I’ve read many books about the life and views Augustine of Hippo (AD 354–430)—my favorite theologian/philosopher and arguably the most influential Christian thinker outside the New Testament writers. Yet Edward L. Smither’s book Augustine as Mentor: A Model for Preparing Spiritual Leaders, is the first book I’ve seen that addresses Augustine’s role as a mentor. And it’s left me wondering, What does it mean to be a genuine mentor?
I’ve benefitted from a number of mentors in my life (and hope I serve as a faithful guide to certain people, especially my children). For example, my baseball coach, John Moseley, influenced my early life. And my first philosophy professor, Douglas Wessell, helped me significantly as a young college student. In the field of Christian apologetics, my old boss and teacher Dr. Walter R. Martin inspired and challenged me in important ways. Today my RTB colleague and friend Dr. Dave Rogstad serves as an important spiritual advisor.
The article below is a piece that I wrote a couple of years ago about my first and most important mentor—my dad.
My father, Jesse Alexander Samples Jr., was born and raised in what was at the time the poorest county in the poorest state in America—Clay County, West Virginia. Growing up in the Appalachian hills during the Great Depression, my father’s parents lost their farm because they couldn’t afford to pay the property taxes owed on it. My dad subsequently dropped out of school in the fifth or sixth grade in order to work and help support his family. As a young adult he worked hard as a coal miner going down deep into those dangerous mines.
My father turned 21 in 1939; that same year World War II broke out in Europe. A couple years later the Empire of Japan attacked America’s naval base at Pearl Harbor and the United States was at war with the Axis powers of Japan, Germany, and Italy. My dad served his country as a frontline combat soldier in the European Theatre. He fought at the Battle of the Bulge, was wounded, and eventually received three medals for valor.
As a member of an American infantry division that liberated a Nazi concentration camp, my dad knew that ideas (and especially ideologies) mattered and had inevitable consequences. My father came to view the bloodiest war in human history (more than 60 million deaths) as a powerful conflict over political ideologies.
My Father’s Five Intellectual Characteristics
While my father never made it to high school, he possessed a very bright mind and a passion for knowledge and learning. Although self-conscious at times about his lack of formal education, my dad was a self-educated man and his intellectual instincts helped anchor my pursuit of the life of the mind.
1. Love of Ideas: My father loved to talk about the big questions of life. At the dinner table, my dad would raise issues relating to religion, politics, philosophy, and history. I came to view mealtimes as a special time to discuss ideas and argue one’s point of view.
2. Value of Books: Though my father worked hard as an automobile mechanic, at the end of the day he would inevitably read. He enjoyed the world of discovery provided by good books and consistently sought out books that addressed provocative issues of interest.
3. Craving for Learning: My father attempted to stay abreast of news and current events. His daily ritual included reading the morning newspaper and watching the evening television news intently. God forbid if you talked while my dad was watching the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite.
4. Trust in Reason: My father viewed reason as the good gift that God had given to human beings made in the Lord’s image. He valued arguments and always wanted to hear the best case put forth in support of a given issue. My dad was open to being persuaded on issues but he needed to know that the person arguing had indeed done his or her homework.
5. Respect for Rhetoric: My father appreciated skilled speech and debate. He loved to discourse and he admired politicians who were good communicators such as presidents Franklin Delano Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy. My dad respected the honorable use of persuasive language.
My father ignited within me a love for ideas and learning. I am the careful thinker I am today because I had a father who was truly an intellectual role model. Though he has been dead for nearly 25 years, I think of my father almost daily and appreciate the important things he taught me about life.
I hope this reflection about my father will encourage fathers today to take seriously the critical task of being an intellectual role model for their own children.
I’m grateful for my father and for the other father-like figures that have selflessly encouraged me in my life. Yet these earthly role models and mentors serve to make me aware that there is a heavenly Father whose providential grace has guided my entire life.
For more about the importance of logic and critical thinking, see my book A World of Difference: Putting Christian Truth-Claims to the Worldview Test.