Out and About

by Phil Johnson

Chicago Weekend

The Sports Prophet and I wended our way to Chicago, Friday evening, April 20. Other than a rather long stretch of single lane starting at Rockford and coming in, the trip was smooth going. We pulled into North Park College a little after 10 pm. I dropped Eric with some friends at Burgh Hall, a men’s dormitory, and proceeded to the Soderstroms for some conversation and some sleep. What would I say to Mel when he asked if I wanted to join his crew for seven-in-the-morning tennis?

I like to play but the hour is early. This visit, the decision to sleep in had the support of prudence. I was just recovering—I hoped—from a knotted calf muscle. I wanted to save my calf for shooting a few hoops and maybe getting into a game in the North Park gym later on Saturday.

After warm and friendly greetings were exchanged with Joanne and Mel, we cleared up the tennis issue and talked of other matters. Among which, was whether I was prepared for my part in Elder Lindahl’s Monday morning class, “Pragmatism and Existentialism.” My part was to join with Doug Dahlgren to talk about Soren Kierkegaard. Mel and Joanne had a vested interest because their daughter, Kristen, is taking the course. Further, Mel said that Elder had invited him to the class and he was planning to come.

Was I ready? Well, I had five or six Kierkegaard books with me and books by Walker Percy and Robert Coles—two contemporaries who are much influenced by and appreciative of Kierkegaard. But that did not mean I was ready. I had not yet read “Repetition” or the “Rotation Method” or reviewed “The Esthetic Validity of Marriage”—SK’s writings on topics of interest to me. Nor, had I made any notes or talked with Doug to coordinate with him.

I called Doug at his home in Lake Forest, and we agreed to meet. In fact, we had two meetings. Mel and Joanne and I met Judy and Doug at a Chinese Restaurant, ate sumptuously as we visited, and adjourned to the Dahlgrens’ for more conversation and good tastes.

Due perhaps to our Existentialist leanings, Doug and I never quite got structured for our presentation to the 9:15 to 10:30 seminar. We went to class after a lot of discussion between us, depending mainly upon the moment and the class itself to carry us through. I did make a few notes to help me along.

Philosophy at North Park

Doug and I arrived at the Humanities Seminar Room on the third floor of Caroline Hall before anyone else. While I was telling Doug that, in spite of remodeling and a different use, Caroline Hall still smelled the same as it did in 1956—a pleasant smell which conjured up memories of beautiful freshman girls, Elder arrived with a big box of Dunkin’ Donut Holes. He served us coffee and made us welcome. The students and guests started to arrive, and we began to get acquainted. Among those present were three young people who had the mixed blessing of having their fathers in the class - Kristen Soderstrom, Carl Dahlgren, and my son Eric whom Elder had invited, too.

After Elder figured we had stalled long enough, he instructed Doug and me to begin. I detected no lack of confidence in Doug as he took the opening tip to make some remarks. Doug and I were philosophy majors at North Park. Doug graduated in 1965 and I graduated with the first class to receive bachelor degrees from NPC, the class of 1960. Those of that class who majored in philosophy were the first students of the North Park Philosophy Department—namely Elder Lindahl, Chairman and Melbourne Soneson. This more-than-dynamic duo, which shortly—after my time—became a tremendous trio with the addition of Paul Sebastyen, is only now —30 years later— winding up its ministry to North Park students.

Dr. Paul Sebastyen retired about 1980, Dr. Mel Soneson in 1988, and with the conclusion of this semester, Dr. Elder Lindahl will retire. Though the two who have already moved on from teaching at North Park have shown that they continue to be engaged in valuable conversation and seem to have little regret to be gone in a formal way from North Park, and though Elder, too, is looking forward to new activities and new freedom, I am sure there are many North Park students and Alumnae/i who regret the end of this era and who hope that the tradition these teachers established will live on at North Park.

What is this tradition? Answers to that question are worth reflection. It is not, it seems to me, a tradition by virtue of one or all of these teachers holding a particular philosophical position. I suppose some things may be said of the philosophical leanings of each of them, but, if they had a “position,” that was not what they taught or tried to convince their students about.

They guided students’ thinking and learning with questions and by covering, primarily, the thinkers of the western philosophical tradition. What they taught—at least what I felt pushed to learn—others may have more to say or disagree —was to read with an open mind, attend to the argument, honestly evaluate what I had read, and, as persons and students, think about implications as we tried to understand our own lives and the world in which we lived.

