15 June 2009

Eastern Mennonite University

27 Sep 2007. From the tiny campus bookstore. An indoor track runs right in front of its entrance.

Some people use sarcasm to make jokes or poke fun. Others use it with hateful intentions. But the vast majority who employ sarcasm, and its self-absorbed cousin irony, have no idea of the vast cultural history and impacts of these two uniquely human ideas. Royal Bristlermartin and Peter diScala were two such rare individuals. They also carved it epic.
Amateur sociologists, amateur surfers, amateur proselytizers, and professional bellhops, Bristlermartin and diScala longed to change the world. Indeed they would, but not in any way they could ever predict.
As Mennonite missionaries and groms, Royal and Peter split their time between the Hawaiian islands of Maui and Oahu. They gained unprecedented exposure to the most biting sarcasm and irony working in the religious education and customer service positions. Their surfing excursions were where they could vent their day-to-day frustrations. The ocean gladly absorbed the negative energy and turned it into the toe curling waves for which Hawaii is famous. One might imagine a religious scholar as cooped up in a tiny room, with nothing but candlelight to illuminate pages and spark ecclesiastical thought, but for Royal and Peter, it was precisely the opposite. The majority of their important discussions and insights were on the Pacific crests.
When the Mennonite church announced plans to start an educational seminary in the continental U.S., Royal and Peter sat up and listened. Like most of history, timing made all the difference. Their reports from the mission field and desire to educate on the dangers of sarcasm and eradicate the causes of ennui were well known to their contemporaries. Any earlier and they would be too into surfing to seriously consider leaving Hawaii. Any later and they would have been far too jaded by the perpetual battle against hopelessness to believe they could make any realistic change.

They were ambitious, not naive.

Their bare ambition showed when they applied to start their seminary in an epicenter of sarcasm and irony: a pseudo hippie enclave and college town. Ideally they would have gone to Berkeley, California, as it housed both hippies and undergraduates, but the church hierarchy was not eager to pay Bay Area rents. Undaunted, Royal and Peter continued their search. Their final choices unfortunately were not in agreement. Royal chose a college town: Harrisonburg, Virginia. Peter wanted a hippie enclave: Salem, Oregon. Both cities were within a few hours of the shore so they could frequently visit the surf that so inspired them. Royal saw his stalemate with Peter was not going to end anytime soon. Time was working against them as there were dozens of other seminary prospects being considered. He filled out the requisite forms for establishment in Harrisonburg and sent them off. He figured starting one of their locations would be better than none at all. His guilt assuaged, Royal left for Virginia. When Peter found out, Royal was long gone, never to speak to Peter again. Peter did not give up though. Several decades later, Peter founded the Western Mennonite Sarcasm and Surfing Seminary. Both the Western and Eastern S&S were educating on the evils of doubletalk and committing to eradicate it. But thanks to its early start, Royal's school is now the preeminent institution in the church: Eastern Mennonite University.

The young theologians discussing The Boardless Surfer, Jesus of Nazareth

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