DS Interview

William F Buckley after Crossan-Craig debate.

William F Buckley after Crossan-Craig debate.

William F. Buckley died yesterday (2/27/2008). I interviewed him in the 90’s after I participated in a debate between Dominic Crossan, controversial New Testament scholar and a prominant member of the “Jesus Seminar” and William Lane Craig, philosopher and apologist. It was moderated by William F. Buckley. It was a remarkable evening and eventually became the subject of a book and set of tapes. Immediately following the debate I interviewed Buckley back stage, Recently I discovered an individual had made a transcript of the debate (which I think I have in my tape archives but had never transcribed). I think it is fascinating, so here it is!

Prior to the debate Buckley found a piano and asked not to be disturbed. He sat and played Chopin beautifully–I will always visualize him, not just in witty, intelligent, mischievous, feisty debate–I will member him off stage in private, quietly playing the piano.

DS: I’m interested, first of all, in why you agreed to do this debate. What was it about the subject or the players in this debate that made this worth your time?

WFB: I agreed to do it because I’m writing a book on Christianity, and I wanted to hear live the tone, the feel of a modern skeptic. In many senses Dr. Crossan wasn’t that — he kept saying that he believed in God, he believed in Christianity — so that in that sense I didn’t quite get what I came looking for.

DS: What is it at stake in the issues that were being dealt with tonight?

WFB: Well, what is at stake, really, is the continuation of the Christian commitment. Put it this way: if it were absolutely certain in everybody’s mind that Christ was divine, wouldn’t they simply need — for self-protection, if only that — to behave differently? And under the circumstances, since people behave as they do, what they manage to do is simply rule out the Christian alternative. Now a nice way to rule it out is to say that it wasn’t really there in the first place. And Dr. Crossan is there to reassure people who are skeptical at that distance.

DS: If Dr. Crossan was here I’m sure he would argue that he starts with a certain literary criticism, an approach, a methodology, that has led him to certain conclusions. Certainly, I don’t think he would say that he has started trying to provide an excuse for ill behavior in society.

WFB: No, no, I’m not saying that’s his motive, I’m saying that’s the motive of his followers.

DS: That’s why people are enthused by his conclusions.

WFB: Sure. Put it this way: anybody who says, “I have here a very concrete analysis that disproves the validity of the Christian religion,” you get a lot of disciples, do you not? Because a lot of people have a personal, and also an ideological, and even a religious stake for disbelief in Christianity. So it generates its own constituency.

DS: He said near the end of the debate that he doesn’t know how you can win a debate like this. Did you sense that there was a clear winner in this debate tonight?

WFB: No, there wasn’t, except that the “tug” of modern knowledge about Christianity sides with Craig, not with Crossan. That is to say, if it were established that Christ didn’t rise, that would be a front page story. As it is, it gets occasional mention in odd news magazines — the “Jesus Seminar” people. So, in that sense, he couldn’t hope to prevail. The most that he could hope to do is to stir it out. Except to the extent that people sometimes, as I said tonight, yielding to a restive intelligence, entertain doubts that are not always hygienic, he would not have made any headway.

DS: You asked him a question, somewhat in humor, but I think somewhat seriously, “Why are you here?” I’m reminded of the political phrase that we’re both accustomed to “the big tent,” “is the tent big enough?” And in looking at Roman Catholicism and a Dominic Crossan and asking how big is the tent of Roman Catholicism, and how does Dominic Crossan fit?

WFB: That was very curious because you’ll remember that in his closing statement he said that the end of the world, as far as he was concerned — meaning of what he would most approve — is a situation in which liberal Christians can speak to conservative Christians. Well, my answer to that is I don’t think the word “Christian” can be contained in a definition that excludes Christ as divine. The ethical culture people or the Unitarians don’t consider themselves Christians. Nor are they. Now this doesn’t mean that they’re not very nice people and that we don’t welcome the fact that they have faith in their particular doctrines — but they’re not Christians! The trouble with welcoming an amalgamation of the kind that would include Crossan and Craig is it becomes meaningless. There is nothing in between Christ’s divinity or non-divinity. He is either divine or he is not divine.

DS: Crossan would argue, I think, that he, again, is committed to a certain literary criticism, a certain methodology. It’s the type that I was exposed to at Harvard Divinity School, and anybody in the major liberal divinity schools today is being exposed to this. And that he has simply followed the logic of that methodology. As a matter of fact, in his concluding comments tonight he said “I have simply applied this methodology fully. I have applied it not only to the words of Jesus and to the deeds of Jesus, but to the resurrection of Jesus and to the articles of faith…”

WFB: But he can’t get away with it. Look, “methodology” is simply a structural method by which one proceeds. But Craig nailed him on that, because he said there is no structural method by which Crossan has proceeded — except that he is a naturalist and that he disbelieves the four principal historical validations of the resurrection of Christ. Having rejected those, all he becomes is a romancer. He gives us a way to acknowledge the existence of Christ, non-divine, and do away with the resurrection. Well, that’s playing games, however gifted one is and however resourceful one’s imagination, it’s simply playing games.

Now, games are there to be played. If you want to write another book saying that Kennedy was in fact not assassinated by Oswald, go ahead and do it. But spare me any sense of obligation to hear you out again.

DS: When we look at the issue of miracles, did you agree with Craig’s assessment that Crossan in fact was a naturalist? Crossan’s own definition that the spiritual only works through the natural seemed to me to be a difficult way of describing the supernatural.

WFB: He really tried to have it both ways. What he said was that God exists, however God confines himself to working through the natural order, i.e., he does not intervene. I asked him is God capable of intervening? He had a tough time with that. Because if he said yes, he was capable, then he would have to tell us why he never chose to intervene. So as I say, there again, if you define God as “that which exists, whatever it is,” then we all believe in God. Because something exists. Winds and stars and the Aurora Borealis are all there. And simply to affirm a belief in God because of that doesn’t really get us very far theologically, does it?

DS: I’d like to get to the issue of certitude which is one of the issues that you were raising tonight as well. It’s almost as if you are saying that if a person wandered off the street and heard this debate tonight, and they were a reasonable and reasonably intelligent person, they would be compelled by the nature of this debate, anyway, to believe that Jesus was a historical person, he did rise from the dead.

WFB: No, no they wouldn’t. Because tonight simply wasn’t comprehensive enough. There’s no way in which you can say to somebody, listen in for three hours to anything, and become a Christian.

DS: But is it your belief that, in fact, if given enough time, that we are concluding based on the fact that the majority of scholars agree that Jesus was buried in Joseph of Arimathea’s grave, that there was an empty tomb — we went through the line of argument that William Lane Craig raised. Would we then start concluding that we are reaching a point where the resurrection is verifiable and provable in such a way that it ought to be compelling to any reasonable person to believe it?

WFB: Well, yes, except that human nature sets up certain resistances which aren’t necessarily rational. If we take the four statements of Craig — we know where he was buried, we know that he wasn’t there the next day, he was seen by other people, and the whole experience was validated by his apostles — then you say, “Well I’ve got problems if I don’t believe in Christ.” However, a lot of people don’t: the Jews don’t believe in him, Islam doesn’t believe in him, pagans don’t believe in him. So therefore, we can’t simply say, by pointing to these historical data, you can verify the resurrection. There is an element there of whatever you want to call it. But now are you dealing in natural theology or sacred theology? Well, there’s that admixture of the two. Mortimer Adler has written very interestingly on this question.

DS: When we look at one of the major issues really tonight, which was in the nature of Christianity itself, can one separate the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith? What did you make of that dynamic in tonight’s discussion?

WFB: I made of that that Crossan is urging the position that the Christ of Christianity, the risen Christ, the divine Christ, he doesn’t necessarily want to impeach. But he wants to tell us as a scholar that there are certain sundering differences between that Christ and the Christ that he as a theological historian has identified. Because that particular one didn’t rise from the dead, didn’t perform miracles, etc., etc.

Now one is entitled to ask the question, why does he not confront the notion that Christians don’t want to persevere with a religion, the foundations of which have been overturned? Paul said it, “if Christ is not risen, then our faith is in vain.” But he seems to be saying, “It’s a cozy and useful faith, inspires a lot of people. So other than revealing to them that there is no reason to believe in Christ, I urge them to continue.”

DS: Did you feel that Crossan raised any serious questions that do demand a better response than they received tonight?

WFB: No.

DS: You didn’t.

WFB: No, I didn’t, no. Now I’m not a theologian, but Craig mentioned, what, half a dozen — eight, nine, or ten — scholars, who surveying the same evidence come to different conclusions from Crossan. So I have no reason at all to suppose that his is other than an idiosyncratic reading of the gospel and of the historical evidence.

DS: Was there any sense in which you thought that what we had tonight was someone who is by nature, gift, temperament, and experience, a debater in William Lane Craig…

WFB: No.

DS: …and someone who is by nature a scholar, a researcher, a student, and not a debater in Crossan, and therefore we had a lopsided debate by virtue of the skills of the debaters themselves?

WFB: No, no I didn’t, I didn’t feel that. I think that the situation called for the exercise of polemical skills. Polemical skills, making war on your position. But since Craig was talking from an established understanding, he had a more destructive role than Crossan, who was telling people in many cases things they had never heard before. He therefore had a different mandate: his mandate was to explain odd conclusions that he has reached. And the mission of Craig was to say “Here’s what you’re about to hear, and here’s why it’s not so.”

DS: You were saying earlier that, when I had said it was kind of an interesting debate, you said there was really no thunder.

WFB: No.

DS: What would you have thought might have happened in a debate of this sort on this subject?

WFB: Well, anybody who has read some of the great exchanges, even in this century, involving people like Henry Mencken, or William Lloyd Garrison, or Mark Twain, they put an awful lot of fire into what they said. Not only thunder in the sense of brimstone, but thunder in the sense of a total devotion and commitment to your position. Fulton Sheen would have used a certain amount of thunder; civil thunder, but thunderous…

DS: Nevertheless.

WFB: Yes.

DS: But you know, when you look at Crossan, one of the reasons I think we didn’t see that kind of thunder, was while he has taken a radical position which for most of us leads us to a conclusion that would put us outside the faith, he is taking that radical position and then concluding by saying “I’m a Christian, you’re a Christian; I’m liberal, you’re conservative; and we can all get along and it’s good that we do.” So by his own kind of predisposition, he’s arguing that this is really important stuff, but not so important that it keeps us all from fellowshipping as Christians.

WFB: It doesn’t work! Because — Craig is correct — either Christ was a blasphemer or he was divine. And I don’t want to worship a blasphemer. And I think it unreasonable for Crossan to expect that I should want to do so. So to the extent that he sustains his thesis, he excommunicates the entire Christian community.

DS: I still go back to my impression tonight, and I predicted this going into this on the way here. We just had a guest from Germany and a guest from France. They were both in our home at the same time, and watching the two of them communicate was very interesting, as you can imagine. And I said to my wife, “I feel like what we’re going to see tonight is one person who speaks German, and the other speaks French.” Crossan is essentially in a very narrow field of New Testament scholarship using a certain methodology. Craig, on the other hand, is a philosopher and a theologian. They really do speak different languages, they’re on different playing fields, and in a certain sense we never connected the fields tonight.

WFB: Well, I don’t think that’s true. For instance, how to interpret the resurrection in the light of Jewish thought. There was a very interesting and, I thought, valuable exchange between the two. They were both talking there as theological historians. But it is true that there wasn’t an engagement in the sense that you speak of. This is, in part, because the contributions of Dr. Crossan are, as I say, modernist and unfamiliar.

Suppose I said to you now “OK, we’re going to have a debate tomorrow for two hours on the question of ‘Was Lincoln killed?'” You say “What?” I say, “Yes, I know somebody, a scholar, who thinks that Lincoln’s death was faked. He was taken out of the way and then he went to Brazil,” or whatever. Now, it would be hard to have a debate on that subject, because the person who upheld the fact that Lincoln was not assassinated would be simply postulating a whole series of connections and coincidences and this, that, and the other, which people listen to and don’t have really a chance to comprehend in the sense that they might comprehend the question “Who killed Kennedy?” Since books are written about that, and movies, still. So you can study that question, and then have a debate.

DS: But you could have had an evangelical who uses the literary-critical method debating Crossan. And that evangelical New Testament scholar — a Raymond Brown from the Catholic tradition — could have, using the same methodology as Crossan, demonstrated why his conclusions are incorrect based on the text itself. And what we had tonight was theological and philosophical argumentation on the one hand, and on the other hand some conclusions without much understanding of the methodology that reached those conclusions. And Craig strategically chose to keep the issue on these theological presuppositions that he started the debate with, and really not to get into the methodological issues that were driving Crossan’s argument.

WFB: Well, he gave the reasons for not doing so, but didn’t do so. That’s correct. But there was only a touch towards the end of the Craig final statement of a straight-forward appeal to the importance of the faith. When he said as a young man, he beheld Christ and became a Christian, and that has been the dominant influence in his life. He let that out. But there was no sense this evening of the preacher, the evangelist, who wants to communicate his faith, rather than maybe to show you how to cope with the skeptic.

DS: Thank you for being with us.

WFB: Nice to talk to you.

Posted in DS Interview, Staublog in February 28, 2008 by | No Comments »

Mike Yaconelli-Messy Spirituality

Mike Yaconelli-Messy Spirituality

Taped in 2002.
(Tragically, Mike lost his life in 2003, but we are grateful to have this memory.)
Read the transcript here.
Listen to the audio at www.thekindlings.com

Our next guest has been coloring outside the lines for a long time. He is the former editor of The Door, one of the founders of that magazine. It used to be called The Wittenburg Door. He’s the owner and co-founder of Youth Specialties, which has had a tremendous impact on how we do youth ministry in this culture. He’s also the author of several books. By his own confession in this book he is the pastor of “the slowest growing church in America,” which is a contrast to many guests who trot their stuff out into the public arena. And he’s also an advocate of what he calls “messy spirituality.” And he’s written a book by the same title. It is published by Zondervan. Messy Spirituality: God’s Annoying Love for Imperfect People. And it is great to have you with us.

I thank you, man. Glad to be here.

Q. You start out by saying 45 years following Jesus and your life is a mess.
A. Yeah. You know, the subtitle of the book was going to be “Christianity for
the rest of us.”

Q. Yeah.
A. And the reason I put that there is because I was so tired of reading religious
books and hearing religious speakers tell me how perfect they were, and I would end up hearing a sermon or reading a book or going to some religious meeting, and at the end of the meeting I felt worse than when I got there because they had it all together. They had it all figured out. You know what? I’m almost 60. I’ve had five children. And let me tell you, I don’t have life figured out yet. In fact, the older when I was 18 I knew everything.

Q. You and I are in the same place in that sense. I-I used to really have the
answers for a lot of stuff and now, you know, I’m 54, I’ve got, you know, kids in process and some finishing school, and one of the wonderful things about life is being able to get to the place where you realize not only don’t you have the answers you don’t even have to, which is kind of a-kind of a bit of a relief for anybody raised in the ¢â‚¬Ëœ60s. We were going to change the world. Now we’re just trying to change our socks regularly is what’s happening. How did your journey get started? You’ve done a lot of really interesting some people would say quirky, some people would say radical, some people would even say, you know, terrible things I mean, not everybody loves The Door. Where did your spiritual journey get started?
A. Well, I think I’ve always been out of place. I think I’ve always been odd. I
think I’ve always been different. In fact, I’m convinced that’s a spiritual gift, you know. Hemingway was asked what makes a great writer and he said, it’s somebody with a built-in crap detector. And I think I suddenly discovered my spiritual gift, which is exactly that. So I’ve always been kind of on the outside.

Q. Were you born in a Christian home?
A. No. My folks were converted when I was like 11 years old.

Q. Where was that?
A. In Orange County.

Q. Oh, man. Where abouts?
A. Right there in Anaheim.

Q. Oh, man. I was in Fullerton. I can’t believe that.
A. So yeah. I went to Anaheim High School.

Q. Fullerton High School here.
A. And my folks had this incredible conversion, just turned around. And I did, too. At 11 years old. I can remember the night I became a Christian. And man, this weight came off of me and all that kind of stuff. What I didn’t realize was, that was just the beginning–

Q. Yeah.
A. –of a huge journey. And the older I’ve got the less I know about God and yet the more well, that’s why I put annoying love

Q. Yeah.
A. ¢€œin the subtitle of this book, because if someone were to say to me, Mike, why are you a Christian? Well, it’s not because of the Bible. I’m sorry. I mean, I like the Bible, I believe in the Bible. And what I like about the Bible is it tells the truth. You know, what happened when I went to church was they edited out all the stuff in the Bible so that when Noah, when I heard the story of Noah I was always just thrilled to hear about this

Q. The boat and the rainbow.
A. ¢€œman who believed in God and, yeah, the only guy who believed in God. They didn’t mention that when he got off the boat he got drunk and got naked.

Q. Yeah.
A. Now, they never told that. Thank God they didn’t put that on a flannelgraph, but I’m here to tell you that I never heard that story.

Q. So the theology that you were raised in and the faith into which you were introduced was not messy. It was the idea until you met Jesus things are messy and now you’ve met Jesus and things are going to be straight.
A. They’re going to be great, you’re going to get fixed, you’re going to be perfect.

Q. What was the point at which you realized that this was not going to work for Mike Yaconelli, that something-there was some dissonance between what you understood the truth to be and what you were being raised in?
A. Well, the beginnings of it happened when my daughter got cancer. She was 18 months old.

Q. And you were how old by this point?
A. I was 30-30¢â‚¬¦

Q. So until your 30s you were pretty much in the-in the game?
A. Oh, totally. I was trying I mean, I was a little bit outside it but I always felt guilty about it

Q. Yeah.
A. ¢€œfelt like I was-it was something wrong with me.

Q. Yeah.
A. And at that point when my daughter got cancer and she was 18 months old, and I had all these Christian people who were wonderful people and they meant well, came to me and told me, you know, why God was doing it and even if she died she’d be with God and isn’t that better. And I’m thinking, no, not really.

Q. Yeah.
A. And I’m struggling with this whole thing. That was the beginning of the sort of crack in my faith where I realized there’s more to God than just fixing people. There’s more to God I’m praying my brains out and nothing’s happening.

Q. So what did you do with that? You’ve got this new revelation and-and you’re in the sub-culture. You’re-you’re surrounded by well-meaning people who are marching to a beat of-of the same drummer and you’re suddenly realizing not only are they marching to a beat of a different drummer, but I suspect that the drummer that they’re listening to isn’t actually a true tone. I mean, there’ something more here. What do you do with that?
A. Well, first of all, I-I was attracted to writers. I began to read. I wasn’t a reader.

Q. Really.
A. I just didn’t read.

Q. You’ve got a bunch of great quotes in this book.
A. I-I-I started reading and I became a voracious reader. And I realized, hey, well you know what? I’m not alone.

Q. Yeah.
A. I mean, the other thing was that I became incredibly lonely. I mean, I-I think that when you follow Christ, one of the things that happens when you start listening to his voice is that you really are alone.

Q. Yeah.
A. I mean, I know there’s the church and I know there’s the community of God and that’s all great. But really, when you go to bed at night, you go, am I crazy? I mean, am I-am I is this really true?

Q. Yeah.
A. You know. And-so that began that kind of a journey. The next thing that happened was when I was 50, and I read a book by Henry Nouwen called In the Name of Jesus. And I’m one of these guys that when I read a book by somebody that really impresses me I call them up and ask them if I can come see them. Most of them tell me no. Nouwen said sure, come on. He pastored a group of 140 mentally challenged people.

Q. Yeah.
A. So I went and spent a week with him. At the end of the week I discovered a word I had never know in all of my years as being a Christian, and that was the word “intimacy.” I had no clue that you could be intimate with God. And the person that taught me the real meaning of intimacy was not Henry Nouwen, this great teacher at Harvard and Yale and Notre Dame and all that. It was a little guy by the name of John Bloss, who was 40 years old, who had a hundred word vocabulary. And after a small group meeting where I had said I was too busy because, you know, busy-ness is the biggest sin in America. It’s not pornography, it’s not abortion. It’s busy-ness. And I was wiped out and burned out and I told everybody that. And after it was over John comes up to me–and when you’re mentally challenged you have know sense of space. He’s right in my face and he goes, busy. And I go, well, yeah, John. Yeah, I am. I’m being very patronizing. I don’t expect anything from John, you know. He’s got a hundred word vocabulary. What can he teach me? And-and he goes, too busy. And I said well, John, you’re absolutely right. I am too busy. Again, I’m being very patronizing. And he got right up next to my face and he went, why? And I started crying.

Q. Hm.
A. Because for the first time in my life I realized why. John was the only guy who could ask me that question. He wasn’t afraid to ask me the one question I couldn’t ask. And the reason I was busy is because I believed if I kept busy then God would love me. And it was at that point that the grace of God became so real to me and I began to realize that this isn’t about me following Jesus. You know, I mention in my book that I always have this dream that I’m going to be with a bunch of people following Jesus and he’s going to turn around and he’s-he’s going to look straight at me and he’s going to wave his hand to come up to him. And I’m going to start walking toward him and he goes, no, no, no, not you. The guy behind you. I’ve always had this sense that, you know, I just don’t make it. I don’t

Q. Yeah.
A. –measure up. And-and John Bloss taught me that the grace of God is what
this is all about. And it’s extravagant. It’s wild, it’s dangerous, it’s unpredictable, it’s you can’t put it in a category and that began this kind of wild ride with God.

We’re going to be back with more of Mike Yaconelli. The book is Messy Spirituality: God’s Annoying Love for Imperfect People. The original subtitle, A Spirituality for the Rest of Us, actually does appear elsewhere in the book. We’ll talk about that in just a minute. This is going to be well, those of you that like this show and the approach that I take, you’re going to love this book. We’ll be back with more after this. Don’t go away.
(Break.)

We’re playing a little bit of ¢â‚¬Ëœ60s here. I think that was late ¢â‚¬Ëœ60s, maybe early ¢â‚¬Ëœ70s. I love this song because it says we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden. And whatever else you say about boomers and how-how absolutely messed up we are, it’s all true. Anything you could say about our generation is true. I’m one of those who actually believes that there was a general spiritual hunger in that generation and still is, because I believe that that is kind of at the heart of what all humans are about. But I also believe that most people in my generation have never encountered Jesus in a way that they connected with religion. We have this familiarity breeds contempt thing that happens and we think we know what Christianity is about and so we’re going to go look for something else because we-we didn’t connect with Christianity. I think the reason we didn’t connect is that often times we didn’t understand what Mike Yaconelli is talking about in his book, Messy Spirituality, that in fact the absolute people that Jesus connects to is the people that are messed up. And that’s one of the wonderful messages of this book.

Q. Now here you are at this ripe old age telling us that there is a spirituality for the rest of us. And it is a messy spirituality. Talk about that, that whole idea.
A. Well, basically, what that means is that it’s incomplete, you and I are incomplete, I’m unfinished. I’m unfixed. And the reality is that that’s where God meets me is in the mess of my life, in the unfixedness, in the brokenness, in the-in the place where I thought, you know, he didn’t do that. I thought he did the opposite, he got rid of all that stuff. But if you read the Bible, if you look at it at all, constantly he was showing up in people’s lives at the worst possible time of their life. And that’s where he kind of broke through, where he connected to people, where he-where they learned so much about it, where they met him, where they understood what he was talking about. And-and we have this illusion sometimes I think that the church is in the business of editing all of the mistakes and the flaws and the messiness out of our life. I don’t know if you’ve been to church recently, but most churches edit out any possibility of a surprise, of anything going wrong, of anything so the singers all sing on tune.

Q. But they’re holding the mike and it-it’s just that the chord just droops just right.
A. It’s perfect.

Q. It’s just elegant.
A. And, you know, the testimonies are all made sure that they’re right on time
and that they only have 3.6 minutes to give the perfect testimony. Where in my church, the reason my church is the slowest growing church in America, and that’s not a joke, and the reason that it is, is because we don’t edit out that kind of stuff. So you never know when somebody is going to stand up and interrupt, say something totally out of line, and two visitors are there going I’m out of here, you know, I’m gone.

Q. Yeah, yeah.
A. That’s what happens.

Q. Well, you say God likes odd people.
A. Yeah, well that’s what the church is. See, here’s what I don’t understand. Why is it that when we go to church we often are met with the fragrance of arrogance. Everybody there is kind of like who the gay? And when you don’t look very good or you’ve got an earring or tattoo or you look like you just were drunk the night before, they kind of look at you sort of funny. I don’t understand that. The church is made up of people who are filled with gratitude. None of us belong there. None of us should be there in the first place. I mean, I’m the pastor for crying out loud. I shouldn’t be here.

Q. You know, I was saying that I don’t think that-that people in our culture really understand that about the gospel. And you tell the story of Annie Lamott’s conversion. And one of the-my favorite parts of-of that story in-in her book, Traveling Mercies, is when she’s absolutely messed up. She’s-she’s just had an abortion, she’s got a plate of cocaine in her houseboat, and Jesus meets here there. And she’s talking later to a pastor about this whole situation. And she’s saying, I just can’t measure up, I just can’t do this Christian thing. And he says, but you don’t understand it. That’s the business that God’s in. He’s in the business of loving people that are screwed up. And the next line she says is, well, does it say that somewhere? And he says, yeah. It says that in the Bible. You know what she says? It does? You know, there’s a whole generation of people who think they understand Christianity who don’t understand that that’s the essential point of the story.
A. Well, yeah, I mean-I mean John, the beloved disciple, the one who was just so
loving and wrote the book of John and was this wonderful guy, you know, there’s a great little story about him and one of the other disciples. They’re in this little Samaritan town and they want to stay there for the night. And the Samaritans don’t like the Jews and they say, no, you’re not staying here tonight. Get out of here. And he walks up to Jesus just sort of casually and he says, look, Jesus, I was just sort of wondering, do you think we could just like send fire down from heaven and kill them all? It’s like, I mean, wait a minute. I like this guy. You know, I like John. If that’s a disciple, I’m one of them.

Q. Yeah.
A. And all throughout Matthew 28, the final chapter in Matthew, you know, I hate the guy who wrote the little titles to the paragraphs in the Bible. And this-this particular passage is called “The Great Commission.”

Q. Yes.
A. So that-I don’t even know what that means, but what it’s supposed to mean is that Jesus said, go into all the world and preach God. That’s great. That was the last time that the disciples see Jesus now. They’ve seen him a couple times after he’s been resurrected. You’d think by now they’d get it. And it says, they were standing there with Jesus just before he talked and some doubted. And then it goes on. I’m going, what? What do you mean some doubted? And I’m waiting for Jesus to go, all right guys, sit down. We’re going to go over this one more time. You blockheads still don’t get it. Instead he just ignores it. And I’m thinking, once again, I am-I wake up in the morning sometimes and I have I’m a minister. And I have these incredible doubts about whether or not this is true or not. And I’m glad to know I’m in great company.

Q. Now you say messy spirituality, there’s a lot of characteristics of it. It’sunpretending.
A. Yeah. Look, pretending is the grease of non-relationships. Pretending is how you and I get through the day without ever having to know each other. Because when I walk in the room and you say to me, how am I?

Q. Yeah.
A. Well, you don’t want to know. And, frankly, I don’t want to tell you.

Q. Yeah.
A. If I have to explain I mean, right now, in my life at this moment I’ve got five
children. Well, do you want to know the story of all my kids? No, you don’t really want to know. Not all of them are-are involved in the Christian faith the way I would like them. Some of them are still angry with me because I traveled so much when I was older. You know, I’ll go into all the detail if you want, but you don’t. So, and neither do I. So we just go fine, and you go fine.

Q. Exactly.
A. And off we go. Well, the church ought to be the one place where I’m so anxious to get there because I can stop the pretending. I can stop when I walk in the room and you go, Mike, how are you? I don’t go praise the Lord, I go, I’m-I’m in bad shape. And you go, okay, great. Tell me about it.

Q. Now there are certainly within the Christian community and subculture, youtalk about resistors. There are people that-that are resisting this view of-of-of spirituality. They’re silencers, they’re comfortable with the way things are, they’re name-callers. They’re the monitors and condemners. There’s a whole bunch of people that want to make sure that what you’re saying about the spiritual life doesn’t actually get embraced, and are more than ready to discredit you in whatever way they can.
A. Oh, absolutely, because see, here’s the deal I’ve discovered. Grace is a wonderful term, but religious people are scared to death of grace. In fact, I call them grace police, grace monitors. And here’s what they do. They get in, see, they-God forgives them and they’re in and then they go okay, look, Jesus is a busy guy. God’s a busy god, so we’ll help him. And we’ll make sure that anybody else that gets in, we’ll just kind of clean out all the riffraff before they get to him. And frankly, if you look at the New Testament, they did exactly what the disciples did. Little kids would come up to me, they go, get out of here. Get the kids out. And he goes, look, if you don’t become like a little kid you’re out of the kingdom of God. The reality is the riffraff, the losers, the people that don’t have it together, those were the ones he was attracted to. And the religious ones he couldn’t stand.

Q. Yeah. Can the church be the kind of place you’re talking about? We’ll talk about that when we come back because there-there’s this discontinuity between what you see with Jesus and the gospels and then almost immediately you start seeing, even in the New Testament, some indications that there was this kind of in/out and so forth and figuring out that disconnect is-is kind of essential to saying I’m not only a follower of Jesus, but I’m-I’m part of this group called the church. We’re going to pick up there when we come back. The book is Messy Spirituality: God’s Annoying Love for Imperfect People, published by Zondervan by Mike Yaconelli. We’ll be right back.
(Break.)

Well, this is Dick Staub back with you. We are visiting with Mike Yaconelli this afternoon and his book is Messy Spirituality: God’s Annoying Love for Imperfect People. But thank God it includes me. But the rest of you probably can’t take advantage of this because you gotta get perfect like me before you come into the kingdom. There’s something wrong in the land and Mike Yaconelli, I think, has put his finger on it.

Q. You tell the story in this book about, and-and it’s-it’s in the section where you’re talking about unpretending and-and-and you-you or actually the comfortable Christian. And you talk about this woman who got moved to have a ministry to some gang memebers. And she started bringing them into the church. And-and the church couldn’t handle it. And it is kind of a prototype of what happens when somebody actually takes Jesus seriously saying, you know, let’s love you into the kingdom. And they show up at church and the church can’t handle it. Tell the story and then tell me where you are on this issue of how you be a follower of Jesus and be part of the church when church so often is the antithesis of the unpretending that you’re talking about.
A. Well, this girl was hired by a church that was losing members because they
were in-in-in the city and everybody was moving into the suburbs. And they had a lot of endowment, they had a lot of money. So they said, we’ll hire a youth worker and they can work with the urban kids. So she did. She started having a Bible study with gang members on Wednesday night and-which is amazing. They had it in one of the outbuildings of the church. And the guys all showed up. And one night she was just talking away and just preaching out of Matthew chapter 6 about, you know, if you want to follow God you gotta give up everything. And this one gang member swears and slams his elbow through the window. And and which I think is unbelievable. I’m thinking, how do I hire this girl? Because she can teach the Bible. And, well, the church got furious. Made her pay back you know, told them they couldn’t meet in the building anymore

Q. Right.
A. ¢€œuntil they learned how to behave better. And it was $26 to fix the window.

Q. Right.
A. I’m thinking, give me the 26 bucks, this gal can teach.

Q. Right.
A. So a few weeks later they finally had gotten back in the room and a minister happened to come by one night and went in and introduced himself to the kids and he started talking to them and they like him. So after he left they go, you know what? We like that guy. We didn’t think we’d like him. We want to go to church on Sunday. So the youth leader is going, oh jeez, they’re all full of blue hairs. So you know, they show up. She says, okay, we’ll go, but we’ll sit in the balcony. So they sat in the balcony. And the minister comes out and he’s kind of giving the opening deal, welcoming everybody there and the-the-the gang members recognize him and one of the guys stands up in the back and he goes, dude, we like you.
Q. That’s just another way of saying amen, by the way, for those of you that
don’t understand.

