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Thou shalt not be bored

Dr. Elton Smith's commanding knowledge of the Bible plus his impish and entertaining delivery make the Bible come to life for USF students.

By BILL DURYEA, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 10, 2000

[Times photo: Ken Helle]
At 84, Dr. Elton Smith could retire, but has no desire to do so. When asked by his wife when he would call it quits, he said, “I think at the Second Coming.”
TAMPA -- Toward the end of the school year, toward the end of his career, University of South Florida professor Elton E. Smith opens to a page toward the end of the Bible and begins to speak.

"Rome, like all great cities," he tells his class in a clear but reedy voice, "was a marvelous collection of germs."

It's a witty way of explaining why the Apostle Paul's letter to the church at Phillipi was so many weeks late; his messenger caught a nasty bug in the capital.

The students -- girls in spaghetti strap T-shirts, boys in Teva sandals -- chuckle appreciatively. Other classes, no doubt, have chuckled at the line. Smith has been teaching "The Bible as Literature" at USF virtually uninterrupted since 1961 -- when khakis were in style the first time.

Literary theories come and go -- structuralism and post-structuralism, deconstruction and reconstruction. University presidents move in, they move out (Smith has answered to all 11 at USF; the 12th is on her way.) Students graduate and later enroll their children.

Amid this change, Elton Smith, age 84, endures.

"This is the state of Saint Claude Pepper," Smith says, laughing. "Nobody says anything against longevity here."

He has a commanding nose and an impish smile nestled in his goatee; it's the kind of face that makes a caricaturist's job easy. His white hair sweeps back from his forehead like a wave about to crash on shore. Elton Smith is the embodiment of an old-fashioned oratorical style of teaching that is fading fast in a world numbed by PowerPoint presentations.

Notes from today's lecture:

Paul's letter (to the Philippians) is a Christian love letter. It's as if he was writing to his own family. He says such nice things about them. This is a good thing for you to learn if you are writing letters, especially if you are looking for a job. If you have something nice to say, it's good to put it somewhere prominent.

He lectures without notes, referring occasionally to his 30-year-old King James version for inspiration. His pacing is steady enough that without looking at his watch, he can cover both letters to the Corinthians in exactly 75 minutes. He doesn't need to write anything on the blackboard. When he pronounces the word evil, for example, stretching out the first syllable, it has a way of sticking with you.

"It makes you feel like there's a wily serpent in the room with you," he says.

Smith inherited his flair for the dramatic from his mother, an actor with the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. Christina Conway met Smith's father when she was performing at Yale University, where he was a 15-year-old freshman. The subsequent marriage did not last and Elton was raised by his paternal grandmother in her home on New York's stately Riverside Drive.

The family was nominally Episcopalian, but they lacked conviction. Smith says he had a notion as early as age 7 that he wanted to be a minister. When he was 12 he went looking for a church that would provide a more satisfying religious experience.

He found an American Baptist congregation in New Rochelle and converted. The rest of his family followed, Smith says, but they continued to grouse snootily that Baptists "may be very fine in their beliefs, but they don't know anything about architecture."

The second chapter (of Philippians) includes a great prose poem: the divine condescension. The key word here is kenosis. Jesus emptied himself of his divinity. If you ate a big meal and went on a long car trip and got sick that would be kenosis: emptying out.

Smith studied at the Harvard Divinity School, graduating with a master's degree in sacred theology in 1940. That same year he was ordained as a Baptist minister. In 1956, Smith earned a doctorate in Victorian literature at Syracuse University.

"I've had the great good fortune to make a living teaching and preaching, both of which I would have done absolutely free," Smith says.

He arrived at USF for the second year of classes. The campus in no way resembled the ivied halls of New England where Smith had studied and taught.

"The campus had not a blade of grass," Smith says. "The wind was whipping the sand in our faces. I could grind my teeth and hear it crunch."

"I asked Dr. (John S.) Allen, "Can you tell me where I can get a camel and burnous?' " Smith recalls. "Dr. Allen was a tall, frosty New England type of gentleman. He didn't think that was funny at all."

(The Apostle) James uses a lot of similes. Not like a Valley Girl: "Like it was a nice day, and like I had on my best dress.' The tongue is a very small part of the body and yet it gets you into more trouble than almost anything else. Likewise, James says, the rudder is the smallest part of the ship, but it guides the ship as the tongue guides the body.

There were five buildings and fewer than 2,000 students. Twenty-five times that many students take courses at USF now, making it the state's second largest university. "The Bible as Literature" has remained unchanged.

"From the beginning I assessed that portion of Florida which came to USF was Bible Belt and would be very conservative," Smith says. "Southern Baptists believe that the Bible is the inerrant word of God."

In class, Smith, whose branch of the Baptist church views the Bible as "divinely inspired" rather than divinely authored, treats the Bible as a book to be understood rather than refuted.

"We don't argue with the text, we're not going to criticize certain denominations' interpretation of the Bible," he says. "We treat it exactly as we would Gulliver's Travels."

He has published seven books of his own. Alfred Lord Tennyson has been a subject twice. He grouped the poets W.H. Auden, Stephen Spender, Louis MacNeice and C. Day Lewis under the title The Angry Young Men of the Thirties. This past year he published two books: My Son! My Son!, his telling of the story of King David's son Absalom, and a collection of essays he edited called The Haunted Mind: The Supernatural in Victorian Literature.

His wife Esther M.G. Smith, the other doctor in the house, contributed one of the essays. In the past she has filled in for her husband at lectures. She has just published two books of her own, one an imagining of the life of a minor Biblical character, the daughter of Jairus, and the other a fictionalized biography of a Christian knight in the 15th century.

"If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away." Imagine the power of these words when words were so rare. Imagine how the church members hung on every nuance.

A couple of the 40-odd students seem slightly less engaged. A young woman in the back picks her head from her desk only when another student jostles her chair as he saunters into the lecture 50 minutes late.

Smith's energy does not flag.

Esther once asked him, "When do you expect to retire?"

"I think at the Second Coming," he answered.

That's a very good way to end this day.

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