Prelude to a Conversion: How Mary and I Spent Holy Week, 1973

Becoming PZ: My Narrow Escape From Harvard Divinity School

Mockingbird / 5.19.21

Grateful for this series of posts from Paul Zahl:

For me, Holy Week 1973 was a little like the COVID pandemic: It revealed things about people and places that had probably always been there but had not been exposed to the light. Holy Week that year proved to be an exposure, both of good and of ill — mostly of ill — that had to have come from the hand of God.

In January of ’73 I had started a joint degree at Harvard Law School and Harvard Divinity School. The future was open-ended, to say the least. I did have one glowing asset — the affection and support of Mary Cappleman. Mary was an extremely flexible person, at least by my standards, and a very giving one. She was with me whenever she could be, as she had a demanding job at Mass General Hospital. But when she and I were together, I felt far from alone.

The key issue for me was God, and Jesus. Who were They? Or better, who are They? I was on a primary, personal religious search.

Moreover, I was serving as “seminary intern” in Church of Our Saviour, Arlington, MA, just north of Cambridge. It was a small parish, but with a nice inner core of people. The rector seemed tired but was kind to me.

I preached the main service on Palm Sunday, which was an honor. The sermon was pretty pathetic, looking back on it now, but somehow it got the attention of the old Senior Warden. Long dead now, his name was John Fallon. After the sermon — during which I could see that Mary was wearing a bright yellow dress — Mr. Fallon rushed up and said, “Now that is what this church needs. This church needs Jesus Christ.”

One didn’t know what to say — the phrase “Jesus Christ” in regular conversation sounded “Baptist-y” to me, and I was a little embarrassed. Yet the man was totally sincere. His words were in the sharpest contrast to the hopelessness and horizontality of what I was getting at Harvard Divinity School.

So now it’s Good Friday. I attend the noon service at Our Saviour, alone this time, as Mary is working. But we decide to meet up later that evening to go to church in some form or other. I had heard that the HDS theologian Harvey Cox was doing something at Old Cambridge Baptist Church. So I said, ‘Why don’t we try him?’

Well, when we got there, a few minutes late, Harvey Cox had arranged the 25 or so attendees in a circle in the parish hall around a green bottle from which a fragrant candle was burning. Everyone was chanting. It was the absolute hegemony of Om mani padme Hum. I said to Mary, “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” (The Animals, 1965).

But here is how God works. (Something like this may have happened to you.) It turned out that in the main sanctuary of that church they were showing Piero Paolo Pasolini’s 1964 film The Gospel According to St. Matthew. If you know the movie, and you probably do, it is as unvarnished and as literal, and as extremely moving, a life of Christ as has ever been made.

Mary and I were completely transfixed. Occasionally, the rising chants from Harvey Cox & friends would well up through the floor, but most of the time we were watching the core experiences of Christian faith simply falling from heaven. The contrast between the two meetings taking place at the same time within Old Cambridge Baptist Church could not have been more pronounced.

Well, the story’s not over.

Two days later I was pinned against the wall by the soullessness of Harvard Divinity School. Alone, I attended a sunrise Easter service on the roof of Divinity Hall. Krister Stendahl, who was then Dean, preached and conducted the service. He told us that the only trustworthy Resurrection text in the Bible was St. Mark 16:8c: “… and they said nothing to any one, for they were afraid.” Let me repeat that: the famous New Testament scholar Krister Stendahl, one of the founders of the “New Perspective on Paul,” told his congregation on Easter morning 1973 that the Resurrection appearances of Jesus are all “untrustworthy” except Mark 16:8c. And that what Christians need to do and be on Easter morning is be afraid. This really happened.

As if to pour salt in the wound, the rector of Our Saviour, Arlington, said something comparable during the main service there later that Easter morning. (Mary was wearing a black-and-white dress and looked stunning.)

The rector said that his Easter sermon was to be his public announcement that he had recently found the meaning of his ministry for the next phase of his rectorship in Arlington. That meaning lay in a popular new form of therapy known as “Transactional Analysis” (i.e., “I’m OK/You’re OK”). The rector was hoping that the congregation would find joy in joining him during the next half of 1973 and also 1974 as together we would enhance our relationships through that system. This really happened.

Even while sitting there, with Mary, I kept thinking of Peggy Lee and her song from 1970 entitled, “Is That All There Is?” I mean, seriously, here were two back-to-back Christian services on Easter Sunday in which “the hungry sheep look up and are not fed” (Lycidas).

Well, that is how Mary and I spent Holy Week 1973. Thumbs up for Piero Paolo Pasolini; thumbs down for Dean Stendahl, Professor Cox, and the rector of Our Saviour.

No wonder I decided to leave Harvard Divinity School at the end of the term. No wonder I was converted at an evangelistic camp (i.e., FOCUS) exactly two months later.

A contemporary photo of Church of Our Saviour, Arlington, MA

Krister Stendahl, then Dean of Harvard Divinity School