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    Entries in Interview (3)


    An Interview with Jen Pollock Michel, Author of Keeping Place

    Jen Pollock Michel is the author of Keeping Place: Reflections on the Meaning of Home (IVP Books, 2017). You can visit her blog here. I interviewed her about the book, which is excellent, and she was gracious in sharing her thoughts.

    BAS: Keeping Place is a biblical and theological reflection on the meaning of home. What led you to write the book?

    JPM: I’m one of those people who can’t answer the very simple question, “Where’s home for you?” I think that’s a big reason that the topic of home has been an important one for me. Currently, our family lives in Toronto, Canada. We moved here from Chicago six years ago, so in many ways, we’re outsiders here. But even before that, I’ve had a long history of moving. As a child, we moved often for my father’s education and job. I can’t really say where I’m from, where I’ll be buried, which inspires a weird sense of dislocation, to be honest. I think it’s that dislocation, that homesickness, that give rise to a deep longing to be rooted somewhere.

    I think it’s also fair to say that this book is a natural follow-up to my first book, Teach Us to Want. If I argued in that first book that desire isn’t always this terrible, corrupt part of ourselves, that sometimes our desires have very important things to say about God, our place in his world, and the purposes for which we are made, then I work out my own deep desire for home in Keeping Place. And what I found, in Scripture, is this incredibly hopeful idea that God is a homemaker, that he’s made a home for us, that we do in fact belong somewhere, that all our sense of impermanence in this world is finally going to come to a glorious end. The gospel story is a home story!

    BAS: In your second chapter you present a history of homemaking, noting the ways domestic roles have taken shape over time based on numerous factors. You write, "According to Scripture, home is shared human work." You explain that homemaking has not always been the exclusive domain of women. You then proceed to outline biblical instructions for men within the home. I found this to be a welcome reminder with regard to my role at home. Has your work been engaged by a male readership? What has been the response?

    JPM: I have to say that I’m so incredibly encouraged by the response from male readers! My publisher and I knew that this was going to be a tricky task, trying to market a book on home to both women and men. It’s not a topic that immediately seems resonant to men, which is why that chapter you’re mentioning had to be very early in the book. I needed to draw out that important pre-Industrial revolution history to make the case for saying that home should matter to everyone, and I have heard from men that they’re appreciative of that historical context. I’m blessed by the men who have put a lot of their own support behind this book; Scott Sauls wrote the foreword, several different men endorsed it, men like you who are featuring it on their blogs and podcasts. I’m grateful. I want also to say that it continues to be difficult for women in Christian publishing to have their work taken as seriously as male authors. I think it’s telling when I hear from women that their male pastors have not one single title, written by a woman, to recommend to their congregation. It saddens me to see booklists published by popular blogs and websites and not to see a single woman author on those lists. It’s just not true that women aren’t publishing good books these days, and I would love to see men reading more widely—to include women as well as other marginalized groups.

    BAS: In chapter four you write about our modern tendency toward mobility and the importance ofplace. I find that many people feel caught between the tension of wanting to be on a journey while simultaneously longing for home. The chapter closes with a reflection on the Benedictine vow of stability. How do you see stability and place as important for spiritual formation and Christian witness?

    JPM: I’ll tell a quick story. Just this morning, I was walking to the gym, which is right in my neighborhood. I’m there three times a week, so there’s a lot of familiarity with the people there, both at the gym and at the Tim Horton’s where I camp out for the half hour before my fitness class starts. I hadn’t been to the gym all summer, and as I walked there this morning, I recognized the same woman who frequently begs outside. My first thought today was, “She’s still here? What a bother.” But then the Holy Spirit ever so gently asked, “But isn’t this your neighborhood? And doesn’t that, it some way, make her a part of your sphere of responsibility?”

    That’s what stability does. That’s what rootedness does. It starts to imprint on your soul, on your conscience, who belongs in your sphere of responsibility, whom God is asking you to actively love. Our habits of mobility—of constantly moving from city to city, neighborhood to neighborhood, even church to church—can, in very tragic ways, disrupt the important, if also difficult task, of living with and loving broken people in broken places. When people and places disappoint us, we so easily sever our ties and move on, not recognizing that the restlessness of our souls, the pining for the greener grass somewhere else, is never going to be satisfied. The shine always wears off the new. I am as guilty of that illusion of anyone else.

