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My Meeting with Thomas Oden

I blame it on my “Friday Nights” I have with my kids. A “Friday Night” only comes every so often. The kids (Katelynn 12, Kylee 11, Will 8, Zach 4) get to stay up as late as they want, eat as much candy as they want, and drink as much coffee as they want and dad will stay up with them and play video games all night long. They live for “Friday Nights.” This time, we had a “Friday Night” on a Tuesday night, since daddy was kinda on vacation. The kids are big talkers, but normally don’t last long. Maybe 2am and they are all crashed on the couch. However, the two boys made it all night this time. Zach crashed on the couch at 4:30am. Will made it until 5:30am! Grrrr. I had to fulfill my promise so I ended up getting to bed around 6am. I got up with only a few hours of sleep. I was delirious. I was not thinking straight. This is my excuse for what follows here.

Fast forward to 11am.

I pulled up to the house. I knew exactly where it was. I did not even need a map. It was about two miles away from where my parents used to live. The house was festooned with Christmas decor. It was a modest home near a pond. My parking job was sloppy, partly due to the fact that I was undecided as to whether I was staying, and partly because I had to park in a cul-de-sac. The same thought went through my mind that had gone through it for the last twelve hours: He is going to think you are a nut. You cannot just walk up to someone’s house that you don’t know and expect to talk to them. Are you a stalker? However, I countered this with a classic: Michael, you are probably the only one crazy enough to do something like this, so it will work.

I saw no distinctive marks that would make me believe this was his house. Nothing on the mail box (and I certainly was not going to check the mail – though I did think about it for a second). No door mat that said, “Welcome to the Odens’ Home.” I still was not even sure if this was his home. All I had was an internet search, done the night before, which led me here. The conclusions of Google are not something to be relied upon, so I was ready to apologize for knocking on the wrong door.

You see: a few days ago someone came to the Credo House in Edmond, Oklahoma (where I work), and said something astonishing: “Did you know Thomas Oden lives in Oklahoma City now?” Now, for those of you who know me, you know that this is something that I, if anyone, should  have known. “No he doesn’t!” I responded, with some degree of theological authority mixed with some degree of “what-if?” excitement. “Yeah, he does,” came the response. I thought about countering with, “Yeah, right. Then why hasn’t he been here?” – as if that would have sealed the deal regarding this person’s obvious lack of knowledge. You must understand: Thomas Oden is a heavyweight in my field. He is a theologian of theologians. His stature is such that one would think he was a dead theologian. A vapor? A myth? A dark knight? Someone who would not really exist but for all the theology books I have at Credo which have his name printed on them. Sure, he is the greatest living Arminian theologian. Sure, he is the creator of “paleo-orthodoxy.” Sure, he is the general editor of the Ancient Christian Commentary Series (ACC) that is yet to be completed. Sure, I am a Calvinist. Sure, I believe in “progressive orthodoxy.” Sure, I cancelled my subscription to the ACC. But I still admire and respect this man quite a bit. He is a living hero. Why wouldn’t he have come by the Credo House? Surely he has heard of it! After all, he is trying to get Protestants to find greater roots in the early church fathers. He is the living Protestant father of the Patristics. And the Credo House has the Cappadocian bar which enshrines the early Eastern Fathers. The Credo House is his type of place. Surely he does not live in Oklahoma City. “But wait,” I thought. “Maybe he has been here and I did not know it?”

That Tuesday night I decided to do some research. Sure enough, there were enough sources on the internet that said he retired from Drew University and moved back home to Oklahoma! Try as I might, I could not find an email or a phone number. I sent an email to the only address I found, which was returned the moment I sent it with the dreaded “undeliverable message” tag in the subject line. The only address I found connected to Thomas Oden and Oklahoma was a business address that led me to this house just down the street from my parents’ old house.

There I was. As giddy as the first day I went to “Discover Dallas” at Dallas Theological Seminary in ’95 (or was it ’94?) and saw Chuck Swindoll. Chuck came to the table I was sitting at with a friend and said, “These guys look kinda artsy.” My friend and I have fought since that day about who he was calling “artsy.” Due to its possible association with being feminine, I have continually insisted it was him and not me! Anyway, I rang the doorbell. A lady answered within about four seconds, which did not give me the time to consider the “well-I-tried” excuse.

“Can I help you?”

“Yeah, is this Thomas Oden’s house?”

“Yes it is.”

“Is he here?”

“Is he expecting you?”

“Uhhh, no.” (I wanted to say something else that justified my being there, but I could not think of anything so I left it at that)

“May I tell him who is here?”

“Yeah. I am Michael Patton.” (As if that would have any relevance to her or him!)

