Dr. Mark LongBaylor Interdisciplinary Core
[Story and photo courtesy of Baylor Magazine.]
Trying to summarize Professor Mark Long's interests and accomplishments is like trying to condense his favorite poem, Alfred Tennyson's Ulysses, into a haiku.
He has served as an intelligence analyst in the U.S. Air Force, where he received specialized training on the cultures, history and languages of the Middle East; he earned his MDiv at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and pastored nondenominational churches for 10 years in Houston and Austin; and he turned down both a Presidential Fellowship to Notre Dame and later a CIA post on the front lines of counterterrorism after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
And that doesn't begin to tell you who this man is. Just for fun, the assistant professor in the Baylor Interdisciplinary Core runs marathons, jumps trains in railroad switchyards and climbs water and electrical towers - a man who admits he likes "to press the edges." His first book, The Other Gulf War: Politics, Religion and the Iraqi Invasion of Kuwait, is due out from University of Texas Press this fall, and he constantly is sought by the national media as an analyst of the Middle East and last spring, on the war in Iraq and its central political figure, Saddam Hussein.
But foremost, Dr. Long is a teacher, and, despite his many talents and offers, he is at Baylor because he can envision nothing more important than investing his life in the young people in his classes.
He didn't always have such a clear sense of direction. From a young age, he has juggled his desire to follow three professional callings: pastor, military officer and teacher -"the choice between the sword or the plowshare," he says. And yet, somehow, by following the passions of his heart, he's been able to have them all.
"I get to do everything here," says Dr. Long, who came to Baylor in fall 1995 to get his PhD in church-state studies and became a tenure-track faculty member in 2001, when he also was named director of the Middle East Studies Program. "I can say I have this deep sense that I'm living out my call to ministry by being in academics in this context at Baylor. I've had the opportunity to get involved with the lives of students well outside the classroom. In some important sense, it's pastoring."
At the age of 33, he left the pulpit after a decade and pursued an Air Force career, following in the footsteps of his father, a fighter pilot in World War II. He served six years as an intelligence analyst, briefing top military leaders on military and political affairs worldwide. Then he fulfilled his third desire: In 1992, he took a faculty position at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., where he taught for three years.
"I taught Arabic, English literature, writing and speaking, and church history," he says. "All three came together - I was in the military and I was teaching and I was deeply involved with one of the cadet ministries called Officers Christian Fellowship - an unofficial chaplain to the Air Force Academy cadets."
At that point, his life seemed to be perfect. But, in 1994, as a passenger on a commercial airliner over Saudia Arabia, he almost lost his life when the plane he was on stalled during its landing approach. The pilot averted a potential crash at the last moment and made a second, successful landing attempt.
That night, he made a decision. "I was very close to death, and it made me think, I need to change my perspective from where do I want to be one year or five or 10 years from now, to imagining myself standing in eternity looking back. Now, I seek to live out the life I would regret not having lived when I reach eternity."
Shortly after returning to Colorado from that trip, the Air Force asked him to return to his career field of intelligence analysis. He chose to remain in teaching instead, leaving the Air Force and arriving at Baylor to get his doctorate. He had begun to work on his dissertation topic during the Persian Gulf War in 1990-91, focusing on Saddam and the way he was able to manipulate religion for political purposes.
"I found it compelling that there were political and religious issues of extraordinary importance that most of the West simply didn't see," he says.
For a man who once longed to be a fighter pilot, he now gets his adrenaline rush in the classroom. "I'm too old to fly, but there have been days teaching that have been so exciting, I've had to sit down on the desk because I began to hyperventilate," he says. "It's the exchange with students, and those are the days I feel like we have rediscovered the Promethian fire.
"I have come, over time, to see education as being Aristotelian - that we are being fitted for self-government, which involves both an intellectual and a moral excellence," he says. "I want to challenge them, class by class, to academic excellence and to lead lives of high moral dignity."
His students respond. In the first class he taught at Baylor, he finished the semester by telling a story about the first marathon he ran. As a child growing up with asthma, he came to vigorous sports later in life, and so this test of his endurance was especially meaningful. He ran it with a friend, but another friend joined them periodically along the route to offer them cups of water and words of encouragement. The last six miles of the race, the friend ran behind them, "telling us the sweetest lies I've ever heard," Dr. Long recalls: "You guys look great. You're almost home. You can do it."
"I told that story to my students and then said, 'Ever after, I want you to hear my voice joining that of other people because now, I don't stand in front of you, but I run behind you to say, 'You guys look great, you're doing such a great job, keep it up. You're almost home now.'
"I finished, and it was completely quiet. One by one, every student in the classroom stood up on their desks and said, 'O Captain! My Captain!' and then began applauding. I couldn't say anything else."