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Lessons learned from the most famous theologian in Alpena

I moved to Grand Rapids from Alpena when I was 18 to study at Cornerstone University, an evangelical school.

Though I had been to Grand Rapids before, moving there was something of a culture shock. Until then, I had never driven on a highway other than the long and empty stretches that surround Alpena, and my friends had to snatch me out of the street more than once as I went to cross an intersection without waiting for a traffic light to change. Leaving the patterns and people of my small hometown was disorienting, to say the least.

As if I wasn’t disoriented enough, I chose to study philosophy, the discipline designed to explore and question all of your most basic beliefs. Among the many complicated ideas and thinkers I encountered for the first time, none was so confusing and frustrating as the idea of “postmodernism,” which, in philosophy, has to do with a group of notoriously difficult philosophers whose writing is sometimes even more challenging than their philosophy.

By way of example, I recall trying to learn what the postmodern French philosopher Jacques Derrida meant by the term “deconstruction.” I turned to another philosopher, John D. Caputo, for help. In a book called “Deconstruction in a Nutshell,” Caputo writes that deconstruction “is the relentless pursuit of the impossible, which means, of things whose possibility is sustained by their impossibility, of things which, instead of being wiped out by their impossibility, are actually nourished and fed by it.”

Now at 30, I find Caputo quite helpful. But, at 19, without much training, I didn’t exactly find such a definition clarifying.

I asked my philosophy professor, Matthew Bonzo, for help. He suggested that I spend the summer reading a little book called “A Primer on Postmodernism,” by the Christian theologian Stanley J. Grenz. Back in Alpena, I struggled through the text over the next few months. Slowly, reading summaries of Derrida and others, I found that Grenz gave me the tools to orient myself again, both in philosophy and in my own Christian faith.

When I returned to Grand Rapids in the fall of 2009, I was more confident and ready to learn, and I wanted to send Grenz an email to say thanks for his work.

I discovered, unfortunately, that Grenz had died suddenly in 2005, at the young age of 55, just a few years before I read his book.

But I also discovered a surprising connection. Grenz, I learned, was not only born in Alpena, but his father, the Rev. Richard A. Grenz, had been a Baptist pastor in Alpena.

At the time, I attended Word of Life Baptist Church, and the news felt like a revelation. I have to admit, it seemed then like divine intervention.

Not only did Grenz give me theoretical confidence, but discovering another academic from Alpena gave me renewed personal confidence. If Grenz, coming from rural Northeast Michigan, could find his way in the world of postmodern philosophy and higher education, so could I.

I read some of Grenz’s other books, and saw that he was a pathbreaking intellectual in evangelical circles. Where many evangelicals confronted things like postmodernism or the trends of culture with a defensive, fearful stance, Grenz looked to see what he could find that was valuable and life-affirming. Despite remaining a conservative in many respects, Grenz was often attacked by other evangelicals, who — either by not reading him or reading him very badly — regarded his work as a Trojan horse of heresy. More accurately, Grenz was simply willing to dialogue with others in a way that many evangelicals are not.

At the same time, Grenz remained, unfortunately and wrongly, bigoted toward LGBT people, and his willingness to change his position on such important ideas as the foundations of truth or the Christian Trinity did not extend to sexual orientation, which was an even brighter flashpoint for debate at the height of Grenz’s writing around the turn of the millennium than it is now.

Grenz fit uncomfortably within evangelicalism and liberal Protestantism alike — open to new ideas on the one hand, but stubbornly attached to arbitrary and dangerous fundamentals on the other.

I would soon outgrow Grenz, moving on to other interpreters of postmodernism and shedding some of my earlier ideas about Christianity and culture that would have made Grenz and I kindred thinkers. I’m no longer an evangelical, though I’m still a Christian, having returned to Roman Catholicism, the tradition in which I first was raised in Alpena by my parents and St. Anne’s Catholic School.

I now live in Toronto, a much bigger culture shock than Grand Rapids, and, these days, I’m less worried about understanding postmodernism and more worried about understanding — and changing — the strange times we’re all living through.

My concerns turned out to be different than Grenz’s.

But, as I now near the completion of a doctorate in philosophy in the most multicultural city in the world, I can’t help but look back to Grenz with a qualified sense of gratitude as a pivotal stepping stone in my life’s development.

And it’s my hope that, like Grenz, somehow, mysteriously, some book that I have yet to write will find its way into the hands of another young Alpena resident, wondering about the world around them.

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