She left and came back about thirty seconds later. All I could think was that there was no way I was going to get past this step in the Thomas-Oden-Visiting process.

She returned and said, “How do you spell your last name?”

“P-A-T-T-O-N” (I knew that the right spelling of my last name would not contribute anything to my cause, but I obliged anyway.)

Before she left I tried something tricky. I have only used this twice since being in ministry, because there were only two other times I thought it might help me gain ground. One time was when I got pulled over for speeding. I told the cop, “I am in ministry.” Let’s just say I will never do that again and leave it at that. The other was when I was visiting a friend in a psych unit at a hospital. It got me in.

“Oh, and I am in ministry,” I said.

“Oh, ok.”

She came back about fifteen seconds later and said, “Come on in.”

Are you kidding? It worked!

At this point I was not even sure if it was THE Thomas Oden whose house I was invading for no reason. However, the moment I walked in, I knew I was at the right place. The hallway to the kitchen (where I was being led) was lined with books. Theological books! Many books I recognized. Many I did not. The ones I did not recognize were going into a mental list called, “Books I have to have simply because Thomas Oden has them.”

She led me to a seat at the kitchen table. She informed me that Thomas would be out in just a bit. By this time, I realized she was a maid or nurse. She was very kind. We had some small talk. I don’t remember what I said. All I know is that I was doing my best to convince her that I was not a psycho and that she was not irresponsible to let me in.

Finally Thomas Oden came around the corner. His look was both welcoming and a slight bit confused. Who wouldn’t be? I held my Justification Reader in my hand as I introduced myself. Why Justification Reader? For three very intentional reasons: 1) It was a sufficiently obscure Oden work for me to think he would believe I must really know about him to have this book with me. Had I used his more popular Systematic Theology, I might have looked more like a groupie. Why? I don’t know now, but I had it worked out in my mind then (#sleepdeprived). 2) It contained the most hard evidence that I had actually read it, cover to cover. There were underlines in every chapter (unlike others, where the first three chapters are underlined and then nothing for the rest of the book – a telltale sign that I started the book and got bored with it). 3) Just in case I could not think of any reason for being there when he asked the dreaded, “Why are you here?”, at least I could say (as pitiful as it is), “Can you sign my book?”

He immediately invited me into his den. I sat down and we began to talk. He was everything you would hope someone like him would be. He was very articulate. Gracious as can be (as if that is not obvious, since I had not been kicked out of the house yet). I don’t ever even remember having to give an excuse as to why I was there. He just began to ask me about myself. In my nervous condition, I did some name dropping. “Um, yes, after I was a pastor for five years at Chuck Swindoll’s church, I came back home…” They were all clumsy, but he was kind nonetheless. He was excited about me being involved with Swindoll and asked some questions about him. And since I am also a Swindoll stalker, I was able to answer (probably better than Chuck could have himself!). There was a bit of deception that I am not proud of. I made it sound like I was friends with Roger Olson. After all, he is an Arminian and I did have Olson on Converse with Scholars five years ago! Sigh . . . He will probably call Olson and say, “Guess who stopped by the other day? Your friend Michael Patton!” To which Olson will respond, “Who?” D’oh!! Oh well, we are all sinners and Oden knows this. Besides, Olson may know of me from my blog!

We talked for about ten minutes. I became increasingly comfortable. He could obviously tell I was a nervous fan, but he handled me well. I told him all about the Credo House. I think I even said (as I tried to impress him) that he could get free lattes for life! Oh well. I am the President of Credo House Ministries. I can do that kind of stuff. He asked me if I wanted him to sign the book I brought. After asking me what my name was again, he signed his book. Then he walked me back into the kitchen as he went and got a book. He said that he had some homework for me. What? I thought to myself? I am now like…like…a legitimate Oden student? A fleeting thought came to my mind, that he wanted me to come back over and over again to discuss theology. It would be like a personal mentorship or something! We would be best of friends. I might even consider becoming Arminian just for this. Okay, back to reality. . .  He then gave me a book. It was a new copy of his revised Systematic Theology. Wait, a signed copy of his revised Systematic Theology! How cool was that?

As it was time for me to go (he had an appointment he had to get to), I thought seriously about hugging him and saying something stupid like, “May the Lord bless you for the work you do for the kingdom.” I kept revising the wording of my benediction so many times in my mind that, thankfully, it was too late and awkward for me to either try to hug or give the benediction. (I was stuck on the word “kingdom” for some reason.) Who was I to bless him anyway?

I walked out to my car and drove away. I thought about who to call and tell this unbelievable story to. However, the choices were few. Who, besides me, gets this excited over something like this? So I called Tim Kimberley and Carrie Hunter, my two coworkers. We all laughed at how excited this Calvinist was to meet an Arminian statesman. But that is just who I am. Oden is a hero of mine and (oh no, here we go) “May the Lord bless him for the work he has done for the kingdom.”

