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When President Miller asked
me if I would speak at Founder’s Day, I reminded him that I was not an
Alexander Campbell scholar, a church historian, a minister … or a Christian.
He was quick to remind me, “I
know who you are.”
He said it in a way that
college presidents have of suggesting – they know what they are doing.
I suspect that immediately
after hanging up with me, he consulted with his staff and asked, “Does anybody
know who this guy is?”
He would be right – who
really knows who I am?
But because he asked, let me
tell you … I have been an editor and a writer, and have tried my best to be a
I have tried to be all of
these things since graduating from Bethany in 1978.
It didn’t cross my mind how
long ago I had graduated, until I received a text from my grandson. The text came to me during the Super Bowl this
year. In it, my Grandson reminded me how old Peyton Manning, the Denver Broncos
quarterback, was compared to the Seahawks quarterback, Russell Wilson.
“Papa, he’s 12 years and 250
days younger than Peyton,” Evan texted.
This means that Peyton
Manning was 1 years-old when I graduated from Bethany.
It also means that this academic
gown I’m wearing today ... is older than Russell Wilson.
It has been 36 years since I
graduated from Bethany.
That number, 36 ... has
profound meaning to many religions.
The Maori’s believe that 36
gods actively worked, to create the various parts of the first human being,
before Tane, their god of forests and birds, breathed life into her.
According to Jewish Midrash,
after God created light on the first day of creation, it shone for 36 hours.
In the Torah, the first five
books of the Old Testament, there are 36 times that the faithful are commanded
to love, respect, and protect a stranger.
And in 1836,
four years before he founded Bethany College, Alexander Campbell wrote to the
editor of The Christian Reformer to
offer him several rules for writing and editing.
I am hopeful,
that Campbell’s rules for writing could prove as useful today, 36 years after I
graduated from Bethany, as they might have in 1836 … which to be
clear was just a few years before I was born.
So, let’s begin with Campells Rules:
Rule Number 1:
Introduce nothing – nothing
into your pages that is not of obvious…practical…utility.
interest of providing you with something of practical utility that you can take
with you when you leave this hall, I offer two pieces of advice:
and - be kind.
regularly tease me about my relentless directive that they “be curious,” that
they take nothing at face value, that they dig as deep as possible if they
truly want to find answers.
Part of my
job as a teacher is to make them want to be curious.
I urge them
to challenge me and to challenge others.
them of an old saying that
seasoned reporters have shared with newcomers for years: "If your mother
tells you she loves you, check it out."
In doing some research on Alexander
Campbell, I came across several references on the Internet to his 5 rules of
writing that others had written about.
Fortunately, I now teach at a place
that not only owns one of the 48 Gutenberg Bibles known to be in existence, but
also owns one of the only 6 complete sets of The Christian Reformer.
This publication iswhere Campbell’s rules for writing first appeared.
In the actual pages of The Christian Reformer from April 1,
1836, rather than from a learned essay on the Internet, I discovered that
Campbell had actually listed 7, not 5 rules of writing.
So I urge
you as I urge my own students - be
curious. You never know what you might find.
As I said
earlier, I also urge my students to be kind.
fortunate now to be teaching students who are chiefly engaged in doing public
service. They work to shape public policy, to address issues that help others.
they apply to their work may be remarkable. But I’m reminded daily that I am surrounded by
their kindness. So, I urge you to be relentlessly curious and relentlessly
So, that brings us to Campbell’s Rule Number 2: t
is simply this:Consider well how you
are to end, or complete everything you commence.
see how well I end when I finish my comments to you today
But for now,
the number 36.
And now Campbell’s Rule Number 3: Remember, many readers have
minds Therefore give a reasonable variety.
At Bethany, I liked to think
I had a mind and that I learned a variety of things.
Being here motivated me to
want to learn, not just in the classroom, but in my relationships with classmates,
staff, and professors.
