Wednesday, April 25, 2007
Interview with Irving Hexham: Part 1
Irving Hexham is a noted figure in religious studies. He teaches in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Calgary. He is a prolific writer, including journal articles and books. Some of the more significant volumes that relate to this blog include two that he co-wrote with his wife Karla Poewe, Understanding Cults and New Religions (Eerdmans, 1986), and New Religions as Global Cultures: The Sacralization of the Human (Westview Press, 1997). He has also served as editor and contributed chapters to a number of works, including the volume that I had the pleasure of working with him on, Encountering New Religious Movements: A Holistic Evangelical Approach (Kregel Academic & Professional, 2004).
Morehead's Musings: Irving, it is a pleasure to be able to talk with you and to learn a few important lessons about religion in our global culture. Let's start with a little of your background. How did you come > to the Christian faith, and where did you pursue your academic studies?
Irving Hexham: The town I was born in was Whitehaven, Cumberland, now known as Cumbria, which was the only English town to be attacked by the Americans during the War of Independence when the privateer John Paul Jones destroyed the shore batteries. My birthplace was 1 Scotch Street which was the last English house the Washington family stayed at before sailing to America. In a nearby churchyard is the grave of George Washington's grandmother. Not for from Whitehaven are the churches of Gosforth and Bewcastle both of which have some of the oldest stone crosses in England. All around were Roman, Medieval, and Georgian buildings. I say this to give you some indication of the sense of history which was part of my upbringing in what had been an ancient Christian part of Britain.
When I was eleven years my family was living in nearby Workington where like everyone else I knew I sat an exam known as the "Eleven Plus." Everyone had to take an exam known as the 11+. It decide who went to what were called a "Secondary Modern Schools" and who went to the local "Grammar School." At that time 5% of the population went to the elite public schools like Eton, around 10% went to Grammar schools and the remaining 85% went to Secondary Modern Schools. You can read all about this in Anthony Sampson’s excellent book Anatomy of Britain (New York, Harper and Row, 1962).
Those who passed the Eleven Plus had a chance of going on to university although even then only 27% of Grammar School boys went to university. The rest were from the Public Schools which, although they represented only 6% of the population took most university places. Everyone else “left” school at the end of the term following their fifteenth birthday.
Needless to say I failed my Eleven Plus and went to Secondary Modern Schools in Workington, Walkdne, Lancashire, and then Cheadle, Cheshire, where my family moves when I was fourteen. A few months after arriving in Cheadle I left school to begin work with the North Western Gas Board (NWGB) as an apprentice gas fitter. This was fortunate because the NWGB, which was a Nationalized Industry owned by the Government, was one of the best companies in Britian.
My apprenticeship lasted six years during which time we were sent to technical colleges during one day a week during the winter months. At the end of this period I had the equivalent of what is today a B.Sc. in Gas Engineering. At the Gas Board I only met two people who professed to be Christians all the others were thorough going "heathens." The two Christians were both Roman Catholics. At that time my hobby was stage magic, that is conjuring which has nothing to do with the occult but is a form of entertainment. Through this hobby I met Norman Hazeldene who was a retired inventor of magical tricks. He also lent me books on free thought and partly as a result of those, partly through what I had learnt or rather not learnt in school, and partly from the people I worked with I realized that I did not believe in Christianity.
My agnostic period lasted three years. It ended gradually when I was eighteen after I met a group of Christians who were holding an open air evangelistic meeting one Sunday evening. Actually, I was on my way to the Post Office to send off a letter ordering some magic tricks. On my way I saw the Christian group on the village green and crossed the road to avoid them. But, they were expecting that sort of thing and had posted some young people one the sidewalk to give out tracts. One of these, a very pretty blond engaged me in conversation for a few minutes before I “escaped” and got on with my business.
The next Saturday I was shopping in Cheadle when I met the same girl who recognized me and invited me to a youth group that evening run by Cheadle Parish Church which was Anglican. Since she was very attractive I accepted only to find when I got there that she already had a boyfriend, Peter Heyman, who later became Head of Department and Professor of Old Testament at the University of Edinburgh. Anyway, Peter and I soon became close friends and I began attending the youth group, which was run by a Rev. Peter Downing, on a regular basis. Sometime over the next six months I gradually changed my religious views. It was all very slow and began with my reading the J.B. Phillips translation of the “New Testament.”
As a result of this I became convinced of the reality of the resurrection and became a Christian. Two very important things happened shortly after this.
First, Billy Graham came to Manchester for the Greater Manchester Crusade in 1961. As a new Christian I attended the “counseling classes” along with others from my church which were taught by Dan Piet. Then shortly before the Crusade began I put an advertising sticker on the petrol (gas) tank of my motor bike.
Shortly after doing this I was down at the local offices of the Gas Board in Stockport when one of the bosses came out and asked me if I was involved in the Billy Graham Crusade and whether I went to Church. When I told him that I was a Christian and very involved with both things all he said was “good luck to you.”
A year later the same man, who I saw fairly regularly at work, called me into his office. This time he asked if I was still “going to church.” When I said “yes” he said “That’s wonderful. I have to send an apprentice on an industrial exchange visit to Berlin organized by the Industrial Chaplaincy. So I might as well send you as any of the other buggers who are bloody heathens.”
As a result in late August early September 1962 I made my first visit to Berlin almost exactly a year after the building of the Berlin Wall. What was really exciting about this visit is that we were taken into the East by a young American pastor Wesley Burdett who arranged for us to meet some young East German Christians.
