Les Ollila is the former president of Northland Baptist Bible College, now Northland International University. When I was in high school, our family had Ollila in for a meal when he was in Watertown, WI to speak at the Wisconsin State Youth Conclave. I think it may have been the first ever WSYC. At that time, I think, Les Ollila was some type of "youth evangelist," who spoke all over the country in meetings. He was a well-known fundamentalist leader and popular fundamentalist conference speaker.
NIU has made a massive change in leadership and direction in the last 5-10 years. Ollila is not at Northland any more and he doesn't support its changes. Recently, he was invited to Colonial Hills Baptist Church in Indianapolis, IN, where Chuck Phelps is pastor, to speak at the Crossroads Conference. There Ollila was given time in a brief Q & A to answer questions especially relating to what's happening in relationship to NIU. That I know of, this is the first public revelation of where Ollila stood and stands on the NIU situation.
What makes Ollila endearing is that in many ways he's a sort of one-of-a-kind speaker or person in fundamentalism. He's got a campy and out-there sense of humor. He'll say things in a very unique way that often times covers for the poor content of what he says. You're too busy thinking about his funny and forget that he just said something you don't agree with. At one time in the Q and A, he sent everyone reeling with his in depth exegesis of Alf, illustrating something with the television show that I've never seen. I think I remember the puppet-like figure Alf (sp?), which was enough to spur intense disinterest. Ollila seemed to love Alf. It was funny watching Dr. O go into a total Alf machination to make a point that was totally lost without Alf knowledge.
Since I'm on comedy, another funny moment was the outburst of Ollila about bloggers. Get a life! I don't know who the people are who he's talking about. I've not read a blog post critical of Ollila. He doesn't blog. The technology is past a lot of guys his age, no disrespect. Phelps started to cry on this point, wiping his eyes with a handkerchief. That didn't connect with me like it did Phelps. I had no unction to well up with tears, so it got me thinking about how much blogging there has been about Phelps and how that connected with him emotionally. I'm sure he wished blogging didn't exist as it related to the Tina Anderson issue back in his Trinity days, so he had true empathy with Ollila's feelings about blogging.
Ollila did not take questions from the crowd and there was little to no follow-up to the questions he answered from Chuck Phelps. Phelps appeared to have his own questions and some with him from the audience. All the interaction was with Phelps. It's obvious that Ollila doesn't like what's going on at Northland. My overall analysis of the Q & A is that it seemed to be an opportunity for Ollila to reestablish his fundamentalist credentials and to reconnect with the mainstream of the FBFI branch of fundamentalism. He'll need it for his future parachurch endeavor, as he hooks himself up to another ox-cart in fundamentalism. At the same time, Ollila was able to and will be able to remain a kind of hero among young fundamentalists with so much of what he said and how he said it.
Important aspects of what Ollila said did not jive with what I thought fundamentalists believed. Where he clashed with typical fundamentalism, he used humor to deflect. Phelps could have easily cleared all that up, but he just let it go. I can't imagine that Phelps agreed with Ollila, but perhaps he didn't want to embarrass him in public. Even though Ollila detached himself from NIU, I don't see how he's much different in principle. His answers bothered me and they should be a problem for fundamentalism. However, I would think that most young fundamentalists would have liked what he had to say.
In no particular order, first, Ollila said that CCM wasn't a sin -- it just wasn't wise. That's a hard one to work through, but that does almost nothing to eliminate CCM. It's either false worship or it isn't. If it is false worship, it is sin. If it isn't false worship, then it is acceptable. Ollila didn't explain how it was unwise, and Phelps didn't follow up at all. I would have asked, "Is CCM fleshly or worldly lust? If so, then it is sin, isn't it?" Or, "How is it unwise? What do you mean by that?" Ollila gave a big permission for CCM in fundamentalism with his statement on CCM. That Phelps didn't disagree showed Phelps to either agree with him or to indicate that it is a liberty issue in fundamentalism. You are free to use CCM fundamentalism, because it isn't a sin. I think this is where fundamentalism is at now.
