“Story” by way of Movies vs. Books: A Conversation with my Daughter

I have taken a break from focusing on doctoral work to finish a draft of my next book project.  Provisionally called “TheoMedia,” I am exploring the way God himself employs various media forms in the Bible, in search of a theological logic for how we use new media today.

I have found that discussions with my kids can be quite an integral part of the research.  Below is an excerpt from a conversation (argument, actually) I had with my ten-year old daughter comparing movies with books.  Note to the readers: just to be clear, I love watching movies (good movies, that is).  And I let my kids watch (good, mostly) movies quite a bit.  Also, all six of my family members are bibliophiles (book lovers).  The 10-yr old whose counterpoints feature below is racing through the Harry Potter books and has read a handful of the Narnia series this year, plus a handful of others).  But she really loves playing the devil’s (or the daddy’s) advocate….

Movies vs. Books

“You don’t like us watching movies because it will mess up our eyes like yours and we will have to wear glasses.”  She said this as if it were an accusation of sorts.

“That’s not quite right.  And I do like movies.”  Most parental wisdom gets dispensed in rather busied moment, like when driving about between errands or while unloading groceries in the kitchen.  We were weaving our way through the English roadways to get to gymnastics.

“But you don’t like movies.  You want us to read books instead.”

“No, I do like movies.  But yes, I want you to read more books than you watch movies.”


“What I do not like about movies is that they are so distracting.  Two hours—just gone.”  And then it hit me that books can be a distraction, too.  I had never thought of books as a wasted two hours, though.  Reading a book is the way I naturally want to spend any two hours that might come my way.  “Now, reading can take up two hours, also, of course,” I added hastily, lest my youngling interlocutor detect a hole in my logic, “but when you read a book, you get a deeper story.”

“A ‘deeper’ story?  What does that even mean, Dad?”

“Okay, well…” for some reason, I was struggling to know how to defend my position, “you see, both a movie and a book can tell the same story.  But with a book, you get a deeper account.”

“I still don’t know what you mean by a ‘deeper,’ Dad.”

“It means you get more information. You get more of the thoughts of the characters.  You get more details about the setting.”  I was finding my line of argument now, building momentum—”with books you get a richer, deeper sense of all that is going on.  Movies can only tell you so much, but books can offer so much more about the story”—now I was really picking up steam—”because movies have to squish stories to make them fit in the two hours and books allow them to expand in all their potential wonder.”  Now it felt like good preaching.

“But Dad, books can have so much information you can get lost and forget about it all because you can’t read a whole book in two hours.  You have to read it, you know, over days and days and days.  So you forget things.  But with a movie that’s two hours, you don’t have to work on remembering all the confusing stuff that books give you.  And, in a movie, you can actually see the characters and you don’t have to waste all that time trying to imagine them in your head while trying to keep up with all those, those, those ‘details’ in the book!”

My former steam was petering out.  “Okay, but, but… well, a book makes you have to use your imagination more—like coming up with what the characters and setting look like in your head.  In a movie, you are just watching the work of someone else’s imagination.”  Okay, that was well done, I thought.  After all, I am writing a book on the theology of media, kid….

“But Dad, that’s why a movie is so good for a story.  You can let someone else’s imagination work on those ‘details’ so your own imagination can work on getting the story.”

In response to my immediate reply of silence, she added, “Me: One.  You: nil.  Hah.”


So what about you all, dear readers?  Any pros/cons for books vs. movies when it comes to portraying a story?

PhD, 1-yr Review: What I do when I clock in…


Now that I have written about the spiritual and existential crises of living in the UK as a PhD student with a wife and four kids, I am turning my attention to the sort of work I am up to.

There is the possibility that what follows might dull you….


My greatest academic insecurities are linguistic.  Hebrew and German, particularly.

It is obvious why Hebrew would be important.  Less so German.  Competency in the biblical languages (Greek and Hebrew) is like competency in market trends for the stockbroker, in biology for the doctor, in hammering for the carpenter.  My Greek has been steadily improving since I had to face Joel Marcus everyday at Duke some years back, asking me to read portions of Mark’s Gospel in Greek aloud in class (when he was finishing up a commentary on the Gospel of Mark), then asking grammatical questions after I translated (“what use of the subjunctive is this?”  “Why is that participle in the genitive?”

A New Testament scholar has to be proficient in the Old Testament, too, which requires Hebrew.  And since the NT writers worked primarily with the Greek version of the Old Testament (the Septuagint), there is much more Greek to learn than what one finds between Matthew and Revelation.

On a “normal” day, I try to devote an hour and a half to studying a Hebrew textbook after reading portions of the NT in Greek.

