Friday, 20 October 2006
An Unconventional Bible College
"I invite you to walk with me some of the steps of the way, like going to a strange land and back again."
I was delighted to discover John Morgan's book Flying Free earlier this year. It is the story of life in the Worldwide Church of God over several decades, told from the perspective of a fellow Kiwi. I recommended it without reservation, and I still do.
Just this week I was made aware of another book which also relates the WCG experience from a personal perspective. Greg Doudna was a student at Big Sandy during the turbulent Seventies, and this is his story. Like Flying Free, Showdown at Big Sandy seems to be mercifully free of the hobbyhorse apologetics that spoil many books of this sort. This is, in addition, more than just an AC alumnus on a nostalgia trip. The author, who later returned to his Quaker roots, is in fact something of an authority on the subject of the Dead Sea Scrolls, with articles in The Journal of Hebrew Scriptures and The Bible and Interpretation, and an 800 page text published by Sheffield Academic Press entitled "4Q Pesher Nahum: A Critical Edition." Be assured, however, that Showdown seems anything but a dense academic dissertation, and will be compulsory (and perhaps compulsive) reading both for those who attended Ambassador College in its heyday, and those of us who are simply fascinated by the history and evolution of Armstrongism.
Showdown at Big Sandy was first published in 1989, but has been out of print for some time. Greg has now updated and reissued the book. From what I've seen so far, I'm very glad he has. He has previously written of the book:
"It is a light-hearted, but also serious, memoir of the fundamentalist experience from one who was there (me). I sought through humor and the foil of myself as the innocent, believing, naive, but growing young mind at this Bible college, to show the way forward and out of such thinking. Everything in the book is true yet I wrote it as a story with plot and theme. The theme revolves around about a dozen or so creative papers I wrote mostly when I was a sophomore student..."
By clicking across to http://www.lulu.com/content/435005 you can preview some of the content for yourself. Or even better, try www.scrollery.com, which is a dedicated website. The book (540 pages) can be downloaded for under $15, or ordered in print form for around $30. A full review will appear here a little further down the line.
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I just previewed G. Doudna's new book and found the part I read to be interesting and accurate. I was at AC Big Sandy during the period he writes about and was acquainted with Greg.
What I can say is that he experienced AC Big Sandy from a relatively privileged position. He was an AC student. He was a part of the future leadership of the Armstrongite church, a chosen generation.
Had a candid account been written by an employee at AC Big Sandy, from a much less privileged perspective, there would be a different tenor.
I found AC Big Sandy at this time to be a dismal and horrific experience -- like a description out of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. But the desire to believe that there is something good in the world can overwhelm reason.
"But both the diabolic love and the unearthly hate of the mysteries it had penetrated fought for the possession of that soul satiated with primitive emotions, avid of lying fame, of sham distinction, of all the appearances of success and power.
Sometimes he was contemptibly childish. He desired to have kings meet him at railway-stations on his return from some ghastly Nowhere, where he intended to accomplish great things."
--Heart of Darkness
I had to smile when I read the titles of Greg Doudna's Ambassador College papers. I never went to Ambassador College, but I remember thinking about and writing similar silly essay (privately -- I didn't usually submit such things embarrassing compositions as class assignments in high school or college). It was interesting how he was able to see the error of the WCG's racist doctrines about interracial marriage, but he was a committed believer in British Israelism and the 7,000-year plan and the Jewish festivals. Arguing that we'd gotten Ephraim and Manasseh backwards was actually pretty daring, considering the WCG's straight-jacket on human reason and Bible interpretation. I'm surprised he didn't get disfellowshipped over that one.
The anecdote with which he opens his book is a perfect illustration of the kind of intellectual and cultural environment we had in the old WCG. "Oh sure, it's possible God could reveal new truth to a mere layman. He's never done it before, but He could do if if He wanted to. Harumph!" Never done it before, eh? But didn't we all believe that's exactly what He did in the case of Herbert Armstrong? And how would that WCG minister have explained God's calling Amos from following the flocks of sheep near Tekoa?
But back then, no one in that audience would have dared question that minister's dismissive, arrogant, ignorant non-answer.
I guess most of you writing and reading this blog have no idea about Big Sandy and the environs. That picture on the blog is the dirt road leading to the dump in the back of the campus, quite a showdown it seems. Big Sandy was the WCG pre Tkach's liberal answer to HWA's 'conservative' Pasadena.
The AC freshman class at Big Sandy in 1972 was one of the largest admitted. It was also one of the most problematic. I heard an AC administrator and evangelist once mention this with a note of consternation in his voice. While most of the students in that class were traditional, a few were revisionist.
For college administrators who expect very compliant and dedicated students every year, any amount of revisionism would be alarming.
For all of its energy and diversity, the class of 1972 did not bring about any major positive changes in AC or WCG. They did talk more than other classes.
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