Second, Ollila talked about his visit to John MacArthur. I don't think there is any problem with someone visiting with John MacArthur. Ollila was checking him out. It's his conclusion that was a problem. Right there in a fundamentalist meeting, Ollila gave a complete endorsement to MacArthur with zero disclaimer and he was not challenged at all by Phelps. Lots of cheering had to be going on from conservative evangelicals and young fundamentalists. Phelps asked Ollila, "Are you a separatist?" Ollila: "Yes." Phelps: "Are you a fundamentalist?" Ollila: "Yes." So there we go. Penetrating, probing analysis complete.
Ollila's defense of MacArthur was three-fold as I heard it. I could defend MacArthur too, because there is a lot I like about him. But that's not the point here -- it isn't what we're talking about. Ollila defended MacArthur with moral equivalency. Ollila wasn't going to the Hyles pastors' conference. What? That came out of left field, but it seemed to be a shot at those who have appeared with Jack Schaap at various functions, including the president of the FBFI. Ollila has a point to be made there, a legitimate one, but it doesn't stand as a defense of fellowship with MacArthur. At most, it scares away criticism, because it says that you can't criticize me for MacArthur because others did worse with Schaap. Tit for tat politics. It should have been argued by Phelps, but he just laughed it off.
The next part of his defense was that MacArthur's music, the one day Ollila was there, was better than a BJU vespers. Who knows if that's true or not, but we know that on other days that Ollila was and is not there in Southern California, MacArthur uses rock music. That's not hard to find out if you're just the slightest bit curious. I guess one day is enough to evaluate all of MacArthur's music for anyone, according to Ollila.
Lastly, he said that MacArthur preached a true gospel, and although MacArthur might be Calvinist, Ollila himself isn't one. This was again fundamentalism being reduced to a defense of a true gospel alone, gospel centered fundamentalism. Is that truly all that fundamentalism is? Because if not, someone should step up, but Phelps does not. Crickets.
Although Ollila really didn't clear up the music issue, this was not and is not the main problem with MacArthur for fundamentalists. MacArthur is the most conservative, conservative evangelical, but he does not practice separation like a fundamentalist. If that were the case, then fundamentalists would be having MacArthur in to preach for them. He fellowships with Southern Baptists. He fellowships with Charismatics. That has been a no-no for fundamentalists. Ollila left that out of his evaluation, maybe because he is a simpleton, like he referred to himself. If you are simpleton, you get a pass. You get to preach at the conference, but you are excused for everything else because simpletons can pull the simpleton card. It's a sympathy card, very convenient.
Why Ollila left NIU was because of pragmatism. He's death on pragmatism. I'd be happy to believe that. I would call Ollila selectively death on pragmatism. Why? He's so pragmatic. He signed on to the name change of NIU. He defended it. Why? It was pragmatic. It all depends on what kind of pragmatism you're talking about. He blamed the changes on the PR guys that Olson brought in. Olson brought them in, but it was the PR guys' fault. Why? He knows Olson's heart. I know Northland had the heart conference, and I never attended it, but I hope that wasn't the essence of it. As long as your heart is in the right place, you really, really are sincere and want it all to be good in your heart, then you're fine. What you actually do, like hiring the PR guys that cause the demise and fall, that is excused by your "heart." This kind of goopy sentimentalism is a big issue in fundamentalism.
It might not be the worst, but the worst part of the interview of Ollila to me was Ollila's explanation of the superiority of being a moderate. You aren't in the right ditch. You aren't in the left ditch. The Bible teaches balance (where?) and you stay away from the right wingers and the left wingers and keep right down the middle. That's the explanation of fundamentalist unity, I believe. You can unpragmatically (of course) take the right course by lopping off the extremists on either side. Who are the right wingers? They're probably the ones who take strong positions on cultural issues. Who are the left wingers? Those are the almost-anything-goes guys. Suddenly Northland was considered right ditch as it stayed in the middle of the road. What to do? When you are a parachurch organization, looking to keep your enrollment up, you've got to find that sweet spot. Northland had it when Ollila was there. Success is found in finding the middle of the road, bridging the gap between both sides. That's not how I read it in the Bible, but this is a generally acceptable idea for fundamentalism. It's not the model for a church with the Bible as sole authority.
More could be said, but the Ollila Q & A was very informative and educational. It doesn't speak well for the future of fundamentalism.