As for German….  Well, biblical studies is an international discipline, of course, and the classic understanding of a scholar is that she is multilingual, at least when it comes to reading.  Tomes and tomes of theological work has been produced out of Deutschland.  And new articles come out everyday by German scholars.  So reading competence is essential, not only for keeping abreast of what is going on in one’s field, but for drawing from the vast history of research in biblical studies, much of which has been done in places like Tübingen, Heidelberg, Marburg, and Göttingen.

My German has improved since I came to Durham, but the vocabulary is so vast that I can hardly make it through a sentence without having to look up at least a few words. I rarely use a German grammar.  Mainly I am just reading and translating, reading and translating, pushing, shoving, plowing through the syntax and vocab.


Primary Lit

“Primary literature” in NT research refers to the actual texts from the Greco-Roman world that inform the discipline.  This includes the enormous body of literature produce out of Early Judaism.  It includes the vast writings of the Jewish historian Josephus and the Jewish philosopher Philo (both rough contemporaries of the Christian church’s initial generation).  My focus this year has been on the Apostolic Fathers, the earliest texts written by Christians just after the New Testament documents were penned.  Though he is writing a few hundred years later, I am currently reading Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History—this work is probably our best access to early Christianity, even if Eusebius himself cannot be regarded as the best theologian or the best historian.


Secondary Lit

“Secondary literature” refers to the scholarly writings produced in recent decades/centuries in one’s academic field.  I am working in John’s Gospel, and Johannine studies is notorious for its massive corpus of secondary lit.  There is just so, so much to read.  So much.  I have concentrated on literary and theological approaches to John, as well as those works which take an interest in Johannine ecclesiology (which is my topic of focus).



Then there is the discipline of writing.  The British PhD is all about writing a top-notch “thesis.”  There are no other metrics—no grades, no language exams, no competency tests.  Just the thesis.  And it had better be good.  At the end of a workday, the doctoral student over here in the UK checks her word count.  We need words on those Word documents staring from the screen.

At the beginning of each term I know what I have to produce in terms of writing.  So I begin the term devoting the 1st half of the day to language work, then the afternoons to reading, reading, reading.  But about 1/2 to 2/3 of the way into the term, the demand to have something written enforces a new routine.  So I end up spending almost every hour of the day in writing mode, but this might mean that I get a paragraph in.  And only a paragraph.  Because as I write I normally have to re-read a lot of what I have worked through in the 1st part of the term, as well as read lots more.  To write in interaction with other scholars requires such precision.  I have had to read chapters or articles by Bultmann and Käsemann over and over.


Supervision and the NT Seminar

I meet fairly often with my supervisor.  Those discussions have been milepost-moments.  The rudder gets tweaked, the arguments get tested, new ideas are suggested, oversized aspirations are cut down, undervalued points are elevated.  I also attend a weekly seminar where other postgrads meet with the NT faculty around a paper presentation and discussion.


I absolutely love what I am doing.  But my mind is stretched and yanked and exercised every day. Next, I will be writing on my reading of the Bible—how is it different reading Scripture as a NT PhD student as opposed to a pastor?  And how do I read in general—skimming, scanning, long-form, or in disrupted piecemeal?  I can’t think of much else one would be eager to read about than my reading habits….





