Michael Allen Mikolajczak: True leaders in a world of rhetoric

  • Updated: January 16, 2008 - 6:16 PM

Bishops offer examples for thoughtful people to follow.

I was overwhelmed by the reason, common sense, good will and sensitivity of Bishop Herbert W. Chilstrom's column, "What being evangelical means to me," Jan. 9. It prompted a question of why my heart jumped with joy. I then thought of Bishop Lowell O. Erdahl's cordial letter, "Opened eyes," Dec. 28. Both pieces strike me as wonderfully pastoral, models of how to address tough issues in a rhetorically poisoned atmosphere.

Both tell me that there is joy to be found if we just have the patience, courage and humanity to discover it. Chilstrom appreciates his physicians: a nonpracticing Jew, a practicing Jew, an agnostic. He appreciates his Roman Catholic mechanic, and he lauds "a devout Southern Baptist" who occupied the White House.

Erdahl calls for a profound act of imagination: the Apostle Paul engaging in the difficult challenge (for anyone) of revision. Paul provides a historical context that helps us to understand scripture more intelligently. Imagine.

In both pieces, I admired the scholarly poise and the gentle, embracing tone. It made me wonder -- what kind of cereal do retired Lutheran bishops eat for breakfast? My colleagues and I try to teach independent, responsible, critical thinking; in Chilstrom and Erdahl, we have examples to give our students.

Then, my thoughts turned closer to home, to two bishops who have been associated with my university.

My office at the Univerity of St. Thomas is in John Roach Hall. But before Roach became brick and mortar, he was a distinguished leader: archbishop, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and principal author of "The Challenge to Peace." Archbishop Harry J. Flynn has yet to become mortise and fretwork, but we shall take him as he is, "in the flesh and on the hoof." He gracefully guided the nation's bishops during the sex-abuse scandal. He has written boldly against racism. I feel a special connection to him because he has taught the poetry of John Milton and George Herbert (both Protestants).

Finally, I think of someone I know only through his brilliant work, "The Good Book: Reading the Bible With Mind and Heart." I thought of it because Erdahl mentioned a book that changed his thinking. Peter Gomes, minister of Memorial Church and professor of Christian ethics at Harvard University, demonstrates how the Bible has been irreverently used to oppress people of color, gay people, Jews and women.

Now I must write a piece about women religious leaders. (I admire Sister Joan Chittister.) And I shouldn't forget Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel or the Rev. Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Michael Allen Mikolajczak is a professor of English at the University of St. Thomas.

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