Embattled KU professor has long history with religion
His background is utterly incongruous with his bruised arm and two blackened eyes.
Kansas University professor Paul Mirecki’s disparaging comments about conservative Christians and Catholics put him in a political hot seat, propelled him into national headlines and made him the victim of a reported roadside beating.
But as a boy, his parents wanted him to be a Roman Catholic priest. And as a young adult, he studied at a Protestant seminary and considered the ministry.
Ultimately, he chose academia and has dedicated his life to the study of religions.
“I just felt that that life wasn’t for me,” Mirecki said. “I wanted to be a professor.”
Among his most significant academic work was the discovery and deciphering of an ancient manuscript containing a lost gospel, a document that sheds new light on the origins of early Christianity.
Now, the 55-year-old KU associate professor of religious studies says he has been pushed from his post as department chairman, a job he held more than three years, and he is emotionally and physically battered.
The beating, he said, occurred Monday morning – a bitter consequence of the firestorm that began weeks ago when he announced he would teach a course on intelligent design as mythology, not the science its proponents claim it to be.
“I just want to get back to teaching and research,” Mirecki said. “That’s what I am, and that’s what I do.”
Mirecki, a KU faculty member since 1989, said he planned to teach a course on creationism and intelligent design as he had taught other courses, using the same approach he gives ancient religions.
But his plan backfired when a message he wrote on an online discussion board was forwarded across the state by conservative activist John Altevogt.
Mirecki wrote the class would be “a nice slap” in the “big fat face” of fundamentalists.
A second series of messages that he had written over several years on KU’s Society of Open-Minded Atheists and Agnostics online discussion board were revealed, painting a picture that some said showed Mirecki to be a hateful, anti-religious man.
In those message he disparaged the late Pope John Paul II and Catholics in general.
But Mirecki said those who believe that he is anti-religious don’t know him.
“I’m not anti-religious,” he said. “I’m just not a person whose personal life is determined by traditional religious ideas.”
The e-mails, he said, were part of a private conversation meant only for the student groups’ members.
“My e-mails have nothing to do with what I do in class,” he said. “I wasn’t teaching anybody anything in those e-mails. That’s not the way I teach.”
Raised Roman Catholic in a Polish community in Chicago, Mirecki said his parents wanted him to be a priest. He took to music instead.
In the late 1960s, he attended Roosevelt University in Chicago. He studied musical composition and played classical guitar and piano. But he dropped out early to work.
He returned to school in 1973, pursuing religious studies at what is now called North Central University in Minneapolis.
The move from music to religion was easy, he said.
“The transition is not that difficult,” he said. “It’s all art to a large degree. I’m interested in a lot of things. Music and history and religion and philosophy and art have always been of interest to me.”
Then he headed for the East Coast. Unlike other students at Massachusetts’ Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Mirecki wasn’t fixed on becoming a minister when he enrolled. And following his work there, he enrolled in a doctoral program at Harvard in 1980.
“It was incredibly phenomenal,” he said of his years at Harvard. “The only limitations I experienced were my own.”
Helmut Koester, a professor at Harvard Divinity School who supervised Mirecki’s dissertation, recalled Mirecki as a good student, though he said he has had little contact with Mirecki since his former student left Harvard.
“I think he’s a good scholar,” Koester said. “He was a good student and a good assistant.”
Mirecki focused more intensely on language study, partly of necessity. In one class, he was required to read a long article in Italian. When he told the professor he didn’t speak the language, the response, he recalled, was: “That’s your problem. Not mine.”
Today, Mirecki said he can read French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Middle Egyptian and Coptic, the ancient Egyptian language using Greek letters. He’s a bit rusty, he said, in Latin.
After stints at the University of Michigan and Albion College, Mirecki joined the KU faculty in 1989.
In 1999, Stephen Floor, a one-time high school drop-out, enrolled in two summer courses at KU. Floor, the son of a university professor, had no enthusiasm for high school studies. But dead-end jobs made him realize he needed a college education.
One of his first classes was Mirecki’s “Understanding the Bible.” Floor said he was struck by Mirecki’s knowledge. For the first time, he heard the words he had been waiting to hear.
“It showed me the power of really critically analyzing something,” Floor said. He now is pursuing a doctoral degree in biophysics at the University of California-San Francisco.
Terry Jacobsen, a Lawrence businessman and conservative Christian, also is a former student. Jacobsen took the same class about 10 years ago, he said. He has a different view of Mirecki’s teaching.