That was my meeting with Thomas Oden. I will let you all know if he takes advantage of his free lifetime supply of coffee at the Credo House (I hope he does).

30 Responses to “My Meeting with Thomas Oden”

  1. Hilarious! It sounds like my friends and I getting ready to meet John Piper and any of the speakers at a Desiring God conference a couple years ago :p

  2. What a great story! Isn’t it good to know that a real life theological great doesn’t live in an ivory tower, but is accessible? Tells me he’s a true man of God. Hope he will show up for coffee and more conversation. I admire him too, although I don’t agree with everything he says, but then 100% percent agreement, as you pointed out, doesn’t mean we can’t admire and respect folks for their contribution, and be friends as well.

  3. Michael: Nice mate! Us Christian theolog’s have our many hero’s! I got to meet ‘T.F.’ old Tom Torrance, and hear him speak in my younger days, (and a few other greats). I have a few books of my own of his signed also. But Thomas Oden, that is grand! Great story!

  4. Btw, The Justification Reader is a sweet book and read, oh yeah!

  5. And can I say, I wish I could get every good pastor-teacher to read TFT’s classic book: ‘The Trinitarian Faith, The Evangelical Theology of the Ancient Catholic Church’.

  6. When he comes in I will tell him he has no choice in what coffee he gets … then give him The Calvin. :D

  7. The real John Calvin simply must have been a serious black coffee drinker! I drink mine straight black! Now tea, that’s a bit different, always cream & sugar! ;)

  8. Robert, I think he would have liked hot chocolate – Swiss Miss. (Oh that was corny!)

  9. @ Carrie,

    You guys should make a concoction of both and call it Calamin. On the other hand, you would probably have to serve an antacid along with that for both sides :)

  10. @Carrie: Ya might be right about that hot chocolate, Swiss style? ;) Calvin seemed like a traditional guy! Btw, just thinking out loud, but the Calvin bio by the Frenchman Bernard Cottret, is such a fine book, I loved it! I think it is still in print? I have the Eerdmans hardback, (2000).

  11. Nice one mbaker!

    Possibly Robert, am not sure about that.

  12. Carrie: Of course check with Michael, but it is simply a classic bio of Calvin, 376 pages, a major historical work and book!

  13. One of the things I really respect is those theologian’s who are world class and highly respected (Wallace, Witherington, Olson and Mcknight come to mind to name just a few) who maintain blogs or other internet outlets where they interact with the rest of us. Simply being willing to interact with your average church-goer on some level shows to me a degree of humility (even more so when they so this with the content of their posts and the way they interact with people – CMP is a great example of this in the kind of things he tolerates and they way he responds to people who respond to his posts on this site).

  14. Good for you! I am trying not to be jealous, but then again I would not have handled it as well as you did, if I had the guts to do it at all.

    Read his Classic Christianity over the summer, and his paleo-orthodoxy has greatly impacted me for several years.

    Hopes he comes by Credo some day and you can do an interview podcast.

  15. Michael T.:

    Talking about humility, Drs. Wallace and Bock take their time to respond to my doubts via email. Think about that!!

  16. Sweet!

    I was sure hoping it was the right Thomas Oden.

  17. Truth Unites... and Divides December 30, 2011 at 11:48 am

    “I blame it on my “Friday Nights” I have with my kids.”

    Heh. A humorous beginning to a truly funny story.

    P.S. How old are you, Mike? ;-)

    P.P.S. If anyone wants (and requests it), I can post a similar funny story about a seminarian who got all excited because John Piper touched his goatee-beard.

  18. Fun story! I also would have been nervous meeting Oden, but probably wouldn’t have had the guts to go up and ring his door bell. :)

  19. ‘No guts, no glory’ as they say! ;) Seriously, I am happy to see that CMP has the “stuff” to keep speaking the truth as he says it! Even if other High Tower bloggers attack him, and nitpick his theology.

  20. I am 39.

    Love to hear the story!

    Thanks Fr!

  21. Michael: Damn, I remember 39, I think? lol I would take 49 again! But, ya get what God gives, and I am happy for the Lord’s good grace and providence in my life! I am competing and running the race and fighting ‘the good fight’. Thankfully that IS “biblical theology”!

  22. Fr. I would have guessed 57 for u.

  23. Michael: Even 57 would be good again! But I am 62, and all of my pic’s are recent. My wife is younger, and a beauty! Funny with men we look first on the outside, and now some women too, but if there is nothing going on inside, there is trouble. My wife and I are best friends, and equals, but I am sort of old school. But, my wife might be even more conservative than I am, and she used to own her own company. She is a smart lady.

