Best of The Pietist Schoolman: A Tribute to G.W. Carlson

I grieve to report that G.W. Carlson, who wrote several guest-posts here, passed away early this morning — ten days after suffering a stroke. At some point in the coming days, I’m sure I’ll write something more about GW, but for now, let me just repost the essay that I wrote for his retirement from Bethel University in 2012. I originally titled this post after the word at the center of the last paragraph, commencement, which takes on new meaning today for all of us who share G.W.’s belief that there is new life through the resurrected Christ.

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

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.

7 thoughts on “Best of The Pietist Schoolman: A Tribute to G.W. Carlson

  1. It’s hard to accept that “G. W.” is gone from us. He was one of the first Bethel faculty members to welcome me even though he vocally protested my hiring during a time of down sizing the faculty. Yet, once I was there, he was a kind of mentor to me–“Bethelizing” me. We came to have great mutual respect for each other and for each others’ work even though he admitted to me he never really understood what theologians do. Even after I left Bethel sixteen and a half years ago G. W. and I kept in touch and occasionally saw each other–when I came up there and when he came down here. I cherish our friendship and my great memories of G. W. as a great colleague and fellow champion of pietist Christianity.

  2. GW was an amazing mentor to me while at Bethel over 15 years ago. When I broke my leg my junior year which prevented me from going on a study abroad program for that semester, he helped me sign up for classes the day after they had begun, made me his TA, and made sure that I was situated.

    I will forever remember his concern for the poor, his desire for rich Christians to live simply (for which he pushed a type of reverse tithe), and for his lectures, in which he would start out with three reasons for some historic event and keep right on providing reasons 4-7! I look forward to continued talks with G.W.- or Dr professor Carlson sir. I don’t know about soul sleep- but if gw and Stacey (and the rest of the saints who are in Christ) are in the same place currently, that is indeed a place and space that I long to inhabit as well. Praying for the Bethel community-

  3. I was deeply saddened when my wife told me Friday evening that Professor “G.W.” had passed away. While I was only able to take his Christian Nonviolence class during a J-term a number of years ago, GW helped me navigate through the complex world of undergraduate double majoring. I will not long forget his office “library,” coffee mug, and of course his frameworks.

    Aside from academics, though, my fondest memory of GW comes from simply being with him. My wife was a runner at Bethel and in 2009 she was running her final MIAC conference championship race at Como Park. While it was not planned, I came across GW spectating in the masses and ended up spending the next two hours watching the competition with him. It was in this small moment that GW proved to be at his best. When you talked with him, he made you feel like you were the only person in the world, that your problems or struggles were his as well. I will dearly miss GW.

  4. I had the privilege of taking American Political Ideologies from GW last (Fall 2015) semester. Though I originally registered for the class because the late Professor Stacey Hunter Hecht was scheduled to teach it, I am grateful that I had the opportunity to study under GW. I was a little stunned to hear of his passing; he gave an impression that indicated that he would always be around… He constantly made new connections as being the professor of not only the parents of my peers, but also the grandparents of my peers. He was jolly and kind, in a highly intelligible way. He promoted healthy dialogue about challenging subjects. He engaged us where we were at. He was proud of his collections (particularly his political buttons) and took great pleasure in drawing us into his world of books. He honored people so well (he spent an entire class period speaking in honor of Professor Hunter Hecht upon her death) and had the highest of integrity. I learned so much from him, beyond the facts and the ideologies. I just finished viewing a film tribute GW, and it is all one hundred percent true. I mourn that I was able to know him for just a single semester. I mourn for those who have known him for a long time. Although I only understand a fraction of who he was, I will miss GW too.

  5. I write this with deep sadness at learning of GW’s passing. Deep sadness, and also profound gratitude that I had the privilege of having had him as a mentor.

    I arrived at Bethel in the fall of 1973, an already-disillusioned evangelical who could not square the emphasis in my BGC church in Denver on the “plain reading” of the Gospels with the fact that most of the people I knew in the church (including my parents) opposed the civil rights and antiwar movements, and thought Richard Nixon was a good Christian. In my very first J-term I took GW’s “Radical Christianity” class. I had no idea what I was signing up for — the word “radical” pulled me in — but the class changed my life. Not only did we read works by Art Gish, Richard Pierard, and others who articulated a very different form of Christianity than that which I grew up with, but standing before us in that classroom was GW, who wonderfully embodied a pietistic faith, a passionate commitment to social justice, and a gentle concern for each student. By the end of those three weeks he was my model, the Christian whom I aspired to be. We talked much over the next 3 1/2 years, especially in my senior year, when I was editor of the Clarion, and he encouraged me again and again to use my position to advocate for a more radical Christianity (and to give him space to contribute guest columns on topics such as capital punishment!)

    I have been a history professor for three decades now. I can make absolutely no claim of having matched GW as teacher, role model, or Christian. I can say that his example has been before me all these years, and for this I am terribly grateful. Thank you GW.

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