This visit really changed my life and I both began learning German and began to think seriously about the challenge Communism presented to Christians.The other thing that happened was that Peter Hayman and a number of other Christian friends, all of whom had gone to Cheadle Grammar School, went up to university to study theology in October 1961 only a few months after I first became a Christian. Over the next year one friend, from a prominent Christian family, completely lost his faith while Peter and a couple of others were really began to struggle with their faith because of the impact of biblical criticism on their rather naïve evangelical beliefs.
From these two experiences, my visit to Berlin and the struggles of my friends, I developed an interest in Christian apologetics. At the same time I also began to attend the Saturday evening meetings of the Manchester Inter-Faculty Christian Fellowship (MIFCU)which was held at Ivy Cottage Church in nearby Didsbury. Actually, it was Peter who introduced me to a Christian friend of his, Ashby Owens, who was studying with Prof. F.F. Bruce. In those days the MIFCU meetings were very well organized with people like John Stott and Martyn-Lloyd Jones speaking there once a year.
Through MIFCU I also met Clark Pinnock who was one of Bruce’s graduate students. Clark did two things that really shaped my thinking. First, he encouraged me to visit L’Abri in Switzerland which I did for the first time in April 1965. After that I became a disciple of Francis Schaeffer who was very kind to me and encouraged me to attend university. Second, through Clark, and his wife Dorothy, I met Don Hagnar, who later taught at Fuller Seminary, and Ward and Laurel Gasque who were among the founders of Regent College in Vancouver.
In the meantime I was doing very well at the Gas Board where I first became a manager and then a Lecturer in Gas Fitting and Technology at Stretford Technical College in Manchester. Nevertheless, I began to study for university entrance qualifications. This I did through correspondence courses studying early in the mornings because my work schedule did not allow me to attend night school.
As a result I 1967 I left the Gas Board and began a new career as a student at Lancaster University. Initially, under Schaeffer’s influence and guided by his son-in-law Ranald Macaulay, I decided to study Philosophy and the History of Science. But, that year Professor Ninian Smart opened the first Religious Studies Department in Britain and I soon switched my major to Religious Studies.
Once again I was very fortunate because Lancaster was a dynamic place that has consistently ranked as the top Religious Studies Department in Britain. There, among my fellow students were a number of committed evangelicals including Roger Mitchell who later became an evangelist in Britain. Currently Roger is back at Lancaster completing his Ph.D. Certainly this was a very stimulating time with excellent teachers like Adrian Cunningham, the former Catholic editor of the “New Left Review” he was a well informed “Christian Marxist” who taught Modern Religious and Atheistic Thought. Bob Morgan, who we all described as a “Bultmaniac” because of his radical views taught New Testament. His work was balanced by the evangelical scholar David Catchpole. Visiting lecturers taught the Old Testament and Church History.
Ninian Smart taught the Phenomenology of Religion, Indian religions and with Colin Lyas the Philosophy of Religion, as did James Richmond. Michael Pye a fascinating teacher and expert of Japanese Buddhism, James Dickie, a Scottish convert to Islam whose Arabic name is Yakub Zakki, taught Islam, and the great Buddologist Edward Conze taught me Buddhism. Stuart Mews also introduced me to the Sociology of Religion and the importance of carefully reading classic texts.
Dickie was a brilliant man whose analysis of Islam was superb while Conze was unforgettable. Neither of them were Christians but the fact that I was, or that anyone was, did not matter to them. All they wanted was a commitment to scholarship and hard work. On reflection none of the professors at Lancaster, with the exception of Catchpole, were evangelicals. But, all were publishing scholars who did not allow their personal beliefs or feelings to influence their judgment of students. Only after I came to North America did I experience the sort of blatant prejudice among professors that drives evangelical students to take refuge in Christian universities and Bible Schools.
From Lancaster I went on to the University of Bristol to work with F. B. Welbourn who was an expert on African religions and author of the groundbreaking Welbourn, F. B. East African Rebels : A Study of Some Independent Churches. London: SCM Press, 1961. Initially I wanted to study the influence of Calvinism in South Africa but he convinced me to study a local religious movement because he believed researchers must “get their hands dirty.” Therefore, he argued that it was no good writing about South Africa without first going there. As a result of his influence I took courses on Anthropology and wrote my MA thesis on new religious movements in Glastonbury.
Once my MA was completed I began work on my PhD with Fred Welbourn and Kenneth Ingham who was Professor of History at Bristol. Ingham was a highly decorated infantry officer who began studying theology after completing his PhD on missionaries in India. After a year he quit theology because he found the methods “Micky Mouse.” He then took a job at the Makerere University in Uganda where he became a leading expert on African history. When I studied with him he was writing a book, Jan Christian Smuts, the Conscience of a South African (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1986). In addition, his book Reformers in India, 1793-1833: An Account of the Work of Christian Missionaries on Behalf of Social Reform (New York: Octagon Books, 1973), is a classic study of missionaries and Indian society which very few evangelicals know anything about.
Under the able guidance of Welbourn and Ingham I then wrote my Ph.D. thesis on the origins of the ideology of apartheid which was later published as “The Irony of Aparthied,” Toronto, Edwin Mellen Press, 1981. The interesting thing about my time at Bristol is that both my supervisors were at the top of their respective fields and very well respected scholars who were practicing Christians.