    Stability, while hard, offers so many gifts: the gift of our sanctification (because we stay rather than leave when times get hard); the gift of being known and received by people who know our story, the gift of fruitful ministry (because ministry is always relational, and there’s no rushing that). I’m just starting to experience these gifts here in Toronto, and we hope to stay put!

    BAS: In your chapter on marriage you write, "The mystery of self-sacrifice in marriage is that it is not an obstacle to self-fulfillment but a means to it." You note that both marriage and family involve various forms of self-sacrifice, and say "The mystery of marriage isn't its limitless capacity for securing our personal happiness. the mystery is its witness to the eternal, self-sacrificing love of Jesus for his bride." How do Christian convictions about marriage offer a counter-narrative to modern understandings of self-fulfillment, and how can the uniqueness of Christian marriage offer a compelling witness to those who are not part of the community of faith?

    JPM: As I talk about in the book, marriage is a tremendously important practice of stability. It’s not commitment to a place for a lifetime—but commitment to a person. And as Paul talks about in Ephesians, it’s marriage that witnesses to God’s unfailing love for his people. I think that parallel—of Christian marriage to Christ and the Church—forces us to lament how easily we in the church discard our marriage vows for that proverbial greener grass. I’m right now in the middle of watching a very close friend choose divorce—and I say choose, because the situation, while complicated, doesn’t necessarily warrant it—and it is a tremendous grief. I think she thought divorce would be easier than a difficult marriage, but I think she’s realizing that it’s not that easy.

    What could it look like for us, as Christians, to keep choosing our marriage even when it’s not necessarily fulfilling our dreams and desires? Anyone who has been married for some time knows that we must choose our marriages every day: choose confession, choose repentance, choose service, choose self-sacrifice, choose honesty, choose love. You don’t choose those things and get immediate reward. But if these are your regular practices, I think you’re moving in the direction of a marriage that is resilient, God-honoring, and as you say, something your neighbors are going to notice. And when they do, you get to say something to the effect of, “We’re no heroes. But Jesus is in this marriage, too, and it’s his faithfulness that is holding us together.”

    BAS: In our household one of our great challenges is finding space for rest, or sabbath keeping. What wisdom would you offer to those who believe themselves to be "too busy" to keep sabbath and create space to reconnect and remember their Creator?

    I’d love to answer this as someone who has got it all figured out. But I absolutely don’t! I will say that one thing that has been incredibly helpful to our own family is to draw fairly strict boundaries around Sunday. Generally, our kids don’t participate in athletic events on Sunday, we don’t usually drive them to birthday parties. And let me be honest and say that this restriction limits what they can and can’t do, especially when it comes to sports. None of them has been able participate in any super competitive leagues because that requires Sunday involvement. But it’s allowed us to make worship a priority for Sunday, which isn’t a small thing.

    It’s interesting to me: my oldest daughter and I were recently visiting a college campus, and one of the campus ministers was giving us a tour. He was talking about the kinds of Christians who lose their faith at college, and he said one group of kids who don’t really grow in their faith are those whose parents, in high school, let them miss church for athletic events and for homework or school projects. Their parents told them, implicitly if not explicitly, “Your sports, your athletics: these matter for your future. They’re more important than church.” And I think that should feel haunting to us as parents! Sabbath isn’t, as you say, simply a practice of rest: it’s a reorientation of our hearts toward God. That makes church a really big part of Sabbath-keeping.

    In terms of making the time for rest, I’d love to quote from one of my favorite books, Essentialism. It’s not written by a Christian, but the principles in the book are incredibly wise, especially for people caught in the busyness trap. Let’s be honest with ourselves to say that we choose busyness more often than it chooses us. In Essentialism, Greg McKeown puts it this way: “If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will.” The fact is that God—GOD—has given us, not just the priority, but the privilege of rest. We have the time to keep Sabbath, to engage deliberate rest in our week—but maybe a better question is, “Do we have the courage?” Do we have the courage to get behind, to leave something undone, to trust that God is upholding the universe if we don’t open our email? Sabbath, for me, is exactly that kind of trust. And when I let myself surrender to the idea of my own smallness, even for one day, it recalibrates the rest of the week.

    BAS: I sincerely thank Jen for taking time to chat about her work. Keeping Place can be purchased at Amazon and other fine book sellers around the land.