1-Year into the PhD: 12 Months of Living Squeamishly

[The map above is an inset in a map of “The Bishopric and Citie of Durham”—the inset shows the peninsula where I study, between the castle and cathedral.  You can find more of these at www.oldmap.co.uk]
“Don’t be too timid and squeamish about your actions. All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better.”
― Ralph Waldo Emerson, Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson, with Annotations – 1841-1844
A friend of mine sent me that quote.  To be clear, though I certainly respect Emerson, I would not invest in him an authority by which I would live my own life.  But the timing of my friend sending me that quote seemed providential.
Looking back on this past year, I am disappointed that I was miserably squeamish throughout so much of it.  Here I am living in one of the most beautiful little cities in the United Kingdom, studying everyday within 25 yards of a 900-year old cathedral, watching my kids as they fend off corrupt knights from Sherwood Forest and resist Viking invaders, and, on top of all that, I have actually, finally, commenced in doctoral work on the New Testament—something I have been tentatively hoping in for more than a decade now, something I have sensed a divine appointment to pursue.
To boot, Durham’s Department of Theology is outstanding.  I admit bias, but Durham is fairly well recognized as the best place to study theology in the UK.  And I could not be more pleased with the learning, wisdom, perspective, and guidance of my supervisor (Prof. Francis Watson).
My squeamishness is due to the costs, of course… and not just the price tag of tuition and UK living expenses.
Along with the squeamishness, there has been a debilitating, overpowering sense of shameShame over the impracticality of moving a family overseas for an expensive doctoral program with no funding.  Shame for not drawing an income.  Shame that my wife was working so hard to help offset the debt just a bit.  She was gone 2-5 nights a week (usually 3 or 4).  That’s a really tall order for a mom with 4 kids with a full-time PhD student as a husband.  We LOVE, just love her place of employment (our church here in town) as well as the folks she works with.  But we are not at a life-stage for the sort of schedule required of a youth and children’s ministry worker.  Though our marriage is strong—the bonds of our friendship, to God’s praise, are so tough and enduring and joyful—it was hard to live a year passing each other by, sometimes literally on the streets as we met on the road here or there to exchange kids or a car or something.  It has been a maddening year in terms of scheduling.
Hence the squeamishness.  And the shame.  Strange how you can pray and pray and pray over a span of years for clarity, make some really costly decisions as an act of devotion to Christ—decisions that you would feel ashamed for NOT making—only to endure an awful season ashamed that you did make them… yet feeling simultaneously that you did the right thing.
(If any professional counselors are reading this, they may have already diagnosed me with some psychosis endemic to my personality type: ‘squeamishness disorder,’ maybe, or something like that).
I am not sure how to reconcile all this, to be honest.  Seems as though there are two people for me to be angry at and lay the blame for being so cornered on one end by a powerful sense of divine calling and on the other end an implacable obstacle providence has yet to remove.  The parties to blame seem to be either me or God.  Me for being a fool and mishearing God.  God for… well, for not doing something right.  Because something is just not right… at least according to the figures.  And so when those are the options for directing one’s disappointment and frustration, I try to default to myself.  Hence again, squeamishness and shame.
I’ve counseled so many dear folks who were at vocational crossroads wondering how to place the next foot forward.  I seem to have lived in those crossroads for quite some time now.  What I guess I am finding is that the hardest part of following the vague voice of Christ up ahead in the fog is not deciding which way to go, but being content in the path you’ve so painstakingly chosen.
My wife has left her job (and on good terms).  We are so relieved.  And I do get a small stipend for my writing on a website here in the UK devoted to increasing biblical literacy in the digital age.  Actually, I am working so many hours, mornings, days, nights, but mostly for stuff that just happens to not come with a salary (writing a second book, trying to get my mind around German and Hebrew, trying to write a thesis on Johannine ecclesiology).
Student loans are an inevitable part of academic life for most of us slogging down this path.  And there are all sorts of policies embedded in the repayment process that make them manageable.  Still, they are emotionally and spiritually indigestible for me.  Yeah, they make me squeamish.  And ashamed.
All this to say that I need to repent.  Not by leaving Durham—everything besides the funding issue has been so powerfully affirming that we are in the right place at the right time.  I need to repent of my attitude.  I think I have been practicing “faith” like one make moves in a card game.  I’ll lay this down… now God, you lay your card down.  There is a sort of cat and mouse strategy at work in the way I trust the Lord.
But you can’t play God, can you?  So I am going to try to believe in the Gospel, the Gospel I am devoted to studying and paying so dearly to do so.  Far be it from me to think that the Crucified doesn’t know what to do with my debts….
Of course, many a fool has chased some dumb dream and slapped the word “vocation” on it in Jesus’ name.  That has been my greatest fear, I think.  “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death.” (Prov 14:12).
Even so, I can’t live in that sort of anxiety any longer.  My constitution just won’t take it.  And it certainly doesn’t honor the Lord.  Sometimes, you drain your cup to its dregs, even if you are not sure if it is the right cup.  The Lord knows I am a blind fool, and He also knows I have begged and wept for Him to take my feeble hand in His.  As far as I can tell, the right cup is in hand.  The other  hand is on a plowshare.  And He had strong words to say something about putting one’s hand on such an implement (Lk 9:62).   So I am gripping tighter.  Tighter.
Here comes year 2.

Great Buechner Quote on “The Church”

In light of our series on loving the church in all its glory and messiness, I wanted to post this from Frederick Buechner.  It is from his sermon “The Church” in Secrets in the Dark: A Life in Sermons (New York, HarperOne, 2006), pp. 146-53.

Jesus made his church out of human beings with more or less the same mixture in them of cowardice and guts, of intelligence and stupidity, of selfishness and generosity, of openness of heart and sheer cussedness as you would be apt to find in any of us.  The reason he made his church out of human beings is that human beings were all there was to make it out of.  In fact, as far as I know, human beings are all there is to make it out of still.  It’s a point worth remembering.

