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To My Teachers: Thanks

Updated: Jul 21, 2022

My friend Tom Morris recently reminisced on Facebook about teachers who had blessed him in special ways over his life. His poignant reflections prompted me to set out a few memories of my own. Here goes:

Thanks to my elementary school teachers, in England and Canada, for seeing that I was getting bored and pushing me upward. They don’t let kids skip or accelerate like they used to, and that may be fine–but it would have been a slow death for me.

Thanks to my grade six teacher, Mr. Lehman, who made us learn “speed adding” of number columns. Mental math seems a disappearing art, but it’s been helpful so often, not least in catching cashiers’ mistakes and my own income tax miscalculations.

Thanks to Mr. Clarke, in grades seven and eight, who introduced me to folk music, the guitar, and the world of chords (versus my hopelessly frustrating seven years of piano training that made me feel simply useless as a musician). Thanks to Mr. Manning, in high school music, who took the reins off and encouraged me to enjoy classical and jazz music on whatever instruments I wanted to learn. When I finished high school, I was first chair trumpet in the concert band, bassist for the pit orchestra, or pianist for the jazz ensemble, and could find my way around seven other instruments.

Thanks to Mr. Eichenberg, in English courses for grades 9 and 10, an ex-Christian who felt it was his vocation to help other people become ex-Christians, too. He stimulated me to get into apologetics, and I tip my hat to him in the acknowledgements of the apologetics textbook I later wrote.

Thanks to Coach Swanson, who so badly needed a point guard for the varsity basketball team that he made me one in a single month of intensive training. I was never very good, alas, but good enough to enjoy the sport the rest of my life.

Thanks to my Uncle Nelson Annan, who taught me in Bible school a lot about the Bible, about the Christian faith, about leadership, and about life. And thanks to Aunt Jan for teaching me about girls, friendship, and dating. That “gap year” was extraordinarily rich for me, and most of the trouble I’ve gotten into later has been due to my not following the sound advice they gave me, alas….

Strangely, I didn’t have a single really good professor during my undergraduate years at Queen’s. I profited from the education, to be sure, but somehow graduated First Class without really knowing how to write a proper history paper (and I majored in history).

Mark Noll at Wheaton Graduate School, however, saw to that. And how. My papers came back from his office dripping with red ink. To the extent that I have learned how to write for the academy, Mark gets three-quarters of the credit, with the rest distributed among my other graduate instructors. And Mark has been a reliable source of savoir-faire about academic life ever since. The rest of the trouble I’ve gotten into has been because I didn’t heed his counsel as thoroughly as I should have.

Brian Gerrish (in theology) and Martin Marty (in history) let me talk to them about whatever I liked every fortnight for two years during my coursework at Chicago. So we talked about theology and history, yes, but also about the academic vocation, the mission of the university, the nature of Christianity, and a few other giant topics as well. I miss Mr Gerrish (who died a few years ago) and I am grateful that Marty has proved a true Doktorvater over the intervening decades in matters both professional and personal.

I would have to count myself profoundly blessed if the list stopped here. But it doesn’t. George Marsden has come into my life at several key junctures—as I finished my MA thesis, as I finished my PhD dissertation, and as I was up for promotion to (full) professor at the University of Manitoba, to name a few—with both sage advice and deeply felt encouragement.

Sociologist David Martin passed away last year and I mourn him, for over the last twenty years we became friends, reviewing each other’s books, helping to get each other’s books published, and encouraging each other’s deviations from convention—even as the relationship was, of course, wildly asymmetric: David being a giant in his field and I being, well, me.

Lastly, Nick Wolterstorff has helped me even longer, vitally assisting me when I took the fateful step away from writing church history, in my mid-thirties, to re-engage theology, philosophy, and ethics ever since (with a few happy interludes teaching or writing history along the way). He wrote to OUP to help get my first book published with them . . . and I’m currently writing my seventh for that press. He has written countless letters of recommendation . . . although, given some of the outcomes, maybe he’s much less good at that than at philosophy . . . ! And he has deposited a precious trove of wisdom and blessing in my email files to which I can return anytime I feel confused or disheartened by this or that bump in the road.

Now that I look back on this list—and I haven’t mentioned the sage counsel I’ve received more than once from the likes of Cynthia Read, Rich Mouw, Nathan Hatch, and David Barnard—I really should be MUCH more accomplished than I am. Hmm.

Still, I cannot be less than effervescent in my gratitude . . . and I thank you, Tom, for prompting these happy memories.


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