His young conscience was also torn apart by the racism of his culture. And the race issue was the social challenge to which Marney gave his most considerable powers. In both Austin and Charlotte his preaching and his life made a difference in combating the systemic and spiritual corruption of racism.
I cannot be dispassionate or objective about Marney. My own calling to be a minister was indelibly stamped by him. Not as early as Robin Coira, our immensely gifted Executive Minister. She grew up under his ministry. She remembers running into his office as a girl, five or six, and jumping into his lap. He asked, What do you want to be when you grow up? She said, I want to be a minister, but I’m a girl. Marney looked at her and said, "Aw, Robin, you can be anything you want to be."
I was a teenager when I met him. Jim Berry invited me to play the cello here for worship, and there in this sanctuary on this stone floor, a cello between my legs, I heard the most amazing preacher I had ever listened to.
To hear him preach was like hearing a great oratorio or symphony. Themes and ideas set to music weaving in and out of his sermons. His preaching opened up new spaces in me and filled up spaces hungering to be filled.
When I was preparing for the state oratory competition in the National Forensic League, I chose the theme, The Death of God, primarily because I had heard Marney debate the Emory theologian Thomas J. J. Altizer on T.V. What I remember was Marney’s observation that Altizer’s Death of God theology was more autobiography than theology. It was a theme I’d hear more: Our theologizing is inescapably autobiographical, but God is more than our theology.
I remember him speaking to a small group of ministers on worship about 1974. I had just finished Union Seminary. I found this week thirty-year-old hand- written notes of what he said that week. Here are some of his words, as I scribbled them down:
"Worship is a tent of meeting. Here I expect and am expected."
We meet God, our covenant partner, whether we are ready or not, and the meeting is both judgment and mercy. "Justice is grace," Marney said, "for God will keep appointment with apostate people."
He pushed us to believe the gospel we preach: "Quit going around unforgiven." Here in worship, he said, "I confess, I am met again, I quit going around unforgiven."
"We go to church," he said, "to act out who the hell we hope we are . . . . We stop our hate against ourselves, which is our easiest way of hating."
He and I talked afterward on the porch, and compared notes about the state of modern theology and the Union Seminary faculty. One of those essential transactions in life is to receive a blessing from a parent or from a figure of great importance. I felt him bless my young ministry. That story can be repeated hundreds of times by young ministers across the country.
What I heard in his symphonic preaching and writing was the singing of the great themes and doctrines of the faith in a new key, with depths and vistas I had not imagined.
Fowler’s words are right on: "Marney had the highest and lowest estimate of the human species I think I have ever encountered in one thinker."
He used history, psychology and the sciences to show us a species controlled by our drives and enthralled by our myths and ideologies. We had to come to terms with our humanity and our history – and neither was as pretty as we imagined. When he retired from the Myers Park pulpit, he said of his life:
We can’t afford any false innocence. This makes us a danger to ourselves and to others. "We can’t," he said, "deny history, or act as if our creativeliness were a lie." He also warned about the danger of the minister who needs too much to be liked. A particular weakness of mine. This is a form of slavery and it can be a betrayal of the gospel. I’ve loved his quip: "It was a freeing moment when I realized I didn’t have to be a blessing to everybody."
But here’s the paradox. He also had the highest estimate of what we could become of any preacher I have heard. He had this vision, given him by Jesus and Paul, of a New Creation, a New Humanity and a New Person. There was our destiny and our vocation. It was not our puny human work; the New Humanity was overtaking us from the rear in Christ. This is what God had been up to all along. It was a universal vision. Christ is larger than Christianity. His universalism gave my young mind a place to hope.
So Marney could make his withering critique of the church. In one forgettable passage he listed these three great crimes:
We went against Judah. We turned against the Jew and turned from our own "fountains of living water."
We went against humanity, buying into racism and violence against one another.
We went against Creation, soiling the earth.
He was not, I think, a pacifist. He was a "Christian Realist" on war. War was a great coalescing of human sin, but warfare was sometimes the tragic necessity in the restraining of human evil. From his Fort Knox days he had deep empathy for the soldier thrown into battle.
Issues of war and peace became Gene Owens’ to deal with.
Marney wrote an astonishing essay on homosexuality in 1964 which opened doors for a new appraisal of the homosexual person. One of our members remembers him one Sunday looking down on the line-up of deacons sitting on the front row and said: "Some of you have homosexual children." But his was not the time to tackle this matter head on. The battle of his day was structural and institutional racism and the prejudices which invade our souls, and he led the charge.
Annie Dillard says, "You were made and set here to give voice to this, your own astonishment."
It was Marney’s astonishment I felt as I heard him preach and read his books, hearing his voice as I read.
"Worthy is the Lamb that was slain" was an astonishment he never could get over – though he struggled with old atonement theologies and came up with this:
In The Coming Faith he wrote about going into his room and turning the stereo up full blast so he could hear again the opening chords of Handel’s Messiah chorus: "Worthy is the Lamb that was slain." I remember reading that and identifying so deeply with what he wrote. I have often done the same.
And I remember ten years ago in Fort Worth sitting in an orchestra with a new organ, just dedicated, of 193 ranks, over 10,000 pipes, the grandest French organ in the world, and pulling my bow across the string on that same first chord of "Worthy Is the Lamb" with the organ filling up every space in the sanctuary, my body and my soul vibrating with the music. "Worthy is the Lamb that was slain."
It was the power of the memory of the self-giving of God on that cross. It was the beauty of the music. I shuddered and tears filled my eyes as I played those first chords. And there was in that moment the memory of Marney, moved as I by it all, his life and preaching and writing mediating to me the astonishment of the gospel of Jesus the Christ.