Read Pt. 1. Here is Pt. 2, wherein I hold a cat while Matt has a parrot on his shoulder:
I think one of your greatest gifts as a writer (and one that has gotten even better from Imaginary Jesus to Night of the Living Dead Christian) is your ability to have the reader laughing to his or herself awkwardly then suddenly BAM! you smack us square in the face with a profound theological insight. So tell me: Where do you get your humor and where have you derived your ability to think theologically about serious topics like our depravity (i.e. your influences).
My sense of humor came from the Muppets. I’d like to say it comes from Aristotle, and that the ridiculous is enjoyed by the audience and that the cathartic moment of a fool realizing truth brings about happiness, but, let’s be honest, I just think it’s funny when a frog and a pig are trying to figure out whether they should get married.
The combination of humor and theology for me has to be laid at the feet of G.K. Chesterton. I remember reading “The Napoleon of Notting Hill” about twelve years ago, and laughing my head off through the first half and then getting to the middle and asking myself, “What just happened? How did this become a serious reflection on war?” But I loved it.
I’ll be honest here and say that for influences I tend toward fiction over non-fiction (which I know around here is probably like spitting in the punch bowl). I love Chesterton, Flannery O’Connor, Gene Wolfe, Graham Greene, Shusaku Endo, and people like that. Please don’t point out that they are all Catholic. I have no idea why that is. I enjoy how fiction can talk well about theology and simultaneously connect with emotion and practicality (i.e. how this looks in the “real world”). We don’t have tons of examples of this being done well, probably because it’s difficult and fraught with dangers (like people misunderstanding what you’re trying to say… something we evangelicals are very, very concerned about). I will say that I do read some non-fiction theologians, but it’s mostly on a recommendation basis since I don’t read enough of it to have strong favorites. OF COURSE I read several of the bibliobloggers, as well, but I won’t mention which ones because I know you guys are overly competitive. I like Barth (though I haven’t read much in comparison to how much he’s written), Bonhoeffer, Foster, Willard, Gary Thomas and Tremper Longman. But not John Calvin! Ugh! He’s the worst! I am about to throw up just thinking about Calvinism.
Just kidding. I just thought I’d shake things up a little bit with those last few sentences.
It is true that we bibliobloggers are competitive. We have a ranking system! Now let me ask you whether or not you’ve found your humor to get in the way. Some people don’t like a joke mixed with their Bible study. I know this because there has been several times where people told me they liked me, but not so much my sarcasm! How do you navigate the waters of different personalities? If you were speaking at a church (something I know you do) would you use your humor as a means of communication and say “oh well” to those you know are not impressed or do you try to be “all things to all people”? Do you use humor as a communication tool all the time or do you feel that there are some places where you need to leave it aside?
You’ve hit on it precisely when you say “communication tool.” Humor is a tool and as such has specific things it does well and others it does poorly. It puts people at ease, lowers defenses, increases feelings of camaraderie, it’s excellent for lampooning ridiculous things about ourselves in a way that pleases rather than upsets people. It can re-orient people’s attention on a speaker when they’re losing interest. It makes people feel good. Having said that, humor can also distract from the point rather than emphasizing it. It’s easy to get carried away (because it’s fun!) and spend a lot of time on humor and not enough on theology (ever seen this at youth group?). And, frankly, if you’re funny enough people will still come up afterwards and say how much they enjoyed the talk, even if there was little or no content. There’s also the danger that people will remember your funny stories more than they remember what you taught about Jesus.
Having said that, it’s a tool like any other… crying on stage, or yelling, or getting angry, or telling stories, or lecturing, or using a white board or an iPad or a three point outline or (please stop) an acrostic can be overdone. You need to have some range and switch things up.
So, yes. I ditch humor sometimes. This summer I did my first talk that had zero humorous prologue. It started like this: “You think theology is boring. You think theology is boring because deep down — deep down — you think God is boring. You think Jesus is boring.” No one laughed. It wasn’t funny. But I promise you I had the audience’s attention.
