Book Review: A Change of Heart

By Jason Vickers –

Over the last 60 years or so, few United Methodist theologians have been as influential as Thomas C. Oden. His pioneering work in pastoral theology, pastoral care and counseling, patristic exegesis, Wesley studies, and systematic theology have a profound influence on at least two generations of scholars and clergy. Even today, Oden continues to exert a significant influence through his writings. For instance, Classic Christianity: A Systematic Theology (2009) is required reading for all students at the seminary where I teach.

If Oden has been influential, then he has also been controversial. Most notably, his intimate involvement in renewal caucuses such as Good News, the Confessing Movement, and the Institute on Religion and Democracy has made him a political lightening rod in The United Methodist Church. For many evangelical United Methodists, Oden is a theological mentor and political hero. For many progressives and radicals, he is a theological and political scourge who simply won’t go away.

Screen Shot 2015-04-29 at 9.44.32 AMOden’s latest work, A Change of Heart, is a personal and theological memoir. In keeping with that genre, the goal of this work is simply to tell the story of a life lived. There is no advancing of a new theological or political agenda here. The work is in no sense polemical. It is honest and forthright, to be sure, but it is also irenic and full of grace. People from across theological and political spectrums will find in its pages a loving and generous guide eager to take them on a journey that is as much about repentance as it is conviction or certitude.

In many ways, the backbone of this book is a candid and compelling account of Oden’s intellectual journey, ranging from his early fascination with the works of Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Sigmund Freud to his later immersion in the works of Athanasius, Augustine, and an entire host of other fathers and mothers of the early church. Readers will find here the back stories, so to speak, for many of Oden’s own most important works, including Radical Obedience: The Ethics of Rudolf Bultmann (1964), The Structure of Awareness (1969), Agenda for Theology (1979), Doctrinal Standards in the Wesleyan Tradition (1988), Requiem (1995), Turning Around the Mainline (2006), and perhaps most notably, the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, 29 volumes (1998-2010). Suffice it to say, it is fascinating to watch a gifted mind develop and evolve over so many years.

Another persistent theme is the interface between Oden’s intellectual commitments and his social and political views. During the early years of his journey, the idea that religion was “finally reducible to economic (with Marx), or psychosexual motives (with Freud) or self-assertive power (with Nietzsche)” led Oden to embrace none other than Saul Alinsky’s radicalism in economics and politics. Later, Oden explains how a deep commitment to Christian orthodoxy led to profound shifts in his views on a wide range of social and political issues, including war, abortion, human sexuality, the economy, and the environment.

Clearly, not every reader will agree with the later Oden’s social and political views. However, those who are fair-minded will have to acknowledge that Oden’s brand of theological and political conservatism cannot be dismissed as a form of unthinking fundamentalism. On the contrary, it is hard to imagine someone more committed to the nourishment of the life of the mind through wide reading, critical reflection, and fidelity in conversation with those who think differently than he does.

A third major theme running through this work has to do with Oden’s career as an advocate for renewal in The United Methodist Church and in theological education. Oden provides a detailed account of his early and enthusiastic involvement in the Methodist Youth Movement, the Methodist Federation for Social Action, and the ecumenical movement. He also provides an account of his later involvement in the debates over doctrinal standards in the General Conference of 1988 and in the establishment of renewal caucuses such as the Confessing Movement and Good News.

Oden also provides a candid account of his growing disillusionment and frustration in the 1990s with “wild pockets of free-floating church bureaucrats” who were “accountable to no one, least of all to those who funded them,” with church agencies that local congregations found “impenetrable,” and with developments related to the Re-Imagining Conference of 1993. Taken together, these frustrations prompted Oden to write Requiem, a work so stinging in its criticisms that some members of the publishing committee of The United Methodist Church actively opposed its publication. Fortunately, the story doesn’t end there. On the other side of the millennium, Oden’s work for renewal continues unabated in his devotion to studying and promoting of the life and work of the global church and especially the church in Africa.

While the account of Oden’s intellectual journey, changing social and political views, and tireless work for renewal comprise the bulk of this book, they do not constitute its heart and soul. To be sure, these themes are interesting and important, but there are three, if somewhat more subtle, themes that run through this book and that make it a true joy to read.

• This book is about the gift of friendship. From the outset, readers are treated to stories about Oden’s family, including his parents, his brother Tal, and his wife, Edrita. As the book moves along, Oden also tells stories about his most important theological friends, most notably, Will Herberg. A Russian Jew and teaching colleague at Drew University, Herberg was the one who helped Oden to rediscover the grandeur and beauty of Christian orthodoxy.

• This book is about the gift of humor. Academics are prone to take themselves a little too seriously, and throughout much of this work Oden proves to be no exception. Readers can feel an almost oppressive seriousness weighing him down at many stages in his life. But the story is also punctuated with humor and in many ways is always moving toward the discovery of humor, which is to say, toward the lightness of a life lived in Christ. It takes some time to arrive, but the gift does come.

• This book is about providence. Time and again, Oden testifies to God’s loving hand at work in his life, and nowhere more so than in his darkest hours, such as the days and weeks following the deaths of his close friend Will Herberg and his beloved wife, Edrita. Indeed, I don’t think it would be too much to say that Tom Oden is above all a theologian of God’s providential care.

Finally, while I have read many of Oden’s works over the years, we have never personally met one another. After reading this latest work, there is a real sense in which I feel like we have met. Even better, I feel like I have made a new friend. And isn’t that what a good memoir should do?

Jason Vickers is Professor of Theology at Asbury Theological Seminary in Memphis, Tennessee. He is the author Minding the Good Ground: A Theology for Church Renewal, the editor of the Wesleyan Theological Journal, and an ordained United Methodist elder in the Western North Carolina Conference.

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