In Memoriam Stephen E. Robinson, 1947-2018

Friend of the blog, historian/theologian Janiece Johnson, was kind enough to offer her thoughts on long-time BYU religion professor Stephen E. Robinson.

[Cross-posted at Maxwell Institute blog]

Believing Christ was published in 1992, though I first read it on my mission. Though not on the approved reading list, my grandma sent it to me in Argentina. It was a critical time for me, no matter how early I got up and how hard I worked, I never felt like I had done “all I could do”—Nephi’s words felt more like a weapon than a balm. Though Robinson himself might have tired of his bicycle parable, it was the first significant turn that Latter-day Saints took toward grace. Many have built on it, but Robinson’s work was the foundation. (Listen to Robinson’s comments from the conference on grace sponsored by the Wheatley Institute for the 25th anniversary of Believing Christ here.) For me personally, it was vital. It was the first time I actually began to recognize that no matter how much I worked, I could not earn God’s grace. I had to choose to receive the gift, and only then could it change me.

I jumped at the opportunity to take a New Testament class from Robinson at BYU after my mission. His class was unlike any religion class I’d had before and asked more of me than any religion class I’d had before. He opened up the complexity and beauty of scripture for me in a way that changed my life. The classic Robinson approach—complete with a smattering of salty language—was a bit unconventional, particularly for BYU Religious Education. As I teach now, I recognize the purposeful calculations that founded his methodology and his personality. The gospel was for everyone; those whose lives outwardly appear perfect need divine help as much as those of us who readily demonstrate our mortal limitations. He helped me recognize that the gospel wasn’t about overt demonstrations of false piety, but about the place of your heart.

I took both halves of the New Testament from him. His classes captivated me more than any other; I wanted to remember everything—I even made flash cards. More important was learning to consider the human creation and limitations of scripture—that they obscured as much as they illuminated and hard work could yield much. One day after a class discussion on those who will manipulate the spirit, I shared the 16-page “love” letter I had just received that did just that with him, and he offered to let the local police chief know just in case—he knew him through “Know Your Religion”.

As the second semester ended, I asked him for a recommendation for a Doctrine and Covenants class. My prior experience with religion classes had not been great. I wasn’t willing to return to active dislike or even indifference. Robinson told me I could take Doctrine and Covenants from him. I took all the classes from him that I could, did research for him as he worked on his Doctrine and Covenants commentary, and later taught for him when he had health difficulties. At Divinity School when my evangelical friends went through faith crises when faith and academia clashed for them, I felt prepared to deal with difficult questions because of what he taught me. I teach the way I do because of him.

Today I sat at the Bodelian Library at Oxford doing research on early Book of Mormon reception when I saw that Robinson died. I really wouldn’t be here (literally or metaphorically) if he hadn’t one day asked if I had ever thought about teaching Mormon History. He started me on a path to recognize that the intellectual and the spiritual did not have to clash. There would be tension, but that they could create a symbiotic relationship. He also helped me recognize that discipleship means sometimes asking hard questions and leaping into the darkness, but it is always worth it. There are a number of Robinson quips that have rung in my memory over the years, but today I’m thinking about his plea to not minimize other’s tragedies with trite words. Those words might help us to make sense of tragedy but do nothing to minimize their pain—even if they are true. “Give them a hug and a kiss at the funeral and then send them a ham a week later so they know that you’re still thinking about them.”

Today I will swear a few extra times for Robinson. And then after I get back, Janet will get a ham.

Comments

  1. Thank you so much for sharing your personal story with Brother Robinson. His book Believing Christ helped me so much! I will always be so grateful to him for writing it. It changed my understanding of Christ, which changed my whole relationship with Him.

  2. Kristine says:

    This is lovely, Janiece. Thank you!

  3. Thank you so much for this amazing tribute to my dad. He has been a truly remarkable teacher. I’m going to miss watching him “bait” brand new RM’s who know everything with questions and then giving them them the depths of the gospel instead of the “primary” answers. I loved how hilarious he was but that he always brought it back around to lovingly teaching – though those of us experienced with his classes knew better than to take the bait. 😂 I’m thrilled every time I hear his legacy is coninuing through those he taught. Thank you for sharing.

  4. Anne Chovies says:

    Makes you wonder how many hams will show up in the weeks after the funeral.

  5. contributor says:

    I too read “Believing in Christ” during a mission in Argentina and found the book helpful in dealing with the same debilitating struggles. My dad was kind and clever enough to xerox a chapter at a time and send them in his letters, helping me not feel guilty about reading books off the approved list. Thank you for your post and the opportunity to reflect on the life of someone who tried to be a disciple of Christ and helped us to refocus on the heavy lifting that grace does for each one of us.