A. And these people are freaked out. And anyway, they ended up firing her because these kids were not acting appropriately. And I’m thinking to myself, my gosh, those people should have stood up in the pews and looked back at that-that-that guy and gone, dude, come on down here, you know, we can’t hear. You can help us. And the reality is that many institutionalized, many churches are so rigid and so afraid of unpredictable things happening. So you’re asking me, is there hope? Can the church do this? I guess my answer is, some. Maybe a few. But if you want to know the truth, no. Most people can’t handle they want to have structure, they want to have it fit together.

Q. Somebody’s listening right now and they’re saying, you know, there’s this
story of the Apostle Paul, and he’s talking about this guy that’s having sex with his mother-in-law and he says, you know, you can’t associate with such people. And he says, I’m not talking about people in the world, I’m talking about people in the church, that there is a difference between those that are called into the kingdom and those who are living in the world. If you were going to not be around people like that in the world you’d have to be out of the world. What is the-what is the-the-the dynamic of holiness, which it sounds like is the kind of environment which you were raised, which was we come to Jesus, Jesus saves us, we struggle but we go through this thing called sanctification and we end up getting all cleaned up and we’re okay. And then we’re like part of church. And it reminds me of a-an old guy from Maine. When I was just out of seminary and I was working at this church and I was the crazy guy that was bringing these people in. And-and not everybody in the church was excited that there were these-these ragged people coming in. And he looked at me and he says, Dick, some day people will learn it’s more fun to catch the fish than to clean them. That-that the messiness of our lives is what church is about. It’s-it is about the messiness. It’s about we’re not clean and what are you learning about that?
A. Well, I mean, holiness the first place is we’ve-we’ve defined holiness in a way that has nothing to do with holiness. The reality is, do you want to know what holy means? It means we’re real. That’s what it means. It means we tell the truth. When I walk into a room, that place is holy. I can sense the fragrance of God there. Why? Because everybody there doesn’t smoke and drink and chew and they all have the right political party and they all look nice and drive their BMW? No. The reason I can sense the holiness of God is because these people are real. That means they’re honest. That means they’re open enough to say who they are. I’ll give an example. A minister friend of mine who’s in a Presbyterian church, he got up in his church and they had very edited services. Everything was very proper. And one Sunday morning he got up and it was a sermon and he was preaching on missed moments and he looked out and he said, when my daughter was nine years old she invited me to a school dance. He said, I told her I’d be happy to go. He said, but I was a minister and I was a man of the cloth, and I got busy. And I forgot. And then he stopped. And all of a sudden dance music starts playing in the sanctuary. He looks down at his daughter who is now 17 and he said, I wouldn’t dance with you then, but would you dance with me now?

Q. Woah.
A. And she comes up and she dances, and that was the sermon folks. I mean, he expressed holiness. He was honest. He was real. He asked for forgiveness. He apologized in front of the whole community of God. They all sat there and enjoyed and watched as they came together.

Q. Right.
A. And I’m thinking the problem with it is that we’ve made holiness so picking religious

Q. Right.
A. ¢€œand robbed the life out of it.
Q. When we look at-at Paul talks about the fruit of the the works of the fleshare such and such, the fruit of the spirit is such and such, and he draws this distinction between the two. How does that crank into messy spirituality? The messy how does the messy relate to the-to the are the fruit of the spirit kind of a goal? A hoped for? An ideal? Are they in process? How does it fit messy spirituality?
A. Hey, absolutely. I mean, a couple things. Number one, I’m less messy.
That’s my goal. I’m less messy than I was yesterday. That’s kind of my hope and my prayer.

Q. Yeah.
A. I talk about principles of unspirituality. And one of them in the book is the 60 percent principle. I had a gal who used to teach in Harlem. And she had this one guy, this student who she taught Shakespeare. And he was flunking the class. And he was brilliant. And she tried everything with this kid. She threatened him. She stayed with him. She made him stay after school. She begged him. She pleaded with him. Nothing happened. He graduated finally from high school, but he flunked her course. Sixty percent. So about ten years later she’s walking down the street in New York and this really nicely dressed guy comes walking up and he looks at her and he says, Dr. Monroe, do you remember me? And she says, oh yeah, I remember you. You’re the guy that gave me 60 percent in the Shakespeare class. And he says, yeah, I’ve always meant to talk to you about that. I’m working for Time magazine now. And he said, when I was in high school in your class, he said, my dad was in jail. My mom was a prostitute. My brother was in a gang. My other brother was in a gang. And he said, 60 percent was 100 percent of all I could give you. Now, we’ve got churches full of people. And this is the thing that really irritates me. We’ve made heroes out of authors and ministers who have big churches. Let me tell you who the heroes are. They’re the little lady in my church who has Downs Syndrome, who has two kids that are kind of messing up their lives right now, whose husband was unfaithful to her once and now they’re trying to make their marriage work. And for her to get up in the morning and get out of bed and go through the day is all she can do. And I want to tell you, she’s the hero. She’s the one that gets the mansion. She’s the one whom God is showing and working through.

Q. Yeah. Well, and there’s more of her than there are of the people that have got it all together apparently. And there was a picture last week of the woman who went into a nursing home and killed her two sons.
A. Yeah.

And they showed the woman’s picture in the paper. I’ve never seen a face more ripped apart by heaviness and tragedy. She needed to know that there was somebody who loved her. She needed support. She needed help. She needed something that-that we ought to be able to offer. We’re not going to do that if we’re all dressed up nice and pretending like we don’t have problems. We’re going to be back with more with Mike Yaconelli. The book is Messy Spirituality published by Zondervan. We’ll be back. Don’t go away.
(Break.)

Q. Well, this is Dick Staub back with you. I’m pulling out all my old ¢â‚¬Ëœ60s and ¢â‚¬Ëœ70s music for Mike Yaconelli. I went to Fullerton High School, graduated in ’66. You went to Anaheim and graduated in ’60.
A. ’59.

Q. ’59.
A. Then I was kicked out of Bob Jones.

Q. You went to Bob Jones?
A. Yeah, one year.

Q. Don’t they all. Don’t they all. The owner of this network went to Bob Jones.
A. That’s a little scary.

Q. Well, I just learned that tells me an immense amount about Mike
Yaconelli’s journey right there. We are talking about the book Messy Spirituality. It’s published by Zondervan. And you have some dramatic statements in this book. Among them the phrase, “I don’t believe in spiritual growth.”
A. Well, that’s because we’ve made spiritual growth measurable. We’ve
actually communicated to people that there are steps to spiritual growth and there are principles and that you can know how you’re growing and what you’re doing. And all we have to do is just look at the way we grow physically and know that we never really realize we’re doing that it just kind of happens. And it’s slow and it takes a long time. And so I try to write a chapter about the whole fact that spiritual growth takes time. It’s tiny little steps. It’s lots of decisions, not just one decision. And-and I think that’s helpful to people. Because frankly I used to think, oh well, gosh, I’m not praying everyday. I’m not a monk. I’m not-I’m reading mine, I haven’t got the Bible all memorized, I guess I’m not growing.

Q. Yeah.
A. And the reality is that every tiny step I take towards God is a huge, huge thing. And the other part that bothers me is that when we talk about-the church talks about spirituality and spiritual growth it has all these rules.

Q. Yeah.
A. Look, the Holy Spirit–if we really believe in the Holy Spirit–broke all the rules. So one of the signs that I’m growing is that I break the rules. And I-I break them because of my faith, not because I’m trying to destroy my faith.

Q. This is really important because I-I told you that I wrote this book Too Christian, Too Pagan and I-I had some friends, some-some Christian and some pagan basically say I-I really liked the part about the pagan thing. I liked that part. And I have a chapter in the book called, “Go to the Party.” And it’s basically about how we ought to go to the parties. And so what I found out that there were a lot of people who-who just wanted to be liberated to go to the parties but they didn’t understand that-that there is the-the thrust of the book was about following Jesus and-and Jesus went to the party. You know, and so the same thing can happen with your book. People can say Messy Spirituality, I like that. I’m messy. I’m going to stay messy. I want to be messy. Your point is, this is about passion with following Jesus and in the process learning that it’s messy. But it’s still about a passionate heart for Jesus.
A. Oh, exactly. I mean, people always say to me, you know, isn’t there a risk
that people will read your book and feel like they’re getting permission to do things? Read the doggone thing. The reality is

Q. It’s Mike Yaconelli’s fault that people are out there doing bad things.
A. You know, my son is in a band. And, of course, he’s not supposed to be in a band because he’s supposed to be having a job and working and making money, and it just happens to be what makes him happy. And he’s with a guy there who is a Christian. And his parents were really super-conservative Christians from the mid-west. And he was living with his girlfriend for like three years. And they were very disappointed in him. He called up one day and said, mom and dad, we’ve decided to get married, which they were happy about. Not excited, but okay, we’d rather have them married than unmarried. The next day he finds out his girlfriend’s pregnant. So he calls up and says we’re not coming. She’ll be pregnant, she’ll be big, and it’ll be embarrassing to you and we don’t want to embarrass you and all the church friends, so we’re not going. We’re going to go to a justice of the peace. So they went and got married in San Francisco to a justice of the peace. My son went with his girlfriend. As my son and girlfriend are leaving they looked at each other and said, that was the worst wedding I have ever seen in my life. You know what we need to do? We need to give them the wedding they never had. So for the next three months they prepared. They invited all their friends, they actually called the parents and said, we know you’re unhappy with the choices they made but we want to give them a wedding. Would you come? They said, yeah, we’ll come. We’ll bring all the family. They brought 30 people. There were 90 people hiding in this house when this couple showed up thinking they were going to a lunch. They-they-when they got there, the two vans showed up and stole off the girl and the guy and they had the bachelor and the bachelorette party they never had, gave them a picture and said write down all the reasons you love each other. They came back. They thought that was the end. They walked in the backyard. 100 people stood up and said, happy wedding. They cried for an hour. It took them an hour to get their composure. Then they had the wedding ceremony. And, you know–and I know this couple, I’ve met them now–it’s been two years since this. They say, every week we call up your son and tell him thank you for this unbelievable gift that you gave us. Now, people say to me, well, what are you doing? Condoning couples living together? No. That’s not what this is about. It’s about redeeming what these couples-they realized, wow, this is what we missed. This is what this is all about. We now have a wedding we can look back at and remember.The church is not about pointing the finger at people and tell them what they’re doing wrong. Our goal is to show them this incredible lavish love of God and the result will be, yeah, I’ll be a mess, but I’m so attracted to this God. And I’ll be honest with you, there have been times when I haven’t been attracted to Jesus. And it’s kind of like when my grandson sees me. He grabs onto my shirt and he won’t let go. I go around and he’s just hanging on and I go, you know, Noah, let go. And he goes, okay. And he doesn’t let go. To be honest with you, that’s the way Jesus has been in my life. There have been times where I’ve said, Jesus, I don’t believe in you anymore, get out of here. I don’t know. I don’t even trust you. And it’s like, okay. And he’s still hanging on.

Q. Yeah.
A. And that’s why I’m a Christian today.

Q. Wow. That’s Annie Lamott’s story. She said, I wasn’t going to let Jesus in my life because he came like a stray cat. And if you feed a stray cat, you’ve got a cat for life.
A. Absolutely.

Q. That’s the whole story. You’re stuck. You’ve got a-a thing called “stuckness” and “unstuckness.”
A. Yeah.

Q. What’s that all about?
A. Well, I was always that, you know, when you’re stuck in life, that’s a bad place. And that’s wrong. It’s actually wrong to be stuck. And I’m thinking to myself, get outa here. Being stuck is a great place. There’s a lot of people who are listening to this right now and you’re going, I’m stuck, man. I don’t know where to go. I’m paralyzed. I can’t seem to move. And the reality is that’s a great place because you can’t get unstuck until you realize you are stuck. And what I’m saying is that’s one of the areas of spiritual growth. When I wake up one day and go, man, I am dead, I am dying, I am dull, I have had it. I’m in a dead end. This isn’t working. And I go, maybe I ought to check into something that works. That’s what stuckness is all about. It’s a great place.

Q. Why do you call it God’s “annoying” love?
A. Well, because as I just mentioned, there have been times when things happened in life. September 11th. There are many other times where I go, God where were you? I just was at World Vision today and I watched this film on AIDS where there are so many millions of kids dying of AIDS in Africa I couldn’t stand it. I fell apart. And these people are praying every day. And not only are they dying, but their children are dying and everyone around them is dying. And there are moments like that where I go, God, where are you?

Q. Yeah.
A. I get no answer except he just won’t let me go. He just annoyingly keeps on loving me anyway.

Q. In your imperfection.
A. Exactly.

Q. Yeah. It’s not about becoming perfect so God will love you.
A. No. I travel a lot and I came to San Francisco one night and missed my connection back to my home, and I was so angry and upset and I called my son on the phone. He lived in San Francisco. And I wanted him to encourage me. I said, man, I’m stuck in the airport, it’s been a horrible day. I’ve been traveling too much. And, you know, when you have a family, they’re family, even if you love Jesus, they’re still family. And my son looks at me and goes, or he said on the phone he says, you know, dad if you didn’t travel so much you wouldn’t have things like this happen. Well, I didn’t appreciate that. I was ticked off. I said, let me talk to your son, who is my little grandson I love to death, Noah. Well, he’s two years old and I forgot that when you’re two you can’t talk and when you’re 60 you can’t hear. This is not a good combination. He’s mumbling on the phone. I’m hoping that this is going to make me feel better. It’s making me feel worse. I keep saying, you’re playing with dada? You’re playing with mama? And then he says, “moo-foo gratis,” which I have no idea what it meant. I asked him about four times. Finally, I just went, all right, I’ve had it. Just let me talk to your dad. He takes the phone and I hear the phone drop onto the floor. Now, I hear the kids playing. I’m stuck in the airport. I have this miserable experience. I’m furious and angry when all of a sudden I hear crystal clear come over the phone, I love you Grampa.

Q. Wow.
A. And you know what? All my anxiety, everything went out the window. Do you know why I wrote this book? Because there’s a whole lot of people who are so freaking busy, they’re so cluttered, their life they’re at their wits’ end. And if they’d only just stop for a minute, they could hear the God of the universe whisper to them, I love you.

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Gregory Wolfe: Intruding Upon the Timeless: Meditations on Art, Faith, and Mystery

Gregory Wolfe: Intruding Upon the Timeless: Meditations on Art, Faith, and Mystery

Listen to the Dick Staub podcast of the interview with Gregory Wolfe, author of book, ” Intruding upon the Timeless: Meditations on Art, Faith, and Mystery”,” today at “The Kindlings Muse”.(Originally broadcast March 18, 2004)

Well good afternoon everybody. This is Dick Staub thanking you for joining me. Our next guest is publisher and editor of what Annie Dillard calls “one of the best journals on the planet,” the Image journal. He’s also writer and resident at Seattle Pacific University, author of a number of books including a new collection of Meditations on Art, Faith, and Mystery. Obviously, one of my favorite subjects and I know a subject that many of you enjoy as well. I’m referring to Gregory Wolfe and he joins us in the studio this afternoon.

Q. It’s good to have you with us.
A. Great to be here.

Q. Some people know your journey. You make reference to it in one of these essays. From Christian Science to Congregational to Episcopalian to Roman Catholic in four easy steps.
A. Not quite.

Q. Really quickly, how would you summarize your trajectory in terms of the spiritual path?
A. Well, I suppose the simplest way to put it was that I started out with a great deal of abstractions and ideas about God and I wanted to move closer and closer to a flesh and blood incarnate understanding of God and of the Christian faith. So in one sense that trajectory, I feel, moves in that direction. I mean, I’m prejudice but I was searching for a more incarnational, imagination-friendly approach. And the imagination isn’t abstract, it’s concrete. It’s always placing the big ideas and-and emotions and concepts, like faith, into very practical stories and symbols and ordinary stuff of daily life. So I wanted to move towards a sacramental tradition really, and that’s where the journey went.

Q. Now, did your parents make any of those moves with you? They started out¢â‚¬¦ Were they both Christian Scientists?
A. Really it was my father. I sometimes joke that an interesting parlor game would be which novelist would you like to have tell your family’s story, your family history? And in my case it’s hands-down Dostoevsky. All with a kind of intellectual intrigue, passion, fathers and sons at odds with one another, rebellion, revolution, it was all in my family. And just the short version is that my grandfather was a Marxist atheist who is in the outer edges of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s brain’s trust. And his son, my father, went into advertising as a young man in ¢€œ

Q. In New York.
A. ¢€œ in New York and in Los Angeles, wrote continuity for Jack Benny’s show and many other classic, Bob Hope and so on. He came back to his father and said, Look, I’ve made something of my life. His Marxist father said, Well, you are as if I had a prostitute for a daughter, you have whored yourself off to Capitalism. I will disown you if you don’t renounce this way, and I give you a week to decide. A week later my father said, You know, I really don’t think I’m doing anything that evil or bad. I really want to keep working in advertising. And his father said, Well, I disown you. Well, at the root of that split ¢€œ and they never saw each other from that day forward ¢€œ was also a religious split because my father decided that the free market and a belief in God were related to one another in American tradition, and so he rebelled against his father religiously. And I’ve diverged in my own way from my father, particularly in the specific denominational journey, but nonetheless the two of us stay closer than recent generations prior to us did.

Q. What a colorful history. Dostoevsky does come to mind. Explain your passion for the arts. How do you see that early on in your life?
A. Yeah. Well again, I had really two very powerful influences in my mother and my father. My father was a writer, he was an intellectual, he liked to write about economics, about history and ideas. My mother was a dancer. Her father, my maternal grandfather, was a painter, trained in Scotland at the Royal Scottish Academy of Arts, so I had these two powerful drives. You might say a rational discursive and then this intuitive imaginative side. And they were, you know, finding at times uncomfortable living in the same neighborhood. But literature, to me, was where they came together because literature is concrete, it is about narrative, it’s about symbol, it’s about the ordinary stuff of life being transformed by the artist into something special. And yet literature has plenty of room for the big ideas, for philosophy, for ideology, for vision. And so in literature I found the sort of influences from both parents coming together.

Q. We’ll come back to that obviously, because that’s what he’s flushed out in the book that we’re going to be talking about in just a moment. But you-you’re at Seattle Pacific University.
A. I am.

Q. How did you end up at Seattle Pacific University?
A. Well, it’s an interesting¢â‚¬¦

Q. I mean, there’s not a lot of former Marxist in the family history at that school.
A. Yeah.

Q. As far as I know.
A. No. It is an evangelical university that, through a whole variety of different influences, has turned out to be an extremely ecumenical campus. That is, it is a place which cares about Christian identity but which is very vibrantly diverse in terms of its sort of theological background. And so as a Roman Catholic I’m welcome there. In fact, I’m encouraged to be there and find a great deal of interest in what my wife and I have to offer. My wife also teaches at the campus.

Q. Yeah. It’s okay. So now¢â‚¬¦ And by the way, the title of the book, folks, is Intruding Upon the Timeless. I gave the subtitle earlier, Meditations on Art, Faith, and Mystery. And if you want to order a copy the best thing to do is to go online to imagejournal.org. It’s published by Square Halo Books, by the way. But imagejournal.org and you can order the book direct from Image journal. You can also order it through Amazon and so forth, if you want to do it that way. And by the way, there are engravings by Barry Moser, who has been on this show before, and it’s just an incredibly nicely done book, which is essentially contributions that you’ve written from Image journal. Now, let’s talk about the founding of Image journal. Kind of why, when, and how did this happen?
A. Well, to hook up with that family story very quickly, I was groomed, you know, in a very well-intentioned way by my father to become a young conservative intellectual. And I went to Hillsdale College in Michigan, which is a sort of mecca for ambitious young conservatives. And I very much began to feel that I was going to be a warrior in the service of defending western civilization from all the various modernist and post-modernist attacks on it. So I was rather more political in those days than I am now, but I really cared very deeply about those things. And yet at the same time, aside from the politics, I was interested in literature and the arts. And I was beginning to find that that dimension, which always kept calling me towards a sense of awareness of the ambiguity of human motives and the kind of unintended consequences of political action, pulling me away from politics. And so I had another conflict, another inner agony to try to solve somehow. And I thought to myself, well again, my combination of things can be saying, Who are the great writers of the present day who embody this tradition? It’s been said that-that-that, you know, in the modern era that faith and art can no longer coalesce both. The secular critics seem to believe that as if art was beyond such infantile things as faith, thanks to Freud and others, and the church, the religious people seem to think that, too, because they treated art as if it was monolithically part of the modern world and therefore poisoned at the root. And I wanted to say, well, I’m going to explore this nexus and see if anyone’s doing anything. And if there is, I’m going to try to share that with other people. And so I did and the journal became the place where we searched out the new Bachs and Rembrandts and Dantes and T.S. Eliots and Gerard Manley Hopkins’ of the present day.

And we’re going to pick up there when we come back. Gregory Wolfe is our guest. You can check out Image journal, by the way, by going to the website, imagejournal.org. It really is a wonderful, wonderful journal. And we’ll find out a little bit more about Image journal and then talk about some of the thematic issues that Gregory has taken up as the editor of that magazine, which are now available in the book, Intruding Upon the Timeless: Meditations on Art, Faith, and Mystery. Go to imagejournal.org for more information about Image and to order your own copy of Intruding Upon the Timeless. We’ll be right back.

(Break)

Well this is Dick Staub back with you. We’re visiting with Gregory Wolfe. He is the publisher and editor of Image journal and the author of Intruding Upon the Timeless: Meditations on Art, Faith, and Mystery. And I’ve got to say, one of the encouraging aspects of originating this show from Seattle has been the number of artistically inclined folks that are listening to this show who have felt like they’re kind of in a vast wasteland when they learn that Image journal exists. And I had a few of you who are directed towards the Image conference in the fall and found it like a, well, a full meal for emaciated Christian soul in the arts. So it’s encouraging to connect these dots for you.

Q. You were just talking about the fact that secularist, Marx and Freud kind of discouraged people from believing that the arts, and certainly faith, belonged together. And then within the Christian community you had that same kind of rejection of the arts. You believed that there was a place where they might actually converge. And you describe it actually in the introduction of this book as kind of “the hunger of the secularist and the believer for mystery.” Talk about that and how in fact Image journal began to prove that that was, in fact, the case.
A. Sure. Well, mystery is a very ancient term in the Judeo-Christian tradition. It’s been eclipsed in recent decades as Christians have reacted to the modern world, they’ve tended often to go into a very rationalist mode where everything becomes doctrinal, becomes apologetics, becomes somehow rational formulation as a way of staving off what is reasonably perceived as threats to the integrity and the coherence of the faith tradition. But there is a cost for that kind of movement towards a rationalistic prepositional approach. And of course, religion tends to get brittle, legalistic, dry, out of touch with human experience and a kind of holistic understanding of life rather than this more prepositional statement-oriented view of life. So to be interested is not to be interested in what I would call mystification or mere confusion, mystery has always been seen as kind of the shining light of truth which was, as fallen human beings, can penetrate into only to a certain depth. And to assume that we have the power to penetrate all the way to the heart would be pride on our part, but to rest with a kind of awe and openness and awareness of our limitations in the outer ionosphere of that truth is where grace and where meaning, where things kind of connect for most human beings. And the arts are very well suited to bring you into that zone and to let you be illuminated in that zone. And that’s one reason why I’ve been so drawn to it.

Q. Now, your book talks about some of the standards early on that were going to be set for Image journal. Aesthetic excellence, public square, and a place where those who are settled in their religious faith and struggling with religious faith would find a home. Just talk about the importance of each of them briefly. Aesthetic, public square, settled and strugglers alike.
A. Sure. Well, you’re not a stranger to this whole question of the way Christians relate to culture. And we looked very carefully at past efforts in this area and we were very disheartened by the temptation of many Christians to create what I would call a subculture, and to kind of create a Christian ghetto where there is some kind of separate track of publishing companies and record labels and so on, all that have some kind of good housekeeping stamp of approval on them. They’re safe, they won’t challenge you, they won’t scare you, they won’t shake your faith or, frankly, shake you up in any way, shape, or form. And the danger of that kind of realm of safety is that it becomes a realm where people are not challenged to live up to their highest, not pushed towards the bleeding edge of life and experience and artistic excellence to go by the board. Preaching to the choir becomes the name of the game. So we wanted to both be in the public square as a way of saying that we had the confidence that people of faith in the arts could, by achieving excellence, gain a hearing. That whole notion that boo-hoo, woe is me, I’m a Christian, I’m within the margin lies, we just didn’t feel that was the right spirit of the faith. And so those two things were absolutely kind of intertwined from the beginning. Now, as far as the whole issue of those more settled in their faith and those who I call “grapplers” ¢€œ I use the word grappler because I think the word seeker has been so trivialized that it’s almost a meaningless term ¢€œ but grappler to me is somebody who at least is in some kind of serious, agonized engagement with faith and therefore they’re not just using faith in their works of literature as background wallpaper or muzak, they’re using it as the central means by which to come to grips with the meaning of life.

Q. Yeah.
A. So we wanted a balance where there was this community where people could come together in a forum, those who had found peace and some identity within the faith, within the church, but those who were still not quite there. And that interaction has been fruitful for both.

Q. Well, when you read the people who have written for the Image journal, when you look at some of the people who have spoken at Image events ¢€œ and I’ve interviewed a lot of these people who are definitely in the grappler camp ¢€œ but what a wonderful thing that they find a place where they can come and engage with other people who shares their aesthetic concern and the core issues of life concerns. And there’s very few places where that happens and, obviously, my congratulations go to you for providing that. You have this phrase, editorially, that you’re asking questions of art, “Does it rise?” What does that mean?
A. Well, I’m cribbing from, as I do in so many ways, even to the title of the book, from Flannery O’Connor whose shoelaces I’m not fit to untie, as a brilliant, profound Christian writer and thinker. And she loved this whole notion that everything that rises must converge.

Q. Yeah.
A. Everything that has a spark of openness to this divine mystery is going to find a way to converge on a central truth. And it won’t do so by these discreet, rational prepositions that segment things into discreet territories. The nature of art is to be all over the map. But what art does that I think the rational, philosophical, theological modes also do is to converge on a central source, on a unified form of truth. It just does it in a means that sometimes scares people because you start from left field, or you go by way of left field and you’re never always sure where you stand. But then, at the same time, why would we want to live with absolute certainty about every moment of our lives? Faith is about risk, faith is about openness, it’s about breaking out of ruts. And so art has a way of complimenting, not replacing or supplanting, complimenting these other modes of discourse that have so dominated the public nature of religion in America.

Q. The title, Intruding Upon the Timeless, the origin of that. And it is the first essay.
A. Yeah. Well, that comes from a Flannery O’Connor quote that talks about the relationship between faith and art. And the big question that art really is ultimately asking anyway the big questions that are inherent really religious. Who are we? Where have we come from? Where are we going? And so Intruding Upon the Timeless is a metaphor for what the artist does. And does so with humility, hopefully, and a sense of their own limitations and yet with also a kind of boldness at the same time.

We’ll be back with some more of Gregory Wolfe. We’re talking about his new book, Intruding Upon the Timeless: Meditations on Art, Faith, and Mystery, with engravings by Barry Moser. You can learn more about Image journal and order your own copy of Intruding Upon the Timeless by going to imagejournal.org. That’s imagejournal, one word, dot org. Our guest is Gregory Wolfe. He’s the publisher and editor of Image. We’ll be right back.

(Break)

Well this is Dick Staub back with you. We’re visiting with Gregory Wolfe. He is the publisher and editor of Image journal, which Annie Dillard calls “one of the best journals on the planet.” From that journal have been extracted a number of editorials packed into a wonderful book, Intruding Upon the Timeless: Meditations on Art, Faith, and Mystery.

Q. And there is this interaction with a James Joyce quote, and the James Joyce character says, “You have asked what I would do and what I would not do. I will tell you what I will do and what I will not do. I will not serve that in which I no longer believe, whether it call itself my home, my fatherland, or my church. And I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defense the only arms I allow myself to use: silence, exile, and cunning.” And that is, in fact, the title of one of the essays in this book. Talk about the ways in which that James Joyce quote resonates with the issues that we’ve been discussing and that matter to you at Image journal, and the way they also, that quote also illustrates a problem and a tension for those that are trying to engage the artistic endeavor.
A. Absolutely. Well you know, the pursuit of God or the pursuit of grace is like the pursuit of happiness. I mean, it’s fraught with the difficulty of trying to approach it in a kind of direct, frontal way. Emily Dickinson once said, “Tell the truth but tell it slant.” And that, I think, is something that goes to the heart of our human perception that attempts sometimes to come straight on to a thing. Whether it’s through this sort of rational, prepositional language that tries to capture truth in discreet language or any other frontal approach, the thing seems to go wrong for us. It seems to always, the mystery, the grace, the excitement, the spirit seems to flee, the letter seems to remain inert on the page in front of us. So telling it slant is what, again, what art does so well by going indirectly. And that’s perhaps another function of our limitations as fallen partial creatures. We need sometimes to, again, put ourself in the right neighborhood to experience grace. We can’t will epiphanies left and right. And the artist works with a number of means that enable us to come slant-wise at the subject. And Joyce’s trilogy of ideas, silence, exile, cunning are very appropriate to the modern era where the very sort of language of religion has become so hackneyed, so overdone that you have to find ways to renew ancient formulations and visions in contemporary language. And sometimes the way to do that is by focusing more on the silhouette than on the actual figure. The dark patch sometimes in between things, or to use kind of post-modern language, to be aware of absence as well as presence. But even absence, even the absence of God, the so-called death of God, tends to come with edges around it. And again, artists are very well attuned to kind of trace their fingers around the kind of filigree of those edges of things which, in a mysterious way, can reconjure presence back up again. And so, you know, somebody like T.S. Eliot, who was very much in that generation where Freud was making the big impact, would write a poem about the birth of Christ, the journey of the Magi, but would do so without ever mentioning Christ child, nativity, any of the traditional language. It was a monologue by one of the Magi from a purely existential point of view. “A cold coming we had of it,” is the way the poem starts. “And were we there for birth or death?” You know, and so he goes back to tell the old, old story in a very new way. And he does so by a kind of exile, by a kind of denying himself the kind of cliched hackneyed language in an attempt to use this cunning means to bring back the heart of the meaning of the incarnation through a kind of slant-wise approach.

Q. Yeah. One of the things you do in these essays ¢€œ and I’ve kind of pulled them out of order here ¢€œ is you throw yourself into some of the discussions that take place within evangelical circles or religious circles, people that are uncomfortable with art. You have a chapter which describe yourselves as a conscientious objector in the culture war. And people have heard a little bit about your interest in politics and then your kind of emerging calling and interest in art. How do the culture wars play themselves out in your mind as a conscientious objector from them?
A. Yeah. I think, I try to make clear in that piece that I don’t consider that the issues over which the battles are fought are of no interest.