Regarding sarcasm: it’s one of the most hardest forms of humor for people to “get.” And when you realize someone else was being sarcastic and you didn’t get it you feel stupid. So it’s pretty hard to use consistently and well with audiences who don’t know you. Unless you’re inAustralia. They love sarcasm down under.
Probably my favorite part of the book is chapters eight and nine where the main characters find themselves in a church full of zombies led by a very charismatic figure named Dr. Bokor. He is a pastor who has his own study Bible, he seems to know everything, his message is essentially self-help with a little bit of Jesus added to the mix, and he doesn’t allow his followers to think for themselves (hence, zombies). I see this type of Christianity all over the place and it unnerves me. Why did you decide it should have a place in this book and how and why did you use zombies as a means of conveying your critique?
I don’t think zombies are self-aware enough to realize what they are. We’ve somehow created a Christian culture that struggles to engage with God or the scriptures directly. I don’t know how this happened, but if you take an average Christian and tell them to go have a “quiet time” without a book that explains the Bible or an iPod full of someone else’s worship sentiments, they seem to be at a loss. When a controversial theological statement comes out from a rock star theologian, we anxiously wait for another rock star theologian to come along and rebut.
I have a fictionalized account in the book where two people are having a theological disagreement, and they’re really fighting it out. Finally, one of them suggests that they look at the commentary in their Bible (written by their favorite theologian). Once they see the notes, they both shrug and say, “Well, that settles it.” I actually saw that happen at a church I was visiting a few years ago, and it gave me the creeps. It’s disturbingly common.
In fact, just this weekend I was talking to a friend who visited a popular, well-known church pastored by a great guy we’ll call Pastor X. While she was there someone asked her, “How long have you been following Pastor X?” She said it appeared to be a common “getting to know you” question at the church….
It’s too easy and all to common to rely on others to provide answers to our spiritual questions. I think this partly comes from a scientific mindset (i.e. we build upon the discoveries and insights of others) when much of spiritual growth is like growing up in general: you can’t read a book about puberty and then skip the growing pains yourself.
A side effect of this is that we, by and large, have pretty orthodox churches. People want to know the “right answer.” But too often we’ve taught the right answer without explaining the concepts behind the right answer or how to arrive at that answer. It’s like we’ve taught people to say “E = MC squared” but never taught them what energy or matter are or why that’s important.
Which brings us to zombies. The original concept comes from voodoo, where “dead” people were controlled by a magician who bent them to his will. The zombie — living and mobile but without volition — is concerned only with obedience to his master, eating brains, and making converts. It was such an easy connection it’s almost not a metaphor. It concerns me a great deal to see this in our churches, and I hoped by talking about it the way I do in the book it might force some people to look in the mirror and ask if they are alive or just have the appearance of life.
In chapter twenty-one we are introduced to “Clockwork Jesus”. He is a robot that answers questions based on the words of Jesus from Scripture being put into its data-based. What I found most amusing is that the werewolf (who is seeking to become fully human) asks Clockwork Jesus what it takes to be saved Clockwork Jesus does not respond like most evangelicals expect. He does not say, “Repent and believe” or “God so loved the world that…” or “you were predestined”. Rather, he answers like he did the rich young ruler: sell everything, give to the poor, and follow me. As you studied transformation what did you learn about the Christian doctrine of salvation?
As you point out, when Jesus is asked directly “How can I be saved” he says (1) obey the ten commandments (2) sell all your possessions and (3) follow me. That doesn’t fit very well with (the common understanding of) sola fide, or, really, with Pauline soteriology. But of course, scripture interprets scripture. So we have to see what Jesus means in the context of the rest of the Bible, right? We start seeing, oh, it’s not by works that we are saved, but by grace. So Jesus couldn’t have meant that obeying the ten commandments saves you. He must have meant something else. Being rich must have been a barrier to belief for the young ruler, or something.
The subtle shift that can happen when we engage in a process like this is that we stop talking about what Jesus actually said, and instead focus on what we think Jesus meant. And our “take away” is: I am not obligated to follow the ten commandments so long as I believe the right things.
