James Muilenberg

BUT FOR ME, AS for most of us studying there in those days, there was no one on the faculty who left so powerful and lasting an impression as James Muilenburg. He was an angular man with thinning white hair, staring eyes, and a nose and chin which at times seemed so close to touching that they gave him the face of a good witch. In his introductory Old Testament course, the largest lecture hall that Union had was always packed to hear him. Students brought friends. Friends brought friends. People stood in the back when the chairs ran out. Up and down the whole length of the aisle he would stride as he chanted the war songs, the taunt songs, the dirges of ancient Israel. With his body stiff, his knees bent, his arms scarecrowed far to either side, he never merely taught the Old Testament but was the Old Testament. He would be Adam, wide-eyed and halting as he named the beasts—"You are . . . an elephant . . . a butterfly . . . an ostrich!"—or Eve, trembling and afraid in the garden of her lost innocence, would be David sobbing his great lament at the death of Saul and Jonathan, would be Moses coming down from Sinai. His face uptilted and his eyes aghast, he would be Yahweh himself, creating the heavens and the earth, and when he called out, "Let there be light.'" There is no way of putting it other than to say that there would be light, great floods of it reflected in the hundreds of faces watching him in that enormous room. In more or less these words, I described him in a novel later, and when I showed him the typescript for his approval, he was appalled because it seemed to confirm his terrible fear that he was making a fool of himself. And, of course, if it hadn't been for his genius, for the staggering sincerity of his performance, he might almost have been right. It was a measure of folly as well as of strength and courage, I suppose, to let himself come so perilously close to disaster.

"Every morning when you wake up," he used to say, "before you reaffirm your faith in the majesty of a loving God, before you say I believe for another day, read the Daily News with its record of the latest crimes and tragedies of mankind and then see if you can honestly say it again." He was a fool in the sense that he didn't or couldn't or wouldn't resolve, intellectualize, evade, the tensions of his faith but lived those tensions out, torn almost in two by them at times. His faith was not a seamless garment but a ragged garment with the seams showing, the tears showing, a garment that he clutched about him like a man in a storm.

-Originally published in Now and Then

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