Our Life in England and the PhD: Year One

The 8th of August, 2011.  I will not forget that date.  After ten years of wondering, thinking, praying and making plans for a UK PhD program, that was the day of departure.  That was the day when my wife and I—via a family-led carpool, three planes, a double-decker bus, a southbound train out of Scotland, and a caravan of awaiting friends—brought our four kids to Durham, England… along with 19 pieces of luggage.

I keep a journal.  But I have yet to darken those pages with ink about that final week in the States, save one brief entry scratched out on August 5th while in a surgical waiting room.  My wife was having a cancerous patch removed from the bridge of her nose.  Even on that Friday morning before the Monday of departure, I was unsure if we were really going to leave.

We had been trying to sell our house.  For months.  Every weekend and many weekday nights had been devoted to remodeling—installing windows, patio doors, repairing miscellanies, painting, etc., etc., etc.  Miranda was working three nights a week as a server at The Cheesecake Factory.  Our lives were ratcheted so tight with the stress of an impending series of one-way flights with no resolution to our house and with plenty of friends and family to bid a hard farewell to… assuming some miracle came through with the house and we could actually board those flights.

It was not joyless.  I was quite miserable in spirit throughout much of this pre-departure season.  But in spite of the pressurized situation, there was a sense of joy that surfaced from time to time.  Even so, the disillusionment was very painful.  All those years praying about this vocational path of doctoral work, all the waiting, all the willingness to give it up—it all came down to a few weeks away when nothing, NOTHING, seemed to be coming through circumstantially for us to board that first plane.

I remember providing for my good friends Chuck Hooten and Kyle Bailey a litany of all the impossible factors arrayed against me, factors that God seemed quite content leave untouched by providence.  Both gave memorable responses.  The one bit of good news I shared was that my kids seemed to be handling the upcoming move well.  Kyle kindly (but gravely) warned me not to spread my anxiety to them—it is quite contagious.  Chuck told me, “Well, you did just write a book on disillusionment with God—you shoulda seen this comin’!”  it was the wisdom and levity I needed that morning.

One of the toughest days had been a couple of months earlier when a friend passionately explained how I was destroying my family’s future by taking such a costly course—without outside funding (which I lack), a theology degree in the UK costs well into the six-figure mark.  At the moment of this conversation, my job—a great job, a dream job, a job I had come to love—was being offered to a close friend (fellow blogger, Joel Busby, to be exact!).  He had been my pick for the post.  But though I did not tell many people this, I started looking for another ministry job in Birmingham—I was just so scared.

Another dark day came when we were about to leave for a mini-vacation of sorts at the home of a family member.  After all the madness, all the rush, we finally had a chance for a brief respite in July.  After my wife cleaned the house immaculately (so it could be “show-ready” for any realtors), and after I had loaded up the car, we got the kids’ passports in the mail.  I drove back up the driveway to spend the hours needed applying to the UK visas for my kids.  Passports + Visas for a family of 6 = over $4k.  I had no idea the British government would charge the same for kids as they charged for adults.  Weeks later, I was a bit annoyed when I stood before the Immigration desk at Edinburgh’s airport… though the officer could not have been kinder. That day was also when I got the news from the publisher that my book was not selling very well at all.  So much for daydreaming of income from writing.

And then, just under 3 weeks from before departure, some friends graciously and surprisingly began slipping envelopes into our hands.  Envelopes holding funds that we simply did not have, funds that enabled us to get through the first month of settling in before the loans kicked in.  And a prospective home-buyer offered to lease our house.  And folks showed up to help us move. And the visas actually arrived (there was a real risk they would not, and new immigration laws forbade our entry until weeks after our pre-booked departure date… all this to say the story is much thicker than presented here).

On moving day, while MBCC pastors (thanks, guys… really) heaved our stuff in the worst heat index of the summer into a moving truck that had to be hauled down my steep driveway and unloaded into yet another moving truck, we got a call from the dermatologist that the little spot Miranda casually went in to get checked was actually cancer.  We had about 4 minutes together to take in the news.  And then we had to get back to packing and loading.  The next day I drove that 26 foot Penske from Birmingham to Atlanta where we unloaded it, storing the stuff in my mother-in-law’s basement.  Walter Arroyo drove Miranda and I back home. We were squashed of all strength, just emotionally, physically—and most certainly spiritually—spent.  Miranda had surgery the next day.  Walter and Janet Lamar cleaned our house.  Kyle finished up the last minute remodeling touches.  Providence through community.

