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McWilliams: Learning and Teaching One Season at a Time

May 21, 2010

Most anyone who has sat through a semester of classroom lectures under Dr. Warren McWilliams can testify to his affinity for the television show M*A*S*H. Broadcast from 1972-83, the show follows a team of doctors and support staff stationed at the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital in South Korea during the Korean War. The series - which ran 251 episodes across a span of 11 seasons - lasted much longer than the actual three-year military conflict.

Not so different is McWilliams' own run at Oklahoma Baptist University, which started as a typical four-year education but has lasted an additional 68 semesters - and is still going strong.

When McWilliams was in high school considering college, OBU was the only school where he applied. Several years and two additional degrees later, McWilliams is a longtime fixture at OBU, serving as Auguie Henry professor of Bible in the School of Christian Service and helping generations of fellow Bison make the most of their University education.

During his years as a student, McWilliams said OBU impacted his life in many ways. A native of Fort Smith, Ark., he met his future wife, Patty, during their freshman year. The couple married a week after graduation.

McWilliams shared campus life experiences which mark the memories of many who have lived and learned on Bison Hill. For TWIRP Week - a week when "The Woman Is Required to Pay" - Patty purchased tickets for them to attend a concert by his favorite music group (at the time). Attending OBU basketball games was a regular activity - and still is - for the couple. The Bison basketball team won the national championship during their college days. Family-style dining for the evening meal at Kerr or Brotherhood dormitories provided a good opportunity to get to know fellow students. And OBU's music groups impressed them.

McWilliams said he was affected by "many excellent professors" as a student. Dr. Coleman Raley was his main professor in his psychology major. He encouraged McWilliams to do an honors project his senior year, which solidified the student's interest in in-depth research. Dr. Gregory Pritchard taught most of the philosophy McWilliams learned at OBU, impressing his student with the challenges of the big questions that Christians must face. Dr. James Timberlake taught many of the religion courses, including two years of Greek.

"I got to know him well when I was the only student in his second year Greek class," McWilliams said.

As the sponsor of Ministerial Alliance, Timberlake worked closely with McWilliams, who was an officer in the organization. He helped McWilliams find places for ministry, such as his interim pastorate of a black Methodist church in Shawnee.

"These three professors, and many others, convinced me that a Christian should strive to integrate his or her Christian faith and the academic disciplines we teach and study," McWilliams said.

It was an off-the-cuff remark from Timberlake - one of his favorite professors - that set a young McWilliams onto a path that would one day lead him back to Bison Hill. Timberlake simply mentioned that McWilliams might consider pursuing a Ph.D. degree someday.

"I had not thought that much about formal education, but the comment was one of many factors that God used to help me broaden my concept of ministry," McWilliams said. "I had come to OBU to study for pastoral ministry, but God gradually led me into teaching as my primary form of ministry."

McWilliams was ordained as a Baptist minister in 1968, the year he graduated from OBU. He continued his education at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he served as a professor's assistant and Garrett Fellow, earning a master of divinity degree in 1971.

He pursued another master's degree and a Ph.D. degree from Vanderbilt University, graduating in 1974. His doctoral dissertation was titled, "Hegel and Transcendence: The Riddle of the Phenomenology." During his years of formal education, he served in a variety of ministry roles in Baptist churches in Oklahoma, Kentucky and Tennessee.

His teaching career began at Stetson University, where he was an assistant professor of religion from 1974-76 and director of the extension division from 1975-76. He also was a visiting professor of Christian philosophy at Southern Seminary in 1976. But then a call came from Bison Hill.

"Although I thoroughly enjoyed my student days at OBU, I had not really considered returning to teach here," he said. "When OBU offered me a position, however, Patty and I quickly decided OBU was the right place for us."

Hired as an assistant professor of religion, he was installed to the Auguie Henry Professorship in Bible in 1980. He was promoted to associate professor in 1982. In 1988, he was named to the Auguie Henry Chair of Bible. He served as chairman of the Department of Religion from 1980-85, and has served three times as interim dean of the School of Christian Service.

McWilliams has worked hard to balance teaching preparations, ministry opportunities and family obligations. Patty worked at the OBU bookstore, eventually serving many years as the bookstore manager. Their daughters both graduated from OBU, Amy in 1993 and Karen in 1998. Amy works as an assistant editor for a science journal, and Karen is an assistant curator at an art museum.

"Now that Patty and I are at the empty nest stage, my concern is more about staying up to date in my teaching fields while trying to write occasionally," McWilliams said. "Teaching theology and ethics, two of my main interests, requires me to teach in an interdisciplinary way. I try to read widely, but there's always more to learn."

An avid writer, McWilliams has published eight books, many on the topics of pain and suffering, and contributed to at least five other books. He has written more than 80 articles and nearly 70 book reviews. He has written extensively for LifeWay Christian Resources, submitting more than 600 Sunday School lessons since 1988.

Also an avid reader, he brings his ever-growing self-education into the classroom. While he doesn't use M*A*S*H illustrations as much these days in his teaching (since many students are less familiar with it), he does mention it occasionally. Originally attracted to the television series by the combination of comedy and drama, McWilliams discovered he could laugh at the humor but be challenged to think about serious issues as well.

"Many of the ethical issues I still treat in my biblical ethics course appear in the series," he said. "Early in my career I explored the relation of theology to popular culture, and M*A*S*H was a prime example of that interest of mine. Across the years I've investigated theological and ethical themes in movies, novels and comic strips."

McWilliams said his own liberal arts education taught him to be a better reader, writer and communicator. Today, he communicates key truths of the Bible in the classroom, in churches and in some of his writings. He's maximizing his own OBU education, one class at a time, one article at a time and one season at a time.

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