These professors of philosophy were committed to the personal. Our assumptions were challenged, and wrestling with truth was held high. Freedom of thought and expression were valued and encouraged. Easy answers were not given. Particular answers were not insisted upon. Nevertheless, we knew we were being taught by Christian people. It was because they were Christian that they could think alongside the most rigorous, honest skeptics without fear.

The matter of knowing or not knowing the material was not as subjective as this may sound. There was plenty to read and to understand and these gentlemen could tell whether you had read and if you understood what you had read.

Some of us who are long gone from the classroom continue to be drawn back to common discourse and honest conversation through the agency of the North Park Philosophy Academy. The Philosophy Academy was started about ten years ago by Soneson and Lindahl and has flourished ever since. This is a testimony to the ministry of these teachers.

Will their successors continue this ministry? It would be most unfortunate if the successors are dogmatic people who insist on doctrines and teach certainties and thus stifle the open, questing tradition that has proven to be of such value to our lives and to the school. We hope for a person or persons who will continue the tradition.

The meeting of The North Park Philosophy Academy is one way to keep the tradition alive. With Elder’s retirement, arrangements need to be made to keep the Academy, which meets at Homecoming, going. The 1990 meeting will be important for keeping the Academy alive and for providing an opportunity to meet and welcome the new philosophy teacher.

Many of us are beneficiaries of Elder Lindahl’s thoughtful, scholarly teaching. Through the years he has maintained the ability to keep philosophical discussion focused by serious attention to the sources and with pertinent questions. Fortunately, in the interest of continuity, Elder will teach the senior philosophy seminar next year. Dr. Elder Lindahl, we thank you for your work and wish you well as you continue your quest.

Pastor Norbert Johnson’s Farewell

Though Norbert Johnson has been pastor of North Park Covenant Church for five-and-a-half years, 400 miles from my home, I have felt his presence as a pastor in my life. His son, Tim, is a long-time friend, former fellow member of Bethlehem Covenant, and an original subscriber to Pietisten. Tim and Cyd (Cole) Johnson’s presence at Bethlehem before Tim entered Luther Seminary helped to maintain a contact with Norbert who is also an original subscriber to Pietisten and a faithful, encouraging supporter. Tim has just completed his work at Luther and North Park seminaries and has accepted a call to Menomonie, Michigan. So, as dad steps out, son steps in to join his brother Dan who is already a pastor. Congratulations, Tim.

As luck would have it, I was able to attend the farewell event held in the Campus Center at NPC. My good fortune included free nuts, cake, and coffee as well as seeing a lot of wonderful people. Don Frisk was there as were Cal and Jo Katter, Tim, Cyd, Leif, and Elissa Johnson, Jeanette Anderson, Dan Johnson, Burton Nelson, Robert Hjelm, Irving Erickson, Pastor Melanie Tournquist, Mel and Joanne Soderstrom , LeRoy Johnson, Craig Anderson, and many, in fact about 300 more.

The friendly, non-obligating spirit of the gathering was a witness to Norbert’s pastoring and, of course, to the wonderful people of North Park Church and Community. To Elaine and Norbert, thanks for a life of pastoral ministry and for more than one job well done.


The Reporter has been, at least for him, very out and about. In the space of four days, I attended three events that I want to report to you about. The events are the 32nd Annual Joseph Warren Beach Lecture featuring Northrup Frye, The Gospel of Mark told by Alec McGowan, and Sunday worship at Plymouth Congregational Church with William Sloan Coffin preaching.

William Coffin at Plymouth Church

I don’t imagine ever leaving Bethlehem Covenant unless we should move and I am virtually certain I will never leave the Covenant denomination, but it’s nice to have contact with a few other churches. I’m usually uplifted in spirit when I am blessed by the Gospel as it comes to me independent of any responsibility for it on my part. The verse, “In my father’ s house are many mansions,” is refreshingly borne out on these occasions.

As a guest himself of Plymouth at this service, Bill Coffin (the name Pastor Vivian Jones empowered us to call him) praised Plymouth’s worship. His remarks about the quality of Plymouth worship and music expressed my sentiments as well. Plymouth’s magnificent choir is sweetened by the presence of at least one Covenant voice, the voice of Joyce Gustafson, and as noted in our last issue, Plymouth’s pastoral staff is enhanced by Pastor Lois Vetvick.

