Not so long ago, there was a boy who lived with three cousins and four siblings in a three-story house. The attic was converted into a large bedroom where they slept and played and wondered about things larger than themselves. In that house the boy learned about God, about love, divorce, violence and, much later, reconciliation. There he began his quest for truth that would lead him around the world and finally to a life-altering experience at a place not so far from where he began.
So goes the story of Jerry Camery-Hoggatt '75, professor of New Testament and narrative theology for nearly 30 years, and 3-year chair of VU's religion division, 1-year Director of VU's Grad Programs in Religion. Camery-Hoggatt has sterling academic credentials, but he is also a riveting storyteller, a published author of scholarly monographs, commentaries, memoirs and fiction, a performer of story concerts and a pioneering professor who teaches the gospel as odyssey rather than as outline.
"[Universities] package most of what they do in outline form, but most people come to their religious beliefs in story form," Camery-Hoggatt says. "I try to write prose that people who'd never pick up a theology book can read comfortably, that engages them in theological reflection. I use story as a vehicle for achieving that."
Camery-Hoggatt's life is as dramatic as the stories he tells. As a boy, his childhood was overshadowed by his parents' divorce, which left the Pentecostal, church-going family with a shameful stigma. Former church friends crossed the street to avoid them. Camery-Hoggatt was so shaken by this that he began to question God's existence. He posed a theological question to his pastor one Sunday, and the pastor replied, "We're Christians. We don't ask those kinds of questions." Perplexed, Camery-Hoggatt graduated high school and left home, joining Up With People and touring the world. Deep in his heart he was searching for answers.
One Easter Sunday he found himself in an old Russian monastery in Stamford, Conn., attending a midnight mass. There, seated among the immigrants who whispered to one another in their native tongue, Camery-Hoggatt witnessed a scene of reconciliation that stirred his soul. At that moment he decided he would ask again the question of God. If God did not exist, then nothing mattered; if God did exist, then nothing else mattered in quite the same way, he thought.
He returned from touring and took his spiritual journey to Vanguard, where he says he was welcomed despite his spiritual doubts. Wary and questioning, he attended a prayer meeting one Wednesday night in the old Coat of Arms room above the gymnasium, and when the Communion elements came by, he refused them. He didn't want to be a hypocrite. Then something strange happened: The fellow sitting next to him put an arm around his shoulder, pulled him close and began to cry. "I feel how lost you are," the fellow said, "and I'll pray that God will find you and take you home to him." At that moment, Camery-Hoggatt had an epiphany: if that person could care that much for him, God could, too. He stood up, walked to the front of the room, took a paper cup and the almost-empty pitcher of grape juice, walked back to his seat and said, "Pour this for me."
"At that moment I knew I had become a Christian and would be a Christian for the rest of my life," he says, weeping at the recollection.
He also found his professional home at Vanguard. That very semester he discovered biblical studies under Dr. Russ Spittler and Dr. William Williams, and the subject was "a hole into which I fell and I never climbed out," he says. He abandoned pre-med and threw himself into study of the New Testament.
"What captured me was the discovery that these books were written by real people who had real stories to tell and were wrestling with real life issues," he says. "It was a great release, because I'd been handed a view of the Bible that was divorced from real life; that it was a theoretical and abstract book, that it could be applied to real life but had not originated in real life. Now I saw it as a real book that came out of real human experience. I found it immensely rich."
His journey took him to Gordon-Conwell Seminary, where he earned a master's degree, and Boston University where he earned a Ph.D. in early Christian origins. He studied with Amos Wilder, older brother of playwright Thornton Wilder, and wrote his dissertation on the use of irony as a narrative strategy in the gospel of Mark.
Today, he mainly writes stories instead of technical theology.
"People respond to a story in a fundamentally different way than they respond to an outline," he says. "There are dimensions of reality that cannot be captured in an outline but can be in a story. So there's an automatic disconnect between our formal education and the daily life of the church. Most pastors never learn how to bridge back in the other direction. An effective minister has to be bi-lingual and communicate in both modes."
Camery-Hoggatt turned his own childhood experiences into stories that eventually became a book, My Mother Was Eleven Foot Four: A Christmas Memory (Revell). It tells of his growing up in a house with eight children an great tension; of his father's violence and his parents' divorce, and his mother's coming to terms with that. The story was re-issued as the first of three stories in Giver of Gifts. A children's picturebook version of this story was also published by Revell.
The most recent Christmas story is not based on his life, but is written in the 1st person narrative voice of a fictional 17-year-old girl--My Mother's Wish (Waterbrook Press). He has written other books, notably Reading the Good Book Well: A Guide to Biblical Interpretation (Abingdon Press), Irony in Mark's Gospel (Cambridge University Press), Grapevine: A Spirituality of Gossip (Herald Press), Speaking of God: Reading and Preaching the Word of God (currently available in paperback form from Wipf and Stock Publishers). He also wrote a commentary on Mark for Zondervan, and a book on interpretive method for Hendricksen. He's excited about his newest projects, one of which is a novel built around the gospel of Mark, another is a digital resource for working with the Bible, and one of this is a church history written for college freshmen and church laity.
Vanguard changed his life in other ways as well: He met and courted Shaleen '75, his wife. All three of their adult children have followed Jerry's footsteps and attended Gordon College or Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary before going on to additional theological studies and parish ministry.
The most rewarding surprise in his career has been his relationships with students, he says. His office is adorned by mementos from students -- a wax cross, a glass tin, a cigar given to him as thanks for mentoring a friend through a doctoral program at McCormick Seminary. On a special stand he has the pulpit Bible that once belonged to the pastor of the church his family attended when he was six years old.
"These mementos move me very deeply," he says. "This is the core of teaching, and it's why I do what I do. There are moments in which people are ripe for hearing some particular truth. Maybe nobody else in the room is. If you connect with them at that moment, it can be transforming, but you can't plan that into a curriculum. You have to respond to the signals. That's what makes teaching so joyful and challenging."
When he sees former students, they almost always comment on the stories he told in class. "They learn what I taught in the class, but they remember the stories," he says.
He hopes to give back what he received from Vanguard during those critical years when he was questioning God.
"At Vanguard I found people who were eagerly probing hard questions, challenging me and respecting where I was on my journey, and I'm profoundly grateful," he says. "Those years were joyful and liberating. I never had to choose between my brain and my heart. The kind of teaching I received is the kind of teacher I wish to be."