Winter 2008
Home work
9 things to do at TCU in '09
Alma Matters
Memīries Sweet
Riff Ram
Back Cover
Comrades True
Back Issues

TCU Magazine "Academe"
Articles:  Clinton's class | Meandering | Message in a bottle | "Dr. Lorenzo" | Ross . . . Robyn Ross

That old-time religion

Religion Prof. Ron Flowers took home the University's highest teaching award this fall because, as one student put it, he brings "trust, vulnerability and open communication" to his classes, not because he has to, but because it's who he is.

By Nancy Bartosek

STRONG WHITE lines spell "Buddha" on the green board, an emphatic arrow hanging over the word focuses attention on the "h."

"Notice the 'h,' " says the chalk holder, a snowy-haired gentleman whose clear and sturdy voice belies the 33 years this coat-and-tie-clad academician and pastor has tackled the two conversational forbiddens -- religion and politics.

"It is to be noted that all educated persons put the 'h' in Buddha," he tells the students. Today's lesson is much deeper than this almost elementary exercise. But gently illuminating the sometimes-not-so-obvious but oh-so-important points is one of Religion Prof. Ron Flowers' hallmarks of excellence -- and a big reason why Flowers received the 1998 Chancellor's Award for Distinguished Teaching, the highest honor TCU grants its top faculty.

The $20,000 honor flabbergasted the popular teacher and nationally known expert on Constitutional church and state issues so much that he was unable to address the hundreds gathered at Fall Convocation when the award was announced.

"I don't know what I do that grabs people," he said later, sitting in his bright blue office, the one many have come to know as a welcoming place of wisdom. "All I know is that I try to do what I do the best I can. And whatever enthusiasm I might convey about the task at hand is contagious at least to some people. Technique-wise, I don't have any magic explanation of it."

According to conventional wisdom, Flowers shouldn't be so effective. Relying on straight lecture for most of his classes, referring to yellowed, patched-together wall maps, he should be putting students to sleep.

Instead, Flowers is imbuing in yet another generation the beauty and depth of religious worship around the world.

"I think what I want to impart is the idea that religion deserves the same kind of hard-headed attention and analysis that other academic disciplines deserve," he said. "Or to say it differently, an unexamined faith is likely to be a weak faith."

Interestingly enough, students who spent as many as four years with Flowers exploring religion and its place in their own lives seldom have a clue about his. Steve Green, legal director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State in Washington, D.C., (a national organization Flowers is heavily involved with), "blames" Flowers for "what I do and what I am."

"It's hard for anyone to have a discussion on religion without revealing their own ideological bent," he said. "But it wasn't until years later that I understood where he stood on this issue."

Despite growing up in a Tulsa, Okla., home where "the church was taken seriously," Flowers' decision while at TCU to join the ministry came as a surprise to his family, and to himself.

"I can't say I had any great conversion experience or climactic call or anything; it just seemed to be the thing I wanted to do with my life," he said.

After earning two degrees from Vanderbilt University and subsequently spending two years as a Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) minister in Kentucky, Flowers realized he wanted his service to move beyond the pulpit. By 1964 he was at the University of Iowa working on a PhD. He credits two TCU professors, George Fowler, now deceased, and Ambrose Edens, who still teaches here, for influencing that decision.

"I saw these people as fascinating folks doing something they liked to do," he said. "And early on I conceived teaching as ministry also. So when I decided to leave the pastorate, I didn't think I was giving up the ministry."

Flowers understands that, to some, teaching a student about Islam or Buddhism isn't exactly consistent with a traditional Christian view of ministry.

"I think it is in the sense that I help students understand that although not all people believe the same way, religion is concerned with the issue of trying to deal with the conditions of human frailty and human aspirations. Buddhists do that in their own way, the same as Christians do or Hindus do," he said. "So I define ministry here broadly, but nonetheless I have always thought of what I do here at TCU as being in that category."

Preaching. Teaching. Only difference is a couple of letters. Or maybe only the type of seats the congregation sits in.

When former student Patrice Wheeler '84 was in a near-fatal auto accident, doctors told her she would never be able to learn again. But Flowers came to visit, and when she finally headed back to school, her first seat was in one of Flowers' desks.

"He took a personal interest in reacquainting me with academia," she said. "He shared his time, interest and patience in helping motivate me to continue my education." Wheeler went on to complete a graduate education and is now a speech instructor at Tarrant County Junior College. "While I was merely a research assistant and asked to teach a course, I was advised to emulate my best instructor," she said. "For me that is and will always be Dr. Flowers."

If caring and enthusiasm are the magic in his teaching, organization and clarity of presentation are his deck of cards. It starts with a brief outline scratched on the board, a road map for the lesson, and usually ends with some cliff-hanging comment about what's to come.

While recognizing an instructor for his methodical and organized teaching style may not sound very inspiring, his students all agree there's real value in knowing where you're going.

Recent graduate Matthew Rosine '98 said Flowers' natural storytelling quality "engages my attention and stirs within my mind images and inner dialogue.

"I love to hear him tell about frontier preachers like Charles Finney and Barton Stone, while watching his eyes grow wide and hearing his voice thunder like a tree-stump revivalist," he said.

Flowers just laughs at such praise. "Teaching is an unpredictable enterprise," he said. "Although I always know what I'm going to do when I go to class, I never know how people are going to receive it."

Maybe that's what keeps him going, waiting to see which students will light up when a concept moves out of their notes and into their lives.

"Education is a dangerous thing. It will always challenge you to learn, grow and change." Those words are permanently stamped in Christopher Rose's mind. They are parting advice Flowers offered the religion senior (one of those who lit up) each time he left the "master teacher's" office. It was there that Rose was encouraged to explore "religion as an expression of the human experience."

"These words reflect the character and compassion of a teacher who has been thoroughly committed to enhancing my study and enriching my life," Rose said. Many have come to know themselves better as they sat in that wise blue office, the one brimming with books and mementos. And on a recent day, a rather ghoulish green head with a transparent skull, on loan from his son. Shake it and bats flit about the brain.

The odd treasure tickles the likable professor who doesn't take himself too seriously. Which may be why the students do. Rosine says Flowers was always willing to talk about life and his own human trials and foibles.

But, he adds, Flowers doesn't do that in order to be a concerned educator.

"He does that because he is Ron Flowers, and there is no other way for him to teach."