The Church and the Christian Scholar: A Tribute to a Friend

A good friend of mine had a heart attack two days ago.  For twenty-one years James Felak and I were colleagues in the History Department at the University of Washington.  For most of that time, James was my only close Christian friend in a research institution that boasted some three thousand full-time faculty members.  I haven’t been able to talk to James yet, but my understanding is that his prognosis is encouraging.  Yesterday he asked for coffee and a laptop, and I count that a good sign, if more than a little premature.

Two posts ago I began a series of reflections on “The Church and the Christian Scholar.”  In that context, I want to pay tribute to James publicly, for he has both encouraged and challenged me greatly over the years as I have tried to figure out what it means to be a Christian scholar.  The Scripture calls believers to “walk worthy of the calling” with which we have been called, but it does not call us to walk alone.  In James, I encountered another Christian scholar willing to walk alongside me, and I will be forever grateful.

James joined the UW faculty the year after I did, and we eventually became fast friends.  I remember distinctly the first time we really connected.  A few months after James’s arrival, Seattle was hit by a freak snow storm.  (It rarely snows there, and large accumulations are almost unheard of.)  I had walked to the graduate library after lunch on a cool, damp, overcast day, which is another way of saying that it was a typical winter afternoon in the Pacific Northwest.  After six hours of reading microfilm, I came out to find that there was already 8-9 inches of snow on the ground, the public bus system on which I depended was  effectively shut down, and I had no way of getting to my home some thirteen miles from campus.  Expecting to spend the night in my office, I went to the student center to grab dinner before the grill closed, and there I happened upon James, who was doing course prep at one of the tables there.  I knew that James lived a couple of miles away and regularly walked to work, and so I asked if I could sleep on his couch for the night.  He readily agreed.

I’ll never forget the trek to his house that followed.  Neither of us was dressed for snow, which was by now up to our shins.  We were walking in regular street shoes and thin jackets, the wind was howling, the snow seemed to be coming almost horizontally–so thick that we could hardly see–and what was most bizarre of all, the entire sky was repeatedly illuminated with truly awe-inspiring flashes of lightning.  I was miserable, weary, and more than a little distracted by the prospect of being electrocuted in a blizzard.

But not James.  James was energized by the opportunity to talk about ideas–his lifelong passion–and talk he did.  Although the wind and thunder were often so loud that he had to shout into my ear, James excitedly shared his views on Communism, socialism, Christianity, the Cold War, East European history, and the conjugation of Hungarian verbs.  I was simultaneously flabbergasted and enthralled.  We have been friends ever since.

The conversations that followed over the years were less memorable but more meaningful.  As we discovered our common faith, the focus of our discussions centered more and more on the question of calling, and in particular what it meant for us to labor faithfully in the academic contexts in which God had placed us.  These conversations were inspiring and revitalizing, and I could have them with no one else.

Most of the Christian scholars I know laboring at secular colleges and universities feel profoundly alone.  At work, they are surrounded by co-workers who cannot relate to their faith, who may even equate Christianity with superstition and ignorance.  In their churches, they are often surrounded by fellow believers who cannot relate to their vocation, who may even doubt whether  genuine Christians exist within the Academy.   As a result, they are soon worn down by what the late Harry Blamires called “the loneliness of the thinking Christian.”

God used James to spare me from such loneliness.  Over scores of brown-bag lunches, James loved me by listening.  G. K. Chesterton once warned that “thinking in isolation and with pride ends in being an idiot.”   James’ friendship kept me from thinking in isolation, and it probably also pulled me back from any number of idiotic conclusions.   (I know that he thinks so, at any rate.)

Along the way, James challenged me in a number of specific ways.  First, he called me to take seriously the wisdom of Christian writers over the centuries.  Ironic for a historian, there was an element of “historylessness” (to quote sociologist Sydney Mead) in my approach to the faith.  Like most American evangelicals, I paid attention to the history of the early church as revealed in the New Testament, but once I finished the book of Revelation I jumped to C. S. Lewis and Billy Graham.  James invited me to meet with him regularly to discuss various Christian works, and the first suggestion on his list was the Confessions of St. Augustine, a sixteen-hundred-year-old work of startling contemporary relevance.

Second, James pushed me to broaden my scholarship with an eye to finding points of intersection with the interests of Christians outside the Academy.  The son of a mechanic and the product of a western Pennsylvania steel town, James has unbounded appreciation for the life of the mind.  In a way that I found bracing, however, he also scorned intellectual pretension and rejected the common academic view of scholarship as a closed conversation for privileged professors to have among themselves.  The latter was a view I had unconsciously embraced myself, and James tried to show me this by teasing me, which is his default way of relating to almost everyone.  (I lost track of the number of times he shared the eulogy he planned to deliver at my funeral.  It involved the audience wailing in grief as he read from my curriculum vitae.)

Finally, and most importantly, James encouraged me to believe that I had something to say to the church that was worth saying, that God could use me, as a scholar, to bless other believers.  The encouragement was priceless.  I wrote James just as soon as I heard a rumor that he was in the hospital, and I heard back from him literally in the midst of writing this post.  Not surprisingly, the e-mail was short.  “I’m alive–getting discharged today,” he began.  James went on to relate how the main artery to his heart had been 95% blocked, and that the attack that he suffered is the kind cardiologists refer to as “the widowmaker.”  “For years I’ve been afraid of living too long,” he confessed, “now I have the opposite concern.”  And then in the very next sentence, so characteristically encouraging and selfless, “I finished your book–fantastic job.”

Thank you, James.  Thank you, Lord.

4 responses to “The Church and the Christian Scholar: A Tribute to a Friend

  1. Debbie McNally

    On multiple levels, thank you, Tracy, for this post. I had not yet heard the news of James’s heart attack but will be praying for him.

  2. Thank you, Tracy, for such a wonderful tribute to James. I’m so glad that he is alive to read it and I’m still in shock that Thursday morning when I said “Goodbye, I love you, to him, it could very well have been the last time that I would have seen him. Thank you, God, for this miracle! – Cheryl

  3. Marty Manor Mullins

    I am reading this with tears in my eyes as it rings so true of the character and faith each of you shamelessly demonstrated at the Univ. of Washington during my time there as a graduate student. Thank you for these points to reflect on.

  4. Michael Lounsbery

    That is a lovely eulogy that you can use at James’ funeral, which hopefully won’t be for a very long time. He has certainly enriched my life as well. I had dinner with James last night, and you’ll be glad to know that he has the same spirits and energy as ever.

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