Denis holds a Master of Arts in Theological Studies (summa cum laude) from Covenant Seminary in St. Louis. He studied at the Universities of Minnesota and New Mexico, and at L’Abri Fellowship with Francis Schaeffer.
He is the editor of Critique, a bi-monthly publication, author of The Rest of Success: What the World Didn’t Tell You About Having It All (1989), and blogs at A Glass Darkly. He lectures on Christianity, culture and Christian faithfulness when invited at L’Abri conferences, public venues, church conferences and is visiting instructor in film and theology at Covenant Seminary. He is working on two books, one on Christian faithfulness in a pluralistic world and the other on learning to hear.
After a few years of living in a Christian commune (yes, that’s right, they were hippies), he staffed a church as a youth pastor and was recruited by InterVarsity Christian Fellowship where he eventually became area director of New Mexico and Arizona. With Margie he began Ransom in 1983 with the desire to help Christians not react to modern culture but to engage it creatively and intelligently with the gospel.
Favorite addiction: English Black Tea by Yorkshire Gold and Bulleit bourbon.
Favorite hobby: Book collecting.
For little-known facts about Denis (that he might prefer you not know) and the beginning of Ransom, see the interview below.
Denis Haack “The Interview”
(An interview conceived, prepared, and written by Margie who knows Denis well enough to answer all the questions for him. Which she did.)
Margie Haack (MH): Let’s start with: how did Ransom Fellowship begin?
Denis (DH): Ransom was an idea that germinated while I was on staff with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, a ministry to college students. IV was very keen on a particular Bible study method which I found helpful for myself and for students. I began to see that in the same way we studied Scripture through asking questions—such as what is being said in this passage, what does it mean, and then what do we do about it—that we could use the same ideas when we engaged in the culture around us. When we saw a movie, attended a concert, or just read a journal article from our trade or profession we didn’t need to simply react or merely let it happen, we could think about it.
When I began showing movies followed by discussions with groups of students we began by asking ourselves if we were really listening to what was being said. Or were we just reacting according to a certain party line? Were we putting our minds on idle and merely being entertained? As I began to see and hear more carefully and not just to be entertained or to react, it led us to a deeper understanding of cultural issues and often that led to a purely natural opening for conversation with the people around us. Films, for example were often asking significant questions about life, death, and meaning, and it was right in front of our faces. We also found that watching a film in our living room became an inviting setting for our non-Christian friends.
The more we did this with students, the more our friends said, hey, please consider not limiting this to the campus, but come and do it with us, in our home, or with our church, or with our small group, etc. Eventually we went part-time with InterVarsity and began to work locally with individuals and groups of people. That soon evolved into a full-time ministry which we called Ransom Fellowship.
MH: Where did the name “Ransom Fellowship” originate?
DH: In 1983 when we were about to incorporate as a non-profit organization we realized we needed a name that would represent us. We liked the word ransom because it is richly layered and very meaningful to a Christian. When Christ came, Scripture says he gave himself as a ransom for many. We are part of God’s ransomed people, and by his grace we hoped our ministry could involve some of that Holy Spirit process of ransoming—of helping to equip and call people to himself.
The other source of the word comes from C.S. Lewis. In Out of the Silent Planet, the first book of his space trilogy, the main character is a man named Ransom. Although he is very human and at times imperfect, he becomes a type of redeemer or savior. He was also a man who learned that understanding the times in which he lived was a matter of life and death. We too feel it is of paramount importance for Christians to be discerning about the times and the culture in which we live or we will not be able to authentically and winsomely communicate the gospel.
MH: How did you end up in Rochester, MN?
DH: Both my wife and I are from Minnesota. That is, she is native, I was sort of a transplant via Massachusetts and the Philippine Islands where my parents were missionaries. After our marriage we ended up living in Albuquerque, NM, for twelve years. As time went on we felt it was important to be closer to extended family, especially for the sake of our children, so we moved back to Minnesota in 1981.