Q. Yeah.
A. They’re of profound interest. And as I say in that piece, I would gladly, you know, fall over a ball of barbed wire in any of the instances where I have a strong conviction. And in many of them I do. But what bothers me about the whole culture war as a phenomenon within the church and within the larger public square is that more and more politics has a way of sucking the oxygen out of the atmosphere, of becoming an all-encompassing phenomenon, and becoming more ideological. And to me, faith is not about ideology, it’s not about sort of always us versus them as a mentality, it’s often looking for the good in others and trying to build on that. And art is good at doing this, of trying to bring dissimilar things together into similarity. So we have become so obsessed by the us versus them mentality that it has made our minds more dumb, more crude, more monolithic at a time when we need to be more subtle, more nuanced, more aware of just how complicated the world is. And so, to me, politics is a very limited tool. Ultimately culture, the stories that we tell, the symbols that we are moved by, those are the things that shape politics.

Q. Yeah, yeah.
A. Politics, in and of itself, lives off of culture.

Q. Yeah.
A. But if it becomes so all encompassing that it actually starts to dry out and poison the kind of cultural base, I say in the piece it’s like if we were kind of spraying pesticides forever on each other’s crops, we never water them, we never nurture them, we never fertilize them, nothing will grow. In the end there’ll be nothing to fight over.

Q. Right. And you interact with the issue that politics is about power. And power without ideas or with wrong ideas is not worth having. You talk, too, about base imitation and the degree to which, unfortunately within the Christian subculture there’s been this kind of imitative nature that you say is missing the transformative power of imagination. What do you see going on there?
A. Well you know, to the extent that we think we have a message as believers we’re always thinking, well, how can we package our message? How can we get the message across? And I would question that. I think we do have a message but it’s also a message that we have to learn each time we attempt to tell it to somebody else, but that’s a long conversation. But specifically to go to what you’re saying, I think that Christians have been tempted to say, well, pop culture is a huge phenomenon and it’s incredibly cool in its way. Why don’t, instead of we rejecting pop culture, let’s get on the pop culture bandwagon, let’s just place the message inside the vehicle of the pop culture medium, whether it’s the romance novel, you know, that is being used or the techno-thriller, or the rap music, or what have you.

I’ll tell you what. We’re going to have to pick up there when we come back. A good place to stop, though, because I know you’re going to come back. You want to hear the rest of what Gregory Wolfe has to say. We’re talking about the essays in his book, Intruding Upon the Timeless: Meditations on Art, Faith, and Mystery. You can order it through imagejournal.org. And while you’re there why not get an annual subscription to the journal as well. We’ll be right back.

(Break)

Well this is Dick Staub back with you. We’re visiting with Gregory Wolfe. He is the writer in residence at Seattle Pacific University. He is publisher and editor of Image journal and the author of the book, Intruding Upon the Timeless: Meditations on Art, Faith, and Mystery. Gregory Wolfe is a precocious, active, engaging writer and thinker and throws himself with great passion into the intellectual fray and does so on a consistent basis in Image journal. And this gives you a chance to kind of look at a range of the issues that he’s been reflecting on over the last decade. It’s a wonderful piece of work and you can pick it up at imagejournal.org.

Q. We were in the middle of the imitative nature of Christian community, and particularly around popular culture since it’s so popular, since it’s so pervasive and powerful. Let’s piggyback on it and kind of insert, you know, cryptic or not so cryptic messages like, you know, floating a bottle out there and then see what happens. What’s going on there and what’s wrong with it?
A. Well, here’s the danger. The great Marshall McLuhan once said, “The medium is the message.” And the danger with pop culture, it seems to me, is that the notion that you can somehow insert some idea about faith or the faith itself into this vessel and simply transmit it and it be opened up and received in some kind of pure way is naƒ¯ve. The very nature of pop culture is to dumb things down, to make things more special-effects oriented, more in terms of spectacle than in terms of the more, let’s say, demanding exercises of heart and mind that high art and traditionally mainstream art has actually called us to employ. And so the danger is that, you know, what the young Christian listening to as he kind of rocks his head to the Christian grunge rock is grunge rock and not the faith at all. And in short that the imitation of the mainstream loses the faith by simply trying to piggyback onto a form that is already dumbed down.

Q. There are a lot of other chapters that you’ll want to read clustered around these kinds of issues. Offensive art, the argument of the weaker brother. A really interesting little piece about Regeneration magazine calling the artist to come home, as if artists by definition are wayward. A little interaction with Thomas Kinkade, the painter of light. Pretty much hitting a lot of issues that deserve serious reflection. And I point you towards the book, Intruding Upon the Timeless, by Gregory Wolfe, to go for it. I want to get to your vision for religious humanism. It’s an essay in this piece, it’s a big idea of yours. What do you mean by religious humanism?
A. Well first, I use the term “religious humanism” because I want to include, as humanists always have, a kind of dialogue of different traditions. So I want very much to have Jews and Christians, particularly, in dialogue with one another. And that’s one thing that we do in the journal is have a consistent steady stream of Jewish contributors. To us that’s just essential to our own tradition to have that continual sparks flying from the way that these two sister faiths relate to one another. So I don’t mean by religious humanism some synchrotistic mush that eliminates the distinctives of faith traditions, but I do feel it allows me when I use it to engage traditions speaking to each other across those traditions. I myself, of course, would consider myself a Christian humanist. And then again, in a sense, a Catholic humanist. But the conjunction to me is precisely not an opposition, as many people in the current day think it is. We’ve been schooled for the last 50 years to hearing the phrase secular humanist and to feel that the word humanist always has to be modified by the word secular. It wasn’t so, it was never so in the beginning. The kind of origin of humanism ¢€œ that is a passionate interest in all things human as a reflection of ultimate meaning ¢€œ came from the religious tradition that said that man was created in the image and likeness of God. That led to the tremendous flourishing of art and culture within this western civilization of ours. And so at times when things get too rational and political, as I’ve been saying during the earlier parts of this interview, to me the humanistic tradition, which is more arts/imagination oriented, needs to come to the floor to help restore balance, to help bring culture and faith back in touch with each other. Because faith that is not made incarnate in culture remains abstract. Culture is the body, the very stuff of life that we deal with and we have to touch and feel it. And unless it’s made manifest in culture it just slips through our fingers.

Q. When you talk about aesthetic and art, and we know the distinction between serious literary fiction and broader popular fiction, usually the stuff of Image journal is considered elitist within that definition of popular culture. You describe it in such a way that one would conclude that you think that if we took our faith more seriously that serious art would be popular using the phrase, “popular, widely embraced.” Is that true?
A. Yeah, absolutely. And I¢â‚¬¦

Q. So you think popular culture is, in fact, the child of superficial, shallow theology.
A. Absolutely. I mean, it’s a kind of vicious circle. I mean, great folk culture, great popular culture has always, there has always been a kind of spectrum and a whole series of linkages along that spectrum, Shakespeare being able to play both to the kind of plebs, you know, below and the people in their booths above. And in the modern era we’ve tended to force those parts of the spectrum further and further apart from each other to the detriment of both. And you know, I think part of what we’re trying to do is to work in a particular vineyard. We’re not saying it’s the only vineyard.

Q. Yeah.
A. And in the end I think even Christian humanism, which seems to be about being highly sophisticated and highly erudite, I would argue it doesn’t have to be seen just that way. There’s an intimate relationship, I think, between the balance of Christian humanism at this intellectual level and what I would call common sense.

Q. Yeah, yeah.
A. Common sense. I mean, I’ve known a lot of people who are not scholars and not artists, they’re just, you know, people who live a full life and try to find their way through the culture in their faith and the church. And they’ve said to me, you know, I resonate with what you mean because, I mean, I’ve always felt that these extremes of political edges are wrong and the truth is somewhere in between.

Q. Isn’t the embracing of “church planters” of a post-modern paradigm itself creating a whole ¢â‚¬Ëœnother set of problems? I mean, you talk about master narrative versus the post-modern emphasis on personal story. And I’ve seen a younger generation of Christians who are taking their faith seriously but who are being kind of led to believe that post-modernism has to be embraced in order to communicate within it. You end up with this focus on personal story and the loss of master narrative, don’t you?
A. Yeah. Well you know, I often¢â‚¬¦ Image is about nothing else if it isn’t about the idea that the faith needs to be made incarnate in the forms that are, the forms of the present day. And those forms are post-modern for the moment in which we live. But here’s the thing. So many Christians, as I say, tend to be more, let’s get on the bandwagon and imitate what’s already going on rather than what I would call transformative. And that would be to take what is the kind of form of the day and bring about through a real effort of mind and heart a transformation of the form into something new, into something that isn’t just tagging along but something dynamic, something that others would want to look to and imitate themselves.

And “something that increases the stock of available reality,” another just wonderful charming phrase. You’re going to find so many of them. You’ve just got to pick up a copy of the book. The book is Intruding Upon the Timeless: Meditations on Art, Faith, and Mystery. Go to imagejournal.org to get a copy. You can order it online at Amazon as well. Our guest has been Gregory Wolfe. We’ll be back with more of The Dick Staub Show right after this.

Posted in DS Interview, Staublog in August 24, 2006 by | No Comments »

Heidi Neumark: Breathing Space: A Spiritual Journey in the South Bronx.

Heidi Neumark: Breathing Space: A Spiritual Journey in the South Bronx.

To listen to the audio of this interview visit “The Kindlings.com”.

Our daughter just moved to NYC to teach in the Red Hook District of Brooklyn a downtrodden area that is making a comeback. She is there with Teach for America. Jess’s passion for the “least of these” has been evident since she was a child. Her tender heart combined with a growing awareness of justice issues was nurtured through volunteer work, internships, a compassionate local church and some socially & faith savvy profs at Seattle Pacific University. As a Christian and broadcaster I’ve always been drawn to those who “live-out their faith” in radical ways and I know it is a lonely road. Heidi Neumark (Photo right) shows the reality and richness of such a calling in her book “Breathing Space: A Spiritual Journey in the South Bronx.” May her numbers multiply and may God protect those who go to dangerous places.?

(Originally Broadcast on March 9, 2004)
Well good afternoon everybody. This is your host and fellow seeker, Dick Staub, thanking you for joining me on this fine day. And for our next guest, following Jesus meant spending the past 20 years pastoring the Transfiguration Lutheran Church in the South Bronx. Her inspirational and brutally honest story is told in a book titled, Breathing Space: A Spiritual Journey in the South Bronx. I’m referring to Pastor Heidi Neumark, and a book published by Beacon Press.

Q. Heidi, thank you for joining us today.
A. Oh, thank you for having me.

Q. You mention at the outset that the title is drawn from Pius V, this wonderful phrase, “Give us a breathing space in the midst of so many troubles.” And I was actually talking to my children last night about the troubles that you describe in South Bronx, kind of ground zero of urban blight. And the thing that I didn’t know as well as I did after reading your book was the degree to which it was planned that way. Talk a bit about Robert Moses and Roger Starr and some of what they did to make South Bronx an area of urban blight.
A. Well, yes. A lot of people just have this idea that the Bronx is a place of all these problems and even blame a victim. But a lot of it had to do with urban planning that was just very destructive. Robert Moses was a New York state and city official who did a lot of public works in the city. One of the things he did was build the Cross Bronx Expressway. And in order to build it, there were 60,000 families that were displaced. It just went through an area that was filled with homes and businesses that were all in good condition and they were just ripped out, totally knocked down. And as I said, displacing 60,000 families. At the same time that was going on, he wanted to build some new housing in an area of Manhattan where there were poor residents, and they were moved out in what he called a “slum clearance project.” And they were moved into the South Bronx. So as housing was being destroyed, more-more poor people were moving in, and it just created social havoc. Then in 1976, Roger Starr who was then working for the city as the administrator for housing and urban development, came up with a policy responding to the devastation that was going on in the South Bronx, which was in the early ’70s was the time of all the fires. They said there was about 70,000 fires between five years there. His response was something called “planned shrinkage.” That’s exactly what he, you know, called it. And it was cutting back on basically all public services, schools, fire services, ambulance, police, hospitals. And the quote he said about that was, “to accelerate the drainage” in the worst areas of South Bronx.

Q. Well, and the reason I’m bringing this up is sometimes people, suburbanites especially, have this attitude that the poor will always be with us and it’s their own fault, they lack initiative and so forth. And what we see in the story of the South Bronx is poor people that are disenfranchised politically. They don’t have any power, they don’t have advocacy, and they’re the easiest for powerful people to kind of manipulate towards their own ends. We see this same thing in the issue of how sewage treatment, how waste is handled. I think it was The New York Times that even called South Bronx as the city’s toilet. We see it in a memo that you describe about rats that kind of indicated that it’s okay if there are rats in South Bronx, but God forbid that they get in some of these other neighborhoods where more-more middle-class folks live.
A. Right.

Q. All of this has health impact and consequences. The point being, injustice is systemic and it is a political force and it, when you look at South Bronx, you’re looking at all those factors in one place kind of magnified.
A. Absolutely. Just intensified and concentrated.

Q. So now, you have this wonderful section in your book where you talk about the God of Molech and how he’s uniformly condemned in the Old Testament because he practiced child sacrifice. And one of the ways you get at our sensitivity and our responsibility about the poor is to show the degree to which, in a certain sense, in certain parts of our country ¢€œand South Bronx would be one of them ¢€œ our policy decisions and our neglect actually result in the sacrifice of children. Talk about what you mean by that and how you’ve seen that in the South Bronx.
A. Well, I’ve seen it in the South Bronx in a lot of different ways, but one of the ways I discussed in terms of the sacrifice of children was education. The system of education. And the schools in the South Bronx for year after year after year are consistently functioning on a very, very low level, and yet there is no administrative change. And one of the things that we looked into was parents, as we began organizing was there was a system of school boards that was completely, completely corrupt. They were controlling millions of dollars. And the school boards near us were flying to Honolulu, Bermuda, for meetings. People were misappropriating money for special education to buy furniture for their homes, electronic equipment. Fortunately, these people were prosecuted but not before thousands of children’s education was tremendously, you know, misserved. At the same time that the schools were performing terribly, thousands, well millions of dollars were spent in building a prison not far from the church, for 10 to 15 year olds. And it was said in studies that the prison was going to be put there because it would save money on transportation. It was built for children from all over New York City, but that most children would come from that neighborhood so it should be put there. And the study showed that children that were coming out of schools that were not, where children were not being educated, were more likely to end up in prison. So instead of improving the schools, the money went into building the prison, which is called New Horizons, which is really a sinister kind of irony.

Q. Yeah, yeah.
A. And financially there was a school right across the street from this prison where ($)6,000 to ($)7,000 a year is spent per pupil. In the prison it’s a little over ($)130,000 a year per pupil.

And the reason this is important is when we talk in terms of the political realities in our country right now, incarceration, building prisons, is very, very popular among conservatives, and yet many conservatives are Christians who-who don’t often make the connection between the amount of money we’re spending to incarcerate people versus the amount of money it would take to do preventative work and frankly just get a good education.

We’re going to be back with some more of our guest. We’re visiting with Pastor Heidi Neumark. Her book is Breathing Space: A Spiritual Journey in the South Bronx. It’s published by Beacon Press. It’s available at your local bookstore. We’ll be right back.

(Break)

Well this is Dick Staub back with you. We’re visiting this afternoon with our guest, Heidi Neumark. She is the Pastor, she has been the pastor of a church in the South Bronx and tells her story in a book titled Breathing Space: A Spiritual Journey in the South Bronx.

Q. We were just talking about this wonderful phrase that forms the-the-the inspiration for the title of the book, “Give us a breathing spaces in the midst of so many troubles.” One of the things that you capture so well in this book is a subject that I think many of us who are appreciative of the contemplatives wrestle with. And that is that you want to be both a contemplative and an activist. You don’t want your contemplative life to mean withdrawal from the stuff of everyday life, and yet you’ve come to understand the need to breathe, which is often defined as, you know, get out of the South Bronx and go to the mountains which, frankly, most of the people who live in the South Bronx don’t get that opportunity to do.
A. Right.

Q. What are some of what you’re learning about the importance of finding breathing space physically and spiritually?
A. Well, the reason I take that title, and it’s interesting because today happens to be Ash Wednesday, it was on an Ash Wednesday when I picked up a prayer book that had a-had a prayer in it that really spoke to me. But one of the reasons it spoke to me was that I was surrounded by so many people with asthma, and asthma that was due to dumping of garbage and incineration and waste transfer stations, all of these things dumped on people in the Bronx that was causing physical asthma and a physical struggle for breath. And the more I saw that I kind of saw myself. And although I didn’t have that physical asthma, I had what I sense was a kind of asthma of the spirit of ¢€œ

Q. Yeah.
A. ¢€œ where the space for prayer and-and for that breath of God and awareness of that can sometimes get just too small, just as, you know, the air passage gets small with all the irritants in the air. And now I realize I just think the connection between those two things are absolutely essential. If we’re going to be able to have the strength and energy to do the work for social justice, we-we-we can’t do that without obviously a connection to the strength that comes from God. But the reverse is also true to me, that seeking my own spiritual life and breathing space without that being connected to breathing space for all people, for everybody, is not at all what God calls us to. Our relationship to God draws us into relationship with one another.

Q. Well, and it’s interesting, too, because you’re a writer. And sometimes you get the idea, you know, you’re not in a situation conducive to the writer’s life. Somebody told me that once. And yet you quote this wonderful phrase from John of the Cross, you know, the poems that he wrote from prison which were just stunningly beautiful.
A. Yeah.

Q. You know, meditative impact. And he wrote them from the least beautiful places, by outward appearance anyway.
A. Yeah. And that gives me a lot of inspiration.

Q. Yeah. Well, it’s a very important observation on-on the nature of true contemplative spirituality. Now, you-you in your book, you talk about your own call. And you’re more than willing to be unflattering in your self descriptions because you really describe yourself as a bit of a Jonah. You talk about your experience in St. Johns Island, you were shaped in Philadelphia, experiences in Buenos Aires. How were you called to the kind of ministry that you have and have had in-in a place like the South Bronx? How did that happen in your life?
A. Well, I think it happened over a long period of time and with different experiences. But I’d have to say that even from a young child I had a strong sense of-of injustice in the world. And some of that occurred through when I was about seven my best friend died and she died of a congenital disease, and was slowly dying although I didn’t know it. And around the same time I’d seen a film with my parents in church about Indian children dying from lack of clean water. And I saw the eyes of the child in the film who was dying and they looked like Tracy, my friend’s eyes, and I said, oh my God, my friend Tracy is going to die. And she did. And my sense as a little girl was, you know, this isn’t fair. Why did Tracy have to die?

Q. Yeah.
A. And I mean, I grew up quite in a suburban middle-class environment and in a loving home so I didn’t, I wasn’t experiencing injustice in many different ways personally as a little girl, but when my friend died that¢â‚¬¦ And I feel I connected to what was going on with these kids in India.

Q. Yeah.
A. And that stayed with me, that sense of injustice and a connection between what was happening in my personal life and what was happening publicly around the globe.

Q. Yeah.
A. It just made an impact on me and I felt like whatever I did I wanted, I wanted to be part of struggling for-for life, and for the gift of life that God gives us.

Q. You talk about being a Lutheran and-and that it’s for the most part a white, middle-class denomination. And you say something that I think is important for people of all different denominational traditions, and particularly perhaps among suburban evangelicals, that there is a danger of what you call kind of enamored of our miraculous charity, or to romanticize poverty. How did you get beyond that? And how do you see that in the way we act sometimes towards the poor?
A. Well, I guess the answer to the second question first, I see that in terms of how people can act towards those who are poor as like, well, we’re so like Our Lady Bountiful attitude or paternalistic attitude, you know, we’re helping you, rather than seeing, I mean, the strength and the gifts that our sisters and brothers have to offer us and that we don’t have all the answers and we may be part of the problem.

Q. Yeah.
A. And I guess, to me, how I came to a different understanding in terms of poverty is through first-hand contact not, I mean, recognizing in my situation I was choosing to be in the South Bronx where other people had no choice at that time. But when you live in that environment you quickly see it and learn that people there had tremendous strength and, in fact, were-were-were as we talked about earlier, all these public policies had-had really led to what was the devastation there. And people that didn’t need help from me, they needed to be able to use their own abilities to make a difference and find their own voice. Sometimes I think we talk about being a voice for the voiceless, and I think it’s more important that those who may have been voiceless are able to discover and use their voice for themselves.

Wow. We’ll pick up there when we come back. Folks, you can spend more time with Pastor Heidi Neumark by picking up a copy of her book, Breathing Space: A Spiritual Journey in the South Bronx. I think it’s a timely book, a very readable, engaging book. It’s got a literary quality to it and a heart and eyes, I think, that help us see a place like South Bronx the ways God sees it. We’re going to be back with more right after this. Don’t go away.

(Break)

Well this is Dick Staub back with you. And we’re visiting with really an interesting person, Pastor Heidi Neumark. She has been pastoring the South Bronx for over 20 years. She’s told the story in Breathing Space: A Spiritual Journey in the South Bronx, and it is a remarkable book.

Q. Just before the break Heidi was telling us about the importance of understanding that we go to certain places thinking we are going to transfigure them and find ourselves transfigured, which is a wonderful counterintuitive nature of God. You talk about a lesson that you learned from Miss Ellie from St. Johns Island. And to me it was one of the most wonderful examples of-of how we, in the kind of modernized western high-paced, fast-paced world, have lost the nature of being human. And it had to do with something that you did for Miss Ellie that you thought was going to help her, and you came to learn a lesson. It was you were going to transfigure her life, she transfigured yours. Tell us what happened in that story.

A. That was early on, and that was the year I took off from college, actually. Well, and Miss Ellie lived on Johns Island off of Charleston, South Carolina, way out in an area without electricity and just dirt roads. And she lived out on her own. She was old, almost 100 years old, cutting her own firewood. And she had a really good friend named Netta that she would go to visit. But to reach Netta she had to walk miles through thick, tall grass and, you know, I used to feel really sorry for her. There were snakes in the grass and it was really hot, and I got all this poor Miss Ellie, she had to walk all this way. And actually her friend didn’t live that far away, but there was a stream that cut across her path. And she had to go pretty far to find a place where it narrowed enough that she could just actually go across. So I came up with this great idea. I thought of building a bridge to make a shortcut for her. And I found an area where it was really narrow but very deep, and she couldn’t go across. I got the wood and cement to build this little bridge. And I went to see her and I was all excited and I said, you know, I wanted to go show her this surprise and she just wanted to sit ¢€œ and she was a wonderful storyteller ¢€œ and tell stories. And I said, No, no, you know. I have this great surprise. So we went off and I showed it to her. And she just, you know, I had expected her to look all excited. And she said well like, What’s this? And I said, This is a shortcut for you to visit Miss Netta. And she says¢â‚¬¦ And she looked at me like I was the one that needed pity. And she started telling me about all the friends and people she’d visited and the friends she’d made on her way to visit her friend. And the person she’d give some quilts scraps to and someone that she brings them biscuits and they give her some raisin wine, and all the relationships she developed along the way. And then she just looked at me and said, Child, if you want friends in this world, if you want love, you know, there are no shortcuts.

Q. Wow. And that is a lesson that is difficult to learn, and you learned it because you, because you spent that time in-in St. Johns. Now, when we get to how you were transfigured and the lessons learned in South Bronx, you tell the wonderful story of your own ordination which happened to be on Transfiguration Sunday. And the speakers were Rick, Evy and Lucy. Talk a bit about how they are kind of a cross section and representative of important lessons learned in a place like the South Bronx.
A. Well, yes. The people that came to transfiguration really transfigured the church with their faith and their hope and their courage. Lucy was someone who came to the church, who had been out of church for many, many years because of domestic violence, and having received a message that she should just stay married and forgive the person she was married to when she was at one point she was pregnant and she was pushed down the stairs and lost her child. And so she was very angry, angry at church, angry at God. And yet one day she walked by the church and she heard the choir practicing, a youth choir. And you know, she heard this music and so she started just standing, listening in the back to this practice. And another woman who was in the church, Burnice, who had gone through a similar experience, reached out to her and said, You know, why don’t you come in? And she, you know, didn’t really want to. But they were able to, Burnice was able to reach out to her and say, No, no this is different. And well, to make a long story short, Lucy became, started to come to a women’s group in the church. And then she eventually began leading a domestic violence support group in the church, participated in women’s Bible study. She eventually became a leader on our church council ¢€œ

Q. Wow.
A. ¢€œ and was able to really bring a transfiguration ¢€œ and the story of transfiguration which, actually in the Bible, is something that takes place on a mountaintop ¢€œ down to the street where people live and need transfiguration.

Q. You also in your book talk about the “Elijah cycle,” and how we think of it as a story about Elijah, but you’ve to come to see the importance of the widow. And you talk about Burnice in your church representing the kind of women that are, you know, representative of people in whom and through whom God is really at work.
A. Yes, absolutely. Burnice was somebody who came to church initially looking for simply a handout and was going to get some toys for Christmas for her kids, sell them for an overdose, sell them for drugs and take an overdose. And she, on Christmas morning came to get these toys, and a student, a seminarian took time, looked at her and just began to talk with her and listen to her story and pray with her. And Burnice asked if she could de-tox in the church. And she did.

Q. Wow.
A. And then she began coming to Bible study. She ended up becoming the president of our church council. And this was always a tremendous companion and witness to me. And if there was any time when I would ever feel sorry for myself or tired or rundown, I just looked to her and¢â‚¬¦

Q. Wasn’t she the one that the New York Police Department Street Crimes Unit came and trashed her apartment at one time? Was that the same person?
A. Yes, that’s the same person.

Q. Yeah.
A. Her apartment was trashed by police looking for drugs. It was the street crime scene that had killed Amadou Diallo with 41 shots that has since been disbanded

Q. Yeah.
A. And I learned a lot, I learned a lot about prayer from Burnice. She¢â‚¬¦ Yes, her apartment was trashed and just totally, totally¢â‚¬¦ And it was a devastating experience. And a few days later when, after it had been cleaned up with the members of the church council over which she was president, I found her in front of her, praying by her window. And she said, in front of these plants that she was looking at… And she’d say, you know, I used to do this in the kitchen but now I do it in the living room where these plants are. And it turned out that the plants were the only thing in the entire apartment that had not been destroyed. I mean, the mattresses were ripped up, the TV was destroyed, everything was gutted except these plants¢â‚¬¦

Q. And they became her favorite place of prayer.
A. Yes.

Q. That’s amazing.
A. That was her breathing space.

Yeah, some breathing space. There you go. We’re going to be back with our guest, Heidi Neumark. Her book is Breathing Space: A Spiritual Journey in the South Bronx. It’s published by Beacon Press. We’ll be back with some concluding comments coming up right after this. Don’t go away.

(Break)

Well this is Dick Staub with you. We’re visiting with Heidi Neumark. Her book is Breathing Space: A Spiritual Journey in the South Bronx. It’s published by Beacon Press, and a wonderful, wonderful and inspirational story. You’ve already heard some of the inspiration.

Q. One of the things that you see in this book, Heidi, is that every attempt to try to do something good is met with some sort of either spiritual or bureaucratic resistance. I mean, you talk about the obstacles of the simple tree planting that some people wanted to do. And you talk about what it took to get the Space for Grace and the Bronx Nehemiah Home’s Projects done. Talk a bit about those projects, what they meant to the community, and why it’s frustrating that you can’t even plant a tree, for goodness sakes.
A. Well, it’s important, as we began, talking about Robert Moses coming in there and destroying the land, taking over, knocking down people’s homes and businesses. I mean, part of the reversal of that is people retaking the land and rebuilding the land, not having the city come in, continuing to come in and say for youth build prisons, which was the largest expenditure for youth over the past ten years in the South Bronx, and so building positive things that people of the area wanted to build. In the church we built, I mean, a very modest extension but that was important. We had a parking lot and people, for the most part, didn’t have cars, but we needed room for ministry and for youth and for children in the church. And so we struggled to build that Space for Grace. That was¢â‚¬¦ And we didn’t have a lot of resources so it took a lot of struggle. But it was important to say, you know, we’re building space.

Q. Yeah.
A. The same thing with the, of course, housing. And housing we couldn’t build on our own and so that was important to work with other churches, and also a mosque in the community, organizing South Bronx churches where we were able to leverage funds as a larger group and build low-income homes.

Q. Now, what was interesting about that one is I think that you said that the Nehemiah Homes were built for ($) 6 million, in the same year where one of the bureaucratic administrative divisions ¢€œ
A. It was 3, but go on.

Q. Was it 3 million?
A. Uh-huh.

Q. Wow. There was an authority there that was missing ($)100 million, couldn’t account for ($)100 million.
A. Yeah, that’s correct.

Q. And the point is, you know, at 3 million, that’s 33 times the amount of money that it took. And what a difference it would have made if you would have had that money.
A. Oh absolutely. Right. And part of our work is trying to call public officials to accountability in terms of how taxpayers’ money is being used.

Q. You know, I want to bring up something that I actually thought of during 911 because I interviewed some other pastors in the area, and it’s this. After 911 there was this tremendous outpouring of goodwill. But in a certain sense it was ¢€œ and I don’t want to be critical here ¢€œ but it dangerously bordered on the kind of a miraculous charity situation where there were people that were willing to help if they could help a specific kind of person and so forth. And one of the points that you make, without having to make it really by telling the story the way you do, is that there are ongoing needs in a place like the South Bronx, or for goodness sakes, all around the world and around the United States everyday that, at a certain level, are every bit as critical as 911. And yet we tend, Americans with more wealth, tend to have a donor mentality and a charitable mentality that responds to crisis but not the ongoing possibilities of how our resources of time and energy and sometimes money could be used to transform places here or around the world.
A. Well, you said it better than I could say it. That’s absolutely true.

Q. And how does it feel to be a pastor in a situation like that and know those resources are there and-and to be a Lutheran and, you know, representative of any number of denominations that would have that same kind of struggle? I mean, what do you feel should be done about that or can be done about it?
A. Well, I think it’s¢â‚¬¦ It just requires continually speaking out and lifting up that reality and making people aware of it and bringing it more to peoples’ consciousness, which is one of the reasons I wrote the book.

Q. You build the book in a certain way around St. Teresa and her progression through rooms to a point of union with God. Talk about how that was a useful metaphor and has been a useful metaphor for you, in terms of your own spiritual journey in the South Bronx.
A. Well, St. Teresa of Avila is kind of a spiritual mentor to me because she, in a century when there were huge obstacles, I dare to say perhaps more obstacles even than we face, although certainly as many obstacles, she did not give up. She kept going. She tried to reform and, the life of the church in her time, people’s understanding and she started communities through Spain, traveling by foot, traveling, you know, by horse or donkey, I guess. Under very difficult conditions. She was physically ill. And in addition to doing that she wrote, and she wrote books on her spiritual journey. And the fact that she was able to do all this under very difficult conditions. And she continues to be a tremendous inspiration to me.

