Professors regale students at “Life Stories” convo
March 15, 2012 By Diane Johnson
Associate Professor of Religion and Philosophy David Hall and
Associate Professor of Mathematics Alex McAllister regaled
students at this year's Life Stories convocation.
“We’re all of us amateurs in and of our own lives,” said Assistant Professor of English John Kinkade, quoting author Julian Barnes, as the first of three faculty speakers at the annual Life Stories convocation held earlier this month. “There’s a whole lot of muddling and uncertainty.”
And with that, he spun out his own “life story” as a series of unplanned, often unanticipated steps that nevertheless have brought him exactly to where he wants to be. One of his stories described a moment of panic on a rainy November day when he realized that, in three and a half years, he would graduate from Centre and have to get a job—and he had no idea what he would do.
In desperation, he turned to the classics.
“When I got back from the library at night, I started reading from about midnight to four a.m.,” he said. “It was heaven. So began my life as a real reader. One thing that helped it along mightily: I went to London in the fall of my junior year … There were bookstores like you wouldn’t believe … And I had nothing else to do. No fraternity meetings, no student judiciary meetings, no College Council meetings—my God, it was freedom. My closest friend in London was there with his girlfriend, and there were, alas, no girls interested in me in London despite my best efforts. There was a lot of time on trains and busses or on the way to plays. I stacked all my books up on my bedside table, and it was about two feet of paperbacks. I am pretty sure that it was 32 plays and 24 books that semester. It was a new life: it was a life interested in ideas, it was the life of the mind. It was a life that looked to art to figure out what it meant to live a good life; that was the obsession behind all of this. It was an English teacher’s life.
“But wait: what’s the defining moment there? When did the change really occur? What was the one moment from which there was no turning back?
“There wasn’t one. In retrospect, we put these moments of meaning into our lives, but that story is about how one choice leads to another to another to another, not about one moment when you get perfect clarity and it all lays out before you. My suggestion: don’t be waiting for that moment. If it even happens, you’re likely to miss it.”
In contrast, N.E.H. Associate Professor of Religion David Hall pointed to a defining moment in his life story, though at the time he could not possibly have realized where it would eventually lead.
When he was four years old, Hall asked his father what God looked like. His father, then in his last year of seminary, did not have an answer. Yet that earliest memory, Hall recalled, would take him on a 40-plus year quest to understand Christianity.
“I completed my Ph.D. in 2000, and in 2002 I came to Centre College, where I quickly developed the reputation as an impossible grader and a despiser of Christianity,” he told the standing-room only audience in Weisiger. “The part about grading is probably true, but the part about hating Christianity is not, and I want to dispel this myth once and for all. One doesn’t spend this much time studying something one dislikes. I don’t despise Christianity, but I think that I have a realistic vision of it. Christianity is, like any religion, breathtakingly beautiful and horribly ugly. It is life-affirming, liberating and transformative. And it is life-denying, enslaving and death-dealing. It is never ‘either this or that;’ it is always ‘both this and that.’
“An uncritical love of anything, especially Christianity, is, in my experience, destructive and dangerous. So, I do love Christianity critically. Some have found my humorous treatment of Christian ideas irreverent, but I would respond that humor is a kind of reverence; one shouldn’t be too serious about the things one reveres. Some have mistaken my anger at the cruelties perpetrated on non-Christians, women, gays and lesbians, and various marginalized peoples in the name of Christianity as hatred, but this is not accurate. I don’t hate Christianity; I’m quite fond of it. It remains my religion, even if I have a hard time finding my place in it anymore. And I think I’ve come to know a great deal about it.”
Alex McAllister, associate professor of mathematics, framed his remarks with a ranked list he created as a senior in high school of things that were important to him: family, health, learning and God.
As children, he and his younger brother, Steve, were high spirited and creative—perhaps too creative. Their antics included four years as “championship Christmas tree climbers;” finally his parents learned to wire the tree to the wall. There were other adventures—or misadventures—as well.
“One Easter,” he recalled, “we broke open our eggs on an Oriental rug and rubbed them in while chanting, ‘Make a mess. Make a mess.’”
His favorite story is about the time the two boys were pitching pillows at each other across the living room and deflecting the pillows away with steak knives.
“What could possibly go wrong?” McAllister recalled. “I beamed a perfect shot at his head and, at the last moment, he deflected it upward and into the big picture hanging above the couch. You know the one I’m talking about. It fell to the ground, and glass shattered everywhere. Steve and I solved the problem by throwing the broken glass down a groundhog hole and re-hanging the picture. It took three years for my father to notice the missing glass.”
McAllister’s life story also included darker moments, including his brother’s death, but his conclusion was entirely upbeat.
“This blend of joy and pain that is life is precious and beautiful and worth celebrating and worth living mindfully,” he said.
The Life Stories convocation is sponsored by Centre’s chapter of Omicron Delta Kappa leadership society.
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Centre College, founded in 1819 and chosen to host its second Vice Presidential Debate in 2012, is ranked among the U.S. News top 50 national liberal arts colleges, at 42nd in the nation, and ranks 27th for best value among national liberal arts colleges. Forbes magazine ranks Centre 34th among all the nation’s colleges and universities and has named Centre in the top five among all institutions of higher education in the South for three years in a row. Centre is also ranked fourth in the nation by U.S. News for its study abroad program. For more, click here.