But there was another reason, as well. I had always wanted to study at L’Abri. We owe a great spiritual debt to Francis and Edith Schaeffer. At the time it didn’t seem possible for me to study at the Swiss L’Abri, however, we learned that Dr. Schaeffer was being treated for lymphoma at the Mayo Clinic which was located in Rochester, Minnesota. L’Abri began a branch there which gave us the chance to be students while living in our own home and working at the same time. Often I was the only student around and I felt as if I were privately tutored by him. It was my privilege to get to know him and study with him until his death in 1984.
MH: Did your background prepare you for a ministry that emphasizes cultural engagement and discernment?
DH: First let me say that, contrary to what some might think, people cannot live without some sort of cultural engagement. Culture is intrinsic to the human community. So no matter how some may try to isolate themselves or their children from any kind of engagement, it isn’t really possible. As Tom Beaudoin writes in his book Virtual Faith—particularly for the current generation—“popular culture is part of the very air we breathe, it is the amniotic fluid which nurtured us.” The question is how, as Christians, are we to be discerning about it in a way that does not deny our humanity and yet glorifies God? As we watch a movie, read a novel, listen to music, or attend an art show, we should be asking: what does this reveal to us about the nature of reality? About the transcendent? Or morality? And how does it line up with what we know to be true? Things like that.
MH: Did you answer my question?
DH: No, uh, I guess I didn’t. And no, on the surface it didn’t prepare me. On the other hand I believe in God’s providence—that by it He equips us for our calling in life, so nothing is wasted. I was raised in an isolated corner of fundamentalism where I was taught that the Bible was sufficient for all things. In a sense that is true and I am thankful for the amount of memorization and knowledge I was required to profess, but, of course, simple knowledge is not enough to ransom us. [grins]
Culture was seen as the enemy and it was worldly to be involved in it any more than you had to be. For example, one might need a college course which required that you know the French Impressionists, but all you did was learn the facts for test purposes so you could get out of there and onto the more important things in life such as reading the Bible and witnessing. We were in constant retreat from the world.
MH: Did you lead a sheltered life while growing up?
DH: That would be me. For three reasons. One, our isolation was deepened because our church did not recognize other Christians as being genuine. Two, my parents were missionaries to the P.I. which had built-in isolation for me. And three, I was an introverted, geeky kid. That did not predispose me to breaking out.
MH: So how did you go from argyle socks and the King James Bible to teaching a seminary course on Film and Theology? You seem pretty cool now.
DH: My wife had a lot to do with this. We pretty much made the whole journey together and she has always been more comfortable with change and risks. I don’t think I could have done it without her. [MH preens.]
MH: Does she make you wear that necklace? Do you have a tatoo? What translation of the Bible do you use?
DH: [Raises eyebrows and does not answer.]
MH: Well, then. Risks. What happened to your faith during college?
DH: College precipitated a crisis of faith. I was attending the University of Minnesota as a science major, but needed some liberal arts credits to complete my requirements. I took an art history class and remember sitting in the darkened auditorium looking at a slide of abstract art by Miro, hearing the prof explain what the artist was doing and I thought, this is creative, beautiful, meaningful, and painted by someone on his way to hell and I should not be appreciating it. The only art I had grown up with were framed Scripture verses embellished with vines and flowers. The more I opened my eyes, all around me creation, art, music, beauty leapt to life. Within my narrow religious framework there was no place to put these things because they were not essential to the gospel. In fact they were distractions from what was important.
That was where the crack began, and it wasn’t until someone gave me a copy of Francis Schaeffer’s The God Who is There that I again became hopeful that Christianity might have some universal relevance to life. Eventually I was able to affirm orthodox Christianity and I learned the joy of knowing Christ is Lord over all of life. So in relation to popular culture, his Lordship means we will find moments of common grace and traces of the image of God even in the midst of a very broken and sinful world. This was, well, it was breathtaking to me.
MH: How did you meet Margie?
DH: We were both taking the same chemistry class at the same time. In retrospect it was part of God’s timing and providence because there were hundreds of students taking the same course in many different sections. She always sat down front taking notes, near where I sat. As we talked, I learned she was a Christian and I tried to recruit her for my church’s student group, but she thought I was asking her for a date. When she said yes and then later learned I arranged for this married guy to pick her up and take her to an event she was mad. To put it mildly. But I think she was probably embarrassed by the misunderstanding.
