Dear Mr. Lough:
I read your recent Facebook post in which you indicated you were exploring several options for your Lenten discipline this year. I would like to make a suggestion in that regard. Would you be interested in devoting your blog, for the entire season of Lent, to responding to a series of questions from me (and maybe a few others) about the changes that many of us have observed in your life over the past few years?
This would not be an unpleasant inquisition for the purpose of challenging you to defend yourself. It would simply be an opportunity to ask some questions, mainly for clarity and better understanding, that have arisen in my mind as I have read your blog posts and Facebook updates, particularly in the past two or three years.
To save time, I’ll pose the first question now. If you would prefer to go another direction for your Lenten discipline this year, just ignore it. If you’d like to take me up on my suggestion, then we can begin that endeavor with your response to this question. In any event, here it is.
I think you would agree with me that you’ve changed a great deal in many ways since the time I was your student at Plumwood Bible College more than ten years ago. Before I ask you anything about the specific areas in which you’ve changed, I’d like to know what prompted those changes in the first place. In my own limited experience, I have to say that I’ve never met anyone else, whose life has been devoted to Christian ministry, who has changed, in outlook and belief and practice, to the extent you have. What was it that triggered that change in your life? Can you point to a particular factor—maybe an incident or a set of circumstances, maybe a book you read or a speaker you heard—that served as a catalyst for change as profound and fundamental as you have experienced? If you are willing to take me up on this suggestion for your Lenten discipline, then I look forward to reading your response in the next few days, perhaps as soon as Ash Wednesday.
Those who have read my autobiographical novel, The Long Road from Highland Springs, may remember a brief reference in chapter forty to a former student of Arthur’s named Kathryn Moyer. That character was based on an actual former student of mine, and the letter from Kathryn to Arthur, reproduced in full in that chapter, is a verbatim copy of the letter I received from that student while she served on the college staff following her graduation. I still hear from her once in a while. A few months ago, she wrote to me to say, among other things, “I think your spiritual pilgrimage may be scaring some people, but you are inspiring me.”
I remembered those words when I was thinking about what format I might use for this series of blog posts. Eventually I decided to compose them as a sequence of email exchanges between Kathryn and Arthur Lough, my alter ego.
The character of Kathryn Moyer was originally based on one particular individual. To guard that person’s anonymity and confidence, I am creating a back story for Kathryn that is more of a composite sketch, including characteristics from several different former students, and not simply a specific individual whose name I have changed.
Following her graduation from Plumwood Bible College, Kathryn attended a public university in her home state of Virginia, where she completed a degree in sociology. She subsequently gained certification to teach English as a second language. For the past three years, she has served with a church-related humanitarian aid organization in Asia and the Middle East. She grew up in a religious home and attended an evangelical church. Her beliefs and perspectives have changed over the years, but she remains a committed Christ-follower.
Thank you so much for your letter and for the most excellent suggestion for my Lenten discipline this year. I am happy to take up your challenge of responding to the questions you may want to ask me regarding the nature and scope of the changes in my thinking over the past few years and the factors that gave rise to them in the first place.
Thanks, too, for including an initial question along with your suggestion. I shall attempt to respond to it as succinctly as I can, and you should feel free to follow up with additional inquiry if you find my response either unclear or inadequate.
As I look back over the past ten to twelve years of my life, it seems to me there are at least four events or sets of circumstances that contributed to the development of a frame of mind willing to consider the possibility of major change in my way of thinking and perceiving reality. The first of these was the opportunity I had to teach a course called Peace, Justice, and Simplicity in the spring of 2005. I was asked to teach the course, which was not one I ordinarily taught, as a stand-in for the course’s regular teacher, who was on sabbatical that year. It was, as they say, a transformative experience.
Most notably, I was confronted as never before with the no-nonsense teaching by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. I made the heart of the course a careful examination of that portion of the Gospel of Matthew, and I knew I would need to be certain of my own understanding and interpretation before I dared attempt an exposition of that text for a class made up, at least in part, of serious-minded young people who would not tolerate mediocrity or status quo thinking on my part.
Second, I lost my job as a consequence of my decision, contrary to a requirement in the college’s bylaws, to identify with the liturgical tradition, specifically Anglicanism, in the matter of church attendance and public worship.
I think it was Samuel Johnson who said, “when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” I know that unemployment is not in the same league with execution as a force for concentrating the mind, but I found that, free from the constraints of the institutional “statement of faith,” to which I had been obliged to declare annual subscription, I was able to think about theological and spiritual verities in a new and fresh way.
I was also reminded of the words of Upton Sinclair to the effect that “it is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” That became a non-issue for me.
Third, my wife contracted a life-threatening illness that had, as one of its many consequences, the effect of forcing me to reevaluate everything I believed about the character and providence of God.
Finally, I entered my seventh decade of life. I am in good health, but I am getting older and the reality of my mortality is with me more and more with each passing day. I have no time to waste in the consideration of truth claims that don’t pass muster when carefully examined by my analytical mind and held up to the scrutiny of what I have learned over the course of my life experience.
I hope this is helpful, Kathryn. Feel free to push me to say more about anything I have written here if you find it unclear, inadequate, or contradictory in any way. I look forward to hearing from you soon with the next in your series of questions.
All the best,
Here’s what others are saying about my autobiographical novel, The Long Road from Highland Springs: A Faith Odyssey. (Tap the title or the cover image to go to the book’s order page on Amazon.com.)
“In Eric Kouns’ debut novel, a man looks at the progression of his religious faith as he tells the story of his life. Kouns has created a character called Arthur Lough, whom he identifies as his ‘alter ego,’ as a way to examine his own doubts and struggles. His reflections are consistently compelling. This is a personal novel that presents an engaging examination of doubt, change, and faith.” –Kirkus Reviews
“This is an absorbing memoir… the tender story of a life tormented by disappointment and depression, yet sustained by the unshakable hope for the kingdom of God.” –From the back cover blurb by David Swartz, Assistant Professor of History at Asbury University and author of Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism.