Commencement: A Tribute to G.W. Carlson

I doubt he’d remember, but I first met G.W. Carlson in March 2002. Neither of us could have guessed that ten years later I’d be helping to make this movie about him:

Back to March 2002… I had just turned in my dissertation and was in town for my brother’s wedding. We grew up in the Twin Cities, but I had never been to Bethel until I stopped by to have lunch with a younger cousin who was a double-major there in History and Political Science. Those happened to be the two departments in which GW held a dual appointment, so Robin brought me over to say hi.

G.W. Carlson
G.W. Carlson

Three things stand out from that first encounter: he didn’t know me from Adam but spent at least twenty minutes chatting; he lamented that I had attended a private school in the suburbs rather than one of the excellent public high schools he had helped to oversee as a member of St. Paul’s school board; and he asked for a copy of my dissertation (and apparently read it — he gave it back to me last year, with penciled annotations on several pages). I think he might even have joked that “You never know when we’ll be hiring.”

Well, that Christmas his Europeanist colleague decided to leave Bethel, the next January I submitted my CV, in February GW called my graduate advisor for a reference, and in March 2003 I was back in his office interviewing for a job — and leading a discussion on the rise of Nazism in his Modern World class. (I had a high fever and can only remember talking about Hitler’s mustache… But GW insists I did great.)

Fast forward a decade after our first meeting and I’m chairing the History Department where he’s been a student or professor all but three of the last fifty years, dedicating a surprising amount of my spring semester to organizing retirement activities commensurate with such a distinguished tenure. This week all of that planning has come to a head, as we’ve honored GW at multiple events, showing versions of the above film at each. The reception this past Wednesday pretty much filled Bethel’s library, as colleagues, friends, former students, his wife, daughter, and grandchildren, his (not-yet-retired) mentor at the University of Minnesota, and the last two Bethel presidents joined us to celebrate GW’s career.

GW movie poster
If you’re going to make a movie about someone, you might as well make a movie poster — and have everyone at his retirement reception sign it. At least, that’s how Sam’s mind works, I’m happy to say.

It’s an odd kind of celebrity: to be so well known to thousands of people that your mere initials conjure instant recognition and appreciation, while being so little known beyond that community (in part because most of GW’s published work is focused on his college and denomination) that it would take me considerable time to even begin to describe him to anyone else.

But for those of you lacking any connection to the Carlson family, Bethel University, Central Baptist Church or the Baptist General Conference (GW will not call it “Converge Worldwide”), the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, or the various public golf clubs and locally owned businesses where GW spends his free time and dollars, let me take a shot at explaining why people like my colleague Sam Mulberry and me would spend hours making a 20+ minute movie about Gordon William Carlson. Perhaps it will remind you of a similar person who played a similarly formative role in your own life, though I feel confident in saying that no one is quite like GW.

I’ve previously written at some length about GW’s attempts to remind the BGC and Bethel about its roots in what GW calls “the Swedish Baptist Pietist heritage.” For that reason, for the sake of his larger than life personality, and for the sheer duration of his tenure, it’s tempting to say something like “GW is Bethel.”

But he’d dismiss that idea. Not just because he knows full well that Bethel is a complicated place, with constituents who profoundly disagree with him and his vision for the institution (though I think they’re a minority, and most of them love him despite their disagreements ). But because GW — as selfless a celebrity as you’ll meet — knows that his entire career centers on helping young people to do two things: love God and love others. To him, Bethel is truly Beth-El (“House of God” in Hebrew), and it exists not so much in the increasingly expensive buildings that rise up from its campus as in the hearts, minds, and (most of all) actions of those who do study and have studied there.

GW has often said that he has four dreams for all of his students (explained in a bit more depth in this interview with Bethel’s student newspaper last fall):

  1. That they know and love Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior and commit themselves to his Gospel
  2. That they pursue a spiritual journey
  3. That they engage in lifelong learning
  4. That they serve others, particularly those who inhabit the margins of society

GW can dream those things in part because they describe him. It’s the rare person who does all four actions, but GW does. It’s the still less common person who teaches others to do them, but GW does.

GW at his retirement reception
GW speaking about the “beloved community” at his retirement reception this past Wednesday

It’s probably the 3rd and 4th for which he’s best known. GW is one of those professors whose office is so full of books (here’s a panoramic photo of his office) that you don’t even notice that he lends them out to any student or colleague expressing the slightest interest (like taking a drop out of an ocean). Almost everyone we talked to recalled GW’s contagious love of reading, and of learning. And I wish I could introduce GW to everyone who equates evangelicalism with the fringes of the New Right; I wonder what they would make of a Baptist who plays gospel music on iTunes, knows the Bible backwards and forwards, is beloved by his neo-conservative and libertarian students, and has spent a career preaching and acting against racism, sexism, poverty, homelessness, environmental pollution, militarism, jingoism, and most any other kind of injustice they could identify. Instead of reading me reflect on the connections between history and social justice, you should just talk to GW — be sure to carve out 30-60 minutes in your schedule, though.