That curiosity was nurtured
in a late night astronomy class with Professor Stanley Becker, and it was
nurtured by a course on modifying my own behavior with John Hull, and by a crash
course in French from Pauline Nelson - taken so I could tutor a Haitian student
- and by a lesson from Hal O’Leary in how to keep speeches short - (we will see how well I learned this one) since
audiences tend to get restless, and by a seminar on Nathaniel Hawthorne in
Larry Grimes’ living room that led to a published book of essays -- written by
At Bethany, I also discovered
Dickens and Doestoeskvy, Pynchon and Kincaid, O’Connor and Keats, McCullers and
It was here I first read that
“April is the cruelest month, breeding
lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
memory and desire, stirring
dull roots with spring rain.”
“It is not
enough that yearly, down this hill,
Comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers.”
But I also learned kindness
There were donuts and hot
chocolate provided by the food service during January term when they saw that
we had borrowed lunch trays to sled from in front of Old Main down past
Cramblett Hall, across 67, and onto the front lawn of Campbell Hall.
There were emergency study
groups formed to support classmates who had had a rotten first day of comps and
needed what they should have learned in 4 years, crammed into one all-night
There was the president of
the college sitting down during lunch to check in with you when he heard that a
loved one was ill.
And there was the professor
who loaned me $20 so I would have enough gas to drive home for Christmas break.
[Pause. Return $20.]
we have Campbell’s Rule Number 4: When a series of essays is commenced on any
subject, let it embrace the whole subject either on a larger or small scale –
but let it embrace the whole methodically on some scale.
We’ve all read essays or
listened to talks where we weren’t quite sure what point the writer or speaker
was trying to make.
So again to be clear:
I ask you to do two things:
Be relentlessly curious, and
Be relentlessly kind.
And now Campbell’s Rule Number 5: Avoid the appearance of dogmatism.
Be independent, but not disdainful of the views and opinions of others.
This is a tough one.
Campbell could come down hard
on those who did not share his particular views.
On the issue of slavery, for
example, Campbell was against it, but he was also against abolitionism which
called for the immediate ending of slavery in the United States.
In 1855, six years before the
Civil War began, a student violated Alexander Campbell’s instructions that public
discussion of the subject of abolition was to be avoided on campus. The student
preached on the topic anyway in the village church at Bethany. Campbell
expelled the student and used several pointed essays he wrote in the Millennial
Harbinger to defend his actions.
While Abraham Lincoln may
have shared some of Campbell’s views on how to end slavery in the United
States, that student wouldn’t live to see slavery’s end. He transferred to what
is now Butler University in Indiana and died 2 years after having given his
abolition sermon in the village church.
But Campbell could also show
kindness and respect for other people’s opinions even when they differed from
In one fascinating issue of his
Harbinger, Campbell recounts – well, re-creates – a conversation he had with a
70-year-old rabbi in Richmond named Judah.
Granted, this is Campbell’s
recounting of the conversation, but in it, the Rabbi tells Campbell: “…you
are the only Christian preacher I have heard
in a long life that does not abuse
us poor Jews.”
The kindness that Campbell
and Judah show for one another – in spite of clearly having a bit of a
disagreement over the whole “Jesus as Messiah” thing – is clear.
And now, Campbell’s Rule Number 6: Be not too fond of
analogies, new ideas, fine sayings and smart repartees.
lifetime, Campbell, who owned his own printing press, is said to have written
and published more than 1 billion words. There are many “fine sayings” in his
writings. But not being “too fond” of such words are the operative instructions
in rule number 6.
witty for wit’s sake. Only use a good
analogy if it’s clear to your audience what point you are trying to make. Always
have a point to make, but be clear what your point is. Conversely, be curious
enough to insist that others are clear with you in whatever point they are
trying to make.
I teach a
course now in opinion and column writing.
many of my students are planning careers as government officials in various
countries, they often ask how concerned they should be about publishing strong
opinions they might have.
real concern, but I tell them if they feel strongly enough about a topic, then
they need to decide if those feelings are strong enough for them to be willing
to stand behind them.
of years ago, in a large class of students, I told them that they had to figure
out “if the juice is worth the squeeze.”
student from India who sat in the back row had never heard the expression and
asked the fellow next to him, “What did Professor Seglin say about Jesus and
hesitating the student answered, “Professor Seglin said you should never
them, I tried to clarify by suggesting that I hadn’t said you shouldn’t squeeze
Jesus … although that’s probably good advice as well.
