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Scholar and Minister, Father and Son

Families: The two widely admired figures are much alike and their Sunday school classes are always full, yet both agree it's a challenging relationship.


Like many sons of illustrious men, the Rev. Michael M. Bruner wishes people would stop comparing him to his father, theologian F. Dale Bruner.

"Being your twin," Pastor Michael likes to tell Professor Dale, "isn't exactly my aspiration, with all due respect."

But comparisons seem unavoidable with these two wiry, bespectacled graduates of Princeton Theological Seminary. Both are admired Bible expositors who love teaching and believe passionately the power of God's redeeming grace.

Their Sunday school classes at the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood are always full, not only with professing Christians but non-churchgoing yuppies, some driving an hour one way on Sunday mornings. Even agnostics come to check them out. So do mentally troubled street people, who wander in, babbling to themselves, looking for a warm, friendly place in the heart of Hollywood.

The Bruners--a 69-year-old New Testament scholar, author and former missionary to the Philippines and a 36-year-old Presbyterian minister--are happy to see them all.

With drama, humor, scholarship and enthusiasm, father and son explore Scriptures, one right after the other in the same auditorium-like hall. They sometimes use their own struggles with ambition, anger, doubts and relationships to make their points.

"They are both tightly wired and intense, romantic and sentimental, curious and passionate for truth," says Dale's wife of 43 years and Michael's mother, Kathy Bruner. "But it comes out differently. Dale sits on his innards, is very circumspect and proper. Michael's innards tend toward spontaneous combustion."

The father says his single most difficult relationship in life has been with Michael. The son says his relationship with his father has been "contentious" since he was a baby. "We continue to love each other and fight with each other," Michael says.

They laugh over a drawing that enjoys a prominent spot in the father's cozy home in a compound for retired Presbyterian clergy in Pasadena. Michael did it at age 4, portraying his mother as a gentle baby bird, himself as a big ferocious monkey-eating eagle, and his father as an ant--a mere speck on the canvas.

"That," the father says, "explains our relationship."

On Sundays, the professor starts at 9:30 a.m. with an audience whose ages range from their 20s to their 90s. The son follows at 10:45 a.m. They preach in the Henrietta Mears Center, named after Dale's mentor, the legendary Christian educator who built Hollywood Presbyterian's Sunday school enrollment from 400 to 6,300 before her death in 1963. Michael's class caters mostly to professionals in their 20s, 30s and 40s.

Professor Dale and Pastor Michael use theater and storytelling skills to make the Bible relevant to 21st century urbanites trying to cope with life's vicissitudes.

The professor, who once memorized 20 chapters of Psalms in English, French and Hebrew, starts each class by reciting his Bible verses for the day. He uses his rendition of Bible characters in stick figures on two huge white boards to illustrate his lessons.

When he first began teaching at the Union Theological Seminary in the Philippines in 1964, Dale Bruner read his lectures as his professors had done at the University of Hamburg, where he earned his doctorate in missiology. His Filipino students fell asleep on him.

His wife, daughter of the late F. Carlton Booth, a professor at Fuller Theological Seminary and noted evangelist, suggested that Dale memorize Bible verses and "eyeball" the students. It worked. Soon, he added illustrations and record playing. Toward the end of his tour, the theology professor from America had become a self-styled "song and dance" missionary.

Pastor Michael, who traveled the world for a year as a professional drummer in a zydeco band, begins his classes with live music--singing, piano, drums, guitar--and on occasion even saxophone.

A "teacher with powerful theology and a casual wardrobe," Rob Asghar, a church elder and a member of Michael's class, describes him.

Michael was born and reared in the rural Philippines, where he and his brother, Frederick, now an American diplomat in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, spoke Tagalog with their Filipino playmates, made their own toys, ran through the jungles, climbed trees and swam in the rivers wearing what amounted to not much more than a loincloth.

Michael worked as a fisherman in Alaska, apprentice carpenter in Washington and spinning instructor in California; took eight years to finish college; resisted going to Princeton because he thought that would be "the kiss of death that would seal me as my father's clone"; wrote a novel; edited manuscripts; married and divorced.

Even after his ordination and pastoring a church in New Jersey, Michael ventured into the secular world, working as an executive in Internet, advertising and publishing companies.

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