The thoughtful believer and The Bad Waitress
English professor Marion Larson reflects on growing up as a pastor’s kid and how it impacts her classroom discussions on interfaith dialogue.
By Emma Eidsvoog
English professor Marion Larson opened the book Absalom, Absalom in her first college class, and was utterly confused. Complete with tense and narrator changes throughout, William Faulkner’s novel stumped the new Wheaton College undergrad. After a few more reads she began to appreciate the message beneath the pages, that everyone gives a different account of the same story. Through this book and church history courses, she became fascinated with the perspectives of people different from her and her evangelical upbringing.
Marion Larson’s father spoke on the pulpit every Sunday at Church of the Saviour in Wayne, Pa., a suburb of Philadelphia. Her mother memorized bible verses on notecards while waiting in the car for Larson to get done at the orthodontist or field hockey games. Larson was tightly knit into the faith story of her parents, who became Christians at a Billy Graham crusade.
Her senior year of high school, Larson read many novels by Thomas Hardy, such as Tess of the d’Urbervilles, an author whose characters “don’t see much hope that there’s anything beyond us in the universe.” Her parents encouraged her to explore readings from non-Christians with “the hope that it would make her a more thoughtful believer.”
Jamie Hudalla, a Bethel student in Larson’s class The Plot Thickens says, “all of the books that Marion assigns for her class are faith oriented. In Jayber Crow, we talked about Jayber’s deep questioning of his faith and how he is really uncertain so he will ask questions like ‘Does God listen to prayers and why would God listen to my prayer instead of somebody else’s and does God have any agency in our lives?’ Marion does not conclude anything, she wants us to explore it for ourselves.”
Larson’s love of books and faith led her to pursue a degree in English with a minor in philosophy when she was in undergrad at Wheaton College in the Chicago suburbs. She continued her education at the University of Minnesota for her doctorate.
Despite the fact that Wheaton only hires Christian professors and admits students who affirm their Christian beliefs. She was surprised with some of her professors’ teachings, as they did not reflect her own at the time. Larson began to realize that not all Christians have the same theological beliefs. Larson’s own beliefs were stretched, when one of her professors required that her class visits five churches from different denominations than their own. This activity was not something she ever did growing up as a pastor’s kid.
From exploring new denominations that semester, Larson saw the beauty in liturgy, which is “a set way of performing certain worship rituals.” She realized the Nicene Creed repeated every Sunday can be quite meaningful, fueling her fascination with belief systems different from her own.
In 1986, after finishing grad school, Larson began teaching at Bethel, where she thought about teaching as an act of hospitality. She and her students might be the guest to a piece of literature, or a host to a literal guest in the class. While researching hospitality as a method of teaching, she came upon Martin Buber, a Jewish philosopher from the early 20th century who wrote I and Thou, a book about relationships with others and with God.
Wanting to know about Martin Buber’s ideas on human connection and spirituality, Larson sought out Bethel philosophy professor Sara Shady, who had written her dissertation on him at the University of South Carolina. Those discussions the beginning of a friendship that has lasted more than 15 years.
Larson ordered the “El Diablo” breakfast sandwich; two eggs with meat and cheese on an English muffin at the Bad Waitress restaurant along Eat Street in South Minneapolis. With large mugs of coffee in front of them, Larson and Shady shared their own teachings and the philosophies of authors, such as Buber and Miroslav Volf.
When former president Barack Obama launched the Interfaith Campus Community Service Challenge in Spring of 2012. Larson, Shady and other professors applied as representatives of Bethel. This began their interfaith work to bring students to campuses with more religious diversity, hosting multicultural discussion on-campus and incorporating interfaith dialogue into their classrooms.
Although they say they’ve received support from President Jay Barnes, Deb Harless and Deb Sullivan-Trainor, some students voiced their concerns about engaging with other faiths. Some asked them questions about dealing with “false teachers, false prophets, or evil-doers.” Shady has found many students believe interfaith engagement should lead to conversion to Christianity. However, she says “one of the ground rules of interfaith engagement is that it’s dialogue but you put conversion off to the side for the purposes of that because of different power dynamics.”
Larson and Shady wish to emphasize the difference between theological and civic pluralism to relieve any apprehension from students. While theological pluralism states that “every path to God is valid and all religions in their own ways are truth,” civic pluralism asks the question “How do we live well together despite different religious beliefs and perspectives?” Larson and Shady hope to bring these resources to students who otherwise don’t interact with other religions.
One day Shady walked into The Bad Waitress, past the mural of the Gold Medal Flour building, and told Larson of a dream she had of co-writing a book on interfaith dialogue.
“I dreamt a book and a starting table of contents and I was like ‘See we can do this’ and we did,” Shady said.
Shady was willing to create the first page of their book. From this point forward, they devised a system to divide and conquer the tasks of writing the 209-page book.
Their book tackles the tension within interfaith dialogue and provides resources to engage in interfaith connections. This is something both Shady and Larson wish to see more of on Bethel’s campus.
“The Bad Waitress is our writing zone,” Shady said referring to the diner, coffee shop, and bar all in one where they shared meals and formed pages and outlines for their book From Bubble to Bridge: Educating Christians for a Multifaith World, which was published by InterVarsity Press in 2017.
Larson hopes for her students to think about their faith as it relates to other religions in her classroom and beyond.
“If you’ve thought through what you believe and why and if you’ve deeply explored potential arguments against what you believe, that, in the end can be instructive, in a good way.”
(Additional reporting by Grace Holst and Katie Young.)