MH: Misunderstanding? I guess you didn’t have a lot of finesse?
DH: I was doing my job.
MH: [Shrieks] Well, WHY didn’t you tell me that in the first place?
DH: Because it didn’t OCCUR to me! [Looks around nervously for an exit.]
MH: [Clears Throat] So you got off to a bit of a rocky start?
DH: Yes. But she was intelligent, attractive, athletic, a kind of 60’s Sidney Bristow and what began as a slow burn ended up as a lifetime love.
MH: [Looks mollified.] Tell us what difference your partnership has made to your ministry?
DH: As Christians we may have all the right theology, the right questions, the defensible answers, but unless we have a place of safety and warmth in which to have relationships with real people, we won’t be very effective. Our desire has been to make our home a place of interest and beauty where people could come and know that any sort of question or topic could be addressed. An intimate place where we share needs, music, conversation, and allow the power of God to be demonstrated in ordinary everyday ways. We feel that hospitality is more and more necessary to reach this current generation as an antidote to the brokenness and alienation so many have experienced. This has been integral to our calling and ministry. And it seems that together our gifts combine to make this more possible.
MH: Speaking of gifts, are you musical?
DH: [looks suspicious] No. I play CDs and DVDs.
MH: Didn’t you once own an electric guitar?
DH: Where is this going?
MH: I’m asking the questions. Where did you get it?
DH: I traded it. [Long pause.] For our couch and an easy chair.
MH: Didn’t you throw in our electric knife for good measure?
DH: You never used it. [Groans.] That was a long time ago.
MH: Well, did you learn to play it?
DH: No. Not really. I think I learned a couple of chords.
MH: Did you learn “Stairway to Heaven”?
DH: No!! I thought maybe I could lead choruses with it.
MH: With “Stairway to Heaven”?!
MH: And why were you getting rid of the couch and chair?
DH: Look. I don’t think I have to answer that.
MH: But people will want to know.
DH: [Deep sigh.] Okay. The short story is that when I reached my lowest point of doubt and it seemed Christianity was a lost cause, I thought I would give it one last go before giving it up and becoming a hedonist. At that time I came across the Scripture verse that says except you sell all you have and give it away you cannot be my disciple. I decided we ought to try that. Give it all up and see what came of it. I told Margie about it and asked her if she would do this with me. We’d only been married for a year, but we had all this stuff, wedding gifts and things. A car that was paid for.
MH: What was her response?
DH: She wasn’t too happy at first. She said she’d pray about it over night.
MH: [Interrupting] Yeah. I cried all night. I was sort of in shock. I mean, I wanted you to love God and to serve him and all. And I had been praying for that, but this was pretty radical. Because when you first said “I found this verse and I want us to do what it says,” I was so eager and self-righteous. I thought I was ready for anything. That night I had, oh, I guess it was a sort of epiphany. Not audible, but certainly in spirit I knew God was saying, “You weren’t expecting this as an answer to your prayers, were you? I want you to trust me through this.”
DH: And by the next morning you started planning a garage sale. We sold everything, our wedding gifts, our car, gave the money away, and joined an evangelistic team that worked in inner cities. The couch and chair was left over from the sale, and I thought the guitar might help our team.
MH: My consolation for our asceticism was a double sleeping bag so we could sleep together on the floors of church basements as we traveled.
[MH Laughs. DH looks pained]
DH: The thing is, we ended up in Albuquerque where we joined a Christian commune. God’s kindness and care has been evident throughout our lives, but in looking back we can see how those strange times especially prepared us for the direction our ministry would take with Ransom. Involvement with popular culture continues to give us windows of insight into the postmodern generation. It can also give moments truth and grace which allow us to connect and to share the gospel.
MH: And your living room? Is it still bare?
DH: [Laughs] Not at all. What amazes us is how much of what we had was given back to us in one form or another. Not that we expected it. My reading of that text of Scripture is more nuanced now, at the same time my ignorance and immaturity back then did not stop God’s work in our lives. And I’m really thankful for that.