Q. I mentioned to you that I posted something that you talked about at my website today. I emailed you that earlier today. And it had to do with singing there’s power in the blood and a certain level at which that kind of visceral aspect of our gospel connects with people who need to see power in blood, and the Bronx needs a God who bleeds. Talk about why you feel that, what you mean by that.
A. Well, when you find out it’s not a spirituality that’s pie-in-the-sky and disconnected from our humanity, our flesh and blood struggles. And my understanding of Christianity is Jesus being fully God and fully human. Fully human, sharing in all parts of our humanity. And but, you know, the sense of not Jesus as a weak victim dying for us, but Jesus dying for us because of his powerful love for us, resisting a lot of dehumanizing powers and yes, bleeding, but also rising to life. And I think in the Bronx I discovered the power that of that life, you know, not just this, again, something at the end of life, a resurrection, but a rising up and getting out of bed every day for a lot of people, getting up in the morning is a resurrection ¢€œ

Q. Yeah, absolutely.
A. ¢€œ when you’re struggling with a lot of injustice.

Q. So in conclusion, your hope from this book, and then you’re in a different ministry. And how did you decide to make that change?
A. Well, that was a difficult decision. When I was on sabbatical for a few months, which is when I did part of the writing of the book, I visited a church in Manhattan one Sunday where the gospel text was Jesus calling Peter, you get out of this boat. And it just was one of those moments where it felt that God was speaking and saying, Heidi, get out of your boat. And that was a very threatening kind of thing to me. But to make a long story short, it turned out that God, I really did feel was calling me to a new ministry. And it was not, it was something I resisted but, in fact, it’s how I felt God calling me. And I guess in my book I’m hoping to call all of us to get out of our boat a little bit and to, you know, to get into a boat with our sisters and brothers and see things in a new way.

Wow. As one reader, I will say that that certainly is part of what my experience was in spending time with the book Breathing Space: A Spiritual Journey in the South Bronx, as told by Pastor Heidi Neumark, published by Beacon Press, and available at your local bookstore. We’ll be right back. Don’t go away.

Posted in DS Interview, Staublog in August 14, 2006 by | 1 Comment »

Paul Elie: The Life You Save May Be Your Own

Paul Elie: The Life You Save May Be Your Own

Originally Aired on April 6, 2004.

To listen to the audio of this interview visit “The Kindlings.com”.

Well, good afternoon everybody. This is your friendly guide. And you know, in an “evangelical ‘Prayer of Jabez’, ‘Left Behind’ publishing world,” where the Christian Booksellers Association has turned to Christian fiction as the next market to exploit promoting new, exciting, hot authors, I’m reminded of the time I was actually asked to speak to the publicist in the CBA. And my assigned subject was, how to get more authors booked on my show. And my first point ¢€œ and actually pretty much my major point ¢€œ was write better books. Well, this strikes me as particularly true when it comes to books reflecting or aimed at people on spiritual journey. The issues are too important to be crafted shoddily or shallowly. And that is why our next guest’s book falls like fresh rain on parched soil. For here we are reminded of a time when passion for craft and pursuit of truth were intertwined with each other and with one’s faith tradition to produce satisfying writing and, therefore, satisfying reading.

Q. Our guest is Paul Elie. The book is The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage. And it is the story of Flannery O’Connor, Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, and Walker Percy who, as Paul says, were joined by craft and Catholicism. Paul, it’s great to have you with us this afternoon.
A. It’s a pleasure to be with you.

Q. You know, when I-when I first got a-first read a review of the book, I was
immediately excited because I’m personally kind of disturbed at the trend in Evangelical publishing towards what I consider sub-standard writing and-and fiction. But I was interested when I-when I got the review copy because you’re a pretty young guy. And I-and I asked myself, how did such a young guy find his own life and journey intersecting with the likes of Flannery O’Connor, Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, and Walker Percy?
A. Do you mean in a sense that those are writers really of two generations?\

Q. Yeah. Well, how-how did you get personally connected to these writers?
A. Well, I was born in 1965, and I was raised in a Catholic family in upstate New York. And I would say that it wasn’t until I came to college at Fordham, which is a Jesuit university here in New York, where I now live, that I had to self-consciously examine the Christian tradition and figure out my place in it. Possibly because I wanted to be a writer already, I looked to books. And in addition to all the books I was reading in-in college, I turned to the books by these four writers. Flannery O’Connor came first. At the time I thought Flannery O’Connor was a man. Like Tennessee Williams or something.

Q. Yeah, exactly.
A. One of those southern double-barreled names.

Q. Yeah.
A. I bought the complete stories and found out not only that she was a woman, and a woman who had done her work when she was very young, but that she had a connection with Thomas Merton.

Q. Yeah, yeah.
A. ¢€œ through her editor, Robert Giroux.

Q. Yeah.
A. Giroux introduces O’Connor’s complete story, a beautiful portrait of O’Connor, and then-and then a drawing of her likeness to Thomas Merton. He said that they were both characterized by deep faith, great intelligence, and highly developed sense of comedy.

Q. Yeah.
A. So having read that, I bounced over to Merton and read The Seven Storey Mountain. And then at the Fordham Library, which looked like a gothic cathedral, I set myself up underneath a churchy window and read my way through all the Merton books.

Q. Yeah.
A. And Dorothy Day’s work I encountered in an anthology. At the time I went to¢â‚¬¦ I worshiped at the Corpus Christi church up near Columbia University. It’s a church best known for being the church where Thomas Merton was baptized in 1938, I guess. Anyway, they had a book sale in the basement one day after mass, and I brought a selection of Dorothy Day’s writings. By little and by little that was in December of the year after I got out of college. And shortly after that I went down to the Catholic Worker on the lower east side and volunteered there for a couple of months ¢€œ

Q. Hm.
A. ¢€œ just on Saturdays. And then I now work as an editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and they, this place has published the works of three of these writers, O’Connor, Merton, and Percy.

Q. Uh-huh.
A. So here I began to read Percy because Percy, more than the others, he’s a fan of¢â‚¬¦ He looked up to O’Connor and he looked up to Merton, even though he was a contemporary of theirs. So in a way he was an ideal interlocutor as I was making my way through the works of the other writers because he, his admiration for them was akin to mine.

Q. Uh-huh. Interesting. Well you know, the way I’d like to kind of talk about this book ¢€œ and it’s a wonderful sprawling look at their four lives individually and intertwined ¢€œ is-is from the standpoint of-of let’s posit that the reader is a young writer serious about exploring faith, wanting to write about issues of faith, wants to learn something from the example of these-of these four writers. And when we start with that just kind of broad presupposition, in general, what would such a young person take away from a study of their lives? Just in general, what do you see at-at 30,000 feet when you look at these four writers?
A. I think you see, first of all, that they were people who ¢€œ it’s not too much to say they were converted by books. Three of the four, although vestigially Christian, were not Catholics.

Q. Yeah.
A. They¢â‚¬¦ Thomas Merton had been raised among the ruins of medieval France. Dorothy Day had been either baptized or confirmed in the Episcopal church as a teenager, and Walker Percy had been raised a Presbyterian. But it was really their experience of literature that quickened the religious impulse in them.

Q Uh-huh.
A. Day, through Tolstoy and Dostoevsky and Dickens, who she thought was a great dramatizer of-of Christian charity in some of his works. Merten through reading medieval philosophy. He just took seriously the injunction in certain books of philosophy that-that we are all called to a personal experience of the divine.

Q. Uh-huh.
A. And for him that meant going into a monastery.

Q. Uh-huh.
A. Walker Percy, he read existentialist work. Kierkegaard especially, but also Dostoevsky and Sartre and Camus. And the idea of a representative figure whose malaise or his despair is that of western society’s, he recognized himself in those alienated protagonists. So the first thing I would say to that writer is, look to the books and learn from them not only about how books are written, but about how-how the human situation is to be understood and how-how one’s own human situation is to be understood from the books. Don’t feel obligated to like everything. Find certain works that one has strong affinities with and-and trust that and follow it. Should I continue or do you want to¢â‚¬¦ Or do you want to interject here?

Q. Yeah. Let’s continue. You’ve covered them as readers and as kind of people who-who immerse themselves and become almost incarnated in the-in the-in the process of the book. How does that kind of process end up with a good writer?
A. Well, I think that¢â‚¬¦ I mean, any number of people have said that it’s very important for a young writer to-to-to read widely and steep oneself in the work of one’s predecessors. But beyond that I think that these four really recognized that what a great writer does is make the work of others his or her own.

Q. Uh-huh.
A. It doesn’t remain in a posture of ¢€œ I don’t want to say reverence, that’s the wrong word ¢€œ really serious books demand that we assimilate them to ourselves.

Q. Uh-huh.
A. You take them as a challenge to our whole lives.

Q. Yeah.
A. They’re not merely entertainment, they’re not merely information, there’s a kind of radical injunction at the bottom of them. Life is serious business. You have your life, how are you going to spend it?

Q. Right.
A. How are you going to orient it?

Q. I’ll tell you what. Let’s pick up there when we come back.
A. All right.

And we’ll be right back with some more of our guest this afternoon, who is Paul Elie. The book is The Life You Save May Be Your Own, Farrar, Straus and Giroux. We’ll be right back.

(Break.)
Well, this is Dick Staub back with you. We’re visiting with Paul Elie. The book he has written is The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage, intertwining the lives and work and journey of Flannery O’Connor, Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, and Walker Percy.

Q. We’re-we’re standing back and asking, if you were a young writer today and you were going to read these four, you’re serious about your faith, what are you going to learn from their example? And Paul has-has started out by talking about who they were as readers and the way they read, and-and we’re talking about how they become writers. And-and we were, when we broke, talking about the-the radical nature of-of the-the enterprise of serious writing and serious reading that it is-it is a-it is an undertaking that has severe consequences. And you know, just to step back, Paul, you’re in the publishing business. And you know that such books are, these days, are rare and-and they tend to be read by-by serious readers of whom there seem to be fewer. These people, though, did not worry about whether they were reaching masses or not. It seems to me that one of the things they had in common was that they were writing to work out their own journey. And if others connected they certainly, in the case of Merton he, early on especially, had this deep desire to be widely read. But ultimately, their writing enterprise was more about their own pilgrimage than about-than about publishing and getting the next deal. Is that-is that accurate?
A. I think that is accurate. All of them felt it vitally important to communicate.

Q. Yes.
A. None with-none was art for art’s sake. Walker Percy saw writing, for
example, as a message in a bottle, you know, put in by one person to be urgently sent forth and read by another. That said they situated themselves to some degree at the margins. And I think their Christian faith had to do with that. They didn’t expect to be at the center of things.

Q. Yes.
A. And since they shunned the limelight ¢€œ one’s in a monastery, one’s in a non-
place as he called it, Covington, Louisiana ¢€œ

Q. Yes.
A. ¢€œ one’s in rural Georgia. And Dorothy Day, who was really in the thick of things as a-as an advocate of social justice, was at some distance from the literary world.

Q. Yeah.
A. They-they wrote for their community of admirers, let’s say, confident that it would find its way into the general culture.

Q. When we talk about their “community of admirers that would find its way into the general-the general culture,” how would you describe their sense of-of calling as a writer?
A. Well, I think that each had a very specific sense of calling. Merton¢â‚¬¦ Well, let me backtrack a bit. What strikes me, looking at their sense of calling, is how-how willing they were to follow a distinctive way and follow it at some distance, and not try to be all things to all people.

Q. Uh-huh, yes.
A. When Walker Percy decided to take up fiction and philosophy, this was
something that wasn’t done in his illustrious southern family.

Q. Yes.
A. It’s often forgotten now that he spent nearly 15 years from the end of World War II until the publication of The Moviegoer, writing essays that were read by a few dozen philosophers, at most.

Q. Yeah.
A. Working out his ideas. Yes, he had a small independent income, but beyond that he had a lot of courage to follow his calling and not be dissuaded, even if it took some years to get where he was going.

Q. Yeah, yeah. Well, you talk about the-the issue of Seekers of the Real. This is something that they all had in common.
A. That’s right. I think that both great writing and religious faith for them
represented something fundamentally real. There are aspects of each for them that represented a kind of flight away from everyday life. But when you get down to it, they say a great book as bringing a kind of news that had a kind of reality that the papers and newsreels often did not.

Q. Yeah.
A. Likewise, their religion, they thought that it told the truth about things in a way that, let’s say, contemporary philosophy often did not.

Q. When you-when you think about the point that you were making just a minute ago about the-the fact that the, in a sense each of them wrote from the margins, how was it that they found champions in the publishing world? How was it that they didn’t, well, they didn’t seem to play the game and be in the right place, they nevertheless got the attention of people in publishing?
A. Well, I think that luck had a lot to do with it. Thomas Merton was a
Cobbs classmate of Robert Giroux’s.

Q. Yeah.
A. And if he hadn’t been Giroux’s classmate, The Seven Storey Mountain might never have been published and he might never have become the most famous monk in the western world. At the same time, they knew that it was necessary for them to get their work out there and they set about finding people they trusted in the so-called general culture and working closely with them instead of demonizing mass society. They figured that they were reasonable people inside who would understand their work, and they went forth with confidence. Flannery O’Connor, for example, met Robert Giroux in New York. She was introduced by Robert Lowell, a person she trusted, to Giroux, who is his editor. Giroux gave her a copy of The Seven Storey Mountain. The way I tell it in my book, that said to her, Here’s an editor who’ll understand the religious preoccupations at the center of my novel, which was Wise Blood.

Q. Interesting.
A. And she felt understood in advance because he gave her this book about another man with religious preoccupations.

Q. Yeah. What-what’s so fascinating about this, and again, you being in the business, is that here these writers ultimately connected, not only widely to a broader culture in their own day, but they tapped into something so deeply human and-and something that-that so many people connected with, that they still have shelf life today. I mean, you can still pick up all of these authors in most bookstores. And yet-and yet think about it, at the time, they had to have a champion in a publishing house to get published. So it-it says that there is a pent-up kind of longing for people that write from an individual standpoint, that have a perspective and a point of view. But if they don’t get a champion within the kind of inner circle, they may never reach that audience that is, well, demonstrably there.
A. I think that’s true. And to some degree I’m sure that the publishing culture seems hostile to ideas like they have in their books. At the same time, they knew that the best way to get their word out was to write extraordinarily well.

Q. Yeah.
A. Flannery O’Connor was asked once whether the fact that she was a Catholic meant that she was less than an artist. In other words, she thought the truth was self-evident or was to be found in the catechism or some such, and so she didn’t really have to bother with the art. And she said, on the contrary. Because people were suspicious of her background and-and her convictions, she had to be all the more of an artist. And I think that’s true of all four of them. They really outdid themselves in their effort to make work that was of the highest quality.

A. And also they just didn’t assume the suspicions of a culture. They sought to meet the supposedly uninterested reader halfway and woo them into the work.
Q. Yeah. But when you talk about the craft, I mean, it’s interesting because all of them were-were kind of, they were not in the typical writers colony kind of places. I mean, they were in places where the craft was very much hammered out in isolation.

A. It’s true. They all had very important mentors at certain points. To some degree the kind of mentoring process that they enjoyed has been institutionalized. So they have more in common with writing program students than might initially seem to be the case.

Q. Interesting.
A. Merton got it as an undergraduate, for example. And O’Connor and Percy both sent their novel to a celebrated writing teacher named Caroline Gordon in the same week.

Q. I’ll tell you what. We’ll pick up right there when we come back.

Our guest is Paul Elie. His book is The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage, Farrar, Straus and Giroux. We’ll be right back.
(Break.)

Well, this is Dick Staub back with you. Our guest is Paul Elie. The book he has written is The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage, an examination of Flannery O’Connor, Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, and Walker Percy, who were joined by their craft and Catholicism as Paul Elie says.

Q. We were just talking about the-the-the study of these writers from the vantage point of a young writer who’s serious about faith and who wants to learn from their example. And we-we’ve already heard a lot. They’ve got to write extraordinarily well, each of them were deep readers, and the books they read were books of consequence. So they-they took their craft seriously, they took ideas seriously. Each of them found a mentor or a champion somewhere along the way that-that could both promote their ideas but also love them, savor them, shape them, interact with them, a collaboration of sorts. And-and each of them, at least in the case of these four, wrote somewhere from the margin of-of-of-of the activistic scene, with the exception of Dorothy Day who was right in the middle of it. But in terms of the literary scene, they were-they were in different places than you might-you might have expected. Paul, talk a bit about the-the other thing that you find in each of these writers, is people are comfortable with them as-as people who were within a religious tradition but in a certain sense had a little bit of arm’s length with that tradition. And we talk about the degree to which they-they were part of-of their religious experience and tradition, but also kind of in a different place from that tradition.
A. That’s very true. But each of them stayed on friendly terms with skepticism, let’s say. And in different ways they dramatized the dialogue between faith and doubt that, let’s face it, is just the dialogue of the believing person in our time, that it’s appropriate for that dialogue to be ongoing and not to be silent. And in their lives and in their work they gave ample voice, let’s say, to both sides of the argument. And even if it was resolved in favor of faith, you felt that the other side had had its case made for it and their work feels earned and authentic for that reason. Dorothy Day, for example, never lost touch with her old communist friends at the time communists were all staunch atheists, but she would see them at rallies again and again and again. And so she had to frame her discourse so that it was convincing to people who were never going to be where she was religiously. And that’s really true of all four of them.

Q. When you-when you look at their own experiences and their life experiences, the experiences that shaped them, how did first-hand experience become a very important part of their life? I mean, none of them were writing from an intellectual, theoretical standpoint.
A. That’s true and it’s a good question. At the time Catholicism wasn’t thought to prize individual experience.

Q. Yes.
A. In the categories of the time, individual experience was something for
Protestants. Of course I don’t think that’s true, but that’s the way the issue was framed.

Q. Yeah.
A. So how is it that these four writers were so confident that their own experience was vital and representative?

Q. Yes.
A. In part, I think it comes from the fact that they were adults before they became active Christians, let’s say. And part has to do with their knowledge that as writers they have to have a personal vision of things. That doesn’t mean that they have to be heterodox or that they are simply seeking individual self-aggrandizement, but the writers they admired had a personal view and so would they.

Q. Yeah. But there was really only one of them that was a cradle-to-grave
Catholic. And-and-and-and one of the reviews of your book made reference to the Augustinian motif of “sinning one’s way to God.”
A. That’s right.

Q. So that you had a sense of real¢â‚¬¦ There’s a real person here that’s
experienced real life. They’ve actually¢â‚¬¦ And you have a whole chapter in your book about “The Downward Path” as part of the pilgrimage. But it gave it a certain sense of authenticity to readers.
A. That’s right. I think people expected at the time that a conversion story was just going to start at the top and go higher. What so many people connected with in a book like The Seven Storey Mountain, and still do, is a sense that here’s a person whose struggles to make sense of his life in his early manhood are real, and that when he claims religious faith it’s hard won. He’s worked through a lot of things to reach the kind of peace that he finds as a monk in the Abbey of Gethsemani.

Q. Yeah. A lot of people when they first read Merton they-they find him almost embarrassingly self pre-occupied and honest about his doubts and his ups and his downs. And he’s so, you know, his vanities are so exposed in his journals that it-that it-it-it-it’s an unusual honesty, particularly for the time, but I think it’s one of the things that gives a sustaining power.
A. I think that’s right, that his self¢â‚¬¦ When you see those seven volumes of
journals you feel the self before you with a kind of completeness ¢€œ

Q. Yeah.
A. ¢€œ that you don’t get with many other 20th century religious figures. But they all had a firm grasp of the paradoxes of life seen from a religious perspective. And one of them is that, let’s say you’re drawn to aspects of the tradition that are the least likely. Merton’s sense of self was so strong that he wanted to have a counterweight to it, hence, the monastic discipline of the Trappist.

Q. Yeah.
A. Dorothy Day liked good food, liked the opera, she was attractive. She liked the Bohemian life. Hence, her embrace of the hard-scrabble life of the Catholic Worker. Flannery O’Connor was so funny that she could be nasty. So she worked the humor into her fiction as an act of charity, really, and tried to smooth out some of the rough edges in the rest of her life.

Q. Hm. When we-when we talk about the way that they came to know of each other and know each other, talk a bit about that whole-that whole process.
A. Well, they knew each other through a common editor, Robert Giroux, through a common friend, Caroline Gordon, who came up with the term, the school of the Holy Ghost. Through readers. They read one another’s books. They swapped a letter here and there. And then on a deeper level I think their work is, in a sense, if I had to boil it down to a single point, it’s the point that their recognition¢â‚¬¦ Literature and religion converts for them, in the sense that they felt called toward to have a certain reverence toward the stranger, they recognized the way in which we’re joined to people we don’t know first-hand.

Q. Uh-huh.
A. Whether that person is the reader, whether that person is the poor man on the bowery who needs a coat or a hot meal.

Q. Uh-huh.
A. Whether that person is one of the dead who Merton felt connected to through the monastic tradition. So I tried to in the book tease out the mysterious ways in which people are connected beyond the literal ways of letters and friends in common ¢€œ

Q. Yeah.
A. ¢€œ and I hope that in some way it worked.

Q. You talk about rotation versus alienation. Describe what you mean by that.
A. Well, these are terms of Kierkegaard’s that Walker Percy adopted. The
alienated person is at a distance from other people that seems unbridgeable.

Q. Yeah.
A. And one of the ways to overcome the alienation, according to Kierkegaard, is to rotate into another person’s existence.

Q. Yes.
A. Thus the writer leaves his writer’s life and, let’s say, goes to work at a soup kitchen for the Catholic Worker, can see life from a different perspective and connect in a different way. So in a sense, the tradition these writers belong to constantly urges us out of ourselves ¢€œ

Q. Yes.
A. ¢€œ to rotate out of ourselves and-and thereby overcome alienation.
Q. Yeah. I’ll tell you what. We’re going to be back with some concluding
comments with Paul Elie. His book is The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage. This is just a fascinating read. Flannery O’Connor, Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, and Walker Percy. Great subject matter but-but handled very interestingly. We’ll be right back with some concluding comments.
(Break.)

Well, this is Dick Staub back with you. Our guest is Paul Elie. His book is The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage. Truly a wonderful book, and especially for those of you that love reading or love writing and are working at being a writer who can join your craft and your religious and spiritual journey because these are writers that did it extraordinarily well. We’re trying to learn some of the lessons that are observable in their lives.

Q. We were just talking before the break about the idea of the stranger, being alienated. We talked earlier about these writers writing from the margins. And yet Thomas Merton has this vision where he experiences himself moving from separateness to being a member of the human race. And he has this just wonderful sense of-of how he fits with everybody else. Talk about that experience and its significance, Paul.
A. Well in a sense, Merton’s life and to some degree the lives of all four of the protagonists in this book, follow the proverbial pattern of losing one’s self to find one’s self.

Q. Yes.
A. Merton had a very strong sense of self as a young man and an emerging writer at Columbia University and at Cambridge University. He wanted to lose himself in order to find himself. He went to a Trappist monastery, silence, austerity, self-abnegation. He wound up writing an autobiography which became a bestseller and, against all expectations, made him famous.

Q. Yes.
A. So in a sense he was a prisoner of his self-image for some years and he chafed at the responsibilities and the burdens that being a famous monk placed upon him, a totally paradoxical situation. Ten years pass. He leaves the monastery one day to go to a doctor’s appointment, finds himself really for the first time in some years just in the middle of a rush-hour crowd in Louisville, not far from the monastery. Amidst all these strangers he rotates into another person’s everyday experience, that of a rush-hour in the middle of a big city. And he’s just blown away by the sense of the loss of self coincides with the finding of the self. And he recognizes himself in his ordinary humanness for the first time in some years. And it’s a revelatory experience for him.

Q. Hm. You-you have a whole chapter on “The Holiness of the Ordinary.”
What do we learn from that thematically?
A. Well, as is so much in this book it has both a literary and a religious
dimension.

Q. Yes.
A. And I think that they’re reconciled, that they go together. The chapter deals especially with Dorothy Day and Walker Percy at the end of their lives. Dorothy Day had done extraordinary things, leading rallies, publishing a radical newspaper, traveling all over the country to meet activists and witness against injustice. In her 70’s she was frail. She entered what she called the third half of life, citing a Buddhist proverb. And she spent time in her room in the lower east side reading, praying, greeting people and pondering the significance of her life. It was very ordinary compared to what she’s done before, but it was a time to make sense of the foregoing.

Q. Hm.
A. Same for Walker Percy. He was a man of stature, he had achieved a lot in fiction. He wanted to focus on the little things of kindness to strangers, goodwill among neighbors, living and playing a role in a small community in Louisiana where he had lived some years. And for him, that was the holiness of the ordinary, something like Theresa’s little visit, what she called the little way.

Q. Yeah. When we-when we go back now and we-we-we pick up our idea of a young writer reading these four, wanting to learn how do you take your faith seriously and write about it in, as you said, extraordinary ways, what is different about today that that writer needs to be aware of? In other words, how much was the time they were in, what created this-this unusual combination of four writers from a faith perspective, writing well, and writing into the broader culture?
A. I think that there’s more — and it’s more possible in the present than is
commonly thought ¢€œ that their experience owed more to them than to the time. But what is different, or what strikes me as different, is that I think the mass media being what they are, we’re all encouraged to-to-to think and talk like spokesmen, to have big opinions on current affairs, and so forth. And it’s very difficult to sometimes figure out what it is we are meant to do or say personally within that.

Q. Uh-huh.
A. It’s difficult to find our way to the margins the way they did. So I, my own
sense or my own discovery is that it’s important to shut down that inner spokesman and try to-try to hear the calling that’s distinctive to each of us.

Q. Well yeah, and that is so essential at the heart of the Christian faith and yet even within the Christian tradition today there’s such a move towards conformity and away from individualism, and not something that each of these had to buck as well in their own time. When-when you talked¢â‚¬¦ At the very start you talked about reading deeply. And these people believe that if you read a book, you know, it was an engagement that could actually radically change your life. You-you’ve had a rare privilege of spending that kind of time with these four. What are some of the other elements for you as a writer and as a-a person on spiritual journey that reading them deeply has affected you?
A. Well, a lot of things we’ve touched on ¢€œ and I’m glad you’ve brought them up ¢€œ a personal commitment to certain books rather than other books, a willingness to like follow the path of one’s own preferences, let’s say.

Q. Yes.
A. Merton was drawn to the monastic life. At a certain point he stopped
justifying it and just decided this is-this is going to be my calling. I think that it’s not often recognized. Let’s just say the spiritual possibilities inherent in books, that a book is a kind of halfway place where we can become very intimate with the mind and heart of another person, but ultimately are left to decide for ourselves. So if there’s a challenge in great books, it’s not quite a command. Or it’s kind of left up to us. And there’s a lot of responsibility in that. And I think¢â‚¬¦ I found from writing this book that all the different ways in which it’s possible for a reader and a writer to take up the responsibilities that other books suggest to us.

Q. Did you select the title, The Life You Save May Be Your Own?
A. I did. It comes from a story by Flannery O’Connor.

Q. Uh-huh. And what was it about it that just fit the book?
A. Well you’ll notice, you have noticed that that story falls at the exact center of the book.

Q. Yeah.
A. And in a sense, the idea of reverence towards a stranger wasn’t that stranger as a poor person or a reader or a stranger in a crowd, is one of the big ideas in the book. But more than that it seems to capture what, for me, is the experience of reading and writing, that the life you save may be your own. A book, certain books will reach us at our deepest level. And-and at their best they’ll change us. And they may even help us to save our lives.

Q. Hm. And you liked the word pilgrimage.
A. I sure do. And I think that¢â‚¬¦ It’s a term that is religious in origin, that still retains all its power in the secular world, let’s say, and it implies a narrative. What more could a writer want?

Q. Yeah. It also seems to have a little more intentionality than journey.
A. I think that’s right. And a journey is¢â‚¬¦ A journey is something much more general.

Q. Yeah.
A. A pilgrimage is a certain kind of journey.

Q. Absolutely.
A. A journey in which we go on a path that others have taken, but hoping to see what they saw but with our own eyes.

Well put. And you’re going to find lots of insight in Paul Elie’s book, The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. It’s available at your local bookstores. We’ll be right back.

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Get Up Off Your Knees: Preaching the U2 Catalog

Get Up Off Your Knees: Preaching the U2 Catalog

When Jesus spoke in parables and the Apostle Paul quoted pagan poets at Mars Hill, they followed a long line of communicators that has continued to this day; communicators who start with culture to bridge to gospel. U2 has been writing provocative and prophetic lyrics for years¢â‚¬¦so it is no surprise that they have worked their way into sermons. For a wonderful series of expositions turn to a new book Get Up Off Your Knees (Cowley)edited by Raewynne Whiteley and Beth Maynard. Here’s the audio and transcript of our exclusive interview.

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Interview of Beth Maynard by Dick Staub

Well welcome everybody. You know, when Jesus spoke in parables and the Apostle Paul quoted pagan poets at Mars Hill, they followed a long line of communicators that is continued to this day. Communicators who start with culture to bridge to belief. U2 has been writing provocative and prophetic lyrics for years, so it’s no surprise that they have worked their way into sermons. And for a wonderful series of expositions I want you to turn to a new book titled Get Up Off Your Knees, published by Cowley, edited by Raewynne Whiteley and Beth Maynard. Beth is the pastor of the Church of the Good Shepherd in Fairhaven, Massachusetts. And she joins us today.

Q. Beth, thanks for joining us.
A. Thanks for having me, Dick. Glad to be here.

Q. I want to start with your own spiritual journey because in the introduction to the book you say, “My spiritual life would have been a much less interesting soundtrack without U2. And without Jesus I’d probably be either intolerable or dead.” Sounds interesting. Tell me briefly how you got interested in U2 and a little bit about your own spiritual journey.
A. Sure. I’m someone who was, I was brought up in Nashville, Tennessee, which they call “the buckle on the Bible belt,” and I sometimes thought I was the only unchurched, non-Christian child in Nashville, Tennessee. I think I was the Sunday school prayer partner of a lot of my evangelical schoolmates and eventually their prayers were answered. And when I was about 17, just before going to college, I became a Christian and was baptized. So that’s sort of the beginning of how I came to faith. And pretty early on I began to wonder about the appropriate way of combining my faith with my career choices and just my life in general. And that led me into, oh, all sorts of different places, but a social justice ministry. I used to run a homeless shelter. And it was about that time, I guess, in the late ¢â‚¬Ëœ80s, that a friend that I was in a home prayer group with introduced me to U2.

Q. And what was your first impression of U2? Do you remember?
A. Yeah. I remember the evening at that prayer group quite vividly. “Joshua Tree” had just come out and U2 were on the cover of Time that week, being heralded as rock’s hottest ticket. And after the prayer meeting broke up we sat around and listened to the album. And the two things I remember the most vividly were just being amazed at the subtlety of the biblical references that they made, myself. And I also vividly remember someone else saying, Boy, this is so much better than all that Christian rock stuff.

Q. Now, you have in the introduction your co-author, Raewynne Whiteley, has a little piece on pop culture and preaching ¢€œ
A. Yes.

Q. ¢€œ you’re already making connections between listening to pop culture, hearing biblical references ¢€œ which of course in U2 are very, very pronounced ¢€œ
A. Right.

Q. ¢€œ but really beyond U2, whether the lyrics of a song are kind of explaining our common human condition of lostness or loneliness ¢€œ or more explicit such as the lyrics of U2 ¢€œ talk a bit about what Raewynne is saying about the connection between pop culture and preaching.
A. Well I think preachers are always looking for effective cultural connections that help people grasp the meaning of biblical text. And one of the points that Raewynne makes that I find really fascinating is that not only do we take the biblical text out into the world, we bring our life experience and our experience of the world with us when we read biblical text. She makes the point that we come to the stories of Christmas with Christmas carols already in our heads. And if you’re a fan of U2, when you come to, oh, let’s say a situation of discouragement, when you need to be encouraged to persevere, you may come to that situation with “Walk On” in your head. There’s just a natural connection that you make of these different texts and these different ways of telling the story of the world that we’re in.