  6. Kevin Barney says:

    Thank you for this. I never met Stephen (our times at BYU did not overlap), but I read and appreciated a number of his books. I particularly enjoyed How Wide the Divide, and I later was able to meet his coauthor, Craig Blomberg, (a true gentleman of a scholar), at a conference at BYU. Anyone who is willing to use salty language in BYU classrooms gets my seal of approval…

  7. Becky Thomas says:

    Janiece, Thank you for your eloquent tribute! I particularly loved your description of the ‘classic Robinson approach’, which was 100% Dad. With him, there was no false pretense; what you saw was what you got, both in public and in private he was the same. Like you, “he helped me recognize that the gospel wasn’t about overt demonstrations of false piety, but about the place of your heart.” I will miss him dearly, but am so grateful to have been his daughter and learned from him all my life. I took for granted that everyone approached the Gospel the way he taught us to, and I’m grateful there are others like you to continue spreading the ‘good news’ in academic as well as devotional forums as he did. Your work during the commentary was invaluable, as you know. Thank you for being his friend and loving him like we do. Best to you at Oxford. Come share some ham, as I’m a little apprehensive of the amount Mom’s going to get! ;)

  8. Kevin Barney says:

    Becky, condolences from all of us for your loss, and thank you for taking the time to add your tribute to him here.

  9. Stephen E Robison changed my religious life at BYU. I took every class I could from his after that first New Testament class. The scriptures came alive and weren’t just text on a page. He taught it like any other class and you weren’t graded on reading for 15 minutes a night or whatever weird benchmark other teachers had. He expected it to be an academic class, as that is how he learned it. I married young, and was struggling with a woman’s role in the church. I had dark questions that I didn’t dare to ask aloud at the time. Specifically about polygamy and why God would be okay with subjugating women so below men in such an institution. At the time, I assumed that polygamy was god’s standard and we were on a break, much like the law of consecration.

    His lesson on polygamy in our D&C class was like a lightening bolt to my soul. He said that God’s standard was monogamy. That the temple emphasized Adam and Eve, when it could show any marriage structure or family that it wanted. It had never occurred to me before that polygamy was an aberration and I am not sure I would have lasted much longer in the LDS church, or even a believer in a just God if it hadn’t been for that lesson that day. The whole lesson was on of many amazing lessons, and I am so grateful for that man.

    He was real, authentic, and knowledgeable.

  10. JJohnson says:

    Mary and Becky- Thanks for sharing your dad with us. Please let your mom know I love her.

  11. Thanks for this beautiful tribute, Janiece. I took Both New Testament classes and Doctrine & Covenants from Steve. He was a wonderful teacher. He knew the material better than anyone and it taught it like a real class, where we were expected to learn the material, not some efy nonsense where we were graded on attendance or keeping a reading journal or something (which is how an embarrassingly high number of the religion classes I took at BYU were graded). He did immeasurably good work in rehabilitating the role of grace in Mormonism and we all owe him a lot.

  12. Thanks, Janiece. I never met Steve but many friends hold him in high esteem. Your tribute gives me some insight into that.

  13. I never met Stephen Robinson either, and I’m not sure if I (or he, for that matter) would characterize his writings (most obviously Believing Christ) as profound theological works, but they were hugely influential in opening up a line of thinking amid popular American Mormonism, a line that brought grace and fallenness and mercy into what was a mostly a uniformly McConkie-ish kind of works-and-obendience-based legalism. The firmness and power of that legalistic perspective is undeniable, I think; certainly it haunts me still, perhaps appropriately so. Yet it just doesn’t, in the end, reflect the Christianity of the Jesus of the Gospels, or of Paul’s epistles, or much else. Robinson expressed proudly and loudly something that desperately needed to be heard among those of us who came of age in the 60s, 70s, and 80s; there were some other general authorities or well-known Mormons that were tip-toeing in that direction (Bruce Hafen’s The Broken Heart, for example), but none so thoroughly broke with the false “all you can do” mentality idea as Robinson did. All praise to him.

  14. Loursat says:

    Stephen Robinson seemed to me an ideal BYU religion professor. There is room for more than one ideal type, but Robinson was one of them. He worked slightly against the grain and showed his colleagues a better way. Thirty years ago the religion faculty was dominated more than it is now by men who had come up as seminary and institute teachers. Most of them had little taste or regard for academic scholarship. (There were a few academics, but they seemed to operate almost undercover. I took a semester of introductory Hebrew from Keith Meservy, who was a delightful, thoughtful man. I think he must have taught that class for the love of it, since that section had only four students, as I remember.)

