Someone asked me recently, now that I am retired from administrative leadership, if I plan to write my autobiography. My answer was a definite “No!” Narrating the details of my seventy-plus year pilgrimage would bore me almost as much as it would bore others. I do, however, remember a few events that might be interesting enough for public airing. One of them is the time that I turned down an invitation to appear in Penthouse magazine.
The phone callit was the late 1970s, I thinkcame to our home in Grand Rapids late one afternoon. A pleasant woman asked me if I was willing to fly to New York City to serve on a panel of religious ethicists discussing “evangelicals and sexuality.” When I asked about the sponsorship of the panel, she immediately told me she would get to that topic after some other details, and then she reeled off the proposed date and the amount of a generous honorarium. I persisted: Who was sponsoring the panel? She answered: “I am calling on behalf of Bob Guccione of Penthouse magazine.”
“Oh, for crying out loud!” I exclaimed into the phone, and began to say that I would not do it. But she shot back, mentioning that a well-known professor from a university religion department had assured her that I was the right kind of person to appear in this published discussion. I got angry, urging her to tell the professor and Mr. Guccione what they were “full of.” And I hung up.
The next morning Paul Henry, a colleague in Calvin College’s Political Science Department who was also the son of the distinguished evangelical leader Carl F. H. Henry, stopped by my office. “Rich, are you going to appear in Penthouse? They called my dad yesterday and invited him. He turned them down, but they did tell him that you were one of the panel members.” I assured him that like his dad I had responded negatively.
What Paul did not tell me was that he had just seen the Calvin president on campus and had told him about his conversation with his dad. It wasn’t long before I was summoned to the president’s office. The conversation began like this. “I just heard about your invitation from Penthouse,” he said.
“Yeah,” I replied, “kind of weird, huh?”
“Yes it was weird and I think you should reconsider.”
My shocked response: “You want me to appear in Penthouse?” “No, of course not. I want you to tell them you will not do it.”
I told him about my phone conversation. And when I got to the punch line about what I actually said as I hung up he was elated. “Good for you! Good for you!”
Years later I was to write a book and give a lot of speeches about civil discourse. Whenever I was pushed by a questioner about the limits of civility I would allow that there are times when “civility is not enough.” I have never used one of those occasions to tell the story of my Penthouse conversation, but I have often thought about it as a case in point.
I’m sure I was too harsh with the woman on the phone. She was in the awkward situation of taking fire for Bob Guccione. But I do not regret having firmly rejected the invitation. I can imagine someone suggesting that it might have been a good thing to do as a “witness,” seeing the panel as an opportunity to reach a large audience who would otherwise not hear the evangelical perspective, or, more likely, get it in caricatured form.
But I really doubt whether appearing in Penthouse is an appropriate mode of Christian pedagogy. Most of the magazine’s patronsI resist calling them “readers”!do not go to those pages for information about ethics. It was more likely that I would have become a target of ridicule at the event than a source of knowledge, and even unintentionally reaffirm the debased values of Penthouse staff and readers. Furthermore, most of the Christian audience that I have seen as my primary community over the years would not have responded well to the news that I had agreed to “witness” in the pages of Penthouse. After all, Guccione no doubt believed the panel would boost sales, and I had no intention of helping him make money.
And I have to admit to a certain joy at the memory of it all. The phone call itself was irritating, but I remember with pleasure the way the Calvin College president responded when I told him what I said just before I slammed the phone down. Sometimes even a report about a crude response to a telephone caller plays well in an evangelical setting!
Richard J. Mouw is president emeritus of Fuller Theological Seminary.