Q. For people that aren’t that familiar with U2 ¢€œ maybe because you do it in the book ¢€œ maybe you could just give a real brief history of U2 and why it is that their lyrics so consistently convey biblical themes.
A. Sure. Your nickel history of U2 follows. U2 are an Irish band, formed in the late ¢â‚¬Ëœ70s, sort of out of the punk/new wave movement in Dublin. And very early on in their formation as a band, three of the members of the band became heavily involved in a Christian community called Shalom, which was non-denominational, and one can tell from their later comments was just a very intense, influential experience. They ended up breaking with that community, it seemed, largely over the question of whether you could pursue a “secular career,” such as rock music, and continue having a profession as a Christian. U2 concluded that you could do that and went forth into the world shaped by that Christian message but not feeling called to write exclusively about Christianity, per se, rather to write about the world through the lens of Christian faith. In the ¢â‚¬Ëœ80s, U2 were known as sort of being very straight ahead, social justice, change the world, get out there and wave your white flag, and by the end of the ¢â‚¬Ëœ80s they were much critiqued for that perceived kind of self-righteousness. They completely re-invented themselves in the ¢â‚¬Ëœ90s, borrowing a page from C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters, and became kind of the band of irony. And then at the end of the ¢â‚¬Ëœ90s, as the millennium came, they went back, in a sense, to wearing their heart on their sleeves with their most recent album, “All That You Can’t Leave Behind,” which retains some of that subtlety and nuance that we came to associate with U2 in the ¢â‚¬Ëœ90s, but is also much more straight ahead about basic human values.

Q. For people that don’t know, I mean, Bono is in the news all the time ¢€œ
A. Right.

Q. ¢€œ but what insight do we have into kind of the nature of his own spiritual quest and journey?
A. You know, in a sense that’s a question that really only Bono can answer. And it’s a question that we have sort of bracketed a little bit for the book, Get Up Off Your Knees. We’ve worked very much with U2’s art, with their lyrics, with their music, and we’ve kind of tried to say the games of are they or aren’t they, the kind of, you know, “Where’s Waldo,” of trying to talk about their personal faith is something we’re bracketing. I’m someone who admires very much the way that Bono seems to bring his Christian faith to bear on his activism and on his art and on his worldview. But for nuances and statements of faith, really only the individual themselves can make that.

We’re going to pick up there when we come back. We’re talking about U2, about preaching through the U2 liturgy. The book is Get Up Off Your Knees, published by Cowley. Our guest is Beth Maynard. We’ll be right back.

(Break)

The heart is a bloom
Shoots up through the stony ground
There’s no room
No space to rent in this town

You’re out of luck
And the reason that you had to care
The traffic is stuck
And you’re not moving anywhere

You thought you’d found a friend
To take you out of this place
Someone you could lend a hand
In return for grace

It’s a beautiful day

Well this is Dick Staub back with you. We’re talking about a wonderful new book, Get Off Your Knees, published by Cowley, edited by Raewynne Whiteley and Beth Maynard. Beth is joining us this afternoon.

Q. And Beth, it’s interesting ¢€œ and I agree with completely with the way you responded to my question about Bono, but I knew I had to ask it because people always want to know.
A. Sure. You know, it’s a celebrity culture and people want to know what kind of socks he wears, too.

Q. But you know, more interesting to me is the fact there’s a connection with Eugene Peterson, of course, because Bono has spoken very favorably about The Message, which Eugene Peterson has brought a great sense of art to the scriptural text. And Peterson does not seem to be afraid in the introduction ¢€œ he talks about an evening of Jesus and Bono ¢€œ
A. That’s right.

Q. ¢€œ but then he also talks about the tendency of religiosity to domesticate God, the nature of the prophet to disturb that domesticity, and the use of metaphors. And that really is a fairly useful way to look at U2, isn’t it?
A. I really think it is. I was thrilled that Eugene Peterson agreed to be part of the book. And we asked him, you know, could he just write us a few paragraphs, possibly, of endorsement of the book as a foreword. And lo and behold, he had been engaging with the work of U2 enough over the past year or so that this entire chapter arrived. And talking about the use of metaphor as a kind of prophecy, a kind of way in which God wakes us up from our religious slumber is very powerful.

Q. How was the book actually born? You talk about Raewynne speaking at an event, you talk about your own encounter with God Part II, and you include a meditation you did for Lent on that.
A. Right.

Q. How did the idea get born? And how did you find these wonderful contributors?
A. Well, the idea was born simply with three of us, actually, Raewynne and me and one of the contributors, talking to each other about how frequently U2 lyrics came to mind when we were preparing sermons and how natural it was to draw on that as something people would know in the culture to help illustrate a biblical point. And we just began to think, you know, we can’t be the only three people. There must be a lot of clergy out there who are working with this material. And in a sense we were just curious, we wanted to see what was out there. And we began to float the idea of a book proposal and put out a call for papers. And that call for papers went out to all sorts of places. I know it was in a Catholic writers’ guide, it was sent around by the Presbyterian church, we had a little web site up. Many of the U2 fan networks, particularly the site at U2, was very helpful in promoting it, and stuff just started arriving in the email.

Q. Now, for people that haven’t had a chance to see the book, it’s basically a collection of meditations and sermons in which people have referenced and used U2. And in almost every case there is a biblical cross-reference. So it’s kind of a combination of U2 text in one hand, biblical text in the other, and then the context is usually something very contemporary.
A. Yes, exactly. There’s that line from Karl Barth about, you know, we should preach with the Bible in one hand and The New York Times in another.

Q. Yeah.
A. And these folks are just preaching with the Bible in one hand and a U2 CD in the other.

Q. So give us an example. Now, “Beautiful Day,” we just played a little bit of it to start this segment. And your co-author, Raewynne, does a meditation on “Beautiful Day” from the book of Genesis.
A. Yes, that’s right. She picks up¢â‚¬¦ There’s a reference in the bridge of that song to the Noah story, “See the bird with the leaf in her mouth, after the flood, all the colors came out.”

Q. Yeah.
A. And if I remember correctly, she was preaching in the context immediately before the Iraq war began to happen explicitly.

Q. Yeah.
A. And she was talking about that feeling of heaviness in the air, of being kind of in the middle of a floor and not knowing what was going to happen ¢€œ

Q. Yeah.
A. ¢€œ and yet the presence of God’s promise as testified to by Noah ¢€œ

Q. Yeah.
A. ¢€œ but also as testified to by U2.

Q. You know, any of us that have done biblical studies know the phrase sitzenbleiben, the situation in life that was the context of the gospels. And almost all of these sermons are wonderful reflections on situation in life, which is essentially what Bono does. But to me it was exciting to see the rootedness in a biblical and Christian tradition that was kind of the integrating point.
A. Right, right. And people who have not seen the book often say to me, Well, aren’t you supposed to preach on the Bible? How can you be preaching on U2? And in fact these sermons, I think, are very biblical. And anybody who is preaching on the Bible is going to be looking for ways to bring that scripture home into, you know, as you say, our contemporary sitzenbleiben.

Q. Yeah. When Steven Garber, one of the pieces he writes, “To See What You See: On Liturgy & Learning & Life,” and again he looks at when I look at the world in Psalm 123. And this is a meeting in Washington, D.C. actually, he talks about the meeting in Washington, D.C., where Bono was going to come and talk about AIDS in Africa.
A. Right.

Q. Talk about that exposition a bit.
A. Well, he’s talking¢â‚¬¦ It’s interesting, the actual context that he’s in, he’s a scholar and resident at Calvin College, and he was talking to the congregation of students there about building a Christian worldview, learning how to do what Bono says he wishes he could do in that song, to see the world the way Jesus sees, to understand how our world looks to Jesus Christ. And so Steven tells this story of his encounter with Bono at a meeting about AIDS in Africa in Washington, D.C., and then talks about a few other contemporary examples of people that he knows who also have worked at trying to build a Christian worldview. And then wraps that all up by exhorting his students to learn to see the world as Jesus sees it.

Q. Yeah. It’s a wonderful piece. And anybody that reads these pieces is going to see that there’s a clear sense of the social justice issues that U2 dealt with in the ¢â‚¬Ëœ90s in the Christian faith and expression of these expositions as we head into the 21st century.
A. Absolutely.

Well, we’re going to pick up with some more of our guest coming up right after this. We’re talking about their new book, Get Up Off Your Knees: Preaching the U2 Catalog. We’re visiting with Beth Maynard. We’ll be right back.

(Break)

Grace, she takes the blame
She covers the shame
Removes the stain
It could be her name

Grace, it’s a name for a girl
It’s also a thought that changed the world

Well, anybody that questions whether exposition of the U2 catalog can lead to productive discussions about gospel, “Grace” forever removes that question for even the newcomer to the lyrics of U2. And as a matter of fact, we’re visiting with Beth Maynard, who is the co-editor of Get Up Off Your Knees: Preaching the U2 Catalog.

Q. And Beth, this particular song, “Grace,” has not one, not two, but three expositions ¢€œ
A. Yes, indeed.

Q. ¢€œ in this book. And they’re all on different¢â‚¬¦ Two of them are on Romans 5 and the other one is John 14 and wedding sermon. Talk about this song, “Grace,” and the different ways that Clint and Steven and Wade picked up on the importance of these lyrics for understanding today and gospel.
A. Sure. Let me just talk about the three of those sermons first, and they are totally different. You know, we tried in this book to bring together preachers who were very diverse theologically, very diverse denominationally, to sort of bear witness to the broadness of U2’s appeal. And the sermons on “Grace” are a great way to illustrate that, as are the sermons on “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” I mean, we have Clint McCann, who really talks about social justice, social justice in Latin America particularly. We have Wade Hodges who preaches really a very classic Romans 5 sermon about how, you know, to quote the lyric, “Grace removes the stain of sin.” And then another one from Steve Garber which addresses a very particular situation of a couple who are stepping into a risk of trusting each other and opening themselves to each other’s love in a wedding. So it couldn’t be more different, all of them great readings of scripture, all of them great readings of the song, but very diverse. The song itself, “Grace,” it’s one of those U2 songs that’s an absolute natural to preach on. Sometimes you have to work harder at making a bridge from a song to scripture than other times. This is one which you could practically open up your Bible ¢€œ I think probably particularly if you were reading The Message ¢€œ and get a text very similar to this. It’s just a straight-ahead exposition of amazing grace, of grace making beauty out of ugly things.

Q. Yeah. And you know, this is where the appeal of art, as a bypasser of reason and yet a connector to reason, that song works that way. I mean, it is such a gorgeous, wonderful exposition of truth, but done artistically, that just is so emotive.
A. Yes. I used to serve as a college chaplain ¢€œ and this is on my mind because it’s Holy Week ¢€œ

Q. Yeah.
A. ¢€œ but we did a Holy Week service in which we interwove a number of images of the passion with some contemporary songs. And the final song after we had seen it all and faded to black was that song, “Grace,” just wafting through the congregation. And it was an incredibly powerful moment.

Q. You mentioned ¢€œ and so we might as well talk about it for a moment ¢€œ “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” which was way back from the earliest work of U2 that most of us are familiar with anyway, and “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” ended up an exposition of Philippians 3, Luke 15, Mark 14. Again, very different from Steve, Darleen, and Anna. Talk about how those lyrics, again, were engaged textually and in very different ways.
A. Well, I think a great example there particularly is Steve and Darleen. Darleen is a professor at a Roman Catholic seminary. And Steve is, of course, the author of Walk On: The Spiritual Journey of “U2,” from Relevant Books. And he looks at “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” in the context of Philippians 3 and the sort of, you know, vow to keep pressing forward, to go on for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ. Darleen has a very charming, down-to-earth image of wandering sheep. And she talks about sort of the spiritual nature of Generation X and the constant questioning of life and how that song is used at X-er weddings and X-er funerals. And then Anna Carter Florence, who is a professor of preaching, has a sermon, “The Voice You Find May Be Your Own.” And she talks about how the song enabled her to connect with some people who were sort of outside of her experience and she was able to connect with them because they both loved the song. And it talks about the importance of having people find their own voice and their own experience.

Q. Yeah. Talk about your own treatment of “Tomorrow” in using John 20 and 1 Peter.
A. Sure. The “Tomorrow” I have always thought reads very interestingly together with the story of doubting Thomas. That’s a scripture that comes up in the lectionary, which my particular denomination happens to use every Sunday, every second Sunday of Easter. It comes up the Sunday after Easter every year. And so one has to think about this story every single year. And “Tomorrow” is one of U2’s earliest songs from their second album, “October.” And it sort of puts us in a very similar situation, I think, to where Thomas is in a room after a death, waiting to see what’s going to happen and afraid that nothing will ever be the same again. And what I do in the sermon is I kind of read the Thomas story right alongside the song “Tomorrow.” And at the end of “Tomorrow,” just as at the end of that chapter in John, there is a great epiphany of Christ, an epiphany that some people think is even a little too over the top for U2. And it just illustrates how that determination to encounter truth, whatever it costs ¢€œ the line that I pick up on in the song is the vow, “I’m going out there, I’m going to open the door and go out and see what’s there” ¢€œ and lo and behold, when the narrator opens that door, it’s the door that Jesus has been standing at and knocking. And just like Thomas, he has an encounter with Christ.

Amazing stuff. We’re going to be back in just a minute with more of our guest. The book is Get Up Off Your Knees: Preaching the U2 Catalog. Don’t go away.

When you look at the world
What is it that you see?
People find all kinds of things
That bring them to their knees

I see an expression
So clear and so true
That changes the atmosphere
When you walk into the room

So, I try to be like you
Try to feel it like you do
But without you, it’s no use

(Break)

And love is not the easy thing¢â‚¬¦
The only baggage you can bring
Is all that you can’t leave behind

This is Dick Staub back with you. We’re visiting with Beth Maynard who, with Raewynne Whiteley, is the author of Get Up Off Your Knees: Preaching the U2 Catalog. It is published by Crowley, available at your local bookstore and on line. And there is a web site, a blog site, where you can kind of engage in the material of this book.

Q. Beth, could you real quickly tell us what that is?
A. Sure. I’ve been keeping a blog for the project at U2sermons.blogspot.com. And that U2 sermons is all run together into one word. U2sermons.blogspot.com.

Q. And what kind of on-going input are you getting from people? I mean, what are you striking? What nerve are you striking when you start talking about preaching from the U2 catalog?
A. Well, it strikes different nerves with different folks. There are a lot of U2 fans out there ¢€œ U2 have sold, what, 200 million records or something like that ¢€œ so there are people who come to the book and the project wanting to know more about U2. There are people who come to the book, perhaps, wanting to get their feet wet for the first time in the notion of preaching from pop culture or doing theological reflection from pop culture. And there are also people for whom social justice is a concern. You know, particularly the issue of AIDS in Africa, the book is a charity project for TASO, the AIDS service organization in Uganda, and I think there are people who come with an interest in that as well.

Q. One of the pieces in here, I think it’s on the song, “Gone,” makes reference to Jim Elliott who was martyred by the Alka Indians when he went down to do missionary work. And he had a phrase, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which you cannot lose.”
A. Right.

Q. And the exposition of “Gone,” is very reflective of an intensity and an authenticity that you pick up in a lot of your contributors. In other words, these are people who have decided the faith is either real or now, or it’s nothing. And that’s one of the most exciting kind of dynamics to me of hearing how, for the most part younger, or at least the younger mindset ¢€œ many would say post-modern followers of Jesus ¢€œ are doing their theology.
A. Yes. There is an intensity and a freshness, I think, to a lot of these voices that is really exciting to me. You know, as someone who, particularly who comes from an unchurched background, as I think a growing number of people do ¢€œ if Jesus Christ is not the truth, and if faith is not real on the ground, and if it does not make a difference in the world, why would I pursue it? And that energy and that intensity that’s there is something that, I think you see that in U2, and perhaps that made it self-selecting as to who wanted to preach on them. But I agree with you.

Q. So when you look at the contributors to this book ¢€œ and there’s a wide range theologically, occupationally, and so forth ¢€œ
A. Absolutely.

Q. ¢€œ what do they have in common? You just mentioned kind of an intensity, and it’s got to be real. I mean, what do you see about how they do theology? You know, you said some of the people are coming and saying, you know, I’m interested in preaching from popular cultural text. I mean, what does this group in common kind of learn? And what are they exercising as a gift when they do what they’re doing with the U2 catalog?
A. Well in a sense, you know, you can answer that question several ways. In one way, you know, the only thing ¢€œ there are 23 of us, I guess ¢€œ and in one way the only thing that we have in common is U2 and Jesus. We’re different ages, we’re different denominations, and theology is done in a very different way by different folks in this book. We have people who are clearly working from an evangelical framework, we have people who are more from a mainline framework, more from a Catholic framework, but we’re united by our commitment to the gospel. We’re united in finding U2 a very fruitful source for proclaiming the gospel. And perhaps also in simply feeling it’s important to learn how to exercise the gift of discernment on the culture around us.

Q. Yeah. There’s a real interesting piece just recently about one of the impacts of The Passion. And it’s an art historian who was saying that what has happened with the movie, The Passion, it has totally demolished denominational lines, and it did it through a piece of art. And I think that’s what U2 has done, too. I mean, when you look at ¢€œ like you just said ¢€œ evangelicals, Catholics, mainline, Episcopalian, a lot of different traditions come together in having in common we love Jesus and we love U2, and we particularly love the way U2 gives voice to the issues of belief that matter to us. I think that’s an interesting dynamic as post-modern culture emerges, the importance of art and theology.
A. Right, right. U2, I think, are very post-denominational. They simply don’t major on any of those classical differences that have divided groups of Christians one from another. They don’t bring those to light. But what they do do is, you know, they’re incredibly skilled at creating a space that invites people into the presence of God, that invites people into the presence of the Holy Spirit, but that never sort of makes it seem like it’s about membership in a club. You know, you can go to a U2 concert and you will never feel, oh, this isn’t for you, this is only for the Christians. What U2 offer is an entrée for everybody, and I really admire that.

Q. You know, my friend Tom Beaudoin, wrote a book called Virtual Faith¢â‚¬¦
A. I know Tom.

Q. Yeah, I know Tom, too. And in it he does this wonderful piece of work about the sacred and the profane and the juxtaposition. And one of the more interesting dynamics with Bono recently ¢€œ and this is kind of outside the bounds of your book ¢€œ is for goodness sakes, other than George Carlin, nobody has gotten the FCC more mobilized than Bono and his use of the “F-word” in an award ceremony.
A. Right.

Q. And people, more traditional types, look at that and raise all the, you know ¢€œ like you said ¢€œ in or out kinds of questions.
A. Uh-huh.

Q. But this is a mindset and a generation, I think, that can see the sacred in the journey and the prophetic word of a Bono and live with it in juxtaposition with what some people would see as “the profanity.”
A. Well, it’s the great U2 quest that’s talked about in the song, “Mofo,” Looking for baby Jesus under the trash.” And I think if you try and proclaim Jesus without admitting that there’s a lot of trash in the world, you’re going to lose credibility. But if you just talk about the trash, you know, what good is that?

Folks, you can spend more time with out guest and her co-author, and all of the contributors to this piece, by picking up your own copy of Get Up Off Your Knees: Preaching the U2 Catalog.

Q. What was the web site again, Beth, real quick?
A. The web log is U2sermons.blogspot.com.

Well this is Dick Staub. We’ll be back with more. The book is Get Up Off Your Knees, published by Cowley.

In New York freedom looks like too many choices
In New York I found a friend to drown out the other voices

And visit the blog! Get Up off Your Knees Blog

Posted in DS Interview, Staublog in July 4, 2006 by | 1 Comment »

Donald Miller: Spirituality, Volkswagens and Jazz

Interview of Donald Miller by Dick Staub (Originally Broadcast July 28, 2003)

Well, good afternoon everybody. This is your friendly guide, Dick Staub. You know, every generation finds people who give voice to their journey. And our next guest is one of those people. He’s a writer, campus ministry leader, a speaker. He is the author of Prayer and the Art of Volkswagen Maintenance, a book I remember picking up a few years ago. It was a road trip narrative about a spiritual quest. He is active in a small but resilient and growing campus ministry at a college not unfamiliar to many of you, Reed College in Portland, which has the distinction as being ranked as one of the most intellectual and also least religious colleges in the country.

Q. Our guest’s name is Donald Miller. And his book is titled Blue Like Jazz. It’s published by Thomas Nelson, and subtitled Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality. Don, great to have you with us this afternoon.
A. Good to be here.

Q. Let’s start with the title, jazz music. I love the quote that’s an inset at the start of the book, “In America¢â‚¬¦” Well, you go ahead and tell them why.
A. Well, the reason I called the book Blue Like Jazz, I was¢â‚¬¦ There’s a theater here in Portland ¢€œ some people are probably familiar with it if you’ve visited ¢€œ called the Bagdad Theater, where you just go and you, you know, pay a fews bucks, see a movie, and you can get a pint of beer, a pizza, or whatever, and you sit there and watch the film. Well, I was coming out of the Bagdad Theater one night and I saw a man playing the saxophone. And I watched him for a good 10 or 15 minutes. And he never opened his eyes. And I’ll tell you, before I saw him, I didn’t like jazz music, and I didn’t like it because it doesn’t resolve. It doesn’t seem to go somewhere, have a conclusion. But I watched this guy playing the saxophone. And he loved it so much that I found myself the next day, or a couple days later, that I liked jazz music, which is not uncommon to a lot of people to see somebody else love something and it helps them love it themselves. And so I liked that metaphor, the more I thought about it, because it summed up my spiritual journey. It summed up my journey with God. And I used to not like God because he didn’t resolve, couldn’t figure him out, and seemed to be a lot of paradoxes that I didn’t want to hurt my brain thinking about.

Q. What was it that made you think the spiritual journey was going to be about resolution? Where do we get that idea?
A. I-I have no idea where-where we come up with that. I think-I think I can guess that we’re taught that-that Christianity is sort of the solution to all of our problems, both intellectual and emotional, when it really isn’t. It’s more of a somebody coming to rescue us out of the prison that is this earth, the prison that is our own bodies.

Q. Yeah.
A. And that’s it. And there’s still a journey to be taken once that happens. But I think America is looking for a quick fix and¢â‚¬¦ In everything we see on television¢â‚¬¦

Q. Yeah. We’re still fallen people living in the midst of fallen people.
A. Exactly.

Q. And so that’s¢â‚¬¦
A. The deal.

Q. That’s the deal. I love the quote at the beginning of the book which I think you saw something on BET, and-and it was a guy talking about jazz. And he said, “In America, the first generation out of slavery invented jazz music. It is a free-form expression. It comes from the soul, and it is true.” But it’s interesting because that-that image of jazz gets at the-the personal and-and very intimate connectivity of truth versus the propositional aspect of truth.
A. Absolutely. There’s something about¢â‚¬¦ You know, when an athlete¢â‚¬¦ You know, when Lance Armstrong won the Tour de France the other day, or when an athlete wins a¢â‚¬¦ You know, there’s sort of a barbaric yalp, as Walt Whitman would say. There’s just sort of a scream. And we would say, Well, he’s not saying anything. But he’s saying a lot. He’s saying stuff you can’t say with words.

Q. Yeah.
A. And jazz music is just a language of the soul that you can’t say with words, and that’s very much like Christian spirituality, at least the way I experience it.

Q. Now, how did you come to a vision of writing nonreligiously about Christian spirituality? What’s the importance of nonreligiosity?
A. Well, my own personal journey with that is, I released a book a few years ago that you mentioned, Prayer and the Art of Volkswagen Maintenance. And in the book I was writing for an evangelical publishing company. And-and I wasn’t¢â‚¬¦ I didn’t tell everything. I wasn’t completely true with how I felt in terms of frustrations and even anger and fury at God, mixed with joy and the pleasure of knowing him.

Q. Yeah.
A. I just-I just kind of released a really honest press release. And the book did okay. It-it was cancelled, out of print, I didn’t have any money to my name and didn’t want to get a real job, and so I decided to write another book, and more or less go for it and just say¢â‚¬¦

Q. Now, what does go for it mean? I mean, why¢â‚¬¦ I’m very interested in this writing for a Christian publisher, not being able to really say the whole package. That kind of goes back to our perception of what the Christian journey is about, which is an incorrect one, but one that we keep pushing on people through the stuff that we write.
A. Well, I’m me.

Q. What-what I mean is, it sounds like this book you decided to just write what you’re really thinking and not try to take into consideration the nuances that might be acceptable within the broader Christian audience.
A. That’s exactly it. That’s the stuff that I love to read. I love to read books that are true, more than just intellectually true. True. True from-the-heart true.

Q. Yes, yes.
A. And I wanted to write a book that was like that. I don’t know¢â‚¬¦ I think there’s just something in the Christian reader, and I have felt this.

Q. Yeah.
A. I know a lot of people have felt this, who want to understand the responsibility of leading people, and don’t want to lead them astray. And so they don’t want to talk about their faults, you know, because people need a role model.

Q. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
A. But then my generation simply did not respond to that. As soon as you-as soon as you stop talking about your faults, we turn you off. This is not true. This isn’t a true person. And it’s not a criticism against any other generation, it’s just a matter of we just don’t respond to it.

Q. But you know what’s interesting about that is it’s very clear to me in this book that you want to write a book that is honest and true and glorifies God. You make reference to Nick Hornsby’s book about a boy, and the fact that the key character had to come to the realization that it’s not about him. But you are in a generation that responds best to story, and-and kind of biography, so it almost inevitably ends up trying to glorify God by being about you. Do you hear what I’m saying? Stylistically and the whole journalistically, it’s the same thing when you read Thomas Merton. I mean, Thomas Merton writes this incredible, honest stuff in his journals. And they are, you know, his hope is that you’re going to find God in the middle of it, but it’s a lot of Thomas Merton in there.
A. Well, here’s how¢â‚¬¦ I saw this great interview, Dick, I wish you could have seen this. It was on CNN. They were interviewing Tom Arnold, you know, the comedian?

Q. Oh sure, yeah.
A. And he had a book out, and it’s still out. The title is something like How I Lost Six Pounds in Five Years and Kept it Off.

Q. Yes.
A. Which is a great title. And the interviewer asked him, Why did you write this book? And Tom Arnold said ¢€œ and my respect for him just went through the roof when I heard him say this ¢€œ he said, The reason I wrote this book is because I’m a broken person and I do things to get people to love me.

Q. Wow.
A. And I thought, that’s the reason I wrote my book.

Q. Yeah.
A. You know, I have this addiction. It’s called ¢€œ a lot of authors have it ¢€œ it’s called the Amazon addiction ¢€œ

Q. Yeah.
A. ¢€œ where I go online and check Amazon every day and see what my ranking is on my book.

Q. Yeah.
A. And there’s just this feeling of, Do I matter today? Do I care? And of course, that stuff is supposed to come from Christ, but in my life it doesn’t. And I wanted to talk about the tension in living in that place. So I would love to say that I wrote this book to glorify God. I think that may be the fifth or sixth reason down the list that I really ¢€œ if I’m honest with myself ¢€œ the reason I wrote this book.

Q. Yeah.
A. The reason I wrote this book is because I wanted people to know who I am, and I wanted them to read it, and I wanted them to tell me they liked me anyway.

Q. Now, why do you think your generation responds to that kind of honest, straightforward, you know, my glorifying God was fifth down the list, I know it should be number one but it’s not, versus the guy that writes the book and says, Here’s five ways to glorify God? What-what is it about your generation that-that has to have the-the first and not the second?
A. I have no idea, Dick. I can only affirm that it’s true. I don’t know why we’re that way, there’s just this sense ¢€œ even if somebody isn’t judging me, and I wouldn’t accuse any Christian authors of judging me ¢€œ but there’s a sense when I’m reading it that this guy, perhaps he thinks he’s better than I am. I need somebody to-I need somebody to be vulnerable and tell me all their crap so that I feel safe with them. There’s just a lot of authors that I don’t feel safe with.

Q. Interesting. We’re going to pick up there when we come back, and we’ll actually get into the book, Blue Like Jazz, published by Nelson. Our guest is Donald Miller. The subtitle of the book is Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality. We’re going to be back with more right after this. Don’t go away.

(Break)

Well, this is Dick Staub back with you. We’re visiting with Don Miller. His book is Blue Like Jazz, published by Thomas Nelson, subtitled Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality.

Q. Let’s learn a little about your own journey. It’s interesting because you were raised in the church, but without your father.
A. Right.

Q. Talk about that whole dynamic.
A. Well, my dad left when I was a kid, when I was just an infant, so I never knew him. We made a couple of visits, my sister and I, to him. So I have very, very ghost-like memories of my dad. And my family was sort of a family that didn’t talk very much about faults. And so ¢€œ I’m 31 now ¢€œ literally, literally two months ago, when my mother read this book, is the first time that she and I had ever had a conversation about my father.

Q. Really.
A. Yeah. And so, we’re just a family that doesn’t open up. It’s funny because I’ll open up in a book to the world and not to, you know, people in my own family because there’s just this sense that’s there’s just things you don’t talk about, especially weaknesses.

Q. Yeah.
A. And¢â‚¬¦ But it affected my thoughts about God, you know. My church pastor growing up would call, refer to God as Father. And of course, I didn’t know-I didn’t know what that meant. I mean, a father to me meant nothing, there’s just nothing there. And so it even fried me for a while because I imagined God wanting to move into the house and share a bed with my mom, is what I say in the book. And I didn’t like that idea.

Q. Yeah.
A. And then later, the idea of God developed out of-out of from being a Father to the idea of him being like a slot machine, in terms of it, just prayers, pulling a lever and you’re hoping that your cherries line up ¢€œ

Q. Yeah.
A. ¢€œ and maybe you get some good fortune or something like that. And so I had these really skewed ideas about God growing up, all the way really into my late 20’s.

Q. Interesting.
A. And¢â‚¬¦

Q. But you-you regularly refer to, “raised in the church,” so I’m taking it church was an important thing to your mother, and-and you were kind of a Sunday school kid, a VBS kind of kid, all that stuff.
A. Yeah. There was no question I was raised within the religion of Christianity.

Q. Did you perceive yourself to be a Christian or¢â‚¬¦
A. Absolutely. I would have referred to myself as a Christian, there’s no question.

Q. Okay. You talk about at the age of 10 you begin your life of sin, as so many young boys do. And you talk about the guilt that came out of that. And then you tell a real interesting story about good old mom, and you basically spending all the money you had allocated for Christmas presents on yourself instead of your mom. It was interesting, though, that that thing of guilt, you understood that concept at a fairly young age, 10 years old.
A. There’s no¢â‚¬¦ Well, yeah. Guilt is just something that happened to me, and it’s beyond the I-did-something-wrong kind of guilt. It was more into the¢â‚¬¦ What happened was, my mother gave me $10, or something like that, to spend on the family for Christmas presents. Of course, I’m only, I think, 12 years old at this time. So I went to the local Walmart and bought a bunch of fishing lures for myself. And I had about a buck left. And there was this Christian bookstore, and I got something off the bargain shelf for my mother.

Q. Yeah.
A. Well, Christmas Eve night, I had been thinking about myself for the past month and it hit me what I had done. And it-it got me. And I just remember feeling a feeling I’ve never felt since, a sense of guilt, a sense that whatever was the problem in the world, anywhere in the world, was my fault.

