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Margaret Bendroth

Rogue Scholar

The Groves of Academe

There were a few things that Ginny Brereton couldn't stand: preternaturally clean kitchen counters, rooms without bookcases, absolutely everything about Disney World, and long undisciplined sentences beginning with phrases like "there were." But those were incidental passions. Anyone who knew Ginny remembers her more for what she loved: her wonderful family, trips to hike in the French Alps or to climb in the neighborhood rock gym, music of every type, and books of every description.

Ginny's tragic death last September, the consequence of an early morning fire that destroyed her third-floor apartment, was an immeasurable loss to many people. To me she was a treasured intellectual companion and an irreplaceable friend. We laughed about something every time we talked to each other, no matter whether weeks or only hours had lapsed since our last conversation. For many years, as two independent scholars living mostly on the fringe of the academic establishment, we enjoyed the freedom to pursue ideas just because they were interesting. Together we edited a collection of essays, and wrote grant proposals, book reviews, and a scholarly article. We even dared each other to work through turgid books of postmodern theory, figuring it all out over saag paneer at Indian restaurants near our homes in Cambridge and Brookline, Massachusetts.

Of course, Ginny was not your average bookworm. I can't recall her ever going to a scholarly conference without an extra suitcase of books and a pile of Zagat guides. Many a time she and I ducked out of more serious matters to climb a mountain, find a walking tour, visit museums, search for offbeat restaurants, and of course browse bookshops.

But I'm not the only one who will miss her. Ginny is deservedly known as one of the top scholars of American evangelicalism, the world's leading expert on Bible schools many years before fundamentalists claimed their spot in the scholarly sunshine. Her first book originated as part of a Lilly-funded project, based in Auburn Seminary, on the history of Protestant theological education.1 With encouragement from project director Bob Lynn and the sharp young scholars he had assembled, Ginny developed the paper into a Columbia doctoral dissertation under Lawrence Cremin. She finished it just as Ronald Reagan was about to define a new era in American social history.

Even the most cursory glance at the table of contents, the many pages of footnotes, and the bibliographic essay confirms her zeal for what was then an obscure, and in many ways taboo, subject. Sympathy for conservative Protestants of any type did not run high in scholarly circles during the decade that produced Tammy Faye Bakker and Jerry Falwell. But as a young scholar, Ginny delved deeply into turn-of-the-century fundamentalist lore, with its "gap-men" and "Bible women," sideways statutes on dispensational charts and bitter disputes over the pre- or post-tribulation rapture. She traced the careers of eccentric and unglamorous people with the care more normally reserved for theologians and seminary presidents.

Ginny also wrote a book about conversion, taking on almost two centuries' worth of personal accounts by women who were deeplysometimes deservedlyobscure.2 But near the end, New England maidens seeking salvation from novel-reading and gossip give way to a rag-tag group of women on the path of personal transformation: cowgirl sidekick Dale Evans Rogers, Manson disciple Susan Atkins, writer Eugenia Price, and, of course, Marabel Morgan, the woman who made Saran Wrap famous.

A staple of evangelical bookshelves a few decades ago, these stories rarely received serious scholarly treatment. Ginny did not, however, let respectability stand in the way of inquiry. In fact, she finished the book with yet another unlikely turn, a chapter on modern conversion narratives composed of feminist epiphanies and lesbian "coming out" stories.

Few of Ginny's readers, or even her colleagues, knew how unlikely these scholarly interests were. Raised in a nominally Protestant, middle-class New England family, she was in many ways a thoroughly secular person, to whom Ruth Bell Graham and the Moody Bible Institute were no less exotic than Starhawk or a Buddhist temple in a third-floor San Francisco walkup. I'm only exaggerating a little bit here: unlike many of the scholars who write about American evangelicals and fundamentalists, she had no memories of a traumatic hell-fire sermon or an overbearing Sunday school teacher to exorcise. Simply put, Ginny found religionand all kinds of religious peopleprofoundly interesting.

That honest curiosity is worth pondering these days, when scholars and pundits are working overtime to define the depths of our religious polarization. We hear endlessly about red and blue, liberal and conservative. Consciously or unconsciously, many scholars of American religion have, like myself, found themselves reifying these differences, working through the taxonomy of fundamentalists, Pentecostals, holiness, and evangelical Protestants for a confused reporter staving off a deadline on the other end of the phone line.

Nor is the academy itself immune to polarization. Recently, some evangelical scholars have grown bold and articulate enough to mount protestssometimes in these pagesagainst the offhanded, sometimes inordinately hostile treatment they have received in the secular academy. These charges are certainly true enough, and perhaps long overdue, but they shouldn't eliminate the possibility that the seemingly solid rank of secular scholars might contain a wonderful friend, perhaps even an ally.

The danger is that all of those unending arguments about what distinguishes an evangelical from a mainliner or a fundamentalist from a Pentecostal obscure the remarkable fact of our common human experience. Sometimes against all odds, all kinds of people find ways to change, to become better, stronger, kinder human beings. That is the fundamental mystery of every religious tradition, whether fundamentalist or Shaker, Mormon or theosophist, Buddhist or Congregationalist. And sometimes it takes the genuine empathy of a noncombatant like Ginny to bring us back from the barricades toward a sense of perspective.

For many years, I kept a file simply entitled "Ginny musings." I'd thumb through it from time to time when I had written myself down a blind alley or simply run out of ideas. She had a wonderful habit of nurturing budding thoughts on paper and passing them along to me in neat, often footnoted, first-person paragraphs. To my mild frustration, she finished them less often, especially as rock climbing began to absorb her time and energy.

Words like "eclectic" do not even begin to describe this scholarly trail. When I first met Ginny, she was reading soldiers' memoirs from World War I, mining them for spiritual content. Just this past summer she was working on a project about the spirituality of mountain climbing, and she told me she had made it through an entire book in French. Along the way she wrote about urban religion, black gospel, and secularization theory, and regularly handed me new novels to read or articles to add to my latest bibliography. She audited a course in "Black Britain" from a colleague at Tufts, where she taught freshman writing courses, and developed a love for a new array of Indian, Caribbean, and African novelists. She co-wrote books about writing with her husband Jack and co-edited one about Protestant women with me. She lived in an apartment absolutely strewn with books covering every subject imaginable, lying together in lopsided piles and packed onto bulging, bursting shelves.

One of the most fundamental injustices of her deathand there are manywas its abruptness. She spent the last hot weeks of August at her family cabin in rural central Massachusetts, frustrated by a broken foot that kept her out of the rock gym and off her bicycle. With help from Jack she would hobble over to the local pond, remove the temporary cast, and swim slowly back and forthanything to keep from just sitting and doing nothing.

How could anyone not mourn the loss of a person like that? Ginny's life argues back against the simplistic dichotomies so easily imposed on the complex legacy of religion in this country. It encourages us to stay curious and in love with the world, to keep learning something new even when the act becomes an effort, up through the last possible moment.

Margaret Bendroth is executive director of the American Congregational Association in Boston, Massachusetts.

1. Virginia Lieson Brereton, Training God's Army: The American Bible School, 1880-1940 (Indiana Univ. Press, 1990).

2. From Sin to Salvation: Stories of Women's Conversions, 1800 to the Present (Indiana Univ. Press, 1991).

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