“The title of the class should have been ‘Discrediting the Bible,’ not “Understanding the Bible,'” Jacobsen said. “The whole premise of the course was the Bible was just a story and it’s not true, it’s not literal.”
In the first days of class, Jacobsen said there were about a dozen students who openly argued with Mirecki about things the professor said. But by the end of the course, few spoke up because of intimidation, he said.
Mirecki “would make snide comments that were veiled in humor so other people would laugh at them,” he said.
But Floor said Mirecki’s course had the potential to offend a religious person only because Mirecki took a purely academic approach to religion.
“You were only offended by it if you internalized the academic interpretations of religion,” he said.
Floor said Mirecki showed the evolution of the Bible as it was translated by people over the years. For Floor, the class showed him the Bible is much more dynamic and less stagnant than he had thought.
“I don’t think that the reaction is determined by the course,” he said. “I think the reaction is determined by the person.”
About Mirecki’s personality, Floor said: “He has a sarcastic demeanor. If you’re sensitive to that, then you can be offended by people who are sarcastic.”
Mirecki said he believed students who took his courses knew the academic approach to religion would be different from what was encountered in a Sunday school class.
“They know it’s not going to be church,” he said. “Some of them want it to be church, and I can’t help them.”
Mirecki said he was sensitive to students’ beliefs.
“I wouldn’t be in my 20th year of teaching if I wasn’t,” he said.
Tim Miller, a religious studies professor at KU, said that for those raised or converted to a particular religious tradition, the application of modern critical analysis to religion could be startling or offensive.
“We have all had complaints that we’re out debunking and undermining and generally opposing religion,” he said. “I think it comes from a basic misunderstanding of what we’re doing.”
Miller referred to the 1963 U.S. Supreme Court rulings on religion in schools. The court said teaching about religion in public schools is acceptable, but teaching in a devotional way is not.
“That’s what we go by,” Miller said. “That remains the basic framework today.”
In 1991, amid the vast holdings of Berlin’s Egyptian Museums, Mirecki uncovered fragments of an ancient Egyptian manuscript containing a lost gospel.
The museum had purchased the manuscript years before, and the scraps languished in storage for decades before Mirecki discovered it. Mirecki edited the manuscript with Charles Hedrick, professor of religious studies at Missouri State University who also had been studying it.
Identifying the manuscript’s significance was not easy. Mirecki compared it to taking 20 pages from a modern book, running them through a shredder, throwing half away and then trying to decipher the text from the remaining scraps.
“Most of these manuscripts are in terrible condition,” Mirecki said.
The lost gospel, called the Gospel of Savior, contains conversations between Jesus and his disciples. It’s estimated to have been written sometime in the second half of the second century, Mirecki said.
“It was a pretty big deal,” Miller said of Mirecki’s accomplishment. “He got international publicity out of it and published a book. It was considered quite a coup.”
The document provides more information about the origins of Christianity.
“This text seems to have been written early enough to have had access to the oral period and a whole bunch of sayings that circulated in the church, but too late to give you any firsthand information about Jesus,” Hedrick said.
Mirecki also identified an ancient Egyptian scroll that was housed in the private collection of a student’s father in Johnson County. The student told Mirecki his father had the scroll but wasn’t sure it was authentic.
“I was shocked at what he had,” Mirecki said. “I immediately recognized it as something authentic.”
The scroll was donated to the university and is now housed in a museum.
It is a sort of guide to the afterlife that would have been placed in a tomb with a mummified person. It dates back to the origins of the belief in resurrection.
“I just find it to be a challenge to find these things that no one has studied and bring them to light and make them available to the scholarly world,” Mirecki said.
Hedrick said that as a coptologist, one who studies ancient Christian Egypt, Mirecki has an excellent reputation.
“I even wrote him a letter of recommendation once,” he said.
He was shocked to hear about the recent controversy.
“I found it very difficult to believe that he would say those things – albeit on a blog,” he said. “He’s been the perfect gentleman.”
Mirecki said he believes police will find the men who reportedly battered him. And he disregards claims by some of his critics that he fabricated the attack.
“Of course they’re going to say that,” he said. “I think something will happen. Something will turn up.”
If he weren’t a professor, Mirecki said he’d be a research librarian. He owns thousands of books and holds many interests. He listens to John Coltrane and Mozart.
“I would be just as happy if I was studying the history of modern art or the history of classical music,” he said. “I’m interested in too many things. I think life’s really something.”