September 5, 2019
Wheaton College welcomes Dr. Thomas L. Martin, who is serving the College as a Professor of English and Department Chair of English.
Name: Thomas L. Martin
Ph.D., English Literature, Purdue University
B.A., Philosophy and Classical Languages, Florida State University
What was your favorite class in college?
My favorite courses were my language classes—English, Greek, Latin, German, French language and literature. It was not until college that the world of language opened up to me. To that point, I suppose I had a utilitarian view of language. Phrases like “pass the salt” got the job done, and that was it. But with language—English especially since it is the most assimilative language the world has ever known and incorporates these other languages—it was as if I could hear armies marching in its past. There was the Norman Conquest in my Chaucer. There were philosophical debates back even further. Plato’s and Aristotle’s differences make their way into Medieval Christian Europe and undergo various treatments over time until we get words like comprehend and understand. Think of the choice between the two: when we know something, do we seize it and more or less have control and the final word on it? Or do we come with humility realizing that we are under a great world of complexity given us by the mind of our endless Creator? While the -hendere part of one word means to seize, the word understanden puts us right in the middle of things, just as the word knowledge comes from a word that means “acknowledgment of a superior, honor, worship.” Is knowledge control or worship? What a great question! People and places started climbing out of the page and forming into events and debates in my head as never before.
Before Wheaton, what were you doing?
I was Professor of English at Florida Atlantic University for the last twenty years. My areas are Renaissance (mainly Spenser, Shakespeare, and Milton); literary theory and the history of criticism; fantasy and science fiction studies; and the Bible as literature. Before that, I taught in the English Department at Wheaton College. That started my career. I learned so much from my colleagues at Wheaton in those years, and ever since I have tried to bring that Wheaton educational experience to my students. It is a joy and an honor to return now on the other side of my career to plug in what I learned at the research university to our liberal arts context to give students all they need to flourish in both secular and Christian settings.
What big question are you trying to answer through your work?
As an undergraduate, I was always looking for the ultimate apologetic. In what ways do we most effectively convey the gospel? To what extent do we persuade and to what extend simply present the claims of Christ to a needy world that doesn’t always want to listen? How do we communicate all the glorious things our Redeemer has done to a world for whom he died? I am still obsessed with the question. While we carry our “spiritual treasure in common clay pots,” we are to adorn our witness, first, with our character. Love, Francis Schaeffer once said, is the greatest apologetic. But then we have this incredibly rich verbal message of God’s love in redemption. I have found that he has conveyed that message in living story and the poem of a life in Immanuel. How do we carry the weight of that message in fresh and compelling ways in our day? I am fascinated with how the Inklings and writers like Lewis and Tolkien found ways to gather up the lessons of all past literatures to produce powerful re-envisionings—re-imaginings—of our faith to address the issues in their day. In the spring, I am teaching a class called “Literary Apologetics.” Through this class and throughout our curriculum, I want to challenge Wheaton students to find fresh ways to carry that message into the world.
What’s one interesting or intriguing thing that you have learned recently?
I love how one can read the Scriptures all life-long and still see new things in its pages. As part of a recent book I just finished writing that is devoted to the life of Christ, I saw that the Levitical law mandated only the high priest to bring the sacrifice into the temple. Then I saw in the gospels when Pilate says “your chief priests handed you over to me”—the bloody and beaten Jesus bound and brought before him—they were fulfilling an important part of that pattern established long before. The literary life of Christ I wrote gathers up the rich insights God opened up to me in my study. The more I dug into the story, the more I saw how every detail of the life of Christ carried eternal significance that resonated with the rest of Scripture. How profound is this message of redemptive love God spoke “in the face of all nations.”
Do you get butterflies the night before the first day of school?
I do. I always have. I always thought I was the only one. When I read as a young college student that Billy Graham got butterflies before speaking to crowds of tens of thousands (in one case in South Korea in 1973, over a million!), I realized that others who served God had the same experience. As I recall, he said the feeling just gave him a heightened awareness of what he was about to do and made him rely on God’s help that much more. That gave me confidence to know that when we step out in faith to do God’s work, he will show up.
What would you have liked to tell the freshman version of yourself about going to college?
There is a big difference between the acorn and the oak. What you are now is nothing compared to what you will be. God is working in the lives of his people in all kinds of ways you can’t see in the immediacy of the present moment. When I was unpacking my office several weeks ago as we were settling here in Wheaton, my old journal fell out of a box. I opened it and turned to a page in which I wrote, “I feel like there is no place for me in the academic world. It certainly could go on happily without me.” I had no confidence in what I was doing and was frustrated by the pedantry of my professors, who treated great life issues as if they were logical parlor games. Little did I know that God was calling me to the academy to be an alternative. Be patient with what God is doing in your life! He has called you here to study. Make the most of that. Let him do his full work to form you into the person you are becoming. Wait on him. He will make all things beautiful in their time.
When you’re not teaching or researching, what do you like to do?
Writing! I was going to say teaching and researching, simply because my work is my play. I love what I do. I would encourage students to find out what they love to do, what God made them to do, what they can do to the glory of God, and do that with all their might. I love writing because, as one writer said, I never think better than with a pencil in my hand. It does my spade work, my prospecting, my warring, my peace-making, my bonding, and my worshipping.
Read more about Wheaton College's English Department here.