Troubleshooter for the Millennium

Suddenly, as the year 2000 approaches, Phillip Arnold's study of first-century apocalyptic Christians is more than a scholarly pursuit

The Reunion Institute may be best known locally for bringing some heavyweight religious scholars to town. Dead Sea Scrolls scholar James Charlesworth drew a crowd of more than 500 to a hotel ballroom in 1994. This autumn, the Institute plans to participate in an archaeological dig in Jerusalem, and Arnold is excited about delving deeper into the historical places where Jesus walked. For him, religion is not a matter of faith or inspiration only, but a subject for intellectual study and historical reasoning, an interesting combination for a man who treasures the true believers, the people who think they've got all the answers.

In addition to offices, classroom and conference rooms, there is a cozy book-lined nook in the old duplex with two wing chairs where Arnold likes to talk. The shelves are filled with a wide range of titles about religion and philosophy, everything from The Nature of Evil, by a Rice University humanities professor of the '30s, to explanations of the Cabala, treatises on St. Paul and do-it-yourself Hebrew. Arnold is not a pastor, for he holds no theological degree. He's more like a deeply sympathetic humanities professor to whom you can talk about the big questions, who will not only point you to books, but open his whole heart. In his lighter moments he enjoys British folk music and playing that pastime of bars and game rooms, air hockey -- a game in which, he says, he's nationally ranked. A pleasant, dark-haired man of 46, he has never married, though he would like to.

"But it would take a special sort of woman," he says, "to tolerate all my interests. Not everyone would enjoy throwing a party and having a Hare Krishna here, an ex-Mormon here, and a Freeman over there and an atheist over here. What a mix! When we have our lectures we get groups like that, and we'll spend a couple of hours talking and having a drink, except the Baptist, who won't drink."

Marriage to Arnold would also require an interest in the big questions, questions such as what does it all mean? why are we here? For Arnold, such questions have become the defining force of his life. Arnold's parents were Southern Baptists, but he grew up attending nondenominational chapels at a series of Air Force bases until he was a teenager and his family settled in San Antonio for several years. He recalls searching the literature of Jehovah's Witnesses and Seventh-day Adventists for answers, and with the encouragement of his parents, enrolled in an East Texas college that promised to help him on his quest for religious knowledge.

Ambassador College in Tyler was the educational arm of Herbert Armstrong's World Wide Church of God, a sect that was, in Arnold's words, part of the left wing of the Reformation. These were the radical reformers such as the Quakers, Amish and the Mennonites, the Anabaptist sects that questioned society and stressed the importance of individual religious experience over received ideas. During the early '70s, the World Wide Church was opposed to compulsory military service, jury duty and capital punishment, says Arnold. Arnold found the church too doctrinaire, but his college experience seems to have sealed his sympathy for the people who shout no to the power of Babylon, who follow a vision of the Eternal.

"No matter what kind of society we form," says Arnold "whether it's a secular society or a Christian society or a diversified society, whatever it is, it will always fall short of the Kingdom. So the person of faith has to walk through this world always aware of the Eternal standing over and against society. That preserves us as individuals from being deceived by society, that its wars are justified or that its customs are supposed to be accepted without question or that its religion is somehow a divinely inspired thing. We are to stand in judgment and question all these things, because Heaven itself or the eternal dimension is always standing over and against this world."

If the Eternal had been Arnold's only way of understanding the world, he might have gone to a seminary. But he was also a believer in reason, and he wanted to understand not just what he thought about things eternal, but how others thought. He decided to study colonial American history at the University of Houston, where he wrote about "these radical left-wing types" such as the Quakers, who criticized Puritan society. Enamored with the beliefs of the Society of Friends, he continued to study their literature and, during the early 1980s, taught at the Quaker seminary situated at the Texas Medical Center while pursuing a doctorate in religion at Rice University.

Arnold's calling came in 1980, two years after the Jonestown disaster in which nearly 200 people in a South American enclave committed suicide on the orders of a charismatic, paranoid preacher named Jim Jones. It was a time of religious upheaval. Shiite radicals in Iran had held Americans hostage for weeks, humiliating the Carter administration. Some prominent American fundamentalist preachers were predicting that a nuclear war in the Middle East might trigger the events of the Book of Revelation, and were suggesting that maybe that was a good idea. Young people were dropping out of college to join Eastern religious sects that had withdrawn from the secular world. Self-appointed "deprogrammers" were kidnapping them and breaking them down to "normality" through humiliating interrogations, usually for a hefty fee from their parents.

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