    An Interview With J. Brent Bill :: Coauthor of Awaken Your Senses

    J. Brent Bill is the author of Awaken Your Senses: Exercises for Exploring the Wonder of God.  This past week I posted a review of his book, and Brent was gracious enough to respond in the comments.  I asked him to join me to discuss his book a little more, and he agreed.  Brent Bill is a writer, photographer, retreat leader, and Quaker minister.  Brent graduated from Wilmington College and the Earlham School of Religion, and has worked as a local church pastor, denominational executive, seminary faculty member, and go-cart track operator.  You can visit his blog, his ministry website, or the Awaken Your Senses website to learn more.

    Here is the interview.  Brent has some great thoughts.  I hope you enjoy.

    What was your initial inspiration for Awaken Your Senses?  For those who are unfamiliar with the book, how would you describe the basic concept and how it developed?   As you and Beth have led others through the sensory exercises described in your book, is there a story or set of stories that capture how this approach leads toward transformation in likeness to Christ? 

    The initial inspiration grew out of a series of conversations my co-author, Beth Booram, and I had.  Beth was working on a book about spiritual nurture/development and someone suggested she interview me (I think it was her husband David, with whom I’m Facebook friends).  At any rate we met, I learned about her book Picturing the Face of Jesus: Encountering Christ through Art, and we discovered a mutual love the arts and what we felt was a neglected, but biblical, idea that our bodies are carriers of spiritual wisdom.  So we began meeting and chatting more, developed a workshop we called “The Art of Faith” with the idea of exploring body wisdom and were sort of off and running with the idea.  People came away from the retreats spiritually energized in a new way – ready to encounter Christ at play in 10,000 places (to borrow a poetic phrase of Gerald Manley Hopkins).

    Next, we began to separately, but at the same time, blog about “30 days of…” one of the physical senses.  Readers joined in, sharing their experiences of encountering Christ through taste (at the mass, at a meal, etc), touch, hearing, smelling, and seeing.  So the book then grew out of that idea that Christianity is a rich and sensuous faith—from sacraments and liturgy to the magnificent witness of creation and the holiness of an ordinary day. Yet, many Christians live rather impoverished lives, missing the abundant life that Jesus says he came to give us. They rarely engage their entire being in relationship with God and thereby miss so much of God in each daily round of beauty.   So we wrote the book with the intent that it would be an invitation to readers to invigorate their faith by employing more of themselves—their whole brain, all five senses and body—in order to experience more of God.

    We hoped that this book would be an invitation to daily worship in a fresh way -- through their five senses. Its purpose is to enlarge our souls in ways that cannot happen merely through participating in a weekly worship service. Our aim was to introduce readers to experiences of the God who created us soul and body.

    Regarding a story about how the experiences in the workshop or book have led to someone becoming more Christ-like, readers/workshop participants have told us such stories, but I am hesitant to share someone else’s story.  That’s their story to tell.  I will tell one story about how it has helped me to be more Christ-like.  I was in my usual hurry to work when I spied a big, black evil SUV sitting in the curb lane.  The no-parking lane.  The lane I use to get to the parking lot.  The light I approached turned red.  I stopped and glared at the back end of the SUV, brake lights gleaming a half a block ahead.  Just sitting there.  What a doofus, I thought. Now, I’ll either have to race ahead of the guy next to me and get in front of him or creep through the light, wait for the line of cars on my right to pass me and then fall in behind them and probably not make it through the next light.  Sitting there I got more and more upset with this person who was blocking my way – my important way – down the street. 

    Then, just as the light changed, the big, black evil SUV took a hard right across all four lanes of traffic and pulled into a parking spot.  The driver climbed out and bounded up the steps of St. Mary Catholic Church.  There he stood in front of a statue of Jesus.  He reached up and began touching its face, its hair, the folds of the robe.  My anger drained.  

    Embarrassed, as I passed I glanced in the rearview mirror.  The man still stood there, touching, caressing Jesus.

    I felt foolish. I also felt humbled.  I rush by that statue every day.  Sometimes I see it; most times not. But here was a man who stopped just to touch Jesus.  I don’t know his story.  Perhaps he just wanted to see how the sculptor had formed the statue.  But something tells me he had some deeper reason for that touch.

    I was reminded, by that man touching that piece of sculpture that I needed to be more patient, loving, and tenderhearted.  Less impatient and self-centered.  More Christ-like.

    I find that paying attention to my senses in daily life leads me into a behaving in a more Christ-like fashion.