Q. And it’s interesting because you talk, in a chapter, “What I Learned on TV,” you’re talking about watching, I think it was Nightline, and seeing some, you know, massive world problem. And you talk to your friend, Tony, the beat poet, who-who you essentially get in a conversation about the sin nature. And then you make reference to, it’s kind of like the fundamentalist Christians believe, but really, you know, I’m not one. And then-and then you talk to him about realizing about whether it’s a big, massive world problem, or whatever it is, that at certain levels we are part of the problem. What’s interesting to me about this connection that kind of recurs through the book, is that there is this doctrine of sin in classic Christian theology and in the way you converse about it with somebody like Tony, the beat poet, it makes sense to him. As a matter of fact, he volunteers that kind of theological proposition to you.
A. Yes.

Q. I think that’s important to understand about-about this generation.
A. Yeah, it absolutely is. When somebody says to me, sin, or sin nature ¢€œ

Q. Yes.
A. ¢€œ I usually step back because to me it means it’s just drawing a line in the sand. And to me somebody is saying, these people are better than these people, and I don’t like it. I don’t like when somebody brings up that idea. But at the same time, on the flip side of that coin, there’s this idea that there’s something broken inside of me.

Q. Yeah, yes.
A. That there’s a penalty for that brokenness, and I’m looking for something outside of myself to fix me.

Q. Yeah.
A. That is true in my experience.

Q. Yeah.
A. And so it’s just the same word and it means-it means two different things. When I go to church and somebody talks about sin or sin nature, they’re usually talking about somebody other than themselves.

Q. Yes.
A. I can’t identify with that, nor do I want to, Dick.

Q. But is that the problem with the way they’re applying sin to the other person, or that Christians don’t apply it properly to ourselves?
A. I don’t think a human being applies it properly to himself. I don’t want to draw a line and say Christians and non-Christians. It’s a realization that I got watching-watching Ted Koppel go through the Congo one week ¢€œ

Q. Yeah, yeah.
A. ¢€œ on Nightline, when I saw that something like 75 percent of the men in this certain village had raped multiple women ¢€œ

Q. Yeah.
A. ¢€œ and there are, of course, two-and-a-half million people killed there in the last three years in the Congo.

Q. Yeah.
A. And so I asked myself if I had been raised in one of these tribes in the Congo by the same family under the same circumstances ¢€œ

Q. Yeah.
A. ¢€œ would I be killing people and raping women?

Q. Great question.
A. And it’s a tough question, because if I say no, then I say, Well, I’m higher evolved than those guys and that, of course, is where Hitler began.

Q. Yeah.
A. If I say yes, then I’m capable of all sorts of atrocities.

Q. Yeah.
A. That’s the question, literally watching Nightline, that just sunk me for a week.

Q. Now, when we get back to your journey, you did have a fundamentalist Christian summer. You refer to them as like the SEALS, kind of high-performance Christian fundamentalists.
A. Yeah.

Q. And you did lead a ministry of college students in Houston in which you said, “The more attention you got, the stranger you became.” So you kind of did find yourself vulnerable to the religiosity that is the counterfoil of a lot of which you’re interacting with once you get to Reed. How did-how did those things happen? How did you end up in those situations? The fundamentalist camp? The Houston ministry? And what was it that drove you out of them?
A. I think the disgust with-with myself after having met some of the people who were the quote/unquote enemy. I’m talking about gays, I’m talking about pagans, political liberals. I met those guys and they liked me. And I liked them. And so now I’m-now I’m dealing with these people that I really like, that I think are good people, that want to do something about the problems on the planet, and yet I’m not supposed to like them because they’re-they’re supposed pagans. And again, I was a part of a very conservative Christian movement. I mean, a very, very conservative Christian movement, perhaps more conservative than any of your listeners are familiar with. So we were literally taught that it was us against them, that there was an enemy, and the enemy had skin on. And I met the enemy and I really liked them. And that-that, of course, threw me for a loop and I had to¢â‚¬¦

Q. Did you, anywhere along the line, have any perception of Jesus as the person that hung around with those people?
A. No. Not until I got there did I realize that Jesus was relevant in this place. And of course, we’re talking about Reed College, which Princeton Review called “one of the most Godless campuses in the country,” at least a few years ago.

Q. Yeah.
A. And I’ve found people there who aren’t Christians that I loved more than any-any people I’d ever met in my life.

Q. But even before you got to Reed you left the Houston thing because it wasn’t feeling right. What wasn’t feeling right about it?
A. I felt like-I felt like a hypocrite. I felt like I was¢â‚¬¦

Q. How so?
A. I felt like I was speaking for God and teaching for God ¢€œ

Q. Yeah.
A. ¢€œ but not connecting with God.

Q. So you were giving the right answers to people that wanted to hear answers ¢€œ
A. Exactly.

Q. ¢€œ but they weren’t actually connecting at any personal level in your life. In other words, you were kind of like ¢€œ well, I think you even refer to it as you’re kind of like “the salesperson.”
A. That’s exactly how I felt. I felt like an infomercial for God. And I, in no way, felt like I was connected.

Q. When you told the pastor that that was going on, or your supervisor, what kind of reaction did you get?
A. Well, I got to take a vacation, take a couple weeks, and I explained to him that I needed more than that.

Q. Yeah. Oh man. Humpty Dumpty’s men couldn’t put this guy back together again.

We’re going to be back with Donald Miller. The book is Blue Like Jazz, published by Thomas Nelson, Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality. We’ll be right back.

(Break)

Well, this is Dick Staub back with you. We’re visiting with Donald Miller. His book is Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality.

Q. So you’re kind of burned out on the-the conservative fundamentalism in which you were raised, you’ve got a kind of a-a¢â‚¬¦ You get the kind of the backdrop of the guilt and the sin and that part of the equation, haven’t been really able to sort through how it fits with the rest of life. Just out of curiosity, how did you choose Portland and Reed College? Because, as you’ve already said, it’s pretty much the antithesis of the environs in which you had placed yourself hitherto?
A. I chose Portland because a friend of mine and I had done a road trip across the country and we ran out of money here.

Q. Yeah.
A. And lived in the woods for awhile outside of, in central Oregon.

Q. Yeah, absolutely.
A. And-and got a job here, and I’ve been here for 10 years. Now, since I’ve moved here, I’ve befriended a man named Ross. He was a seminary professor for a good time, taught the Old Testament here at Western, and I really liked the guy. We would meet once a week to just go over the Old Testament. And the guy is just a phenomenal guy. He has four sons, they’re all brilliant, like, literally incredibly brilliant. And one of them was at Reed College. And so I would get updates on his son, every once in awhile, how he was doing.

Q. Yeah.
A. And he was never doing well. Reed is a tough place to hold your faith.

Q. Yeah.
A. And he-he pretty much lost his faith and was searching, and got into some drugs, got a girl pregnant. The girl didn’t want him to see the baby anymore, and so fell into a mild depression, or a deep depression, and went out to the Oregon Coast and jumped off a cliff and killed himself.

Q. Oh, it’s a terrible story.
A. Really.

Q. And this is in the book. But what happens at Reed is you begin rebuilding your theology from the world into the gospel. And I think what you’re describing before is a vision that takes gospel out to the world, but never actually is in the world. It’s kind of the fundamentalist model. And now you’re in the world, you’re liking these people which, of course, has a lot in common with Jesus.
A. Yeah.

Q. Because he liked them, too. But-but now you’re beginning to re-understand your faith. And so a lot of the stuff that you write about, and I think what makes it seem like non-religious writing about Christian spirituality is that you’re ending up with-with some fairly orthodox answers, but in very unorthodox settings and ways that end up really being exciting because you actually get the sense that this stuff that you believe in and are talking about really does matter and connect to people. And, in particular, you have a couple of stories, Penny in France, and then Laura at Reed College, their just amazing conversations and journeys towards seeing how gospel can, in fact, connect with people in these kind of “godless” places.
A. Yeah. I was just reading John, chapter 3 or 4, yesterday about Jesus talking to the woman at the well. And a couple great things about that passage of scripture is that, first of all, the woman is a Samaritan woman. So she’s a part of a cult, the liberal sort of sect of Judaism that embraced pluralistic ideas. This is a woman who was poor, that’s why she’s at the well. And she’s also a woman who has a bad reputation. And Jesus goes to the well, as a male, as somebody who’s seen as a rabbi, and he is not supposed to be talking to this woman. And a friend of mine, my friend Ivan, who is a student at Reed, said that Jesus going to the well and talking to this woman is the equivalent of Jesus walking into a gay bar and asking a man to buy him a drink.

Q. Yeah.
A. It would-it would-it would beg that sort of rumor. And Jesus is right there doing it, having a conversation with this woman about her soul, essentially saying, I can give you something for your soul that will fulfill you so you don’t have to keep jumping around from man to man. And I love that picture, when I think about going to Reed College, not that the students at Reed College are of ill repute. They’re some of the brightest kids in the country. But there are a lot of people here in Portland, a lot of my Christian friends, who said I shouldn’t be there.

Q. Yeah.
A. And they would more or less say things¢â‚¬¦ They just had the kind of angst about the students at Reed because they are anti-they are anti-Jesus and they’re anti-Christians.

Q. Yeah.
A. And so there’s sort of a war metaphor being embraced by many of my Christian friends. But I went there and I found community. I found some of the greatest community I’ve ever experienced. You mentioned my friend, Penny, who-who became a believer in France a couple years before I met her, was there at Reed, is an amazing example of somebody who just comes out of a crazy lifestyle and embraces Jesus, and becomes somebody of great influence to a lot of other people. I think the church understands the importance of purity, and teaches the importance of purity. And some people are afraid to go into a place like that and get themselves dirty. That’s exactly where Jesus went. And if-if we’re afraid to get ourselves dirty, there’s something seriously wrong with our theology.

Q. Now, Laura was an interesting case because she ended up at Reed College, even though she’d been raised in a Christian background, as I recall.
A. Yeah.

Q. But she reached this place where she says, “If God is real, he needs to happen to me.”
A. Yeah, that’s it. Laura’s parents ¢€œ her father’s a Methodist pastor ¢€œ she was an atheist coming into Reed, had been for a couple of years, pretty much decided that was going to be her life. And one of the main reasons that she didn’t embrace Christianity is because it was always-it was always told to her that she needed to follow Jesus. And she didn’t believe in Jesus. She didn’t believe Jesus was the Son of God.

Q. Yeah.
A. She had never experienced Him. And so she had basically come to the decision that, If I’m going to do this, He needs to happen to me.

Q. Yeah.
A. And so through a series of events that happened in Laura’s life her freshman year at Reed, Jesus did happen to her.

Q. Yeah.
A. And it was-it was a fairly amazing thing. But that really blew my mind in terms of understanding evangelism, rather than me going and presenting a series of ideas to a person and saying, I want you to agree with these ideas that I believe.

Q. Yeah.
A. We’re actually going and setting somebody up on a blind date and just saying, Here’s Jesus, here’s who he is, here’s what he believed, here’s where you find him in scripture. Try him out, spend some time with him, see if you fall in love.

Q. Yeah. The e-mail, “I read through the book of Matthew this evening. I was up all night. I couldn’t stop reading, so I read through Mark. This Jesus of yours is either a madman or the Son of God. Somewhere in the middle of Mark I realize he’s the Son of God. I suppose this makes me a Christian. I feel much better now. Come to campus tonight. Let’s get coffee.”
A. That was Laura’s e-mail. She sent it in the middle of the night, and I just sat there at my desk and shed a few tears, because it was a beautiful thing.

Q. Well, it’s very powerful. It is actually very much like C.S. Lewis, you know, “Jesus: Liar, lunatic, or who he says he is, the Son of God.” You have a chapter about “Penguin Sex.” And you say, “The goofy thing about Christianity is you believe it and don’t believe it at the same time.” What’s that have to do with penguin sex?
A. Well, that’s a good story. I was watching OPB one night, Oregon Public Broadcasting, and there was a documentary about penguins and the way penguins reproduce. And they-they are some of the most insane animals you can possibly imagine. They swim north until they hit ice, and then they, about 500 of them at a time, climb up on the ice, they-they slide along their bellies, for days, as far north as they can get, and then they stop. They gather around in circles. They kind of have this disco/find-the-mate kind of thing that happens, and they have penguin sex. And then the women lay an egg. This takes about a week. The women lay an egg. The men take the eggs and they sit on the eggs, and the women leave. And they leave for a solid month while the men stand there, hundreds of them, and sit on these eggs without food or water or anything. They just-they just take care of these eggs. And then the women come back, a month later, the female penguins, they come back, to the day, that the eggs are hatched. And when the eggs are hatched, the women stay and take care of the baby penguins until they’re strong enough to make the journey back to the ocean. Meanwhile, the men leave and go fishing to replenish themselves. And I sat there thinking, this is the most insane thing I have ever seen. It’s almost like magic, that these penguins have this radar in their brains that tells them where to go, not just how to reproduce, but exactly when the eggs are going to hatch. They show up on the beach on the day. And I hear people all the time say, you know, it’s absurd the things you believe. Christianity is absurd that you have this thing inside you that’s¢â‚¬¦

Q. Yeah, you’re right.
A. And I say, yeah, it’s absurd, but here are 500 other things that are just as absurd that are scientific. And that really helped me in terms of embracing my faith, to see it happening in other parts of the world, and in other creatures.

We’re going to be back with some concluding comments from Donald Miller. Blue Like Jazz, is the title of the book. We’ll be right back.

(Break)

Well, this is Dick Staub back with you. We’re visiting with Don Miller. His book is Blue Like Jazz, published by Thomas Nelson, Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality.

Q. One of the things that I’ve observed with people who color outside the lines and people who have kind of learned some of the things that I talk about in my book, Too Christian, Too Pagan. If you truly follow Jesus you’re going to be too Christian for your pagan friends and too pagan for your Christian friends, is it’s often very difficult to connect with “church.” And Don, in his book, talks about meeting the Seattle cussing pastor and getting introduced to Rick down in Oregon, and then ends up writing a little chapter called “How to go to Church without Getting Angry.” Don, as you’ve been on this kind of journey to a-a more personally authentic faith expression, what was involved in your connecting with a church? And what are you kind of telling other people that are on that same journey, as you are?
A. My experience with church has been-has been positive and negative all my life. I’ve met wonderful people at church. What I didn’t like, the things that I didn’t like about the churches that I experienced were the embrace of war metaphor, the idea that it’s us against them. I saw a great deal of that going on in churches. I didn’t like the fact that things were presented mathematically rather than artfully. And so church was never something that inspired wonder or awe, it was usually on a diagram. And that didn’t feel-that didn’t¢â‚¬¦ It didn’t feel true to me. I think there’s a lot of things that just can’t be explained, we just need to embrace them. And also I didn’t like the fact that I needed to more or less not like or not understand people who didn’t believe what I believed, people of other political beliefs or people of other religious beliefs. I feel comfortable disagreeing with them, but I don’t feel comfortable not liking them or thinking that they’re less valuable people. And I find that-that everybody is looking for redemption, everybody’s looking for value or a sense of security. And there’s really two ways to do that. One, we compare ourselves to other people and find faults with them so that they are less than us, and that gives us a feeling of worth. And the other is to embrace the forgiveness of Jesus. And so I felt like, the churches that I was attending were talking about embracing the forgiveness of Jesus, and at the same time more or less putting down people who were different than them. And so it’s like with our mouths we’re saying we get our forgiveness, our sense of value from Jesus, but with our actions we’re saying everybody is less important or less valuable than we are. That sounds like a stern statement, but I just heard it so, almost subliminally, in the text of messages and in the sort of marketing packages that the churches I attended would-would embrace. And so I finally just got sick of it. I began praying that God would-would lead me to a group of people where I could fit, because I was convinced I was the only one who felt this way. And I didn’t want to be the bitter guy, didn’t want to be the church-basher guy, because nobody likes that guy. And so, you know, I was conflicted because I didn’t want to talk about it. But that’s more or less how I felt. And so I just began to pray. And the Lord put me in touch with a guy named Mark Driscoll. I hope he doesn’t mind, even though he’s in the area. But Mark more or less befriended me. And he knows a lot of people. And I felt a kindred spirit with him. And he’s, of course, up in Seattle and I’m down in Portland. So I even thought about moving to Seattle just so I could be a part of Mark’s church, because he seemed to be reaching out, he seemed to be reaching people who were hostile toward Christianity, with the gospel. And I think that was a beautiful thing. Mark had a friend whose name is Rick McKinley, who today is one of my best friends, who was moving to Portland. And he-and he told me, you know, you might want to meet Rick and try to get involved in what he’s doing in Portland because he’s going to plant a church there. And so I did. I met with Rick and we had coffee. We instantly became good friends, and today he’s one of my best friends. And he’s planted a church here. We started with about eight people three years ago, and it’s probably 400 or 500 people today. And it’s a wonderful church. And it seems to embrace the things that-that I somehow identify with. And the great thing about that, Dick, that whole-that whole journey, is that once I was surrounded by people who I felt like were like me, who I felt like shared the same values, I was able to forgive and really love the people who I used to not like and be bitter with. And so no hard feelings about the churches that I grew up in anymore. And I don’t even understand those communities really anymore. My current community seems something different than anything I had ever experienced.

Q. Yeah.
A. And it just fits. It feels like family.

Q. Folks, if you’re just joining us, Donald Miller is our guest. The book is Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality. And-and we’re just scratching the surface. There’s just chapter after chapter that, through stories, get at issues that-that Don has been learning about, including the whole dynamic of community, more intensely. And we all talk about church as community but, I mean, actually living in community. A wonderful chapter on the starving writer who learns to tithe. There’s a great chapter on worship, “You Cannot Be a Christian Without Being a Mystic.” I love that. And a whole section on loving other people, loving yourself. In light of Bill Bright’s death, I thought it was really interesting that you told the story you did about one of your friends who talked to Bill Bright. And it really is a wonderful story about the intensity of what can happen in loving Jesus.
A. Yeah. My friend, Allen, went to a bunch of church leaders, a bunch of ministry leaders, and asked them a series of questions because he was putting together a research on why some ministries work and some don’t. Of course, one of them that worked was Campus Crusade. So Bill Bright could only give him about five minutes of his time. Allen could only ask him a couple questions. But the question that he ended with for each of the people he interviewed was, What does Jesus mean to you? And Allen sat across from Bill Bright at his very big desk, in his very big chair, and said, What does Jesus mean to you? And Bill Bright just started weeping. He just couldn’t answer the question. And I remember the first time I heard that. I had never connected with Jesus that way. I had never felt in love with him before. And so in the book I talk about the journey from going to kind of an unsentimental understanding of Jesus to a sentimental understanding of Him, the way I have sentimental understandings with my closest friends, the people who I love. And that was a long journey. And it’s made all the difference in my faith. And so, yeah, on the passing of Bill Bright, that’s an incredible loss for us, as believers here. Not just because of the however many hundred-million-dollar industry that he built, but because it was just one man who showed us what it meant to love Jesus.

Q. Well, the thing that amazed me about him ¢€œ and we rebroadcast a little segment of an interview I had done with him in 1997 ¢€œ we had started a feature on the show called “Soul Tending,” where we tried to ask, you know, well-known Christians some more personal questions about what they actually did to tend to their own personal soul. Forget about what they do to speak in public and all that stuff ¢€œ
A. Yeah

Q. ¢€œ and Bright, you know, he was such a giant of a guy, you know, physically, and also just in his reputation. I was really taken back by the degree to which he was this guy that was still learning. And he talked about how he’d just been learning about fasting and the power of it in his life, and in prayer, and everything else. And it was just very down-to-earth and simple and personal. And-and it was encouraging because, unfortunately¢â‚¬¦ Well, you have another section where you talk about being on a radio show and the guy wants you to defend being a Christian. And you talk about how, you know, it’s a hard thing to-to defend the word because so many people have been beaten and hurt. And it’s great to see guys like you and Bill Bright and others who are on journey, talking about it, and kind of-kind of, in your case, talking about it in nonreligious ways. It’s a very, very interesting piece of work. Thanks for being with us today.
A. Dick, thank you very much.

And folks, again, Donald Miller’s been our guest. His book is Blue Like Jazz, published by Nelson, Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality. It’s the kind of book that we highly recommend around here. I think you’re going to enjoy it. We’ll be back. Don’t go away.

Posted in DS Interview, Staublog in June 26, 2006 by | No Comments »

Calvin Miller: The Christ of Christmas: Readings for Advent

Calvin Miller: The Christ of Christmas: Readings for Advent

December 1st, 2002

Well, welcome everybody. This is your friendly guide, Dick Staub. And, you know, it’s hard to believe but the Christmas season is upon us. Preparations are underway for decorating the tree and the house and shopping for gifts, and invitations are out for wonderful parties and dinners and family get togethers. But truly, how do you prepare for the season spiritually? It’s the most important thing we need to do, and it’s one of the most challenging things to do these days.

Q. Pastor and author Calvin Miller has written a wonderful new book designed with your spiritual preparation in mind. It is called, The Christ of Christmas: Readings for Advent. And Calvin, it’s wonderful to have you back with us.
A. Thank you, Dick, it’s great to be here.

Q. Let’s start just by talking about Christmas in the home in which you were raised. Were you raised in a Christian family?
A. I surely was. And-and I was, you know, I always tell everybody the great depression was over in most of the United States in 1931, but in Oklahoma it lasted ¢â‚¬Ëœtil 1936, when I was born.

Q. Hm. Wow.
A. I mean, there were a lot of pockets of poverty, Dick, like there will be getting out of the current financial crunch, you know.

Q. Yeah.
A. They don’t-they don’t warm up as fast as some parts of the nation. So we were-we were poor. And yet I-I have a book, Dick, where I say that one of the great attributes of my mother is that we never guessed we were poor.

Q. Wow.
A. We always thought we were¢â‚¬¦ I can remember, for instance, at every Christmas, without fail, Mama read us a little book that she’d bought at a drugstore in Guthrie, Indian territory. Mama was born in 1900 in Oklahoma and it was Indian territory then.

Q. Wow.
A. And she bought this little book there. And she read it to us every Christmas. And-and the little book was A Christmas Carol.

Q. Huh.
A. And I can remember that she created such empathy as she read that story that we always felt sorry for the Cratchetts because they didn’t have anything but a goose, but we never even had a goose. And I think-I think that’s a tribute to a great set of parents is they create a sense of abundance at this time of year.

Q. So what did you do at Christmastime? You read A Christmas Carol. What else went on?
A. Well, I could-I can remember that was the big thing. Now, you know, I try to, you know¢â‚¬¦ All of us parents we have these stories about how we walked to the school through the snow and all that to tell our kids¢â‚¬¦

Q. Yeah, exactly. And we need to pour it on buddy, keep it coming.
A. And we had that, too. I mean, we had-we had that, we-we just really looked
forward to it because we didn’t have like REA. Rural Electric didn’t come through our part of Oklahoma until I was 14

Q. Wow.
A. ¢€œso I was, you know, we-we read these things by coal, as we used to say coal oil, a kerosine lamp, and Mama would, you know, turn the wick up a little bit, and we’d all snuggle in and she’d read.

Q. Man.
A. And that was the season for us. We did have a little tree usually that she got somewhere but¢â‚¬¦

Q. Yeah.
A. Gifts I’m sure were not as abundant as they have since become.

Q. When you-when you called the faith your own and-and went out and kind of established your own life, what kinds of things did you want to do in terms of establishing traditions in the Christmas season that would keep your mind and heart focused on the right stuff?
A. Well, I think-I think the one thing that I did early on as an evangelical, I-I moved to Omaha, Nebraska in the year 1966, to begin a church.

Q. Uh-huh.
A. And it was in a-a pocket of the country that’s fairly non-evangelical. Omahais a wonderful place, but it-it is non-as non-evangelical as say Baltimore or Boston

Q. Yeah.
A. –in percentage to the populations to evangelicals who are present. So I just began saying, hey, what-what are all the Lutherans and Catholics doing in Omaha? How do they do¢â‚¬¦

Q. Huh.
A. One of the things I determined, I’ve always believed this, that if you’re starting a church your neighborhood should, to some degree, determine the kind of church you start. Your programs should meet local needs.

Q. Uh-huh.
A. And so I just¢â‚¬¦ I started studying Lutheran and Catholic catechisms and, particularly at Christmas, I began to feel like they really had something going at Advent. And so way back there when my children were little we started Advent guides for Christmas.

Q. Hm.
A. I think many times I-I wrote my own because southern Baptist came very late to Advent. So I had to write it. But now it’s kind of amazing, you know, Dick. I-since this new book about-this new Advent book has come out that I’ve written, man, there must be a thousand southern Baptist churches using it now.

Q. Wow.
A. And I guess the thing that’s kind of amazing to me is that these churches, many of them, probably they couldn’t hardly spell Advent–

Q. Yeah, exactly.
A. ¢€œten years ago, but I’m glad they’re into it.

Q. You know, one of the things¢â‚¬¦ I’m a third generation preacher’s kid, and-and I’ve got a lot of friends who are pastors. And-and I find it interesting that they will say that-that Christmas is both the most exciting and the most challenging time to communicate because, as you say in the introduction to this book, so many things are common about Christmas, and the themes are not brand new. And yet, in that they are so exciting and they-they can be new every year for us. How-how did you kind of stay fresh year after year during the Christmas season as you tried to determine what God wanted you to say to people about this wonderful season?
A. Well, one-one of the things that helped me, Dick, of course, I was a pastor, so every Advent I pulled into a special series of sermons–

Q. Yeah.
A. ¢€œwhich I happened to be studying myself, to-to bring to the people. And then we had the Advent readings for church. And then, of course, we had all the-the programs that go with it, the special communions, the pageants, and so forth. So for my own part, at least, living in the Christmas story was not so much the problem. But I do think one of the things that Robert Webber says in some of his wonderful work about Christmas is that evangelicals have unfortunately come to be in a time in which consumerism is king.

Q. Uh-huh.
A. And it’s very difficult to separate out the pure strains of what Advent traditionally was. Like, I constantly have to remind people that the 12 days of Christmas actually began on Christmas Eve. I mean, we’re doing it all backwards now. Up until very recent times people celebrated Christmas from Christmas Eve, December 24th through January 6th. And so they didn’t, you know, they didn’t have this thing that we do now where we just have this huge build up until December 25th, and then it’s all over for evangelicals.

Q. Yeah.
A. But there was a movement, there was a movement on through the 6th of January, the 12 days of Christmas, there were carols about this. We know that one or two of them still hang around.

Q. Yeah.
A. And then there was on January 6th was Epiphany, when Jesus was manifest as the Son of God to the world. It was a global kind of theme. Plus Advent, in the early years, in the early centuries, had a lot to do with the second coming. They didn’t talk-they talked about Jesus’ first coming, but it was always with a view to remember he was coming again. And we sort of lost that in Advent.

Q. Yeah. It-it’s interesting, you keep making reference to evangelicals. And there are many wonderful things that evangelicalism has brought into our life and into our culture and into our society, but it really only recently and you-you mention Robert Webber as an example, that we’ve really tried to understand more about-about-about liturgy, about-about different ways of expressing worship that, in fact, in traditions, as you’ve already mentioned Advent during the Christmas season, that really bring about a sense of expectation and-and regular focusing on the themes that we ought to have our minds on during this season.
A. I-I totally agree, and-and I think the one thing that¢â‚¬¦ One of the things that’s really great about Advent is-is the use of candles. Now, I-I don’t know that we adults need it as much, although it doesn’t hurt us either, but children get very excited about candles.

Q. Yeah.
A. And a candle ring, you know. And you light a candle and you read a scripture and you say, kids, this is the fourth candle of Advent.

Q. Yes.
A. And it’s four weeks ¢â‚¬Ëœtil Jesus’ birthday. And three weeks ¢â‚¬Ëœtil Jesus’ birthday. And you keep those candles lit. And it’s-it’s a high sense of anticipation. I think it’s wonderful.

Yeah, it is wonderful.
Well, folks, it’s about time now that we settle down and start talking about some of the themes that are actually in the book, The Christ of Christmas: Readings for Advent. We’re going to do that when we come back. The book is published by Broadman & Holman. And as Calvin Miller has already said, it’s being used all over the place in the southern Baptist churches, but certainly not exclusively there. And it’s-it’s a wonderful way as an individual or as a small group to focus on the themes of Christmas. We’re going to talk more with Calvin Miller coming up right after this. Stay there. We’ll be right back.
(Break.)

Q. Well, this is Dick Staub back with you. Our guest is pastor and author, Calvin Miller, who is a favorite of many of yours. And you’ll be excited, if you’re not already aware, that there is a book out called The Christ of Christmas: Readings for Advent. 31 Days of Devotions, by Calvin Miller. And it is just a wonderful collection. And nicely bound. Describe how you set up the format of this book so that there would be
different elements on each day of Advent.
A. Well, you know, what I tried to do, Dick, is I-I tried to look at-at the very prominent miracle. I guess, I’ve always really rather agreed with Madeline L’Engle that really, in the New Testament, there’s only one really great miracle, and that’s the incarnation. Once you believe that, everything else is duck soup, you know, that God could actually become a man in Christ.

Q. Uh-huh.
A. So I tried to-I tried to focus on the passages that really look at this great miracle. Jesus coming as a baby, the Holy Spirit overshadowing Mary, the conflict and consolation between Mary and Elizabeth, the liberation of Zachariah in speaking the word John, and so forth. There’s so-so many wonderful themes. And I-I think that one of the things I tried to do, of course, is build toward the actual birth event on Christmas Day and then
Q. Yeah.

A. ¢€œand then keep it going to look at what happened to Jesus until age 12. It ends on December 31 with the manifestation of the temple of Jesus at age 12.
Q. Yeah. Within each chapter we have-you have a verse that you-that you start with. You do kind of an essay, a meditation on that.
A. Right.

Q. Then there’s an additional reading and then there’s a prayer so that
A. Right.

Q. ¢€œpeople everyday have a variety of ways at getting at the theme that you’ve chosen for that day.
A. Yeah, that’ right. Plus I-I¢â‚¬¦ Every one of them contain a little epigram. For instance, the epigram for the reading on December the 19th says, “The heart is that small, fleshly vault that holds vast treasures that none can ever take away.”

Q. Yeah.
A. That-that’s a kind of highlighted epigram. Everyday has one of those little things that I think¢â‚¬¦ If-if all you had time to do was read that, though, I timed these things because Decision Radio is going to be using my readings through Advent, and I timed¢â‚¬¦ Each of them only take about 3_ minutes to read out loud.

Q. Yeah. Well, you know, it-it’s’s interesting. This-the-the approach that you took reminded me of my grandmother, late grandmother, who died when she was 93. She was one of those people that started reading through the Bible every year when she was 15 years old, and-and many times read through it twice a year.
A. Right.

Q. And-and when she was like 70, she told me of the-the practice that she had during the Christmas season of-of taking a different character or a different aspect of Christmas and just meditating on it everyday for a few minutes. And-and trying to look at the Christmas miracle through the perspective of that character or that event or that¢â‚¬¦ And it’s a wonderful practice, and yet a lot of us are not¢â‚¬¦ She was a very, very imaginative person, very intellectually creative. A lot of us aren’t that imaginative. And so it-it’s useful to have somebody who kind of provides help for us. But you did it in such a way that leaves a lot of room for us to kind of sit back and do our own thinking.
A. Oh, yeah, I think so. And I-I hope people will do that. There is along with each reading some suggested alternate scriptures that might play the mind a little further. 3_ minutes is not much time to give each day.

Q. Yeah.
A. But if you go into the extra readings, then I think you’re going to round out the Christmas season with a lot more understanding.

Q. Well, we’ll give some folks some examples. On the very first day you start by talking about John, John the Baptist
A. Right.

