A kind, direct word can sometimes make a huge difference in the direction of an image-bearer’s life. Such was surely the case with Tom Oden. By the time Tom arrived at Drew University to teach theology he was a widely published, well-known theologian. He had read widely, and engaged in significant discussions with the likes of Karl Barth, Rudolf Bultmann, and Wolfhart Pannenberg. The trajectory of Tom’s academic career and ministry in the United Methodist Church was on target. Or so it seemed to be by all appearances. Things were soon to change. Tom was soon to meet Will Herberg.

Will Herberg was perhaps the best-known of the Drew University faculty at the time of Tom’s arrival. Like Tom, Herberg had devoted years to advocating Marxist ideology. Herberg backed up his ideas with his actions and joined the Communist Party. For over thirty years Herberg was a mover and shaker in the Communist Party and the labor movement. And then Will took a dramatic turn in the opposite direction, politically and religiously. As Tom explains, Herberg changed from a left-wing advocate to a powerful anticommunist critic, writer, and conservative college circuit lecturer.” In faith, Herberg turned to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. 

Herberg was thirty years Tom’s senior; soon he and Tom became close friends, with many lively conversations and debates ensuing as they enjoyed frequent lunches together. I found him to be intensely loyal to his Jewish tradition,” Tom writes, while being deeply empathic with his Christian students. Though Herberg was not a Christian, he made it possible for me to become one.” Possible to become a Christian? Tom had been involved in seminary teaching, active in the Methodist Church, published numerous books on Christian themes, and yet was not a Christian? What led Tom to such a stark, surprising, indeed, shocking conclusion? A kind, direct conversation with Will Herberg. 

Tom had given Herberg a copy of his newest book, Beyond Revolution, and Herberg was kind enough to read it thoroughly, covering the pages with numerous notes and comments. Tom later received this annotated copy after Herberg’s death and describes it as one of my most prized possessions.” Herberg’s conversations with Tom and reading of Tom’s work finally led to the conversation that was forever to change Tom’s life. 

While engaged in conversation over lunch, my irascible, endearing Jewish friend leaned into my face and told me that I was densely ignorant of Christianity, and he simply couldn’t permit me to throw my life away.” Herberg was only beginning. Holding one finger up, looking straight at me with fury in his eyes, he said, You will remain theologically uneducated until you study carefully Athanasius, Augustine, and Aquinas.’ In his usual gruff voice and brusque speech, he told me I had not yet met the great minds of my own religious tradition.” 

Herberg shared his own faith journey with Tom. Will had gone through a long season of restitution after his erratic days and found it necessary to carefully read the Talmud and the Midrashim to discover who he was. Likewise, he felt that I would have to go to a quiet place and sit at the feet of the great minds of ancient Christianity to discover who I was.” 

How strange. How ironic. How wonderful. A grumpy, wise Jew advising a neophyte theologian to practice the discipline of silence and to read for all he was worth to save his life. Herberg reminded me that I would stand under divine judgment on the last day. He said, If you are ever going to become a credible theologian instead of a know-it-all pundit, you had best restart your life on firmer ground. You are not a theologian except in name only, even if you are paid to be one.’” 

Tom did not argue. He simply listened, and the listening made all the difference. In an instant of recognition, I knew he was right. I knew he had said that because he cared deeply about me. His words burned into my conscience. That was the opening bell that led to a bruising personal dialogue about my self-deceptions. All of its implications were not realized instantly, but my reversal began then and there on that very day, that very moment.” 

The power of a kind, direct word changed everything. Tom knew that Herberg cared deeply” about him. And though the words were loud and tough, an image-bearer was turned toward home.