MH: You mentioned children earlier. How many do you have?
DH: Three. Two daughters and a son who are, as of this year, grown and gone. But not far. Our daughter Marsena is married to Daniel and lives in Chattanooga, TN. She’s a writer, a novelist with her first one published as A Dark Oval Stone and currently works on film scripts. Jerem married Micah in November 2002 and lives near Warroad, MN. He works for Marvin Windows and cannot believe he has found someone as delightful as Micah to share his life. (They are way too cute together.) They have four children. Anson, Paige, Ava Lou and Milo – who was a little surpise after a five year gap. A pleasant surprise. Sember, our youngest, has five children which keeps her plenty busy. She also lives in Chattanooga, TN
MH: Has being a father affected your life or ministry? As if it wouldn’t!
DH: Next to my wife, our children have been most influential in shaping my life, my character, my walk with God. Without them I would be more arrogant, completely impatient as opposed to somewhat, far less trusting of God, less tolerant, and less aware of what the “burning issues” are for postmoderns. They have been a source of both painful growth and inexpressible joy. I cannot explain why they seem to love me in spite of my failures as a parent, but I am thankful. The other joy of having been a father is our grandchildren. There is hardly anything I would not do for them. I have often told my wife that it would be a wonderful trick to just go directly to grand-parenting. So, yes, I think being a father has had the net effect of making me more compassionate and more authentic person. They’ve helped keep me anchored in the real world.
[MH nods in agreement.]
Margie is author of Letters from the House Between (formerly Notes from Toad Hall) a four-times-annual publication that includes personal reflections and a ministry update for Ransom Fellowship. She has been a featured speaker at various conferences and retreats on topics ranging from the providence of God in suffering to the cultural significance of tattooing. The subject that most intrigues and challenges her is what is required for us to be faithful in ordinary, everyday life.
She is the author of The Exact Place a childhood memoir of coming to faith, and God in the Sink a collection of essays taken from her publication Notes From Toad Hall. They highlight the many ways we find ourselves facing life with all its challenges, humor, suffering, and sacredness.
She’s now grateful she didn’t pursue medicine, as she had one day hoped, because she is more interested in and more skilled at the art of writing and hospitality, which involves but isn’t limited to comfort food, painting every room a vibrant color, and gathering pieces of eclectic furniture that invite you in and enjoin you to sit down and rest awhile.
Favorite addiction: coffee.
Favorite hobbies: Yarn bombing. Collecting mushrooms and guessing which ones would kill you if you ate them.
For all who want to punish themselves by learning more: below there’s an interview of Margie by Margie.
Margie Haack “The Interview”
(An interview conceived, written and answered by Margie who thinks she knows herself well enough to be honest with hardly any exaggeration or irony.)
Where I grew up, here in Minnesota, we were taught that being quiet and shy was a virtue, not a problem for your therapist. If I ventured to mention the blue ribbon I won at the county fair for barrel racing even though there were only two other entries, my father would tell me to get over myself. It is difficult to get over your heritage, but the manager of our website says I must. So I am trying to think of anything I have done or said that might be worthy of being co-director of Ransom Fellowship for twenty some years. I can’t think of much except that it is evidence of God’s great grace, and that I married the other co-director and for years there wasn’t anyone around to help him seal envelopes and take them to the post office. I collect and identify mushrooms, but some people have said what does that have to do with anything? I would agree, but when you look close you see that God made them strange and beautiful and they make you want to identify The Destroying Angel in case you were ever tempted to eat one….
In any case, in spite of my tendency to run down rabbit holes, here is my self-interview:
Q: So. Where were you born?
MH: In Warroad, MN, which is a very small town on the Canadian border. My mother was a seventeen year old widow at the time. We have always joked that we’d be in a nursing home together.
Q: And where did you grow up, then?
MH: Oh, up there. It’s pretty remote. Kind of a cross between a Twilight Zone swamp and the forests of The Lord of the Rings. But I got out. [Smirks.]
MH: I went to the University of Minnesota on a scholarship and majored in pre-med. [Looks smug.]
