Winter in Minnesota is not the best time to begin a journey. The weather will not help you; nor will the land reward you. The people, kind as they are, will tell you to stay home until spring, which might arrive in May if you are fortunate. If not a journey, then, winter in Minnesota is a good time to begin a story.
This story started in a theology class at a seminary in Saint Paul. Printed at the bottom of the syllabus presented to second-year students, were assignments that could be turned in for extra credit: book reports based on classic, tragic, and imposingly lengthy novels. Dr. Needleman had taught the class, An Introduction to Luther’s Theology of the Cross, for over twenty years. In that time, he had seen earnest young men in tight, white-collared shirts, thin black ties, and square-rimmed glasses come and go; these were replaced in the nineteen-seventies with shaggy-haired and Birkenstock-ed free-thinkers; who were followed in the next decade by wedge-haired young men and hair-sprayed young women. Yet, in all that time, the course material never changed.
According to Needleman, there was no reason to change his approach as the Gospel had not changed, and neither had its application. If one of his colleagues suggested to him that, while the Bible and the Gospel were timeless, the context of teaching theology constantly changed, Dr. Needleman would clear his throat, look as though he were to make a statement, and in the end just lifted his bushy eyebrows and looked down his nose. He had full confidence in his approach to his Introduction to Luther’s Theology of the Cross.
But this professor was not the stuffy and humorless academic that all this might suggest. Needleman was a man of books, not just theological, doctrinal, or philosophical, but literary. He had an artist’s soul. For him, the stories of the great masters, works of true literature, pointed at the ancient truths his students studied in the same manner that river plants, which bend ever so slightly in a slow-moving stream, will indicate the direction of the flow which is at first imperceptible to the eye until carefully observed. Needleman wanted his students to wrestle with how theology touched upon the canvas of human lives. What better way to do this than to expose them to some of the most complex characters in the western literary tradition? How this contributed to their training as ministers in tiny congregations in the rural expanse of the Great Plains, he left to the imagination and to the journey. Needleman was committed to the view that no man or woman is as simple as they might appear, that inside the breast of each one was a hero or heroine, or at least a supporting character, akin to any that Dickens, Eliot, The Brontës, or Conrad could conjure up.
Needleman believed that after the course reading had been completed, which included selections from Luther’s Works, various publications on systematic theology, and other such heady instructionals, the students were free to encounter the themes of man’s fallenness in the pages of 19th and early 20th Century authors. It was there, imagined the professor, that students would wrestle more deeply with the themes of their learning.
Amongst his students that year were four friends newly made. Having been assigned their dorms in the same floor and in the same dormitory hallway, it was natural that these young men ate together on the first day of their arrival at the school, as they all had opened their doors at noon to discover one another peering at the same time into the long hallway desiring sustenance. Such an odd group it was, having been formed by the necessity of finding fellows and fellowship from amongst many of their own age, most having just graduated with bachelor’s degrees from institutions in and around the country. And so, gathered into a new set of strangers, there was in force that ancient draw to association: to make kind or kindred; to have a tribe.
These four young men were all in their early twenties and unattached — this being the only things they really had in common. They did not have similar affinities for music or style, nor were they of similar scholarly ability. And yet, they did all enjoy beer, and it happened that just down the road from the seminary was a small tavern that featured cheap food, even cheaper beer, and a wall filled with dartboards. These distractions promised to occupy the young men in the four years of study before ordination.
This was their now their second year, and as it happened that all four of them were enrolled that spring semester in Needleman’s Theology of the Cross class. This being Minnesota, the idea that it was “spring” carried its own irony. Nomenclature distinguished it from the fall semester only in its educational offerings, given that the weather was basically the same during both periods of time. The inhabitants of this northern land endured annually a full six to seven months of winter; there being a pause in the cold and dark of about five months into which was crammed: a hesitant spring, a rushed and anxious summer of humid and heavy air, and a crisp and short autumn that was summarily brushed aside by a new winter that asserted itself in early November.