    Your work strongly advocates for an embodied understanding of Christian life and faith, leading the reader to consider how our physical experiences can contribute to a deeper understanding of the life of faith.  Do you see this as a corrective to more abstract approaches to theology and Christian practice that emphasize the life of the mind?

    I think “corrective” is too strong a word.  As I said about, our goal was to encourage readers to employ their whole selves (including their brains!) in experiencing God.  We hoped to encourage both right and left brain thinking and our physical senses.  

    We do feel that many Christians, primarily Protestants and/or Evangelicals, have neglected – or even been fearful – of our bodies as carriers of spiritual wisdom.  Much more than our Orthodox and Catholic brothers and sisters, who incorporate many of the senses in their worship services.  Speaking for myself, I know that’s true.  I read and ponder and pray.  I listen to sermons and teaching.  My faith has been mostly in my head and heart.  For most of my life I have ignored anything my body tells me – either about life or faith.  I have been almost distrustful of it. 

    But, beginning about 15 years ago when I was diagnosed with diabetes, I began learning to pay attention to what my body was telling me.  I began a regimen of what I call “eating the hours” and turned it into a prayer practice.  It’s not the traditional “praying the hours” but when my body tells me it is 3 pm and time for a granola bar (and my body’s pretty good at telling me things if I learn to pay attention) then I use that physical prompt as a prayer prompt.

    I could go on and on, showing how Jesus evidently listened to his body by sleeping when he needed to, eating when he needed to, and so on.  He did not just come and speak (a physical act in itself) about the things of God, he lived in his body, as we live in our ours.  

    Our goal is not to disparage the life of the mind as part of development.  Indeed, both Beth and I are voracious readers of a variety of books about spirituality, theology, the Bible and more.  It’s just that we have come to find that our experience of and learning about God are much richer when we involve our whole selves.  And so we wrote a book inviting readers to do likewise.

    In your response to my review, you stated "all some very special way, [is] theological", especially fiction.  Can you say more about this?  What distinctions would you make concerning the value of both nonfiction and fiction as forms of theological expression?  Does one form of writing over the other lend itself better to your approach in Awaken Your Senses?

    Ah, now this is my own bias, I admit.  Which may be odd for a fellow who writes (primarily) non-fiction.  I know some of the most theological books I’ve ever read were fiction (and not “teaching” camouflaged as fiction).  Two that come to mind are Haven Kimmel’s The Solace of Leaving Early and John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany.  Both a filled with theological thought – and follow the consequences of such thinking.  Owen Meany, for example, knowing that God has a purpose for his life and everything in it and how it leads to his sacrificial death.  Powerful stuff.  

    Now Irving could have written a non-fiction book on the premise that God has a purpose for our lives, but only folks who are interested in that premise would buy it.  By writing about it in fiction, it becomes more invitational – it is about story, not some abstract thought.  We will listen to a story without arguing, while we rarely read a book of non-fiction without some “Yeah, but’s…” – especially if we disagree with the premise.

    While Awaken Your Senses is non-fiction, we went with personal narratives because we wanted the book to be inviting in the sense that fiction is.  We wanted to tell stories.  We tried to not be “heavy-handed” or didactic, but demonstrate through our (and other’s) stories, the power of engaging our senses as another way to experience the wonder of God.  Were we writing a theological treatise on this topic, certainly it would have taken a much different form.

    A friend of mine who was a writer often said that all writing is problem solving.  We writers have something to communicate and part of the problem-solving is determining what approach works best for getting our material to reader in such a way that he or she can make the best use of it.  For Awaken Your Senses, a narrative/teaching approach that models our workshop seemed to be the best fit.  I think it would have made a lousy novel.  For one, speaking solely for myself, I’m not a skillful enough fiction writer to pull it off!

    Finally, your audience for this book are those new to the Christian faith, or "spiritual but not religious" seekers who may find these experiments a more helpful and understandable gateway to Christian faith.  Why did you take this approach?  How would you encourage church leaders who are trying to engage their world and invite others to follow Jesus?