    Robinson had an academic mind. He had a Ph.D. in Biblical studies, I think. Unlike many BYU teachers at that time, he helped you understand how natural it was to take the scriptures seriously as an academic topic. He was also as warm a lecturer as you could find. He made you feel like you were getting a talk from your favorite uncle. The saltiness was part of that. He was that unusual type of lecturer who was deeply engaging but never seemed to be performing. He had a very rare talent for communicating both in person and in writing.

    The other BYU religion professor whose work legitimized the doctrine of grace in Mormonism is Robert Millet. Millet has been a more prolific writer than Robinson, and I think that Millet also probably worked the church’s political terrain more deftly. I don’t know whether Millet and Robinson intended to team up, but they complemented each other well.

  15. Rexicorn says:

    I took his New Testament class at BYU, and it completely changed my approach to scripture study. Truly an amazing human. He was truly brilliant at cutting away the false narratives we build around the scriptures and just studying the doctrine itself.

    I recall once we were having a class discussion, and he asked, “What if a woman reports abuse to the bishop, and the bishop tells her that she just needs to work harder and be a better wife?” And I shouted out, “Then the bishop is an idiot!” I never had a teacher appear more proud of an answer I gave. “The bishop is an idiot,” he repeated, solemnly. “I like that. Remember that, class.” But really, I was just parroting his example at forcefully denouncing false doctrine.

    Even then his health was failing, but he kept up as much of a teaching schedule as he could. I wish there were more like him out there teaching.

  16. RIP Steve. His family and mine were close. I grew up in the same neighborhood and ward. He brought me perspective to Mormonism that I just didn’t get from the conventional church goers. I took his NT class at BYU and absolutely loved it. He had a much more grace-based view of Mormonism that challenged the oft-held widely-believed legalistic perspective. I grew up a more liberal Mormon because of him and focused more on principle-based living instead of rule-based living.

    I have since moved on from Mormonism and belief in it. But I have great respect for Steve and my heart goes out to his family. Thank you for this wonderful tribute to a great man who helped people in a very uptight conservative part of the Mormon community think more deeply about their religion.

  17. Thanks for this powerful tribute, Janiece.

  18. Kevin Barney says:

    Loursat, just thought you might like to know I took Keith Meservy for Biblical Hebrew in the fall of 1980. A great class; I still use what I learned in that course to this day.

  19. Loursat says:

    Kevin, my time with him was in 1988. I didn’t pursue any more studies of Hebrew, but I learned a lot from Keith Meservy about being careful, unhurried and open-minded in reading the scriptures. And about respecting the text. I hope some of that has stayed with me.

  20. emilyhgeddes says:

    After reading “Believing Christ” and “Following Christ”, I determined that getting into one of Br. Robinson’s classes would be a priority of mine at BYU (in the late 1990s). It wasn’t easy; they were always full. I finally managed to get in to take my New Testament classes from Br. Robinson my senior year and worked for him for a semester or two, mostly sitting in his office a few hours each week to expand the hours that students could come by and look at their tests. We had some great conversations, and I was excited when I talked him into re-writing an exam (actually, he had me re-write it) after I convinced him that it didn’t cover the information he said was most important in class. It was thrilling when he approved of my revisions; the fact that he conversed with me and treated me like a peer with valuable ideas and insights was a great confidence-builder for me.

    His down-to-earth approach to the gospel made it so much more real and do-able, if that makes sense. I have fond memories of him explaining how the KJV toned down the impact of language – for one thing, he said, when we read Paul’s words that were translated as “God forbid!”, we should hear a thundering “Hell no!”. My notes from those classes are safely filed away and I used them extensively when I was called as a Gospel Doctrine teacher.

    He also shared a story about a meeting he had to discuss the concept of grace with an apostle he refused to name. They met at a restaurant and Br. Robinson ordered a Coke (I believe, it was some caffeinated beverage). The unnamed apostle responded wistfully, “Oh, that sounds awfully good!” but declined to order one for himself as he didn’t want to scandalize anyone who might see him or cause a crisis of faith. Br. Robinson used that story to lead into a discussion of the misunderstandings perpetuated by what he considered to be an inaccurate translation of the verse regarding “avoiding the appearance of evil”.

    I can’t read the New Testament without recalling some insight he shared. I’m deeply grateful that our lives intersected.