There is much one could report about Bill Coffin’s sermon. It was full of food. I had never heard Pastor Coffin before, though I have been familiar with his reputation. I wasn’t sure I was prepared for or wanted to hear how drastic our world situation is or how much needs to be done. I feared additional discontents along with feelings of guilt and obligation. Would I hear a sermon or the rhetoric of a cause?

I need have had no fear for Bill Coffin preached the Gospel. The text was “I do not bring peace but a sword.” Coffin said that the sort of peace Jesus came to destroy was false peace— a peace at any price, peace based upon covering things up.

Coffin spoke of the actual price of false peace, those matters in the family and in the world which we all know but don’t speak about like the price of apartheid or of the so-called “Pax Americana.” The false peace which Jeremiah preached about which rested on the sin of the people—the sin of all of us. “All have sinned,” Coffin reminded us, “and come short of the Glory of God.”

Jesus swings a sword against this sort of peace. It is a sword, however, said Coffin, “that heals the wound it inflicts.” The difficulty, of course, is how does the Christian, how do the disciples of Jesus wield this sword? There is the danger of thinking of ourselves as the children of light and becoming self-righteous, judgmental, and hating, observed Coffin.

This is not the way. The way is through confession and love. “Love never ends,” love is for the “long distance,” for the long struggle. Pastor Coffin cited the example of Glasnost. The Soviet leader s, he observed, have not backed away from opening up themselves and their history up to the light. Glasnost is a sword that heals the wounds it inflicts.

Coffin wondered whether our American leaders and we, the citizens of this country, will be willing to acknowledge our part in the Cold War and our troubling of peace in the world. He wondered whether we will acknowledge that the enemy all along was in us, too.

He and Pastor Jones sent us on our way with a blessing which was enriched by the postlude “Toccata on ‘O Filii et Filiae, “‘ played by Philip Brunelle.

The Authorized Version—Northrup Frye

When Pietisten’s Poetry Editor and I gathered for a meeting of the Society for Pure Reason, he informed me that Northrup Frye was in town to give a lecture that very evening. We adjourned our meeting and headed for the University of Minnesota.

Northrup Frye wrote The Great Code: The Bible and Literature, which was published in 1985. In that excellent volume he said a second volume was planned. At the Joseph Warren Beach Lecture in the U of M Radisson ballroom, I had the opportunity to ask this question,” When will volume II of The Great Code be available, or is it already and I have missed it?” Mr. Frye replied that it will be out in the Fall.

I wonder if Dr. Frye ever feels what Kierkegaard, or rather, what Johannes Climatis—Kierkegaard is “just the editor,” describes in the introduction to Concluding Unscientific Postscript (a sequel to Philosophical Fragments) about the way things go when a person writes a book. Frye has written plenty of books and I’ve barely scratched the surface of his corpus. I have, however, read The Great Code—twice, but don’t test me on it —and a few pages of Fearful Symmetry loaned to me by Carl Blomgren.

Anyway, here is Climatis’ comment:

You must have had occasion to notice how these things come about. An author publishes a big book; it has scarcely been out a week before he falls into conversation with a reader. The reader asks politely, sympathetically, and in a very glow of longing, if he does not soon intend to write another book. The author is enchanted: to think of having a reader who so quickly works his way through a big book, and in spite of the labor and the toil, preserves his zest undimmed! Alas for the poor deluded author! In the further course of the conversation, the benevolently interested reader, the same who so longingly awaits the new book, admits that he has not read the published book, and that he will probably never find the time to do so. But he had heard some talk in a social gathering about a new book by the same author, and he has become greatly interested in arriving at certainty on the point. (p. 13)

Climatis, of course, is right, at least in respect to me, as a reader of his work. He might be heartened by the fact that I have read his first volume (a lot shorter than the sequel). If he were to engage me in a conversation at this moment, however, he would soon learn that, though I am quoting the sequel, I have not yet finished the introduction, and any parts of the text itself which I may have read in college are now far too dim for me to recall.

However, having read volume I, I am truly looking forward to Frye’s second volume. It is difficult for me to imagine what more he will say. In that respect he is a little like Kierkegaard who when you think you already have all that you can handle, continues to write, revealing even more.

Though I listened attentively to the distinguished Canadian’s remarks about 18th century literature, “Varieties of Sensibility in the Eighteenth Century,” I missed much of significance because my acquaintance with the literature is very limited. If it were not for the late E. Gus Johnson and Gladys Larson in World Lit, the void would be almost total. Tristram Shandy is about the only work I know fairly well, so my attention quickened when Northrup Frye said that at 16 (62 years ago), Sterne’s novel was his favorite.

