Opening of a Door

MUILENBURG WAS A fool, I suppose, in the sense that he was an intimate of the dark, yet held fast to the light as if it were something you could hold fast to; in the sense that he wore his heart on his sleeve even though it was in some ways a broken heart; in the sense that he was as absurdly himself before the packed lecture hall as he was alone in his office; a fool in the sense that he was a child in his terrible candor. A fool, in other words, for Christ. Though I was no longer at Union when he gave his final lecture there, I am told that a number of students from the Jewish seminary across the street attended it and, before entering the great room, left their shoes in the corridor outside to indicate that the ground on which they stood with him was holy ground.

As a scholar, he knew plenty and demanded plenty from his students. He was uncompromising in his insistence, especially, upon the necessity of exposing the Bible to all the modern instruments of literary and historical criticism and refused ever to sacrifice, or to let any of us sacrifice, scholarly integrity to the demands and presuppositions of conventional religiosity. In order to impress upon his students what he felt to be the crucial importance of this approach, he assigned us the task of writing what was known to fame as the Pentateuch Paper. In it we were to expound and support by close textual analysis the hypothesis that the first five books of the Old Testament could not be a single work written by Moses, as traditionally supposed, but were a composite work consisting of some four or more documents, each of which had its own style, theological outlook, and polemical purpose. The paper came as the climax of Muilenburg's introductory course, but the shadow it cast was a long one, and from the earliest weeks it loomed less as a paper than as a rite of passage. It had to be very long. It had to be very good. It had to hold water. And I remember still the acute apprehension with which I launched into it, the first paper I had written for anybody about anything since college. It turned out to be the opening of a door.

-Originally published in Now and Then

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