I never found out what the “J” stands for. I should have asked him. I only had the pleasure of speaking with J. Rufus Fears twice outside of his dynamic, funny and formative classroom experience. I wish I had spoken with him more. I would love to have spoken with him more about figures like Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Augustus, Herod the Great and others. And I wish I had spoken to him more about the relationship between Greece and Israel in the middle centuries BCE, the culture of the Greco-Roman world, and the Jewish culture of that world. He was a man of brilliant insight, and as much as anything else helped me make connections I never could have made on my own.
He had such remarkable and infectious reverence for his subject. He loved antiquity. He loved the lessons history can teach us if we have the ears to hear and the eyes to see. He taught like one of the great orators of the period, bounding about using his walking stick as everything from a pointer to a spear, telling the stories that have shaped the world as we know it. His lectures on Alexander the Great were almost as legendary as the man himself. His discussions of the fall of the Roman Republic stung eerily in the current political and economic climate of the United States. He discussed the defining characteristics of a world superpower, along with the defining characteristics of a true statesman. His stories of world power and military might made classes laugh and awe at the complexity and majesty of the ancient world. And he was incredible at showing that complex ancient milieu as a relevant parallel for today.
One of the most remarkable things about Dr. Fears’ Freedom in Greece and Rome lectures is that he was able to frame the time and people in terms of how his students understood freedom and power. And in one lecture, and only one lecture, he usurped those views of freedom and power without the majority of us recognizing it. He walked through the Gospel of Luke, espousing the life, virtues and thought of the Jewish Rabbi, Jesus of Nazareth. The notion of pax romana (Roman peace) that we had been learning about in several lectures on the Roman savior, messiah and son of god, Caesar Augustus (63 BCE – 14 CE), was a peace brought through victory and might, just like the peace of the United States. Jesus, living in the provincial afterthought of the Roman Empire, walked about as a Jewish prophet and man of the people, calling Israel to repentance, righteousness and justice. Fears noted how interesting and unique Jesus was, saying that he was one of the first people in human history with the theory that it doesn’t matter who rules over your head, what matters is who or what rules over your heart. That has profoundly stuck with me. At the end of each Gospel, Jesus is ironically crushed by the instrument of Roman freedom, the crucifix, and thus has consistently stood as a nagging testament against our typical perception of power and peace.
He asked us at the end of his Freedom in Rome series, “What is a the lasting legacy of the Roman Empire?” Students would mention things like their system of roads, their economics, their art and culture, their take on democracy and freedom, etc. He said, “No. The lasting legacy of the Roman Empire is Christianity. Christianity helped topple the Roman Empire, and has shaped the world we live in today.” I think he was right, for better or worse.
He was one of the few teachers I ever had who understood the power of narrative to shape the way we live, and he hoped that his students would learn from the narratives of the ancient world, carving out a new future and leaving behind the mistakes of the past. He believed in virtues, principles and morals. He seemed to me a man of tremendous humility, always treating me with grace. He was always willing to talk with any student about any subject, and while quiet in one-on-one conversation, his wisdom and knowledge has resonated with me years after our conversation.
He is unequivocally the greatest, most influential teacher in my life. In my time at the University of Oklahoma I was blessed to have seen athletic greatness from the likes of Adrian Peterson, Sam Bradford, Blake Griffin and Ryan Broyles among many others, but that deeply pales to how blessed I am to have had Fears as a teacher. What I learned from him has been nearly as formative for me as the Bible itself, because he gave me the cultural framework to understand the Bible. His wisdom and insight is invaluable.
I wish I had spoken to him more, and showed him how appreciative I am. But such is life. Thoughts and prayers to his family and close friends. The University of Oklahoma will never be the same.