Though the eyes may be windows to the soul, a casual glance at Dr. Robert Olsen, associate professor of Christian studies at University of Mobile, tells of his fun and approachable spirit. Signature muttonchops, white lab coat and Star Wars lightsaber prompt students, and almost everyone, to wonder just what he will say next.
“My wife has facial hair blindness,” said Olsen, “so I decided to cut off part of my beard — it was originally Amish-looking. I’ve had these (muttonchops) for about a year, and I can’t cut them now — they’re how everyone knows me.”
While attending college, Olsen was given a white lab coat from his dad, a biology teacher.
“I wore it around my campus back then, too,” he said. “It’s like my own Batman utility belt — a great place to keep pens, paper clips, stress ball, whatever I need to have at my fingertips. My light saber is a great tool to turn on an out-of-reach projector or to use as a pointer.”
In his 11th year at UM teaching in the School of Christian Studies, Olsen’s passion is imparting foundational truths of Christianity. He stresses that understanding doctrine today must have as its context knowing church history.
“Context is very important to me. I want to know how everything goes together,” he said. “The way to understand now is to look at the past. Problems arise when you don’t understand history.”
Growing up in an Independent Baptist Church in Delaware, but not always understanding its concepts or responsibilities, Olsen confesses to receiving Jesus in primary church one week as a first grader, but recalls his teacher saying, “No, Bobby, you did that last week.”
When he got to college and leaders of the Christian groups he attended pressed him to get more involved in leadership, he simply moved on.
“The idea of it stressed me,” he said.
Finding his life’s work was a journey. Six months into his first job as a biology teacher, he knew it wasn’t what he wanted, and he quit. It spurred a painful break-up with his fiancée.
“That is when spiritual growth started in my life,” said Olsen. “Trauma is like that, and it was the best thing that could have happened to me.”
Just a month after the painful parting, God brought a second godly woman into his life.
“Sarah was a mature Christian, much more mature than I was,” he said. “I saw that she lived out what she believed.” The couple married two years later.
Valuable advice from his wife’s former youth pastor sent him to enroll in classes at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS) in Wake Forest, North Carolina. He taught Latin at a private Christian school to third through 10th grade students and taught biology for two of his six years there.
While in seminary, he taught as an adjunct professor at the College at Southeastern, affiliated with SBTS. By 2006, Olsen had earned Master of Divinity and Doctor of Philosophy degrees.
Before joining the faculty at University of Mobile in 2008, the Olsens, with their young children Peter and Anna in tow, spent a year teaching middle school students at Agua Viva Children’s Home and School in Guatemala. Mrs. Olsen taught math, and Dr. Olsen taught Bible, computer and physical education to orphans — in Spanish.
As the Olsen family joined the UM family, the size of their own crew increased by two. The family relocated to Mobile, Olsen started his new job, and Sarah gave birth to twin girls, Eleanor and Elizabeth — a stressful and action-packed first semester.
Teaching a variety of subjects at UM, from Christian Worldview to Honors English, has allowed Olsen to connect with non-Christian Studies majors as well as those studying for ministry.
“I’m passionate about truth,” he said, “and I have a drive for students to understand why people believe the way they do.”
Olsen encourages Christian students to represent Christ in the classroom by speaking out and addressing cultural issues that come up in class.
“When I see students engaged with Christian culture, it makes me optimistic about the future,” said Olsen. “I’m pleased to find really committed Christians at UM.”
Wyatt Jones, a senior theology major, believes Olsen’s uniqueness inspires his students to be confident in the person God made them to be.
“He places a strong emphasis on being honest with God, and himself, and that honesty flows into his teaching,” said Jones.
Once fearful of answering questions in class, Jones was inspired by the way Olsen honestly examined and tested his own thoughts in discussions with the class.
“It motivated me to speak up and make my voice heard,” said Jones. “His humility in the classroom helped me become a more confident thinker.”
UM students Dallas Dodson and Hannah Atkins Dodson, a married couple both majoring in Spanish and intercultural studies, have previously taken Olsen’s classes and are currently enrolled in his denominationalism seminar.
Building great relationships with his students and other faculty members is a hallmark of Olsen’s life, according to the couple. Engaging and generous with his time and advice, the professor has helped Dallas discover opportunities for ministry.
“He has greatly encouraged me as I pursue God’s calling on my life,” Dallas said.
Olsen’s “fun and unique teaching style” has been a factor in drawing Hannah into the importance of history and how it informs students’ view of theology.
“I feel comfortable coming to him with any questions I have about theology — or life.” – Hannah Dodson
And as for Olsen, engaging with students, influencing them for Christ and for their future in ministry or the work force, is just a bit more fun sporting muttonchops, a white lab coat and a lightsaber.
DR. ROBERT “BOB” OLSEN
Associate Professor of Christian Studies
Bachelor of Science (biology and science education), North Carolina State University
Master of Divinity, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary
Doctor of Philosophy, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary
WORDS TO LIVE BY
“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”
– John 16:33