Wednesday, July 17, 2024

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Joe's Neighborhood

Why a religion major?


I sat in the back of Macbride Hall for a reason. I wanted to be invisible. I wanted to slink in early unseen and slink out in the crowd unnoticed. As a result, even the last row of this large auditorium was too close to the stage for me. So, I sat in the back of the balcony located at the back of the auditorium. Hundreds of students were a buffer between me and the teacher. Just as I liked. One anonymous face lost in the haystack of 18- and 19-year-old students. 

Hiding made sense, of course, because a madman ran the class. Thin, wiry, aggressive. A dangerous man. Equal parts circus master and brilliant teacher. He prowled and shouted and laughed and whispered, trying to engage us. He wanted us to think — about right and wrong, what is a meaningful life, examine our unexamined beliefs, and, of course, how to think about death and dying. It was exhilarating and terrifying. I was mesmerized. 

“You pay your money and make your choice,” as he liked to say. So buckle up. 

“Joe, good job.” 

Jay Holstein, a religion professor at the University of Iowa, handed me my graded test after I waited in the long line of students at the end of class.

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Aargh… busted. Anonymity gone. Nailed. The madman had my number. 

So I became a religion major. An unbeliever for sure, but a religion major. I took every course Holstein had to offer and then some he made up. It was heaven. He was heaven. Sure, law school, marriage, children, a career as a prosecutor, and now a writer for CITYVIEW, all followed. But my religion studies with Jay Holstein… that was the beginning. 

Now, 50 years later … 

“I am the only tenure-track professor in the Drake religion program. I have been at Drake for 17 years.”

Brad Crowell, weary-eyed from final exams grading, and perhaps weary from fighting to save his job, gives a small smile.

So, Brad, what’s all the hullabaloo about Drake shutting down the religion program?

Brad sighs. “For a university to stay afloat, where the number of students is getting smaller and state funding is diminishing, then the variable that often gets cut is the professors.”

Sure, sure, sure. I get it. Not enough students to justify your job. Not enough bang for the buck. The numbers never lie. 

“No, religion didn’t have the numbers.” Brad pauses and then looks me in the eye. “But listen, are we training people to just get jobs? We also want our students’ world to get really big.”

What do you mean?

“Students are asked today, ‘What do you want to do when you finish?’ I ask students, ‘What do you want to explore while you’re here?’ ”

So what do you do now?

“Well, the program is gone. The minor is going to exist. I’ll be teaching classes that will qualify for the minor out of another department.”

It sounds like a death knell.

“I will run with the minor. Programs can be rebuilt. I think we can make the minor so good, Drake will stay with that. I still want important issues to be highlighted.”  

So, there you have it. A man teaching our kids about the big questions.

What big questions, you ask? Let me give you a few examples.

In my role as a prosecutor, I stood outside the two-story house in the dark of the early morning. A young man was dead. The police mulled around doing their police thing. I prepared a search warrant after seeing the body. The young man’s father was at my side. He was in deep anguish. “Why my boy?” he said to me in tears. “Why my boy?”

My new wife looked at me and said we should practice law part-time so that we would have time for family and other priorities. Really? But what about the money? And what about our reputation as lawyers because they say part-time lawyers aren’t real lawyers? And nobody will hire us both part-time, will they? What should we do?

I lay paralyzed in the hospital. Struck by a car while I biked. I had a trach and various other attachments to a body that was no longer mine. Pain was my new friend. And I was informed it was going to be a long rehab with no promises. How do I climb out of this?

Religion courses talk about the big questions. Not biology. Not computer science. And not business. Religion. 

“You pay your money and make your choice,” said Jay Holstein, my religion professor those many years ago.

Amen to that.

Joe Weeg spent 31 years bumping around this town as a prosecutor for the Polk County Attorney’s Office. Now retired, he writes about the frequently overlooked people, places and events in Des Moines on his blog:

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