Winter sun was the natural state of this northern clime, its short day coupled with sixteen hours of darkness that set in around 4 PM in the depths of that season. The cold of this part of the country was a factor of simple geography. With no large body of water to temper the extremes, the full effect of continental winter settled in as a crystalline dome, impenetrable to all warm fronts and southerly winds until the tilt of the planet shattered its meniscus and gave a temporary reprieve.
One of the four young men was used to these extremes, having been raised in western North Dakota, from where Minnesota received its chill. This was Andrew, a tall and confident rust-haired, young man with a quick-witted mind. He grasped the principles of Biblical theology with the same rapidity as he had his undergraduate classes in liberal arts and sciences. He rarely had to study to maintain a good average. Of the four, he was the only one to take his seminary classes for grade, anticipating the potential for doctoral studies in the future. Andrew sported the goatee, black jeans, and thick-soled boots of his late-90s grunge-styling. Many afternoons, his dorm-room was the place the four gathered socially, its walls thumping with the industrial guitar rhythms, drums, dobro, and fiddles of the alternative country music Andrew enjoyed. The Twin Cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul boasted numerous live stages, giving Andrew ample opportunity to see his favorite cutting-edge performers as they came through the upper Midwest. John Prine was his new obsession, a progenitor of this genre, but Andrew still boasted of his Bauhaus days when New Wave and Post-Punk dominated his collection. Andrew went by Andy in his childhood, Drew in High School, and Andrew as a post-graduate — the most recent iteration of his ever-evolving persona. Andrew was destined for a large influential church in the Chicago area.
Paul was opposite Andrew in this quadrad of unlikely friends. He hailed from Virginia, but he had completed his undergraduate in Cincinnati. Paul was slightly taller than Andrew and was built solid as a truck. He drove a truck too and styled himself as some version of an urban cowboy, listening to country music, piped and turbo-charged, through the subwoofer mounted under the back seat of his vehicle. He kept his hair longer, sported a few tattoos, and spoke with a mild southern accent that was possibly authentic. Paul was tough and gruff, not what came to mind upon the mention of ‘seminarian’. But he also managed a disarming sense of humor that rounded out his personality. To the casual observer Paul seemed constructed by committee. Academically, Paul was not the strongest of the four, but he was the most committed to the Lutheran heritage of which he often spoke. Having bought a clerical collared shirt earlier than was necessary, he also seemed to idolize the outer expressions of pastoral authority. At odd times during the day, one might find Paul wandering the hallways of the seminary, having dressed in a white Roman collar with a pectoral cross dangling around his neck. Paul was destined to return to the small-town, or rural east.
The third member of the quadrad was Mike. Mike was shorter, blonde, and prematurely balding on the crown of his head. He most often dressed in sweatpants and a sweatshirt. Mike could often be found in his recliner in his dorm room, sporting white, thread-bare, undershorts, and three days’ worth of reddish-blonde stubble. But Mike had a sharp intellect, matching or surpassing even Andrew. His grasp of theological concepts was less intuitive, but his ability to retain pieces of information and place them into a congruent whole made him a force to reckon with in any classroom debate. Mike found his voice in any intelligent conversation. He was the most loyal friend of the quadrad and probably the most suited to ministry. He was destined for a congregation in the open country, somewhere further west of his hometown near Ames, Iowa.
Completing the quadrad was Thomas – in some ways the least noteworthy and most nondescript of the four. Tom was mid-height, mid-weight and only above average in intellect. Having come to the United States from Ca
nada, he also carried the innate quietness and unassuming nature, common to those from n
orth of the border. Thomas appeared distinctively, if not disappointingly ordinary, in the same way that Larry Mullen Jr was, ironically, the odd-ball in the band U2, precisely because
he is the least odd-ballish. Thomas was always clean-shaven with a side-part he had worn since high school, roughly still the “prep” he was back then. Thomas he would have fit in as an extra or a crowd member in any John Hughes film. But the point of departure from Thomas’ nondescript-ness was his attraction to evangelicalism, with some mild exposure to charismatic expressions. This inclination put him in conflict at points with the other three, who were more mainstream in their Protestantism. This was generally tolerated by the others if Thomas did not make too much of it. That Thomas enjoyed beer covered over most of the problems this spiritual bent created in late-night theological jousting.