    Hmmm, if I said that our book was primarily for those new to Christian faith or “spiritual but not religious”, then I misspoke.  Those are certainly two audiences, but they are not the prime audience.  Our primary audience is the Christian reader.  One of the people I imagined reading this book (and so wrote for) was a fellow like me… a long-time Christian who cares deeply about his spiritual walk and may have been hesitant or even resistant to thinking about involving his body as a spiritual tool.  I mean, I’m not an all “touchy-feely” sort of guy and I tend to shy away from group activities that involve my body (which is one reason is that I’m not a very good dancer!).  So this idea and practice was all new to me – and helpful in ways that didn’t have to be public.  Rather, using my senses is often something I do in the everyday activities of life – and that “he” (the man in my imagination) can, too.

    Now we do hope that new Christians and seekers might be attracted to the book and learn from it that Christianity is not just a set of propositions or theorems about a particular faith, but is a holistic faith.  It is about learning to experience God fully – mind, soul, and body.  It is about following the way of Jesus with our whole selves.  And I think that seekers, while in a seeking stage, are looking for real experiences of God more than they are lectures about God.  And so I think church leaders could use Awaken Your Senses and books like it that are rooted in biblical and Christian practice to invite seeker into experiences that lead them into the holistic faith that Christianity is – a total relationship with God.  

    Thanks again to Brent for taking the time to interact with me for this interview.  If you're interested in his book, you can find it here on Amazon, or participate in my book give away this week.


    Mark Galli, Francis Chan, and the Question of Hell

    On July 5, Christianity Today posted Mark Galli's interview with Francis Chan on his latest book, Erasing Hell: What God said about eternity, and the things we made up, a work written in response to Rob Bell's Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.  The interview examines Chan's motivations for composing the book, his views on hell, his thoughts on Rob Bell, his burden of responsibility for representing God and the message of the Bible truthfully, and his discomfort with the idea of eternal, conscious torment as punishment for rejecting Jesus Christ.  Galli also leads Chan to discuss the importance of the doctrine of hell in light of its pervasiveness within the pages of Scripture.

    Concerning biblical interpretation, I though Galli (in bold) was able to draw out Chan's thought on method, and on the dominant, overarching themes we often focus on when reading Scripture.  Here is the exchange:

    I would say for me the most compelling thing is that it's woven all through Jesus' teaching. You can't possibly talk about him and what he said faithfully and ignore judgment and hell.

    Yeah. I read Scripture pretty simply even though I've been through seminary and everything else. I try to read with an open mind and be led by the Spirit. I try to picture myself stuck an island reading it over and over and ask, What would I naturally conclude? What would be the thing about God that I'd be most struck by? I would definitely be shocked and awed by his love, but I'm more stunned by his power, and his seriousness, his holiness maybe even more than his love. I don't want to say his love's no big deal. He loves us but nonetheless the reoccurring theme is about his power, his glory, his holiness.

    Two items here are of note.  First is Chan's method, what he describes as a simple approach to reading the text.  Second is Chan's focus, or the primary themes that burst forth from the pages of the Bible as he reads the text.

    Chan's description of his methodology indicates that he holds to the idea of the perspicacity of Scripture, an approach held by many evangelicals.  Perspicacity is an uncommon word in our day, but connotes the idea that the message of the Bible can be clearly perceived by the one reading it.  Stated differently, there is nothing within the pages of Scripture that cannot be grasped through careful reflection and open mindedness.  As someone who possesses Baptist heritage, and as someone who continues to believe in soul competency, this idea resonates with me deeply.

    Yet, I know all too well that the story of the Bible is deeply complex, and its interpretation comes to us within the context of an existing and ongoing discourse.  We call this discourse the practice of theology.  And, again, as someone with Baptist heritage, the idea of a theological tradition can be difficult to maintain, particularly with slogans like, "No creed but the Bible, no cause but Christ".  And while I respect Chan's method, that being reading the Bible simply, his account is, frankly, too simple.  As he indicates elsewhere in the very same interview, the testimony of the saints throughout time is critical for our own reflection on doctrinal matters, including the question of hell.  I do not intend these remarks to denigrate or dismiss Chan, but rather to remind us all (myself included) that biblical interpretation is a complex and difficult task.

    Secondly, there is the question of theme, and here I believe Chan's observation is important.  We live in a time where the love of God is the biblical theme that trumps all, but the definition of love, and what a loving God might be like, is often determined by a sentimentalized account of God and an "I'm OK, you're OK" anthropology.  Chan's insistence that his reading of Scripture causes him to reflect on God's power, glory, and holiness, is a welcome corrective.  Through those lenses, the love of God takes on new meaning, and refuses to be sentimentalized.