(Let me add that GW is that too-rare creature: a political activist who is not in the slightest bit self-righteous, or prone to demonizing his ideological rivals. One of his best friends on the faculty is a conservative English professor, who praised GW’s commitment to public service in our video. At the breakfast we held for our teaching assistants this week, we talked about one of his foremost critics within the Baptist General Conference: not only has GW read most of this pastor’s many books, but he described him as a brother with deep devotion to and love for God.)

I find each passion admirable on its own, but all the more so because they coexist in the same person. But what makes GW most distinctive is that his love of learning and commitment to social justice combine with his love of Christ and commitment to Christian spirituality. GW is a Pietist, not just a Baptist, and a living rebuke to the charges that Pietism is anti-intellectual, or that it is “too heavenly-minded to be earthly good.” On the contrary, he demonstrates that a devotion to the Creator feeds and is fed by knowledge of Creation, and that withdrawal from the world into contemplation is necessarily interdependent with active engagement in the world. (The second will be a major theme in an article I’m finishing this month, for eventual publication in The Covenant Quarterly.)

As a fellow Pietist, I know that GW shares my appreciation for the Emmaus Road story in Luke 24. Without meaning to equate a man to the Son of Man, I do think that the two disciples’ famous question (“Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?”, v 32) helpfully illustrates GW’s theory of education and the experience of his students. He seeks not that young people can affirm a list of theological propositions (“We’re non-creedal people!”, he says often of Baptists), or integrate such principles with the presuppositions of secular learning, but that they experience the conversion of their affective core — what Scripture calls “the heart” — as they seek knowledge in conversation with their teachers.

GW and Me
GW and me embracing at our department’s retirement party last week – Photo courtesy Matisse Murray

And so I’m tempted to say to GW, as Cleopas and friend said to the man they didn’t yet recognize as Jesus, “Stay with us, for it is nearly evening; the day is almost over” (v 29).

But while the sun is setting on GW’s long career at Bethel, his day is not nearly over.

Around noon tomorrow I’ll be sitting next to him for one final Bethel graduation ceremony, and we’ll surely hear someone explain to all those soon-to-be alumni that we call it “commencement” because it marks a beginning more than an ending in their young lives. That old saw seems appropriate to GW’s retirement as well. Even as he commences a new season in his life, I hope he sees how his legacy for Bethel and his students and colleagues has only begun to dawn.

6 thoughts on “Commencement: A Tribute to G.W. Carlson

  1. I’ve thought a lot about GW over these last few days. The one conversation I will never forget was with he and John Lawyer in the fac lounge. I think it was spring semester of my first year. In the fall of that year I had a student break into my office and steal an exam, and I was now in my second semester struggling to care much about my students and their problems. I loved Jesus, but my students . . . well, I wasn’t sure. John and GW started to share stories about students (they didn’t give names) who had shared with them the brokenness of their lives. Abuse, divorce, bankruptcy, suicide. What I remember most was John telling me about a female student who had shared the long-standing abuse she had suffered in her family and how after he prayed with her and she left his office, he couldn’t stop weeping for her. I don’t remember exactly what it was the GW said, but it was something like, our students may not deserve compassion, but they need it. They are broken just like we are. That episode helped me turn a corner and I will never forget the witness of GW and John. Thanks for celebrating them; your whole department has shown its true character.

  2. I heard about the retirement party held for G.W. back in May, and I was sad that I missed it, but I didn’t know about it until just recently when someone asked why I hadn’t attended. He is a great man and was a wonderful professor and friend. I spent a lot of time in G.W.’s classes and in his office as a TA during my time at Bethel, and I’ll always think back on those days fondly. He was perhaps the only teacher who could have convinced me to be a TA for a class that began at 8:00 in the morning (and I did that more than one semester). In many ways, my time at Bethel was shaped by G.W. and I couldn’t ask for someone better to impact my life. I only graduated a few years ago but I can already tell he’s someone I’ll never forget.

  3. I hadn’t been back to Bethel in 25 years, but knew who I hoped to see again and introduce my freshman daughter too. While driving out of the parking lot on campus I saw a familiar figure walking across the lot in front of me towards his car. I took a chance and rolled down my window yelling out, “Professor Carlson!”. The man turned around to see who was yelling at him and without (literally) a beat he exclaims, “Martin Johnson, I haven’t seen you in 25 years. When are you coming to my office?” Unbelievable! I was just one of the many average to good students who tried harder in GW’s class, and he remembered me after 25 years. His retirement from teaching is a significant loss to the Bethel community, but his lesson’s and interactions will live on through the lives of all those, like me, who he deeply touched.

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