I don’t think, of course, that the soteriology of Jesus and Pauline soteriology are in conflict, but Jesus tends to talk primarily about action in relationship to salvation… following, sacrificing, dying, obeying, loving. He rarely talks about believing, which has become the litmus test of the evangelical believer. “Do you believe the right thing?” When I looked at the gospels, I was surprised at how much Jesus cared about people doing the right thing and how rarely he talked about believing the right thing. Even in John 3, when Jesus clearly talks about belief being the key piece of salvation, he goes on to say that those who reject the light do it because their deeds are evil. He just didn’t see the two things as separate.
The experiment in the Clockwork Jesus section of the book was to ask, “What if we talked about salvation using only the words and terminology of Christ?” It was an upsetting exercise, because a lot of my personal favorite ways to explain salvation aren’t included, or at least aren’t front and center.
Frankly, I think if Jesus walked into a lot of our churches and someone asked him his thoughts about salvation, that he’d be shouted down by his own followers. It’s really the same issue we’ve had with the zombies: we’ve formulated the correct answer and we cannot bear to have the subject discussed or examined again, and we would feel much more comfortable if others would not only agree with our conclusions, but also use our terminology
I’d like to discuss this further. There seems to be something alive about being willing to set aside one’s dogma in order to follow Jesus where he may lead. Of course, I know hands will raise and people will ask how this is different than what heretics and sectarians do. What would you say to someone who is seeking a relationship with Christ that is living and active, beyond memorized dogma, yet who fears that such a journey could lead them into false doctrines and actions? Or put another way: What is the wisest way to be a risk-taking disciple?
What I tell my college students is, do your theology before you read your commentaries. There’s value in knowing what has come before and what the community of faith has said in centuries past, and you should check your conclusions against theirs and the people around you. Don’t fall in the trap of thinking you’re the smartest person in all of Christendom. But if you’re not going to the source material… scripture, the Holy Spirit, prayer… then you’re in real risk of living a fill-in-the-blank theology. Scripture first, commentaries (books, teachers, theologians, worship songs) second.
Also, just like humor, systematic theology is a tool. It happens to be a really excellent, multi-faceted, diverse tool. But if it’s the only tool you’re using in discovering who God is, there are going to be some holes in your understanding that will be difficult to address without some diversity in your interaction with God. The example in Clockwork Jesus is one of setting aside systematic theology in favor of Biblical theology for a short time and seeing if the two answers add up. What I mean is, sometimes in seeking to understand the larger context of scripture overall, we do violence to the smaller context of a book, or story, or chapter to “make it fit.” Then we make conclusion X which leads to Dogma Y which now colors all of scripture when we read it. It’s subtle, and it’s a particular danger of systematic theology (when used outside of community particularly, and without other sources of input).
So, I guess the short answer(s) would be this: Don’t be afraid to ask questions, even questions that make you uncomfortable. The truth has nothing to fear from inspection, and if we approach our search for Christ with honesty, integrity, and a willingness to learn, I believe the Holy Spirit and the community of believers will help us stay on course. We really think that we’re responsible to guard the truths of scripture. And yes, to some degree that is true… as shepherds and protectors of the flock, yes, absolutely. But we don’t do that on our own. “The Holy Spirit will guide you into all truth” are words we need to remember. And Paul wasn’t beyond dismissing some arguments with “I trust that the Lord will make that clear to you.” Seek the voice of God, then do what he says.
Thank you for taking the time to do this interview. What is one final thing you’d like to leave with the readers of this blog?
I’d like to leave you all with an invitation to dialogue. I love talking to other people about Christ, scripture and life. I’d love to hear your thoughts (or angry diatribes) about anything I’ve said here or in one of my books. If you’re skeptical that a book like Night of the Living Dead Christian has value, I’d gladly accept a challenge in which you read my book and I read one of your choice and we talk about it. Please don’t choose the Oxford English Dictionary, though.
Also, I know the crowd that tends to come by the Biblioblogs and I am really encouraged by your ministry and your willingness to ask hard questions about scripture and seek good answers. I hope in the years to come you’ll continue to share those insights with us on the internet and in print. I’m looking forward to what the Lord will do through your ministries, and thanks for taking the time to read!