Q: Does that mean you’re a doctor?
MH: Well, no. I met my future husband while at school and he was having a very bad experience living with a medical person. You see, his parents were missionaries in the Philippines and he had been left behind with a family from his church and the mother who was a nurse had a tiny problem with germs and such. Everything was covered with plastic sheeting. There’s more, but I can’t say it. It left Denis wary of medicine and the people in it, so he didn’t want anything to do with the profession as a whole. Of course, we now know how unfair this was. And possibly not mature. But there I was and he loved me and I loved him quite madly and one of us had to give something up. So I said, awww, who wants to study for m-cats anyway? I also wasn’t doing so good in organic chem.
Q: Did this decision to leave your studies and hook up with, er, marry Denis ever come back to haunt you, that is did you have any regrets?
MH: You bet I did. Every mother who has several babies in diapers, a husband who works long hours in a calling he loves, one family vehicle, and no money has second thoughts. Around then I became a feminist for a couple of years. I was really mad. [Furrows brows and looks grim.] I was very influenced by both Francis and Edith Schaeffer’s writings—Mrs. Schaeffer modeled something wonderful as she understood how important beauty and creativity are to the making of a home. At the time it was revolutionary among evangelicals. She helped me see that the intimacy and nourishment of even a simple meal can make all the difference for someone who is hungry for God. Not only for friends and visitors, but for one’s own family. I was able, without guilt, to go from Melmac (plastic dishes) and paper plates to pottery and china. That was a small thing in a way, but it represented moving from a throw-away, impersonal kind of culture to one that valued beauty, thoughtfulness, time spent together that says: as another human being, you mean something to me and are worth this effort because you are made in the image of the Creator God.
BUT then I went through this time where I was extremely nasty to Denis because he seemed to get to do all the fun things and I was sick of serving the tea and the tea-cakes and changing diapers while he sat in the living room engaging with people while pearls of wisdom dropped from his lips. I began to think about how much more fulfilled I would be if I had gone into medicine. And then I would have had money, too. You can see where all this might lead. He could not ask the smallest thing of me during that time because I completely unloaded on him. We did a lot of arguing and had a lot to learn. What finally got through to me was a simple passage from Matt 20:26-28 “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave, just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” And then in John 13 where Jesus washed the Disciples feet, he asks them point blank: “Do you understand what I have done? Do you?” I had to answer, yes I do understand. And it pierced me to suddenly realize how very, very destructive my attitude was. There were just no excuses against or around what God calls each and every one of us to do in our everyday lives. I’m not only saying women here, but men, too. I simply could not argue that I was the one exception to this calling and could not ignore that Jesus expected me to follow his example in all things including in my marriage. It was hard to give up that anger. I still work at it. Both of us grew through this time. Denis became more helpful, too. Later as we came to know more and more physicians, I began to see I never would have made it through the punishing schedule they must keep. I wasn’t that driven. Or disciplined? And it became obvious that my interests lay much more in arts and culture.
Q: So let’s get back to Ransom Fellowship. Exactly what do you do for Ransom?
Well, Ransom has always been a lot about who we are or what we do in our home. Our home—Toad Hall—has been a place where people have come to stay, to talk, to eat, even to do something that is more and more needed today and that is to sleep or to rest. It has been important to us that our home reflect something of creativity and beauty, that you should be able to walk in and say “I could sit down and feel comfortable here, I could read a book, or I could talk about something very personal and important because I feel safe.” This atmosphere depends on what you do with things like color, art, and space, and how you put it all together. It has less to do with how much you spend on furniture (ours is eclectic and some of it is shabby) and decorating than it has to do with a certain dimension of humanness or perhaps of proportion. So throughout our years in ministry we have had people in for Bible study, discussions, play readings, music, movies, and meals. And much to our delight we’ve been able to feed people both physically and spiritually and in serving, we ourselves have been blessed many times over.
