Winter 2003
Volume 7 Number 2

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Giving Words to the Story introduction| Verily, a Servant of the Living Word | The Grass Withers, the Flower Fades; but the Word… | An Inner Light | Remembering

Verily, A Servant of the Living Word

by Charles L. Bartow



by Jack R. Van Ens

He wasn’t the flashiest star blazing in the Speech Department’s constellation from 1969 to 1972, when I was a PTS student. Bill Beeners could launch or sink our thousand fabled ships with a mischievous twinkle of his eye. Bill Brower’s was the golden voice of the poet. Virginia Damon’s droll wit put us hopeful “pulpit stars” firmly in our less-than-centerstage places.
But Bob Jacks beamed an inner glow as he taught us that preaching is true theater, and God’s story is the true story. Bob Jacks lit the same fires of enthusiasm in me that novelist Reynolds Price did when he wrote that “the sound of story is the dominant sound of our lives.”
Bob Jacks, in an unassuming yet profound way, shaped me as a storyteller. He put, as it were, God’s mark on me. With quiet, inner light he dazzled me, articulating the truth of the Divine Dramatist who works all the wonders the world will ever need.

Jack R. Van Ens, Class of 1972, is a minister, a storyteller, and the vice president of Majesty Ministries in Avon, Colorado.

Bob graduated from Princeton Seminary in 1959, was ordained to the ministry at Tabernacle Presbyterian Church, and was called as assistant pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Medford, Oregon. There he worked with youth (junior high, senior high, college youth, and young marrieds). In successive pastoral assignments his focus remained on the young. He took groups to synod meetings, led retreats, and organized and conducted mission trips. With one group of youth from Indianapolis, Bob and Rosanne hiked and bicycled through Norway for three weeks. If you can believe it—and if you knew Bob Jacks, you can believe it—junior high youngsters used to call “Uncle Bobby” on the phone and ask him to read them bedtime stories, which he did with great delight. He never tired of ministry with children and youth, nor of encouraging his seminary students to consider carefully—and rigorously prepare for—ministry among the young. His basic speech classes always included a segment on storytelling for children.

Finding his fascination with storytelling irresistible, students flocked to his course on narrative preaching, originally team-taught with PTS professor James F. Kay, and to his course “Writing for the Ear.” In his teaching of speech arts, Bob went beyond the technical areas such as pronunciation, voice, phonetic analysis, and correction of faults. He was influenced by Constantin Stanislavski’s approach to acting and by a theological understanding of the preacher as servant, not master, of divinity. In writing and in speaking, attention was given first to the Word, then to one’s congregants. The self was last. The self, in fact, was to become transparent through the mastery of technique. It was by the “presence of the Word” that congregants were to be engaged, not by the personality of the minister.

Bob practiced what he preached. In his classes he prayerfully expected to be engaged by the Word made flesh even through encounters with “the least” of his students, maybe especially through them. Next he focused on his students as individuals with specific aptitudes and needs. Bob’s last consideration was himself. He never pursued an academic career as such. Instead he pursued the vocation of minister of Word and Sacrament in an academic venue, and he did so with distinction.

His scholarship at the University of Michigan (linguistic studies in consideration of a possible call to missionary service or translation), his S.T.M. studies in drama and the communicative arts in service to the church at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, and his Ph.D. studies at Columbia University (culminating in his translation and symbolic, theological, and dramaturgical analysis of five dramas of the Swedish church-drama movement by Olov Hartman) all demonstrated the work of a fine and totally dedicated intellect.

Bob Jacks had a delightfully whacky sense of humor. Who else could render wild lyrics for popular songs strung together to celebrate the distinguished achievements of six colleagues retiring from the Seminary faculty and administration? From whom else could one hear the story of Cinderella told with all the words Spoonerized and delivered at what seemed to be 440 words per minute? Bob’s playfulness careened among the chairs in his classroom and cavorted through his two books: Getting the WORD Across and Just Say the WORD!

Bob began teaching in the speech program at Princeton Seminary in 1967 at the invitation of W.J. Beeners, then professor and director of speech. From 1972 to 1975, he also taught as an adjunct associate professor at John Jay College of the City University of New York. In the academic year 1980–1981 he did a stint as lecturer in speech at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. For several years he produced and directed plays at Princeton Seminary, including his own musical verily, verily, verily MERRILY!

In a more serious vein, he also produced Olov Hartman’s Counterpoint, a searing antiwar liturgical drama. In his heart—I have no knowledge at all of his politics—Bob Jacks was a pacifist. And the term he used most to describe his approach to the study of speech communication in ministry was “irenic.” So it followed that his treatment of his students was fair-minded and honest, yet always affirming. He happily walked in his integrity, and he afforded others the right to do the same.

Beginning with an auto accident in August 1987 (he was hit by an unlicensed driver), Bob walked not only in his integrity but in pain. Two vertebrae in his upper neck were injured. For three years, he “toughed it out.” At last, at his wife’s insistence, he had surgery, and it proved successful. But then his toes, his right foot, his back, and his hips successively developed problems. One surgery, meant to repair a tendon in his right foot, led to the discovery that the tendon had disappeared entirely. There was nothing there to repair. All in all, in the 12 years between 1990 and 2002, Bob underwent nine surgical procedures for skeletal, muscular, and internal ailments, none of them life-threatening, but all of them to a greater or lesser degree debilitating. Still, he kept his sense of humor intact. He made his way to classes with a cane, with crutches, with a motorized scooter-chair, determined to get where he had to go to do what he loved to do, teach speech for ministry. The last thing I remember him saying to me just weeks before his death was this: “Chuck, I’m tired. I’m really tired.”

In the early evening of June 5, Bob said to Rosanne, “I’m simply exhausted.” And he went upstairs, lay down to sleep, and in his sleep, he died.

“Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from henceforth: yea, saith the Spirit, that they may rest from their labors; and their works do follow them.” (Rev. 14:13, KJV)

Charles L. Bartow is the Carl and Helen Egner Professor of Speech Communication in Ministry at Princeton Theological Seminary.


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