  24. Have you been over to Oden’s blog where he has a post about the day he had to pacify some nutcase stalker?

  25. Haha. I wish he had a blog. Then I would a known how to contact him other than going to his house!

  26. Michael,
    I read a quote long ago that I can’t remember the source which I often quote in situations like this;

    “it is better to be awkward in love than skillful in deceit.”

    >I thought seriously about hugging him and saying something >stupid like “May the Lord bless you for the work you do for the >kingdom.” I kept revising the wording of my benediction so many >times in my mind that, thankfully, it was too late and awkward for >me to either try to hug or give the benediction. (I was stuck on >the word “kingdom” for some reason.)

    >Who was I to bless him anyway?
    Only another member of the Body of Christ. ;)

  27. That’s fun Michael. Way to make the ask.

  28. Truth Unites... and Divides December 31, 2011 at 3:40 pm

    @CMP, #22,

    Here are edited excerpts of the story:

    “Last year John Piper (my favorite super hero) was preaching at the Rezolution Conference. The mediator for the pastors’ Q&A was a friend of mine and smuggled my spring-loaded question into the line-up. I asked Dr Piper to comment on how much a preacher should take culture into account when trying to reach his contemporaries. I pitted John “I’ve never used an iPod” MacArthur on one side of the debate—the gospel transcends culture. In the other corner I put Mark Driscoll. But Piper saw what I was up to with his x-ray discernment. Nuts.

    I was hoping for some explanation of why Piper puts up with Mark Driscoll’s overemphasis on cultural relevance. Is it really necessary to be that culturally relevant? My years at Grace Community Church had proven to me that John MacArthur’s intellectual style managed to appeal to poor Filipino immigrants and Mexican laborers as much as it did to LA’s intelligencia. They came for the preaching, not the orchestra.

    My question was a thinly veiled attempt to tease out some Piper-esque wisdom on this potentially spicy topic. He leaped over my trap with a single bound. His underwhelming answer was decaffeinated of all controversy. No passionate gesticulating, no mention of potty-mouth preaching, in short nothing to Tweet. So I did what every seminoid who can’t take a hint would do: I got in line after the session and asked him to elaborate.

    The guy before me was in no hurry. While he was basking in his mono-a-mono moment with his hero, I formulated my follow-up question like an angler selecting which fly would best dress his hook. By now the blubbering about how Piper had changed his life was getting really teary; and not in a poignant lady weeping on Jesus’ feet way, but more like grown men who cry that much should have-their-own-tissues-handy way. Piper in avuncular tones and kind words interrupted the guy with a bear hug which was either really gracious, or a sneaky technique he had mastered to muffle weepy fawning. Anyway, when he was done I knew Piper would not revel in another public display of affection which would wet his other shoulder, so I skipped the homage and presented my question again, this time specifically mentioning his highly publicized discipleship of Driscoll. He ignored my bait (wily old guy) but he did launch into a vintage Piper sermonette on why my question was dumb.

    In front of all the other pastors who were waiting in line, all taking mental notes of tacks not to take with Piper, he proceeded to explain in an unrestrained snarkiness that anyone asking the question was naïve to how inextricable culture is from preaching. That’s when it happened. He touched my chin. I don’t mean because I had inadvertently leaned into his personal preaching space. I mean he reached out and placed 2 fingers on my soul patch, as if to prove the answer was right under my nose all along.

    Grabbing the closest visual aid he could, he declared in a stentorian voice that I’m sure could be heard by everyone in the room, “This looks ridiculous.” The giggles from the bystanders drowned out his softening explanation: “On me it would never work, but on you, as part of the whole package, it works great.” He then went on to say that because every preacher is himself inevitably a product of the culture from which he comes, there is no need to try to be relevant or use artificial additives to make one’s ministry seem more relevant. So according to the expert, trying to redeem the basest elements of our increasingly lowbrow culture is not really necessary in order to be missional. Interesting.

    You are what you eat. There is no need to try be culturally relevant. Just preach and be yourself. You and your sermons will naturally reflect the culture adequately to reach your people.

    You don’t see fish talking about water, as it were. Culture is the tank in which we swim. Stop trying to focus on the medium and just spout out the message. God takes care of the rest.

    So there you have it. John Piper touched my chin and made his point in doing so. In my culture it’s not appropriate for a man to touch another’s face. But as part of the Piper package, it works.”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Michael Patton Meets Thomas Oden | Wesleyan Arminian - December 30, 2011

    […] Patton has a fun story about how he met Thomas Oden.  Check it out here. From the post: He is going to think you are a nut. You cannot just walk up to someone’s house […]

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