It was on
me to make clear the point I was trying to make about taking risks with
publishing strong opinions. Had I been less fond of weaving smart repartee into
my lecture, my student would have been less confused.
hold you accountable to be clear about what you mean, hold others accountable
to be clear what they mean.
And finally, Campbell’s Rule Number 7: Be assured that moral
influence depends upon moral goodness; and therefore our reputation for moral
goodness is essential to moral usefulness. We must show a good spirit as well
as good arguments.
And this brings
us back to my advice to be curious and to be kind … and that you remember the
Let me tell
you another story about my grandson, the one who reminded me just how old I was
during this past Super Bowl.
A few years
ago, when he was 12, Evan was into collecting autographs from sports figures.
He had saved
up his money and paid for a ticket to get the autograph of Patrice Bergeron, a hockey
player with the Boston Bruins.
the signing, we got word that Evan’s other grandfather had died suddenly and
father, my son-in-law, David, called to ask me if my wife and I would go to the
Bergeron signing, while David and Evan, his brother Lucas, and my daughter,
Bethany flew to Chicago where Evan’s other grandfather had lived.
Of course we
said we would.
was in Chicago for the wake, he called me and asked if I would be willing to
see if Bergeron would talk to him on the phone during the signing.
there would be hundreds of people at the signing, I didn’t think this possible,
but I told Evan I would try.
Of course, I
had no idea who Bergeron was nor did I know anything else about the Boston Bruins… or about
hockey for that matter.
doing some digging, I found out some details and also discovered that a week
before this autograph signing event, Bergeron’s grandmother had died.
I called the
owners of the store where the signing was to take place, told them Evan’s
story, and asked if they might be willing to ask Bergeron to talk with Evan on
the phone. They were moved but said that
they were pretty sure Bergeron’s manager wouldn’t want to slow down the line at
So we left
it at that and just hoped we could get Patrice Bergeron’s autograph.
arrived at the signing event, we could see that they were moving people through
the line fast. Bergeron’s people were taking fan’s memorabilia for Bergeron to
sign while the fans were in line.
asking “silver” or “gold” to see what color ink each fan wanted Bergeron to use
to sign whatever stuff we had brought with us.
When we got
close, we called Evan on our cell. My daughter had known we’d be calling and
Evan was in a waiting room at the funeral home in Chicago.
As we came
to the table, I saw Bergeron’s manager, a gruff looking guy who was all
business. With phone in hand, I started to say to the Manager, “My grandson
just lost his other grandfather…” but
was cut off when the manager said: “You’re that guy? Give me the phone.”
took the phone, handed it to Bergeron, and said,
“Talk to the
talked some more.
and his manager had been filled in and they took the time to talk to Evan.
end of the conversation, I heard Bergeron say to Evan, “I’m sorry for your
there was a pause.
And I could
see Bergeron’s eyes well up, then silence, and then Bergeron said, “thank you.”
When we left
the building, we called Evan back and asked him what he had said to Bergeron
after Bergeron told Evan he was sorry for his loss.
“I told him
I was sorry for his loss too,” Evan said.
It was in
that moment that Bergeron’s eyes had welled up and it took him a moment to
regain his composure.
I wish that
I had had the presence of mind to show the moral goodness each of them showed to
one another in that moment.
that brings me back to the number 36.
The Hebrew words for 36,
lamed and vav, have taken on a particularly special meaning.
There’s a belief in the
Talmud that the lamed vav are 36 morally righteous people who must exist for
the world to continue.
No one knows who these lamed
When one dies, another takes
his or her place.
If someone claims to be among
the lamed vav, that’s a clear indication that they are not. They are too humble
to believe they could possibly be
among these 36 righteous
The lamed vav are scattered
throughout the world.
These lamed vav are said to
justify our purpose to God.
The Talmud holds that we need
these 36, these lamed vav, for the world to go on.
One of them may be sitting among you now.
Another reason, among many,
to be kind to those who cross your path.