In addition to being a fallen domestic goddess, I write and sometimes lecture. I put out Notes From Toad Hall (in 2015 we moved to a different home so I now write Letters from The House Between) four times a year with the help of a managing editor. I sometimes write essays for other publications and have published The Exact Place a memoir about my childhood and God in the Sink, a collection of essays. Writing is hard work for me and I often feel like a cat we once owned who needed a daily dose of medicine. We had to wrap her in a towel to immobilize her—that didn’t stop her from trying to bite us—then we had to force the pill between her clenched jaws and stroke her throat until she swallowed it. I feel akin to her; God makes me swallow this pill of writing and has even wrapped me in a sort of towel which has curtailed a lot of my activities.
Q: Do you have a favorite lecture?
MH: How did you know I wanted to answer that question? Yes, I do. I really enjoyed one I prepared titled “Piercing the Tattooed Generation.” I love this generation. Getting to know them and understanding the issues they face has been watershed for me. They are full of the deepest griefs, some of the wildest humor, and most profound joys I have known. Knowing them is critical to the church if we are going to have any sort of significant dialogue regarding Jesus. And okay, I confess that I also like it when someone comes up afterwards to show me their tattoos which, of course, you wouldn’t necessarily know they had because they’re hidden under clothing.
Q: Umm, let’s get back to some of the more basic details of your life. Like do you have any children?
MH: Three. Marsena is married to Daniel. She was our first child and was so compliant and easy to discipline some of our friends decided they would have children after all because she appeared so perfect. Denis and I thought it was due to our wonderful godly parenting and he even taught a Sunday School series on “How to Raise Children.” Then God gave us two more children who were far more normal, meaning they were more challenging at times and had a knack for engaging our dark sides. Now Denis wishes like anything he could find the tapes of that Sunday School and destroy them all. Our son, Jerem, lives in northern Minnesota having returned to his mother’s roots, and is married to Micah and has four children of his own, having weathered his growing up years and post adolescence very nicely. Our youngest, Sember, is a lovely woman with five great kids. There is no doubt that Jerem and Sember were gifts from God for many reasons. But, distinctly, one of them was to keep us from becoming insufferable prigs. For that reason and for many others we love them.
Q: What’s it like to be in ministry with the same person for so many years, to be married to the same guy, to have your offices in the same building, and do all the same things together? [His office is on the second floor right above hers and both look out on a wooded ravine so they can notify one another when wildlife comes into view with: “Deer! On your left!”]
MH: I know. It’s weird. [She laughs.] But we still like each other. Sure there are times. I’m glad to mention them when appropriate. We make each other laugh a lot. I admire and respect him. As we have partnered together over the years, he has encouraged me and been my best advocate for developing my particular gifts. He has never acted as though I were competing with him or somehow eclipsing him. I am far more competitive than he so that has been a remarkable model for me. We have learned to appreciate and rely on one another’s gifts not just in our ministry, but when it comes to family matters, decisions about finances, and the household. We usually defer to one another or come to an agreement. So, yes, we do a lot together and some people think it is sick and boring, but we like it most of the time. And, oh by the way, so you don’t think we are completely pathologic, we can function quite well apart and have distinct hair styles. (Please see photos.)
Q: Do you have an accent, being from Minna-soda?
MH: I hide it. If I don’t, people think I starred as myself (Marge, the county sheriff) in the movie Fargo. This pains me.
Q: What do you like to do in your spare time?
MH: Lay around? I have a, like, it’s a carved oak wooden post, quite heavy, about two and a half feet tall. It’s flat on top and just right for a cup of coffee or a glass of iced tea. I like to drag it up close to the couch so that when I am lying down I can reach out and grab it, and I have a crossword puzzle, the latest seed catalog, and whatever book I’m reading, like right now it’s a collection of short stories by Robert Olen Butler. When feeling more active I like to collect mushrooms and identify them. My favorite is Fly Agaric, the bright orange toadstool that looks like it dropped out of a fairytale. It’s poisonous and slightly hallucinogenic. I’m not tempted.
Q: So finally, do you ever read your Bible?
Everyday. Well. Almost. Umm, sometimes. (Please see The Bible Reading Program for Shirkers and Slackers from Notes From Toad Hall, Still Winter, 2002)
Q: You didn’t have to answer that. Remember? You’re the one asking the questions.