Q. ¢€œwho was called to bear witness to the light. Only a man named John. And yet, what a wonderful reminder of our opportunities during the Christmas season.
A. Right. That’s so true. And-and John, John to me is-is the most-one of the most exotic characters in the New Testament. Jesus said he was-there was none born of woman any greater. But I-I-I look at John and I think, you know, it isn’t just the fact that he-he announced Jesus’ coming, he’s sort of an exotic recluse. He’s Elijah, redivivus. He’s in the wilderness and hungry to see this distant cousin from Nazareth who shows up on the banks of his baptizing river, and God-God has laid it on John’s heart, you know. When you see the Holy Spirit descending on somebody, that’s the guy.

Q. Yeah.
A. And I’ve always loved that. I’ve always thought, you know, if-if you could pick your moments to be where the Pharisees were and to hear the voice above the river¢â‚¬¦ The bath kol, as Aramaic says, the loud voice that says this is my beloved son, I-I think this would have been a good moment to be present

Q. Yeah.
A. ¢€œin the ministry of Christ.

Q. Well, on the fourth day we’re also reminded of-of-of Zachariah. And you chose the theme when old men trust which, believe me, as I get older, I begin understanding why that’s such an important feature of-of the Christmas story, because there’s Zachariah, as the old man, and-and then you’ve got the rewards of waiting out on day 21 with Simeon.
A. Yeah.

Q. There’s such a wonderful cluster of people from all different perspectives. Here’s a couple of older guys
A. Yeah.

Q. ¢€œthat waited and trusted.
A. Yeah, which-which bears out your grandmother’s doctrine, or your mother’s¢â‚¬¦ Or your grandmother?

Q. That was my grandmother, yeah.
A. Yeah, grandmother, about picking a character and-and looking at and thinking about him.

Q. Yeah, absolutely. When we-when we look at your Day 3, you do something with the begat passages which is, frankly, when most people start dropping out in their reading through the Bible in a year.
A. Yeah.

Q. You know, it’s very tough when you get into the begats. And yet there-there’s something important in the-in that-that word and in the tradition that’s behind it.
A. Yes. The great thing about it is just that the begats are a solid reminder that God interfaces in a major way with the human race. And one man’s family, as I call it, you know, this is-this is one man’s family, it’s Abraham’s family, and Jesus is a part of it.

Q. Yeah. You-you-you remind us, and-and I think this is a very important aspect of the Christmas message. I mean, we’re so familiar now with the stories and with the angels appearing to Mary and the angels appearing to shepherds. Aand we’ve got all the bathrobes and all the other memories in there kind of tucked away. But you-you-you refer to-you refer to-to the appearances, the visitations, as God’s “unnerving visitations” at one point. I mean, these were really wonderful visitations, but they were-they were a little bit disturbing.
A. They certainly were. I always think-I always think the angels, it’s kind of beside the point when they say, “fear not,” right after they scare the wits out of people.

Q. Exactly. Well, they have to say that next because, I mean, the poor guy is sitting there quaking away.
A. So true, so true. And, you know, one of the nice things, it’s just easier to read it out of a nice, leather-bound Bible than to be out on the Judean hillside and have to think about this or face up to it.

Q. Well, you know, one thing¢â‚¬¦ I was talking with Philip Yancy last week and he¢â‚¬¦ We were talking about G. K. Chesterton and his great wit and his great, the bigness of his person and his personality.
A. Right.

Q. And the way he-he¢â‚¬¦ Even people that disagreed with him left the occasion just enjoying it. And-and Philip made the comment that we’re in an age of sadness in which people need a different kind of prophet, not just a prophet to tell them they’re doomed, but to remind them, you’re not doomed yet. And-and one of the things that you see in-in December 10th, as you talk about the way back to joy, that Christmas is a time of joy, and I think that is such a timely message for this culture.
A. Yeah, I do, too. You-you know, I-I experience this just almost daily in stores, but I-I think, God forgive me, but particularly in airports. They’re busy places. And I’m sure that people who sell tickets and help you get on the plane and announce that you need to, you know, board and things like that, that they have to have a hassled life. But I’ve wished I could just set them down and teach them the elementary art of smiling again. And it’s just a busy, busy time, you know? And-and it’s such a gift to try to be a human being. I-I’ve just came in today on the plane. And I set down next to a little girl. And she was reading and doing some algebra problems or something, which I’m not terribly good at. But nonetheless, she was little and she began to ask me questions. Before long I found her very, very charming. And I-I-I don’t¢â‚¬¦ I’m the kind of guy that always tries to be remote on airplanes because I always have plenty to do. But all of a sudden I find myself wanting to be a human being. And I-I guess, maybe that’s the mark of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

Q. Yeah.
A. I don’t know. I’d like to think so.

Well, and it’s the-it’s the joy that God brings into our life during this season that we can-we can participate in and spread. We’re going to be back with a few concluding comments from Calvin Miller. Don’t go away.
(Break.)

Q. Well, this is Dick Staub back with you. We’re visiting with Calvin Miller. His new book is The Christ of Christmas: Readings for Advent. Now, I-I chose to do this right now because it gives you time to still go out and pick it up and make use of it for your own holiday season. It’s brand new. We didn’t mention the artwork, too. There’s beautiful artwork. And-and, of course, the Christmas story has attracted so much attention in literature and in art and in music throughout the centuries. It’s just such a revolutionary, remarkable event. I was just reading something by a skeptic the other day who was saying, well, you know, even if Jesus existed, which most people think he did¢â‚¬¦ And I was thinking, how absolutely ridiculous, you know, to-to have that kind of mind-set when you look at the way this one person has totally changed the shape of world history, whether you’re a follower of Jesus or not.
A. Yeah, that’s right.

Q. He’s-he’s made this impact. And yet, one of the wonderful things you draw back, draw out, Calvin, in The Christ of Christmas, is the small things, the-the tune of the unknowns, you know, where the proud and mighty fall, the-the outback, Bethlehem. Nazareth. Small town surprises. This-one of the great aspects of the Christmas story is the little people and the little places play such a big role.
A. Yeah. And do you know what’s most remarkable about that is and I’ve always said and continue to say I would always believe in Jesus if for one reason only, and that is that these little people who were absolutely Aramaic, rural, and virtually prosaic and provincial and nothing–

Q. Yeah.
A. ¢€œsuddenly become inflamed with the world on their mind. And people like Simon-Peter, once content to fish in a little lake called Galilee, die 1500 miles away in Rome because they got to preach the gospel in a bigger context. I-I think that’s remarkable. I-I guess I look at Jesus and I say, you know, here’s Mary, a hill girl, who suddenly is doing this beautiful sonnet we call “The Magnificat.”

Q. Uh-huh.
A. And she sings and the world is thrilled. And operas are written around it.

Q. Yeah.
A. Nobody but God could put this together. So whoever the smart alecks are that say that Jesus-Jesus may not have lived, I’ve often wondered if they really take a good look at it.

Q. Yeah.
A. I-I would doubt-I would doubt most of the smart alecks before I would doubt Jesus.

Q. Yeah, absolutely. On December 22nd you remind us that-that always the-the cradle and the birth story has to be viewed through the cross. And there’s this wonderful phrase when Simeon blessed them and told his mother Mary, indeed, the child is destined to cause the fall and rise of many and to be a sign that will be opposed. And a sword will pierce your own soul. In the thoughts of many hearts there was already a little sense in the Christmas story that this wonderful, joyous occasion was also going to be one that was going to bring some pain.
A. Absolutely. I actually mention in one of these devotionals, you know, the great song, We Three Kings, and the gifts that they bring, whether we-whether they were three we don’t know, but we do know that there were three gifts. And one of those gifts was myrrh

Q. Yeah.
A. ¢€œwhich was a burial spice.

Q. Yeah.
A. And so there-there’s hidden, even in the kings, this bit of discord. It’s-it’s like the gargoyles on Notre Dame Cathedral. You have this wonderful, huge building in tribute to Jesus. But all of a sudden in the middle of this are stone demons that are water spouts with the great Cathedral.

Q. Yeah.
A. And I often-I often think, I-I think the Lord Jesus intentionally and God, himself and I’m not even opposed to putting a demon in the stone work of-of Notre Dame because I think we need to be reminded that we live in a world caught between God and evil.

Q. Yeah, absolutely. On December 13th you bring something in that-that some people say, well now, you know, we got 31 nice meditations and we got this one. How do you handle a scandal? And-and yet it’s an important part of the story.
A. It is an important part. And, in fact, to me¢â‚¬¦ Boy, I-I-I’ve often thought, you know, we-we can read pretty fast through Joseph but, goodness, when he has a mind to put Mary away privately, he-he was saying essentially, I don’t believe her.

Q. Yeah.
A. And this had to be a huge contest in their marriage, or their preview on the steps to marriage. That was in the way. And-and scandal was a very real part of it all, I think. Mary goes to Elizabeth because she’s so hungry for someone to say, blessed art thou. And Elizabeth does that.

Q. Yeah. One of the-the things that you help us understand in this devotional is the importance of every word in the story. And a lot of times, as you said, we’ll read quickly over a story and miss something. And-and you spend some time on December 20th talking about Jesus was the firstborn. And-and a reminder of-of while your little epigram that day is, “He who have been adopted into God’s family are made rich with his gifts.” The reminder that we share a part in this ancient tradition of-of riches poured out upon the firstborn.
A. Yes. Yes, and the-the most wonderful thing besides this passage is Romans 8, you know, where we are adopted. We are the children, too, and joint heirs. All that is Christ’s is ours.

Q. Yeah. When you-when you look at this particular Christmas season with whatever is-is on your schedule and on your mind and in your life, are there any particular themes that-that you are either already sensing are going to be important to you or that-that you are going to spend some special time thinking about during this season?
A. Well, I-I would like to. I-I think we’re on the brink of the feel that we had in say, 1940 or ’41. Now, we may not go to war with Iraq, but there’s something so beautiful about Christmas when a nation is in upheaval. And I-I think that so many of the carols that were popular in 1940 to 1945 became American favorites because¢â‚¬¦ By the way, they were generally Jesus-focused.

Q. Uh-huh.
A. That I-I-I think, I’m hoping that the struggle of-of this year, of this season, with all that faces us will call us to a wonderful awareness that the Christ of Christmas is the Christ who is healer of the nations.

Q. Uh-huh, absolutely. One thing that you-that you remind us of in this story is that there comes a time when God actually lifts the curtains and gives us a sense of-of eternity and of heaven. You know, we pray, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. And then you say, well, what’s going on in heaven?
A. Yeah.

Q. And you have this chapter, the highest glory. God lifts the curtains and we see a multitude of the heavenly hosts. I mean, you know, again you read that and you think, oh yeah, okay, I’ve seen that. I’ve seen that in the Christmas play. There’s those kids off on the right up on the balcony. You know. And this is-this is, you know, real stuff where God actually broke into history in real time and-and gave a few humble shepherds a little peek at what’s going on up there.
A. Right. You know, it’s kind of like those wonderful plays in which the actors leave the stage and come out in the audience and do some lines. Every once in awhile you’ll see that done–

Q. Yeah.
A. ¢€œtheatrically. And it’s so wonderful. Usually they’re up on the stage, you know, and the apocalypse is real. They draw the curtains and you see the play. But then-then there are the times when-when they come out and they’re standing right by you in Row 13

Q. Yeah.
A. ¢€œand they’re shouting across the theatre to another actor. And that’s how I see
these angels. It’s not just revelation anymore. It’s not just mere apocalypse.

Q. Yeah.
A. It’s God is with us. It’s Emmanuel in the flesh out in the audience. And I love that. I think the shepherds must have been witless. But God bless them. It was nice that they would give us this closeup view of God.

Q. And, well, the book is The Christ of Christmas: Readings for Advent. 31 Days of Devotions, by Calvin Miller. And I-I’ve got to believe that you’re already getting just tremendous feedback from people even though they’re-they aren’t going to start using it for a few more days.
A. The-the thing has been in and out of stock because of just multiple printings. I-it-it’s just sold incredibly well. I haven’t seen anything quite like it this season, for one thing.

Q. Yeah.
A. And I’m hoping that-I’m hoping the publisher will bring it out next year again because I-I just think, boy, so many people wanted it. And churches wanted to use it and haven’t been able to get it. I hope it will be at your bookstore, though, and people will look it up.

Q. Thank you so much, Calvin, for being with us today.
A. Thank you.

Q. I appreciate it very much.
A. Thank you, Dick, so much.

Q. Merry Christmas, to you and may you have a great season.
A. Merry Christmas to you. Bye, bye.

Well, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, this is Dick Staub. We’re going to be back with more of The Dick Staub Show coming up right after this. Don’t touch that dial.

Yours for the pursuit of God in the company of friends, Dick Staub.

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    Posted in DS Interview, Staublog in December 3, 2004 by | No Comments »

    Donald Kraybill: Amish Expert on Amish in the City

    Donald Kraybill: Amish Expert on Amish in the City

    Well good afternoon everybody. The first episode of Amish in the City left a Chicago Tribune reviewer with this impression. His headline was, “The Reality of Amish is that the Regulars Look Like the Rubes.” After the first two hours he says, “It’s not the Amish kid you feel sorry for. They were brought up to be restrained and have a solid sense of themselves. They mostly maintain their dignity, even as cameras are sure to note all their marveling at escalators, beaches, sushi, art, et cetera. But most of the regular American kids put in a fancy hillside home with them came off like rubes and worse. Watching their smugness, their dismissiveness, and their mockery of the unusual, a phrase comes to mind. What were you? Raised in a barn?” Well, consider this an everything you wanted to know and were afraid to ask about the Amish with our guest, Donald Kraybill. He’s senior fellow at the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania, and author of numerous books on the Amish.

    Q. And Donald, you were just telling me that the show actually did not air last night with the rest of the nation because in Amish country they’re actually screening it to decide whether they’re going to show it or not.
    A. That’s correct. There was some controversy here locally, and so out of respect to the general community and the Amish community, they decided to do a screening first and then decide whether they want to show it.

    Q. Now, how many Amish live in your area?
    A. In Pennsylvania we have about 52,000, and about half of those live in the Lancaster County area. And I live in the western edge of Lancaster County. So including children, we have about 25,000 here in our area.

    Q. Now, when we talk about the Amish, is it inaccurate to use the phrase in a kind of a general sense? I mean, are there a lot of distinctions within the Amish? For instance, within Lancaster County itself?
    A. Well, nationally it’s very inappropriate to talk about the Amish. There are over two dozen different subgroups. There are 1,400 different congregations in 28 different states, and the ecclesiastical authority is in the local congregation. So practices vary considerably from region to region and also within, from congregation to congregation. So it’s really very difficult to make broad-sweeping generalizations.

    Q. Now, are any of the five that are in the show from Lancaster County?
    A. No, they are not. They actually tried to recruit here but weren’t successful. I believe they’re from Ohio and Indiana. I believe maybe one from Wisconsin. I’m not sure.

    Q. Now, are they¢â‚¬¦ Yeah, there is one from Wisconsin. He’s actually one of my favorites. Moze is his name.
    A. Right.

    Q. Are they already kind of not stereotypical by virtue of the fact that they agreed to do this show?
    A. Absolutely. These are not Amish people. These are ex-Amish. These are rebellious teenagers who’ve turned their back on their heritage and are snubbing it by even thinking about agreeing to being in this kind of a program. So one of the serious problems with this is that what you’re looking at are not truly Amish people in the sense that they are baptized within the Amish community. These are young people that were raised in an Amish home and decided to leave it.

    Q. Now, the Rumspringa, as it was described in the show, is the time where a young Amish person is making their own choice regarding whether they want to be baptized. And the way it was positioned in the show is this is the time when they can kind of break away, sew their wild oats, explore the world outside, and then decide whether they want to be part of the Amish. Is that a misunderstanding of Rumspringa?
    A. It is a misunderstanding. And it’s one of my problems with the show, that they’re creating new stereotypes about Rumspringa. Basically what Rumspringa means is, literally translated means “running around.” And that means starting to date, going out with their friends. It does not mean running wild, which is what UPN calls it. Amish young people typically during this time live at home, work at home or work with a next door neighbor, or work on a construction crew. They don’t leave the Amish community. But they are betwixt and between the supervision of their parents and the authority of the church because they really technically don’t become Amish or go under the authority of the church until they’re baptized. And that typically happens at between the ages of 19 and 21. So if young people are planning never to join the church, then sometimes they will move into a city or move away. And I think, it’s my impression, that the five people that agreed to be in this show are people that really are leaving. And this is not Rumspringa, but these are ex-Amish who have already left the community.

    Q. Yeah. They were in Amish dress when they ¢€œ at least four of the five were in Amish dress when they appeared at the door of this hillside mansion in Hollywood Hills.
    A. Right.

    Q. But that does not, the fact that they dressed Amish doesn’t indicate that they are still in the Amish?
    A. This is all a show. They were putting those clothes on for UPN. They have access to those clothes. They certainly don’t wear those clothes back in their community anymore. If they were baptized and joined the church, then they would be expected to dress within the order of their particular church.

    Q. Now, there is a scene where Mose, who is described as the most conservative, as an elder in the group ¢€œ I mean, he’s 23 years old ¢€œ and as someone who takes his religion very seriously. That’s kind of the way he’s positioned in the show. He nearly drowns on the beach. And there’s a scene where you see him reading his Bible in German, out loud, and then he gets down on his knees and starts praying. And he talks about how in the Amish community you go to hell if you’re not part of the community. And that one of the things that frightened him most about this near drowning was his belief that he would go to hell if he had not made his commitment to be baptized and be part of the Amish community. Is that a piece of Amish theology or practice or not?
    A. It is a piece of Amish theology that would tell young people that if they leave the faith in which they were raised they would be putting their soul in jeopardy. I would say the Amish, in many ways, are harsher on their own young people than they are toward outsiders. They would be loathe to say that Presbyterians or Catholics are going to hell. They would simply say they live, you know, and practice in a different religious tradition, and the Amish would have respect for that. But they would tend to be somewhat harsh on young people that were raised in their own community who then turn their backs on it.

    Q. Now, there was a New York Times¢â‚¬¦
    A. On the other hand, another point, though, is they do respect the right of the individual to make an individual choice. They are Anabaptist so they respect the integrity of adult baptism.

    Q. Now, there was a reference in the New York Times article that I read yesterday to the fact that if you choose to be baptized, then you must stay in the community. And if you fail to do so you’ll be shunned. But if you choose not to be baptized, you’ll leave the community but you’ll be welcomed back because you didn’t choose to join. Is that accurate?
    A. Well, it is correct that if you are never baptized you can’t be excommunicated or shunned. In other words, excommunication and then shunning only applies to people who have been baptized and then leave. Everybody is always welcome back. I mean, the church will receive excommunicated members back if they make a confession. The church will receive young people back if they make a confession and agree to comply with the rules and regulations of the church. So the back door is always open to anyone, regardless of whether they left as, you know, excommunicated or if they left as a young person. But it is correct that only, shunning does not apply and excommunication does not apply to young people who decide not never to join.

    Okay. We’re going to be back with some more of Donald Kraybill right after this. He’s senior fellow of the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies, author of numerous books on the Amish. We’ll be back with more right after this.

    (Break)

    Well this is Dick Staub back with you. We’re visiting with Donald Kraybill, senior fellow at the YoungCenter for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania, author of numerous books on the Amish.

    Q. Don, if somebody were to read just one of your books that would give them the best basic overview of what it means to be Amish today, which book would you recommend?
    A. It would be The Riddle of Amish Culture, published by Johns Hopkins University Press, and the publication date is 2001. It’s sort of my flagship book in terms of understanding Amish faith and culture.

    Q. Okay. Now, let’s talk about what it means to join the Amish. Obviously, most of us at a cursory level think of it as a severe separation from the world. Is that the most kind of salient, easiest way to get into understanding what it means to be Amish? And if so, what’s kind of the Biblical, theological, historical tradition behind that?
    A. Well, I would say the more important point is this deep sense of community, and commitment to community, and commitment to a church where you’re accountable to the authority of the church. That’s the first premise. And then, secondly, it would be the point of separation from the world and non-conformity to the world. And all of this comes out of the radical reformation in the 16th century. And the Amish very much flow from that tradition that emphasized a strong separation of the church and the State, strong separation of the church from the outside world, and a strong focus on discipleship and the practice of the faith once one commits to it as an adult.

    Q. Now, what was it that happened to them historically that drove this as deep as it did in their experience?
    A. Well, they separated in 1693 from the Swiss Anabaptists, who later became Mennonites, and in many ways the Amish are a more conservative wing of the Anabaptist group and focused on a lot of specific practices that became part of their cultural tradition and were preserved in rural areas after they migrated here to the US.

    Q. What would some of those traditions be?
    A. Well, some of the traditions would be small, local congregations where they worship in homes. They do not have meeting houses. They meet every other week for services. Continuation of the German dialect, the Pennsylvanian German. In the 20th century, then, they developed specific forms of separation related to technology, such as the rejection of the ownership of automobiles, the rejection of electricity from public utility lines, and they’ve always forbidden television, which is why this particular UPN show is such an affront to them in many ways.

    Q. For a person that doesn’t really know the Amish but knows a little bit about American Protestant fundamentalism, how is it different than fundamentalism?
    A. These are not fundamentalists by any stretch of the imagination. I would say these are¢â‚¬¦ The focus here is on a communal understanding of faith, a communal understanding of salvation. For example, personal Bible reading is not particularly encouraged because of a fear of individualism and individuals making their own decisions about the Bible. Preachers, when they preach in front of the congregation, three or four other preachers then would give witness or testimony to what they’ve said. So it’s really a communal religious experience. And really it is a strong dose of humility. They are loath to say that they are sure they are saved. But they would say, in contrast to fundamentalists, we simply follow the way of Jesus and we have a living hope, but our faith is in the hands of a loving God. And so it would be very arrogant or conceited to say that we know we’re sure we’re saved.

    Q. Okay. Now, that’s interesting because one of the characteristics that Martin Marty draws out in his work about fundamentalism is that a mark of a fundamentalist, in American experience anyway, or even in the Islamic tradition, has been fighting. They’re feisty towards the world. What I’m hearing¢â‚¬¦ That’s a distinction that you’re making.
    A. Yes. The Amish are pacifists. Their emphasis is on Gelassenheit, on yielding to others, on humility, on meekness and mildness. I mean, the spirit here is opposite that of, you know, die hard fundamentalists.

    Q. Interesting. Now how would it be like or unlike Jewish Hassidism?
    A. Jewish Hassidic tradition would actually have many parallels. I mean, a strong emphasis on community, a strong emphasis on tradition, a strong emphasis on symbolism, and in separation from the world. So I think¢â‚¬¦ I don’t know the Hassidic tradition very well, but it’s my impression that there frankly would be many more parallels with a Hassidic Jewish tradition than there would be with the mainstream American fundamentalism.

    Q. Now, how did they understand Jesus ¢€œ who appears to have understood the calling of God to go into the world ¢€œ to be part of the world, to be a loving, kind of transforming presence in the world, and very actively engaged in the daily life of people in the community? How do the Amish understand that? I understand that they’ve picked up on the kind of alien and exile tradition in community, but how do they justify that with this kind of other view of Jesus?
    A. Well, they would say that their form of witness is through their community, that their community should be a light on the hill, a beacon on the hill. They should be, as a community, salt and light in the world. And the focus is more on what I would call a kind of communal witness. They do engage in disaster service, in relief work, in things like that, but it’s done in the context of their community. It’s non-individualistic. A key difference in their culture and mainstream American culture and mainstream American religious and evangelical culture is their rejection of individualism. So they don’t emphasize individual evangelism or individual Bible study or individualistic things, but it’s more a communal witness. The other thing to remember is¢â‚¬¦

    Q. And yet, if I can just interject there. What’s interesting about that, though, is that they do, it sounds like in their decision of baptism, that is an individual decision.
    A. It is.

    Q. In other words, it’s not like a reformed tradition where if you’re born into the family, you know, there have been branches of the reformed tradition where if you’re born into the family you’re saved because we’re saved as a family, as a community, or like Israel would have had that in the Old Testament. This still has that element of individualism.
    A. You’re correct. Again, they’re Anabaptist. They emphasize a voluntary adult decision to join the church. But once they join the church, it’s joining a communal experience and it’s being part of that, and it’s being responsible to the authority of that tradition. So it is at the point of baptism an individual experience.

    Q. Now, do they view the world as evil? In other words, there was a piece in the Philadelphia Inquirer that says, “The Amish, young and old, aren’t hapless innocents, but in fact know a great deal about the real world, which is why they choose to keep a distance from it.” In other words, the Inquirer was saying what you need to understand about the Amish is they are worldly wise, they see the world, they don’t think they want to be part of that world. Is that accurate?
    A. I would say in general that’s the case. They read daily newspapers, they’re interacting everyday with outside people, they live in communities where they talk with English neighbors. In their work and commerce many of them interact with the outside world. So for them the outside world is filled with divorce, it’s filled with sex, it’s filled with war, it’s filled with fraud, it’s filled with single-parent families, it’s filled with all kinds of what they would call moral junk that they really prefer to stay away from.

    We’re going to be back with some concluding comments with Donald Kraybill right after this. Senior fellow at the YoungCenter for Anabaptists and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania, author of a number of works on the Amish including The Riddle of the Amish. We’ll be back right after this. Don’t go away.

    (Break)

    Well this is Dick Staub back with you. We’re visiting with Donald Kraybill. We’re talking about the Amish. Of course, the new reality TV series, The Amish in the City, we’re putting it in that context and learning so many new things.

    Q. I’m of course noticing even my bumper music sounds very worldly when we’re talking about the Amish. And one of the young women, another one of my favorites ¢€œ my favorite guy was Moze ¢€œ and the young woman that I felt was most trying to represent an Amish tradition, based of course on my ignorance of the Amish, but was Ruth. And one of the things that happened with Ruth is, first of all, she did have this wonderful sense of wonder when she went to the beach. And I looked at my kids, I was reminded of Abraham Heschel’s book about I Asked for Wonder, and about the loss of wonder in a jaded, cynical society. And one of the things that you did see in this character of Ruth was she couldn’t sleep all night because she was going to see the ocean for the first time. And she believed that she was going to see something of God when she saw the ocean. That kind of sense of wonder was just, was just touching. But she also was taken through a store that had artwork, a lot of artwork, and she was fascinated with the art. And she said, “We don’t have art in the Amish community.” Now Don, is that an exaggeration? Or what is the attitude of the Amish towards art?
    A. Let me comment on the ocean first. That didn’t have anything to do with the Amish. There are a lot of other people in Indiana and Ohio that have never seen the ocean. The Amish here in Lancaster go down to the ocean frequently. So there’s nothing Amish about her sense of wonderment seeing the ocean. That has to do with more the rural culture of people that don’t see the ocean. On the art, the Amish have a lot of art. They are doing quilts all the time, very, very lovely quilts that have a real sense of folk art. They do an enormous amount of folk crafts that they sell and make. So I would argue there’s a great sense of folk art in the Amish tradition that’s very well accepted. What they don’t typically have are professionally-trained artists that are doing modern art. And to the Amish way of thinking, modern art would be a waste of time because it doesn’t have a utilitarian value. So there is a sense in which they don’t have artistic sensitivities in the modern sense of doing art that you’re going to hang on the wall and look at.

    Q. And yet, what’s interesting theologically is that traditionally the Anabaptist communities have had an appreciation of beauty, which is a more, some would argue, a more Biblical view of the role of art in the image of God as creator.
    A. Yes.

    Q. In other words, they’ve made beautiful things. Their furniture has not just been utilitarian. Now, in the Amish community I understand, though, it’s fairly utilitarian. Like the Shaker community is known for its beautiful kind of design, whereas my sense is in the Amish community it’s more functional.
    A. I would say functionality, practicality, utilitarianism, they are very strong themes in the Amish community. Again, you need to remember that these are people that have not gone to high school, they’ve completed eighth grade, most of them in an Amish school. So their focus has been on work, on craftsmanship, and on practical, utilitarian things.

    Q. Now, one of the issues that came up, the educational issue did come up last night. Another issue that came up is roles of men and women. And in the house there are complaints that the Amish men aren’t really cleaning up after themselves. One of the Amish girls says, “Well, in the Amish community the women are cleaning up after the men.” You know, the men aren’t used to having to clean up their dishes.
    A. Right.

    Q. Is that an exaggeration or what?
    A. No, I would say that’s probably typically fair. There are variations, of course, in different households. But in general the women would tend to clean up after the men.

    Q. And so there’s a¢â‚¬¦ In the Amish community, when it comes to marriage, it’s a hierarchical, the man is the head of the house, the woman is in submission or not?
    A. I would say they would accept that Pauline teaching typically. But as one Amish man told me, he said, “The man is a king and the woman is a queen, and we have that kind of a relationship.” And there is a lot of crossover in terms of work. I mean, women will help out in the barn or out in the field. Men will help in the garden or in the house, depending on the time of the season. But in terms of dealing with the outside world, typically the man will step forward. It is true that only men can be ordained into the ministry and typically only men hold prominent roles on committees in the community and so on.

    Q. Now, I read that there is zero divorce rate in the Amish community. In other words, you had talked about what they see in culture and they see kind of abuse and violence and divorce and that’s not part of their community. Is that accurate?
    A. That’s correct.

    Q. Now, when you talk about a zero divorce rate, there are within¢â‚¬¦ Some people have stereotypical notions of highly communitarian and male-dominated cultures as cultures where there’s been kind of physical abuse against children, or even their spouse, and it’s gone unchecked because, after all, he’s the man. Is there any evidence of that kind of thing within the Amish community?
    A. There are occasional cases where there’s physical abuse towards spouses or children and sexual abuse. No one has good evidence systematically in terms of the rapes. I do know of some cases, but my general impression is that these are, for the most part, happy, functional, content families.

    Q. So when we look at the trend lines in the Amish community ¢€œ and most of us are familiar that there were these charges of drug dealing against some Amish that were supposedly in Rumspringa and so forth ¢€œ and there’s obviously the, it’s getting more and more difficult to keep technology out of their lives.
    A. Right.

    Q. What are some of the trend lines? What are some of the things that are happening right now that are complications for the Amish?
    A. Well, the biggest change is a shift off of the farm into small businesses. In Lancaster County alone there are over 1,600 Amish owned and operated small businesses, and many of those put them in direct contact with the outside world. They increase their appetite for technology. In many communities across the nation they’re working on construction crews and getting away from home. They have more freedom with technology on construction crews. Cell phones, for example, is an issue right now in a lot of the communities. So I really see the occupational change as, frankly, the biggest change in the 20th century that increases their interaction and interface with the outside world.

    Q. Now, are they learning that by definition, that kind of interaction diminishes the value and importance of Amish community? In other words, is it inevitable¢â‚¬¦ One of the things that’s fascinating to me about the Amish is I look at the American Protestant tradition and I see fundamentalism as being in reaction and as we said a feisty reaction to culture. But it did have the kind of holiness, a pietistic piece in it. You look at evangelicalism, which was an attempt to say, no, we need to be part of culture, we need to engage culture. And now we have so many studies showing that evangelicals are essentially a mirror reflection of culture, not differentiated from culture. And so a serious minded person of faith who wants to retain the deeply held values of community who has come to understand that, yes, we’re ambassadors to the culture but we’re also aliens and exiles, and aliens and exiles in community, looks at the Amish and says, you know, as much as we have thought this was a radical extreme form of Christian community, it in fact seems to be one that has preserved from generation to generation, deeply held belief and practice, and has in fact been a light on the hill, if you look at the divorce rate and so forth. So then people are asking, is there an intermediary? Is there a way that you can have that sense of community, like the Amish, and yet be part of the broader community without losing what you have as a separatist community? Is that kind of the issue that they’re facing right now?
    A. Well, I think that’s the big challenge. Is there wisdom in the Amish tradition that we can learn from? And how do those of us in the more mainstream evangelical tradition, how can we appropriate that? And is there some middle ground here where we can commit ourselves to a vibrant Christian community that is part of the world and yet very much is separate from it?