Frye borrows the phrase “The Great Code” from William Blake. The term refers to the Authorized Version (The King James Version) of the Bible. Frye distinguishes between the Bible and literature. The Bible is a formal unity of many pieces of literature which has had a continuously fertilizing influence on English literature from Anglo-Saxon writers to poets younger than I, and yet no one would say that the Bible “is” a work of literature. Even Blake, who went much farther than anyone else in his day in identifying religion and human creativity, did not call it that: he said “The Old and New Testaments are the Great Code of Art,” a phrase I have used for my title after pondering its implications for many years (p. xvi).

The Great Code is more than literature, it is the Great Code for understanding life. The AV, because of its centuries of usage, is the locus of the code.

It was a pleasant surprise to meet Dr. Don Franklin, a distinguished subscriber to Pietisten who teaches at the University of Pittsburgh, at the lecture. He was attending the lecture with others who were in town for a gathering of scholars of the 18th century. Frye’s lecture was part of their program. Don, a musician and scholar of music, promised to consider an article on Bach for Pietisten.

The Gospel of Mark

The following evening, Pietisten’s Copy Editor and her husband with the Poetry Editor and his wife heard Alex McGowan relate the Gospel according to Mark from the Great Code—the King James version. Mr. McGowan is a master storyteller and, as he told the story, one felt as if one were hearing Mark himself tell it for the first time. Gone were chapter and verse markings as the story flowed unbroken from the storyteller’s memory. This was both refreshing and revealing. Telling the story in this fashion created fresh interpretations and understandings.

One of our party commented that it was a little like listening to Shakespeare. The Poetry Editor responded affirmatively, noting only that Shakespeare is better. As literature goes, that may be true but, as a part of the “great code,” the Gospel has it.

Epcot Center

McGowan reported that after one of his performances, he was asked by a woman where he got the text from—did he write it himself? He informed the inquirer that she could find the text in most any hotel room.

A week later, McGowan’s observation was confirmed for me in the Residence Inn of Orlando, Florida. As Sandy and I entered room 118, I spied the AV on the table by the bed.

I write this sitting by the pool, enjoying a Monday off from my labors as sidekick for Sandy who is at the Orange County Convention Center attending the annual convention of the American Society for Training and Development. On Saturday, we bit the bullet, paid the cash, and toured Epcot Center.

There was much to see. We enjoyed ourselves as we toured the International Village. Later we agreed that the best thing we saw was the movie “Wonders of China” in the China pavilion. In this masterpiece, we were led on a tour of China by Li Po, and 8th century Chinese poet. During the movie, we were literally surrounded by magnificent scenes of China and its people. Nine screens completely encircling the viewers were used and we felt like we were in China.

Epcot Center is certainly an “attraction”—a word that has new meaning since visiting Orlando—but I doubt I will be attracted to return. I don’t trust the view of life and the future portrayed by the elaborate attractions of “Future World.” For example, “Horizons” is bill ed as a look into life in the 21st century.

GE is the sponsor of this exhibit. As we entered, we read, “If you can dream it, you can do it.” Immediately I thought, “Oh, oh.”

I wonder if anyone at GE ever thinks about Freud when they offer this motto. What could be worse than most of our dreams becoming reality? In the second place, if people can “do” their dreams, then whose dreams about what should be done?

The vision of the future offered by GE, like most visions dominated by the presently prevailing technology, strikes me as barren and sad. “Horizons” was no different. As we travelled along in the little car, we observed sterile and limited environments without grass, trees, or fields. People sit or stand around working electronic devices which are apparently very important. They talk to one another with “phones” that bring the distant person into the room in a hologram. It’s hard to imagine where children can play, and no picture is given of what is happening with the mass of people.

Epcot Center reminds me of the 1962 World Fair on Long Island. Similar visions of a glorious technological future were portrayed. Les Strand, former East Coast Conference “Bishop,” arranged a pass for me on that occasion in exchange for watching over the Covenant booth and display.

I can’t say that these visions will never come to pass, but if dreaming means we can do it, I prefer the technology advocated by the late E.E. Schumacher , the dream of Martin Luther King, and the vision of Ivan Illich in Tools for Conviviality to guide us.