrying briefcases. I was a crumpled longhaired hippie freak, from all appearances. And I was the cause of the hemorrhaging of class time by my incessant questions (which some of my professors, undoubtedly weirded out, seldom acknowledged).

In my second year in this major I enrolled in a two-semester course sequence in systematic theology, taught by Rob Staples. I learned that it was this field that engaged the questions I was asking. Rob was very patient with me. He gave me time and attention. He treated my childish outbursts with respect and responded to me as a kind and gentle master might to the faltering progress of a young apprentice.

In large part because I didn’t know what else to do, I stayed another year at Bethany and worked on an M.A., majoring in theology. Near the end of the spring semester, still not knowing what to do, I wandered into Rob’s office and asked him if he thought I should go to Nazarene Theological Seminary. He later on several occasions told me, “I almost fell out of my chair, but I didn’t want you to know how shocked I was.” He advised me to do so and I did.

I had thought my theological studies would provide me with answers to the questions that kept me awake at night. They did not. They rather multiplied those questions, exponentially. By the time I’d enrolled at NTS I was an intellectual mess, not knowing what I believed or how even to find my way to belief. I was no longer sure that I was a Christian and no longer knew what beliefs were necessary in order to be a Christian. And, of course, I had no idea what I would do with these degrees. Elesha and I had now been married for three years and we had a one-year-old little girl, Heather. It was not a good time for me to be that open to the future.

While at NTS, I found myself for the first time seriously challenged academically. It was extremely helpful to me, but my ego was pummeled. I felt stupid all the time, even as my hard work was rewarded with “good marks.” I still clearly remember sitting one night in the little house we were renting. Elesha was at work and Heather was in bed. It was late. I began to think and pray (which I’ve always had a hard time distinguishing). It occurred to me that my intellectual agony had in large part to do with the way I was going about engaging my theological questions. It occurred to me that I had always begun with a broad range of foundational convictions that I had picked up in two and a half decades of living and studying in America. What I had been doing in particular was searching for a way to make Jesus (it was very particularly Jesus) fit into my previous intellectual commitments. That night it occurred to me that this was backwards, that my task was to begin with him, with all of his concreteness and particularity, and find ways of situating my ideas in him. That night, as I struggled, as I agonized, I felt that my world was being turned upside down, that the life of my mind was undergoing as actual a revolution as it is possible to undergo.

This change, this metanoia, did not make my work easier. If anything, it made it harder. However, it released from the heart of my thinking a conflict that blocked the percussion of the Jesus of Galilee, Golgotha, and the empty tomb. My task now was to open my mind in every way I could, to say an intellectual “Yes!” in every way I could, to this one. I found that the way to do that was to open my mind just as seriously to the world, that to follow him meant to follow him into this world, with all of its ambiguity, faithlessness, and pain.

While at NTS, it seemed to me that there was much more honesty and seriousness in the student body than at Bethany. Still, there was a constant institutional presence that exuded the same pharisaical spirit that had so revolted me as an undergraduate. As time went by, it seemed clearer and clearer to me that the ones I most easily related to, the ones who were most likely to befriend me, the ones I was most attracted to, were those this pharisaical institution would most despise. It simultaneously became clearer and clearer to me that the ones who were most likely to oppose me, to stand against my work, to be my enemies, were the institutionally Nazarene. One evening at a meeting at NTS my mind wandered again to this thought, “Nazarenes, not ‘the world,’ are my enemies.” And then, almost as if spoken in that room, I heard the words of Jesus, “love your enemies!”

I remember thinking, “okay.”

I graduated from NTS, enrolled in the Ph.D. program in philosophy of religion and theology at the Claremont Graduate School (now Claremont Graduate University), was offered a temporary job at Point Loma College (now PLNU), later took a job teaching at Trevecca Nazarene College (now TNU), and later still at Olivet Nazarene University. I finally yielded my pride and was ordained a deacon in 1995. I taught in Nazarene colleges and universities for 24 years. I never thought I’d last so long. In the end the conflict between by personal style (not my theology) and the culture of the Church of the Nazarene became too burdensome emotionally for Elesha (and was no doubt hard on me). The final straw was my being refused a position at Nazarene Theological Seminary, despite my name’s being floated past the Board of General Superintendents by the NTS president four times in a year. There were three General Superintendents who voted for my being hired, two who voted against it, and a sixth who took a year to decide reluctantly to vote against it as well: three for and three against. What is required is a vote at least of 4 to 2 in favor. There were no theological problems with my being hired, I learned. The problem was that I seemed to be a lightning rod for controversy. That is, there was too much of a chance that my being hired at NTS would increase their administrative workload.

Since 2003 I have been a professor of systematic theology at Azusa Pacific University, a broadly evangelical school with historic roots in the Holiness Movement. I will retire in May after 14 years here. It will be the end of my 38th year of university teaching. I have been gifted with membership in a wonderful little, experimental Nazarene church, where I have been a member for over a decade. It has been wonderfully receptive to my ideas. It is a good thing for a theologian to find a church that wants to hear from her (or in my case him). However, the longer I have been away from any financial dependency on an institution of the Church of the Nazarene, the more I have been ignored by my denomination. I do still love the Church of the Nazarene, though this love is still a mixture of friendship and the love of enemy I realized was called for back when I was a student at NTS. I expect still to be an ordained deacon in the Church of the Nazarene when I die. I have no serious thought to hang my hat elsewhere. I am here by the inscrutable grace of God. And I have nothing but gratitude for this long and interesting path God’s grace has taken me down. (Craig Keen)