    Q. And if you had to kind of summarize some of the lessons that you yourself have learned and you would say, yeah, these are some things we need to learn from the Amish, and these are some of the issues that we’re going to face as we try to retain those values and be part of the community, what would they be?
    A. Well, I would say one is that individualism is very dangerous and I have increasing respect for the wisdom of communal discernment. And I think that’s a key thing that comes out of the Amish tradition. Another one is the importance of family and the importance of tradition. Tradition at some moments may seem like a sterile ceremony, but I think traditions, if they’re meaningful, can be very valuable in communicating the faith and restoring the faith in many ways.

    Q. What about technology and television, the entertainment world?
    A. Well, I’m actually working on a book right now on how the Amish tamed technology. And it’s very interesting. I think they are the only group that has tamed technology over several generations. They’re unique in that sense. And they’re also unique in that they’re doing it as a community, it’s not just an individual family turning off their TV or getting rid of their TV. So I think there’s an enormous amount of wisdom that we can learn from them in terms of the negative impact that technology has on our family, on our family structure, on our community relationships. So I do think that that is a major gift in a sense that they bring to us in terms of what they’ve learned about that.

    Q. Wow. So any heads up on what we should be watching for on Amish in the City as we close our time?
    A. I don’t think we should watch it. Turn your television off, Dick.

    There you go. Our guest has been Donald Kraybill, senior fellow at the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania, author of a number of books on the Amish. You can check them out online, and one of them is The Riddle of Amish Culture. Thanks, Don. We’ll be right back.

    Posted in DS Interview, Staublog in August 1, 2004 by | No Comments »

    Mark Joseph: Faith, God & Rock ¬Ëœn¬â„ Roll. (With Audio)

    Mark Joseph:  Faith, God & Rock ¬Ëœn¬â„ Roll. (With Audio)

    Well good afternoon everybody. This is Dick Staub, your host and fellow seeker. You know, the relationship between faith and rock ¢â‚¬Ëœn’ roll has always been a dicey one, but according to our next guest, it’s getting more interesting than ever as Christian artists are abandoning the confines of CCM and intentionally taking their art to the broader culture. We’re visiting with Mark Joseph. He is the author of Faith, God & Rock ¢â‚¬Ëœn’ Roll.

    Q. Mark, great to have you with us today.
    A. Thanks, Dick. It’s good to be with you.

    Q. You know, one of the fascinating aspects of your book is one that you finally cleared something up for me. And that is, I keep seeing the statistics about that contemporary Christian music scene and the phenomena of just outrageous increases in sales every year. And you make reference to a Newsweek article that talked about Jesus Rocks. And basically, if I’m not mis-stating it, the thesis of this book is that the real story is what’s happening with Christian artists who are performing in the mainstream, but the CCM phenomena keeps getting attention because of those sales figures, and there’s an explanation for that. Talk about that.
    A. Well you know, it’s a fascinating thing because, on the one hand, this growth¢â‚¬¦ Every year press releases are issued from Nashville saying that Christian music is growing by XX percent. It’s a fascinating thing because, on the one hand, those numbers are greatly exaggerated. On the other hand, it’s not even close. It’s much more than that. And what I mean by that is the growth is not in Christian music. Christian music, per se, as a genre I think, is probably actually in decline, if you use real numbers and not funny numbers. But what’s exploding is the idea of Christians playing rock music in mainstream America. And that is something that just, you can’t tabulate that. It’s very difficult to keep tabs on who is and who isn’t a Christian and who is and isn’t singing about faith topics, because you just can’t calculate that. But as far as the numbers that show the growth in Christian music, unfortunately that’s obtained by tabulating and counting records that really wouldn’t be considered Christian music. Things like the Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? record, a POD record, which POD is signed to a mainstream label, and Mannheim Steamroller, for instance. These records, which are used to tabulate sales of Christian music, I think really by any standard, are not.

    Q. Now you say if you take those kinds of albums out, only four of the top ten CCM bestsellers are really CCM.
    A. Right. Right. And so again, I think the larger point that I would make is it’s sort of silly to play these numbers games and say Christian music has grown by X percent when it really hasn’t. The big story is that Christianity, Christian ideas, Christian thoughts in rock music, is exploding beyond any possible measuring standard.

    Q. Yeah. Let’s talk about a couple of examples of that as evidence. One would be the POD story which, interestingly enough, in your previous book, The Rock ¢â‚¬Ëœn’ Roll Rebellion, you knew about them but didn’t include them because they were kind of not there yet. But they’ve totally taken off. What is the POD story and how does it illustrate your point that the real story is artists who are Christian who are in the mainstream?
    A. Well, it’s so ironic that, you know, the trade association that is responsible for Christian music would tabulate POD’s records as growth in sales of Christian music because this is a classic story of this younger generation ¢€œ these are a couple of kids from San Diego who are devout young Christians ¢€œ and you know, they have two paths to take. And one path led to Nashville and would have led to Christian music stardom. The other path was to Atlantic Records, where they ended up. And they very deliberately and clearly chose the path that took them to the mainstream. In fact, they were offered a record contract, early on, by one of the Christian music labels and they specifically turned it down at a time when they didn’t know if they would be offered a mainstream contract.

    Q. Now talk for a minute about why groups are doing that, and then let’s finish up with the POD story. I mean, why is it that these artists are saying, I don’t want to be in the CCM niche?
    A. Sure. Well, for the mainstream culture the term Christian rock has become a term of derision. And really the only people who haven’t figured that out yet are some of the people involved in the Christian music industry. I think most of them have by now. But it’s become a term that is just, you know, once you are labeled with that, it’s very hard to recover. And so it’s almost like you really are not even considered once that term is attached to you. So I think there was a generational issue where the people who were running the Christian music industry four or five years ago couldn’t figure out why all these young artists didn’t want to be called Christian rock and not realizing that that label apparently immediately made them irrelevant. Now, I have to say that today a lot of the leaders in the Christian music industry are a new generation. The heads of Word and Provident are terrific people who understand this phenomena and are trying to figure out a way to help it. But basically, these young artists have said, if we sign to a Christian music company, that will put us off the map of American pop culture and then the world’s pop culture.

    Q. Well, let’s tie together two very different sources, as little anecdotes, that show the point. Phillip Johnson, you talk about what he had to say about religious labeling and what it can do, and then you tie it into an episode of Seinfeld where George makes a comment about CCM.
    A. Yeah. Well you know, Johnson is an important thinker and aide to a Supreme Court Justice, I believe Warren Berger, and he just makes the case that we are in a post-religious, post-Christian society, and that it’s very easy ¢€œ especially because of Supreme Court decisions he says ¢€œ that if you can marginalize something as religious it sort of moves it off the table of the mainstream for consideration. But the Seinfeld episode was hilarious. It was George Castanza and Jerry and Elaine were sitting around, and Elaine discovered that, to her horror, that her boyfriend, Putty, listened to Christian rock and had his radio station in his car preset to Christian rock stations. And she said, well, I can’t date a guy who listens to Christian rock. And I think that’s an important ¢€œ I mean, it’s obviously very funny and all that ¢€œ but it’s an important sort of moment that captures the zeitgeist, that it’s such a weird phenomenon that she couldn’t date a guy. The funny part is, of course, George steps in and says, no, no, no, Christian rock is nice, it’s safe. It’s not like real rock.

    Q. Yeah, and there’s the problem.
    A. Right. So you’ve got the double whammy of being ridiculed as not real rock and then, you know, you’re not even datable if you listen to Christian rock. So I just think those are the realities captured so well. And when you face an obstacle, you can either keep banging your head against the wall or figure out a way around it. And I think a lot of these young artists have said, there is no way around this wall at this present strategy, and we’ve got to get past this labeling so people can actually hear our music.

    Q. Well it has to do with a couple of other things, too. Where is the CD going to be categorized? Is it going to be under rock ¢â‚¬Ëœn’ roll? Or under contemporary Christian? Or gospel? Or praise and worship? You walk into a big record store and that isn’t immediately a problem. But another problem has to do with the award system. And you talk about Michael W. Smith in 1990. Was he best new artist? Or was he best new Christian artist? And you talk about how Dick Clark and NARAS both contribute to this problem.
    A. Sure. I mean, and both of those issues are very important. But the issue of placement in stores is incredibly significant because it really showcases the differences in goals. There was a battle between a well-known Christian band and their own record company over where they should be put in a store. The record company kept calling the retailer ¢€œ I did some research at Walmart on this. And the band wanted their records in the alphabetical listing under pop rock. When I asked Walmart who was lobbying for inclusion in the Christian section they said the label was calling them saying, please put our band in the Christian section of the store. So you literally have bands and labels at cross purposes, and you can understand that from the label’s perspective, listen, they just want to move product. And they want to find people already predisposed to Christianity to sell product to. The band wants to have their ideas, in addition to selling to those people, they want to have their ideas and their records considered by the guy who’s just roaming through the pop rock section.

    Yeah. We’re going to pick up there when we come back. We’re visiting with Mark Joseph. Spend more time with him by picking up a copy of Faith, God & Rock ¢â‚¬Ëœn’ Roll. It’s a great piece of work. I want you to read it. We’ll be right back.

    (Break)

    Well this is Dick Staub back with you. We’re visiting with Mark Joseph. His new book is Faith, God & Rock ¢â‚¬Ëœn’ Roll. We’re talking about the fact that while some people think the big story in music is contemporary Christian music, the bigger story is artists who are Christian who are in the mainstream.

    Q. And we’ve been talking about some of the challenges they face. We just talked about where you put their music when it’s racked in the store. Talk about that Michael W. Smith story, too, because it’s an example of somebody trying to solve a problem and, in your view, actually creating a worse problem.
    A. Yeah sure. Part of this has to do with the artists themselves. Listen, everybody likes to get an award. You know, if you want to give me an award for whatever writer of the year, chances are I’ll show up and accept it. So what’s been happening is the Grammy’s and the Dick Clark’s American Music Awards, in their probably heartfelt attempt to reach out to this community, they’ve created separate awards for Christians. So that, you know, you win the best Grammy for best rock pop for the Christian category, as if this is a musical genre. You know, we understand that there are genres based on, you know, polka or rock, but to actually have a genre based on the lyrics, this is a completely new concept. And you know what it does is it really cheapens the whole effort. Because if you’ve ever watched the Grammy’s, what happens is, you know, five hours before the real ceremony the televised ceremony begins ¢€œ or three hours before ¢€œ they’ll have given out the little Christian awards. And so you’ll be watching the Grammy’s and it’ll say, at a ceremony held earlier this evening, you know, so and so received the Christian gospel Grammy. And so it really, you know, it cheapens the whole thing, I think, and makes these people look like second-class citizens, like they can’t compete with the big leagues. So it’s a mistake. What I’ve advised and, of course, nobody’s taken me up on it, but I just advise these bands, don’t accept those awards. You are a rock performer or a pop performer, you’re not a, you know, marginalized religious nut. And so but the problem is the labels keep submitting the artists for consideration of those marginalized awards, the artists keep accepting. But I think that POD, a few years back, had the opportunity to be nominated in that category, did not submit themselves for that category, and then lost, of course, in the main category.

    Q. But was in the consideration.
    A. They were. They were among the nominees for best hard rock performance where they lost to, I believe, Linkin Park.

    Q. Let’s finish up with that POD story because where we left them was they had an offer from a Christian label, they didn’t have an offer yet from a mainstream label. They turned down the one from CCM because of their conviction and calling. What happened after that? What had happened with POD?
    A. Well amazingly enough, you know ¢€œ and the manager who told me this story said, listen, one of the guys is living out of his car, it wasn’t like they had a lot of options here ¢€œ but they felt so strongly that were they to sign with that label they would not be where they wanted to be, which was, you know, on The Howard Stern Show and on mainstream rock stations and on MTV. So shortly after that Atlantic Records offered them a deal and they’ve become, you know, the cultural phenomena we know them to be. I just want to add this, Dick. I think that, even as we speak, things are changing. And I see a greater willingness on the part of the Christian music labels to begin to function as mainstream labels. That means, you know, sending their artists out to mainstream radio and really making a serious effort to be part of the music business. So it’s changing. It is changing. The new head of the Gospel Music Association, John Styll, is working to change things. But until that happens and they’re fully integrated, these artists are going to continue to go to mainstream labels.

    Q. Now you mentioned Howard Stern, and it’s an interesting story. Why did POD want to be on Howard Stern? And what happened when they got there? It illustrates why they wanted to be in mainstream.
    A. Yeah. You know, early on the band told the manager that they wanted to be on The Howard Stern Show. Of course, if you’re a manager for a rookie band, you know, that’s not an easy thing to pull off. Well, through a relationship with somebody at the label, Howard said I’ll give one of your young bands a shot. Who do you want on my show? And they said POD. So the four boys, you know, lumbered into Stern’s studio. And it was about 18 minutes of just fascinating TV. You know, first Howard, in his usual crude manner, tried to crack jokes with them, had callers call in to say that they were sleeping with the members’ wives while they were out of town, and just sort of the usual stuff. And then they just were not, you know, it didn’t effect them at all. They just kept, you know, kept their cool. And then he said, you know, you boys, you boys don’t sleep with the women on the road. How can this be? You’re a rock band. And they said, well you know, that’s not what we believe we should be doing and, you know, they sort of went on like that. And by the end of this episode it was almost like they had tamed Howard the Lion, and he was practically asking for marital advice at the end of the show.

    Q. Well you know, they also were on Politically Incorrect, and there was a wonderful way that that provided an opportunity to show that even cancer could lead them not to doubt God but actually lead them to a closer faith in God. Sixpence None the Richer, you tell the story of Letterman. These artists are out there and they actually are getting a chance and being heard. And a related issue that we don’t have time to get into, is the way these Christian artists are actually having an influence on other artists. You tell the story about Mick Jagger, or how religious themes started to emerge in Billy Corgan after Smashing Pumpkins, when he did his album as ZWAN. Or Lauryn Hill’s conversion. Now that was an amazing story. Here she is, already out there, and she starts singing about what’s happening in her life and talking about it, and the MTV Unplugged is a classic.
    A. Yeah. I think what we’re going to see in the next five to ten years is going to make people that are uncomfortable with religious expressions in popular culture very uncomfortable. It’s going to be a miserable five to ten years for people who don’t like this because it’s only accelerating. It’s like, I look at it like 40 to 50 years of pent-up energy that is starting to explode. And you saw with The Passion, and you’re going to see with a number of other artists coming, any time you sort of¢â‚¬¦ Any time you either suppress, or the group themselves allows their ideas to be suppressed, when the doors finally open, the floods are going to come.

    Q. Now, who is it that doesn’t like it? When you talk about detractors, people that are uncomfortable with this, who are they?
    A. Well I mean, ironically, I think there are two groups. One is the group that has sort of made a living off of keeping this stuff in the circle. It’s uncomfortable when you sort of have a business structure built around niche marketing. All of a sudden when this is discovered by others, the niche is gone. And so I think, frankly, part of the opposition comes from inside the industry who are going to have to share this music with the rest of the world now, and share the marketing and all that. But on the corollary, on the other side, there are just people that are frankly uncomfortable with religious expressions in popular culture, in public life, would prefer that that stuff be kept inside a building on Sunday, and are horrified¢â‚¬¦

    Q. Yeah. A lot of the music critics.
    A. What’s that?

    Q. A lot of the music critics.
    A. I think so. I think a lot of the music critics’ criticism of these types of artists, you know, curiously is not about the music, but it’s about the very idea that they would dare to mix religion and rock.

    Yeah, very interesting. We’re going to pick up there. Mark Joseph is our guest. The book is Faith, God & Rock ¢â‚¬Ëœn’ Roll. It is a wonderful piece of work. I hope you’re going to go out and pick up a copy. We’ve been talking about a lot of the ideas, but this book is just full of stories of artists, where they are in their journey, how it’s effecting their art, how they’re effecting culture. And we’ll pick up there when we come back. Don’t go away.

    (Break)

    Well this is Dick Staub back with you. We’re visiting with Mark Joseph. Faith, God & Rock ¢â‚¬Ëœn’ Roll is his book.

    Q. We’ve been talking a little bit about detractors. There’s some people in the music business who have been the critics, who want rock ¢â‚¬Ëœn’ roll to stay just rebellious and not include any kind of spiritual themes. There are those within the business itself that liked owning a niche, and now suddenly seeing the niche wiggling out and getting into the mainstream. There are also a lot of people in the Christian subculture who are uncomfortable. You talk about Plugged In magazine, done by Focus on the Family, and their reaction to, for instance, Jessica Simpson’s album, Irresistible. What’s that kind of discussion about?
    A. Well first of all, I have to say that I think it’s great that magazines like Plugged In exist, because for years the Christian response, or the response of traditionalists to pop culture was, gee, if we ignore it maybe it’ll go away. So the kind of constructive criticism offered by places like Plugged In, I think is very helpful. And it’s quite a change in the last maybe ten or so years. But they were definitely critical of Jessica Simpson. I think they’ve also been critical of Destiny’s Child. But again, you know, any time you’re having a dialogue I think it’s good. And in particular, Jessica Simpson and some of these others, it does create a challenge for people of faith. Especially with Destiny’s Child there’s really a disconnect. And in my book I just try to tell the story and leave it to the reader to figure out what they feel about it. But there’s definitely a disconnect, or an inconsistency, between the lyrics and, if not the lifestyle, at least the appearance of the lifestyle.

    Q. Yeah. If you look at the issues of sacred and profane, you’ve got the kind of sex and faith issues that are very much part of somebody like Destiny’s Child, or that was the complaint about Jessica Simpson.
    A. Right.

    Q. You’ve got the shock and faith issue. Talk about Alice Cooper, because he was a guy that had a conversion experience and stayed in the shock business.
    A. Yeah. You know, Alice Cooper is an incredible story of what happened in the post-Christian music era, which is, he had this conversion experience, he was raised by a Baptist minister, got away from his beliefs, spent most of his rock years as a drunk. Came back to his faith but stayed with his record company, with Epic, and kept recording, kept the Alice Cooper persona alive, but just did a 180-degree change in the lyrics. So suddenly, instead of a weirdo Satanist, or whatever his image was in the ¢â‚¬Ëœ70s, Alice Cooper became the father figure warning teenagers not to do sex and drugs and to think about God. So he kept the persona but just changed what the persona was, the content of the persona. And by the way, my first clue that something was going on with Alice Cooper was when I heard his song called “Hey Stoopid” in ’93, and I switched on MTV and here is Alice Cooper walking in on a couple about to have sex, and he’s telling them, hey stoopid, you know, knock it off. And I thought, there’s something going on here with this guy.

    Q. So some of it, the kind of debate within conservative Christian circles has to do with this kind of sacred/profane thing. The same thing happened with language when Bono praises God on the one hand for an award, and then uses the “f” word and is, you know, a major FCC case, and is a very outspoken guy about faith. There is another argument, though, in that you point out that Chuck Colson raised in that article and it had to do with not the content, the lyrical content, but the form itself.
    A. Right.

    Q. And implied that the energy of rock, the pounding beat, the screams, the spectacle, is all designed to be sensatory, feeling-oriented, that its very form encourages a mentality that’s subjective, emotional, sensual, no matter what the lyrics may say. What do you say to that Chuck Colson argument?
    A. Yeah. That’s a pretty surprising argument. And I think if you would go back to Chuck and to Nancy Pearcey, who co-wrote that book, my guess is they would want to amend that now. Because the irony is, just before that they praised Touched by an Angel. So it would be sort of like saying, the form of the soap opera is inherently evil and cannot be redeemed no matter what the content. And I don’t think that’s really a rational argument. Certainly there are elements of rock music and popular music that are, you know, subjective and emotional, but it’s still¢â‚¬¦ A song is still essentially a three-minute argument for something. It’s not just an emotion, it’s an argument for something. Now, it’s fine to complain that whatever the artist is arguing for is bad and should be changed, but to say that it’s not an argument for something, I think, is just not understanding¢â‚¬¦

    Q. But I think he’s not talking about the argument, that has to do with content. I think he’s talking about form. I think if you look at classic Greek philosophy, you know, the pursuit of beauty, truth, and the good, the question is, is there something stylistically that is more beautiful about one form of music than another? You know, is Bach, by definition, more beautiful than hip hop?
    A. Sure, sure.

    Q. That’s where he’s coming from, isn’t it?
    A. Yeah, I think so. But I think it was even more than that. I think it was¢â‚¬¦ I think there was literally, if not a direct quote, there was an inference that this form is irredeemable. And that’s a pretty shocking statement to make. You know, if you’re willing to be consistent with it, that’s fine. But I don’t think it’s a consistent argument. And I’m not sure that¢â‚¬¦ I don’t know of any form of art that’s irredeemable. I have in the book a quote from Abraham Kuyper who’s, you know, the former Dutch Prime Minister who says that, you know, Christ speaks to the world and says, this is mine. I own every square inch of this, this belongs to me. And so I think it depends on, sort of, if you have a Kuyper view or a Colson view on this one.

    Q. Now, there is a bigger issue, and it’s probably the most common one, and it is how these artists talk about their own, their faith journey, whether they’re willing to say, I’m a Christian or not. And you have a whole chapter on Creed, who is probably the classic case of, you know, what is he saying and what does it mean, and how do people in the population, you know, mainstream and Christian, figure out what’s going on in his own life around his Christian faith?
    A. Well you know, whenever I’m trying to figure out the faith of an artist I first look to its critics and see what they’re saying. And in the case of Creed, USA Today said that they are Bible-thumping rockers from the Heartland, or something like that. So that gives me an idea of where they come from. But the short answer is, I think that Scott has a kind of faith that is not shared by the other members of the band. However, he writes the lyrics. So yeah, I think in that case the lyrics provide the clue. But you know, a band that’s come out recently that I didn’t have a chance to cover in this last book because they were just emerging, Switchfoot, I think they pretty much sum up the entire issue when they declared that we’re Christian by faith, not by genre. I really can’t say it any better than that. These artists are not ashamed of their faith, but they are a little ashamed of what the genre has come to become in the minds of Americans.

    Q. How so?
    A. Because the genre limits their ability to impact people with their music. And they’ve sensed that and hence, that quote, in the attempt to put themselves in the middle of the culture.

    Q. Now, there’s another argument that’s raised by some Christians that there’s no way artists can impact culture, or that their art or music can impact culture, if they don’t themselves have a very deep, robust thoughtful faith. And the argument is that, what difference does it make if somebody says you’re a Christian or somebody like Lenny Kravitz uses a lot of, you know, a lot of lyrical references to faith issues, if they don’t have a deep-rooted faith. They can’t ultimately have an influence. And you give the example of Mylon Lefevre talking about kind of shallow faith getting overwhelmed in mainstream.
    A. Right.

    Q. Or there’s a lot of eclectic faith going out there. So it’s Jesus, yeah, he’s great, but then there’s also Buddha and Kabbalah and everything else.
    A. Yeah. I don’t think this sort of¢â‚¬¦ You know, I look at marrying rock and religion, or Christianity in general, it’s sort of like when you and I were in science class and we were mixing dangerous chemicals. The chance is there for something great. There’s also a chance of an explosion in the science room. And I think that’s the case here. It’s no coincidence that we were preceded by generations of black gospel artists who crossed over and couldn’t handle it. You know, whether it’s Marvin Gaye or Sam Cooke who, you know, is a gospel artist who crosses over to pop and then dies in a shootout with the cops with a prostitute in a hotel in Los Angeles. We have a long history of artists of faith unable to keep that faith in the mainstream world. So this is not an ungrounded fear I don’t think. But having said that, you know, failure is no reason to give up. Really we need to build stronger, better, build a better rock star who is able to withstand all the pressures that fame brings and still keep a semblance of his beliefs and hang onto them.

    Okay. We’re going to finish up with Mark Joseph coming up right after this. His book is Faith, God & Rock ¢â‚¬Ëœn’ Roll, available now in bookstores online. We’ll tell you more about how you can get it right after this.

    (Break)

    Well this is Dick Staub back with you. We’re visiting with Mark Joseph. His book is Faith, God & Rock ¢â‚¬Ëœn’ Roll, published by Sanctuary Baker. And you can go online at Amazon.com or any online book distributor, or go to the bookstore and you’re going to find it there. And the author is Mark Joseph. He is our guest today.

    Q. We’re talking about the big story as it relates to Christians and art is the involvement of people who are Christian in mainstream, and people of faith. There’s a couple of Jewish artists in this book as well. Religion and faith issues and spiritual journey is making it into the headlines everywhere, film, television, and we shouldn’t be surprised that it’s happening in music as well. There are a lot of opportunities, obviously, that are presented when artists earn the right to be heard. One of the wonderful ones that people may not be aware of has to do with Jars of Clay and Amnesty International and Chinese pastors. I mean, this is a great example of how you earn the right to be heard and suddenly you’re doing something great for the kingdom that wouldn’t have happened otherwise.
    A. Yeah. I think it’s interesting because Amnesty, you know, is the target for many conservative groups. And Jars of Clay had a different idea. They decided that¢â‚¬¦ They offered to do some work and benefit shows for the group in exchange for Amnesty focusing on the persecution of Chinese pastors, which I’m not sure they spent a whole lot of time on before that. So it was probably a win-win for both sides in that case. That’s the kind of thing you’re beginning to see more of.

    Q. Now, before we talk more about that, there are some encouragers of this movement and there are some interesting power brokers that have a strategic faith commitment. You talk about one of the encouragers is the late Bob Briner. And just because we both, he means so much to both of us, you might want to mention Bob and his kind of basic theme. But the other one, interestingly enough, is Carson Daly at TRL. And a lot of people may not be aware of kind of where he has been in his faith journey. Talk about Bob and Carson.
    A. Sure. I mean, Bob wrote his book, Roaring Lambs, back in 1993, and it really didn’t catch on, I think, for a couple of years. But I would say five or six years later his book began to sell quite well and a lot of the artists began to read it. And you know, essentially what made it remarkable was he was a grownup. You know, some of us who have been critical of this stuff were younger and could be dismissed. But to have a grownup, an experienced media professional saying this is not being done right, that carried some weight, and I think it really had an impact. Charlie Peacock also has quite an impact with his book. As far as Carson Daly, you know, he has in his own way, I’m not sure that¢â‚¬¦ I think many Christians would probably take issue with some of the things he’s done, and all that. But in terms of the doors that he’s opened ¢€œ and again it helps again to look at the person’s critics and see what they’re saying. When Howard Stern gets on the air and calls Carson Daly a “Jesus freak” for getting Christians on MTV, that’s your first clue that there’s more to that person than meets the eye. So I think that Carson, at his position when he was at MTV, did pave the way for artists like POD to be on there. And he’s been very strategic, I think, in what he’s trying to do.

    Q. And people don’t know, but at one point in his life he actually considered being a priest.
    A. That’s right. He was, as a youngster, he contemplated going into the priesthood, but he said, he said I thought I could do more at MTV rather than being a priest, in terms of effecting people. So that’s pretty significant to have a person like that as a cultural gatekeeper at MTV for awhile.

    Q. So obviously it’s difficult to predict the future. You’ve said that this phenomena that you’re watching right now is happening way faster than you thought it was going to. But what’s the direction of these issues? I mean, where is this going? You have a chapter about Left Behind. You have a chapter about Dove Awards. You have a chapter about radio and how Christian radio has tended to be focused just on Christians and that a lot of people think that’s not right. I mean, where is this whole thing headed do you think?
    A. Well, I think it’s headed for mass chaos in the sense that in the past ideas would come to us associated with a certain brand, so that, let’s say the Moody brand. People trusted the Moody brand. A book that had the Moody brand people could trust. The Disney brand. I think in the future everybody is going to have to do a little more homework and you really can’t just trust a brand anymore because these artists will be coming to you on mainstream labels, mainstream brands, and the need is going to be there like the Plugged Ins of the world to do cultural analysis of records. And frankly, parents are going to have to stop being lazy when it comes to analyzing the content that they want their kids to watch or not watch, listen or not listen to. So I think it’s just, it’s coming to be mass, jumbled chaos that people are going to have to navigate through and find stuff that either affirms what they believe and to stay away from the stuff that doesn’t affirm what they want to believe or choose to put into their minds. So it’s going to be great, it’s going to be terrifying, and it’s going to take a lot of people’s efforts to really engage the stuff that’s going to be coming down the pike.

    Q. How much of all that we’re seeing is divided by generation? In other words, how does the younger generation view these issues radically different from an older generation simply by virtue of the way that generation is and thinks?
    A. Well that’s a great question because I think that really hits the nail on the head as far as the generational issues. The previous generation, when we get to the issues for instance of placement in stores, the previous generation would look at the idea of a Christian section and say, isn’t that wonderful, we have our own section in the store. This next generation would say, why do I want to be in the kooky section in the corner? My ideas are mainstream ideas, my products should be in the mainstream of Walmart. In the same way, the previous generation thought, gee, we have our own religious channel, isn’t that great. You know, 24 hours of Christian TV. This generation says, why do we want to be on the kooky channel. We want to be part of the cultural mainstream and have our ideas considered there. So I think it is generational. One generation was content with having their ideas available, albeit on the sideline. This generation is saying, we want our ideas up front and center and to be part of the consideration that all ideas have.

    Q. As this becomes more acceptable within the mainstream, the idea of lyrics that are expressing spiritual journey and so forth, how do you think that’s going to change the artists’ approach to kind of their openness about where they are on those journeys? Because there’s been kind of a Trojan horse mentality on the part of some artists that I want to, you know, I’m not going to back away from the fact that I have beliefs, but I’m certainly not going to lead with it.
    A. Yeah. And I think, ironically, it’s just the opposite of what people fear. There’s going to be a bit of a safety-in-numbers mentality. Each expression of faith opens the door for another more explicit expression of faith. I think that Touched by an Angel was purposely vague, but I think that’s opened the door for another show, that will come soon, that will be more clear about issues of faith. So there certainly is that factor. But there’s also just the factor that each time this happens it just will continue. You’ll be seeing a number of artists who are being more clear, not less clear about their faith. And just, for instance, the song that broke last year by this group Mercy Me, called “I Can Only Imagine,” this is the kind of song that we’ve been told for years is simply impossible to be a hit in the mainstream. It mentions Jesus by name, it talks about death and the hope of resurrection, and it was a huge pop hit. So I think we’re going to see very, very explicit mentions of faith in the years ahead. And so long as the public is engaged ¢€œ but remember one thing, Dick, that song became a hit because Christian listeners were listening to a mainstream pop station and called in to request it over and over and over again. Like a bit of a dog chasing his own tail, each listener that’s pulled away to a Christian station who is not engaging a mainstream station is one less voice making these types of songs a hit.

    Wow. There you have the dilemma, folks. The book is Faith, God & Rock ¢â‚¬Ëœn’ Roll, published by Sanctuary Baker. And our guest has been Mark Joseph. Again, Faith, God & Rock ¢â‚¬Ëœn’ Roll. Thanks Mark. We’ll be back right after this. Don’t go away.

    Posted in DS Interview, Staublog in July 28, 2004 by | No Comments »