  21. Masanori Iwamoto says:

    It is sad to hear Br.Robinson has passed away. I just recently know his book Believing Christ and Following Christ also. I’d like to say my sincere thank you for he has published these books which surely lighten burdens on my shoulder, my heart and gave me a totally new insight to my way to live with Him. Since I am same age with Br.Robinson so that just can’t believe he has passed away. From Osaka, Japan

  22. Mike Donnell says:

    I am an adult convert of 25 years now out in the hinterlands (not in the mountain west). I never went to BYU and never met Stephen Robinson. A few years after I joined a friend recommended “Believing Christ”. I loved that book, he presented the doctrine of Grace better than I had ever heard it in the LDS Church (or any other Church for that matter). I have bought and given away a number of copies of that book and used some quotes from his books in some classes I have taught. Even though I never met him in person or took any classes from him, he was a big influence in my life. My condolences to his family.

  23. Kevin Barney says:

    In case anyone needs some background on Emily’s Apostle and the Coke story, the scriptural reference is 1 Thess. 5:22:

    Abstain [146] from all appearance of evil. [147]

    [146] OR keep away from, avoid.

    [147] OR every form of evil. This passage is commonly misunderstood to be saying that we should avoid things that might appear to others to be evil, even if they are in reality not. While perhaps a good principle, that is not what this v. is saying. This mistaken reading is based on a misapprehension of the import of the word “appearance,” which here means simply “occurrence,” not that which superficially seems to be real but is not.

  24. Michael Barnes says:

    We so often build ourselves on the giants we learn from and who came before us. Bro. Robinson was one of my giants. He was the calm port where my mind and heart could rest and find confirmation for my faith and my love of the Savior and the Restored Gospel.

    It is without a doubt that he was beloved by far more people than he, or his family, ever knew. May I never falter from the path he trod and the example he set.

  25. your food allergy is fake says:

    Kevin, thanks for the explanation of 1 Thess 5:22. I did not know that, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. We need more people like Br Robinson teaching us, as a church and not just as BYU students.

  26. Fairchild says:

    I was a freshman in fall 1992 whose course registration paperwork got lost in the mail. So, I was super late signing up for classes and the only Book of Mormon class I could find was a night class. I was not thrilled with this. Little did I know what a treat was in store for me. Brother Robinson taught those of us in that tiny class all the concepts of “Believing Christ” which wasn’t published until a few months later. We heard all the stories from his lips. I didn’t need to read the book. Of course, I did anyway.

    I still think fondly of the principles learned in that class and of his doodles on the chalkboard to teach us about justice and mercy and the Atonement. He kept it real. The only other class I had that transformed me as much was Church History with Susan Easton Black. She was a character and great teacher too.

    My condolences to his family. I hope they know that he touched my life and taught me gospel principles that I had never fully understood before. What a blessing he was to me.

  27. I also took both halves of the New Testament from Dr Robinson. I still have my notes. I have thought of him many times over the past 20 years. He changed the way I approach gospel study and gave me my love of the Bible. He wasn’t just a great teacher – he also genuinely cared about his students. There’s no one quite like him.

  28. Thank You for sharing.

  29. JJohnson says:

    It is lovely to hear all the memories of SER. Thank you all for adding your own stories.

  30. Janiece, a beautiful tribute to a unique teacher of religion at BYU. I had the pleasure of taking both semesters of New Testament during Professor Robinson’s third year at BYU. (While his reputation was building, he had not yet achieved rockstar status.) A good friend pulled me aside one day the semester before and said, “There is this new guy in the religion department and I have never taken a class from anyone like him. He has a PhD in ancient scripture, knows ancient Greek and Aramaic! You have to take him. You’ll love him!” Both my friend and I were what some today might call a little snarky and we wanted more from our religion classes.

    Then I took Professor Robinson’s class. Not only did he appeal to me intellectually from day one, I quickly realized that beyond the wry expressions or the traps he would lay (“Everyone knows Jesus drank grape juice and not wine, right?” Wait for it…Snap!), he started to change how I thought about my faith and how I understood my religion on a fundamental level. His teaching helped me to let go of my own rural-born, Mormon religious conservatism and opened my mind; he softened me as I started to rewire all of my assumptions about the Atonement.

    I too took both semesters of New Testament and D&C from Dr. Robinson. I read his book, Are Mormons Christians, on my mission. I first heard the parable of the bicycle during my first course with him. When he published Believing Christ, I was thrilled and bought it the moment it hit the shelf.

    Ironically, he and Eugene England influenced how I understand my faith, Mormonism and myself perhaps more than any two others at the time. Robinson was my sense and England my sensibility. I treasured the courses I took from both. While they lined up opposite each other a few times on the op-ed page in the Daily Universe, I loved them equally.

    My wife took Dr. Robinson for New Testament as well and over the years we have talked often about what we learned from him. It was a golden time to take these courses at BYU.

    My wife and I have been sad today. We are full of gratitude for his influence on us and hope his legacy endures.

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