A few days later we were in the airport, telling Miranda’s mom and dad goodbye.  It was all so last-minute that we were cancelling utilities and insurance and what-not during the drive to Camp Creek Pkwy and even at the boarding gate.

8th of August, 2011.

And now it has been a year.  It got harder, not easier, after we arrived.  But now that the dust of 2011’s summer and the previous year in the UK is beginning to settle, I am going to be reflecting on what we are doing and how we are doing in a handful of blog posts.  I can say this: the kids are still doing great.  And this: I think that maybe I am actually doing the right thing, kind of, sort of, by being here, by working on this ridiculously expensive doctorate.  And this: my wife is the best person I have ever known and will ever know.  And, finally, this: God dwells in thick darkness… but He is good.

An Interview With Jonathan Green of JG Hymns

To just say Jonathan Green plays hymns is a bit deceptive.  Posted up in Edinburgh, Scotland, this native Bostonian, weaves the stories of the past with the realities of the present, glancing towards the future.  His “hymns” blend the ethereal thump and fuzz of his electronic equipment with the warm strums of obviously human instrumentation.  He lives with one foot in a local congregation (Free Church of Scotland) that until recently hasn’t used instruments in its Psalm-heavy worship.  And one firmly planted in the realm of indie-rock experimentation.  JG Hymns’s newest release, Lots, delves deeply both into the stories of Scripture, plumbing some of the nuance and texture of familiar stories that even a good reader glosses over or dismisses due to familiarity, and then launches from these stories, trampolining these ancient (and less than ancient) encounters with God into relevant parables and challenges for here and now.

I sat down to chat with Jonathan about Lots, congregational music, hope, grief, and experimentation,

Hopeful Realism: Tell me about your newest work, Lots.  You’ve described it has the telling of nine different ways in which people from past and present times have responded to significant events in their lives.  You’ve appropriated scripture stories (Deborah, Leah, Samuel) but also H.G. Spafford (writer of It is Well With My Soul).  What was it about these people, these stories, that particularly piqued your imagination?

Jonathan Green: There’s a couple of ways that works.  One is from hearing sermons.  When I first heard Tim Keller preach from Old Testament stories, I feel like I was hearing them for the first time, in the ways that he moved Old Testament stories from a moral lesson into a shadow of the story of Jesus.  I found that incredibly profound.  Part of me was just responding to this new way of looking at those old stories.  So on Hymns Vol. III there’s this story of Joseph, that is basically a Keller sermon in three minutes.  Part of it is me interacting with Old Testament characters afresh.  Taking potentially flat characters and bringing them to life.  It’s kind of like the HBO series about John Adams.  Before I saw that, early American history was just weird guys with wigs in a history book.  There’s no connection whatsoever, they were just a funny painting.  And after I saw the series, they’re flesh and blood.  And the situations which they find themselves in come to life.  So I started looking at Old Testament characters as real people, in real situations and had newfound sensitivity towards them.

I think also my wife [who’s a native Palestinian] being from where the bible happens, and now spending some time over there, I look at these stories in a new way.  Connecting with Near Eastern culture, I look at these situations differently.  So a story like Leah’s connected with some of the things I was thinking about for this record.  Namely that there is this woman who tries so hard to get the attention of a man.  In the first part of the story, she has several children, and after each one she thinks, with this child, my husband’s going to love me.  And it just doesn’t happen.  And then finally, there is this moment where she recognizes that her relationship with God is paramount and when she gets that settled her identity is no longer in the man that she’s trying to win but is fulfilled.

And it’s this nice story, but the whole cycle happens again and it seems like there’s no resolve to this desire that the two women have, both Leah and Rachel.  I feel like, with Lots, and thinking about stories in the bible, I don’t know that there’s always necessarily a resolution to the story that we want to put on it.  It’s more often open-ended, almost like a question asking the reader, what they want to do about it.  Like the way Mark ends.  Like the way Jonah ends.  It really asks the listener to be drawn in.  Sometimes as a songwriter you provide the beginning, middle, and ending for the people.  And they end up having that movie theatre experience, where it is all provided for you.  You go and you are passive, rather than engaging with the situation and the person. 

HR: You talk about this idea of the listener participating with the story, narrative, and music.  It’s interesting though; the first and last tracks are hymns, usually understood as highly participatory, congregational music.  But in some ways you’ve completely “de-congregationalized” these hymns.  They’re no longer sing-able.  And that’s okay.  What I find interesting is that they do beckon the listener to participate, but in a much different way.  It seems that approaching hymns in this way is closer to the kind of apparently passive participation that happens while contemplating art at a gallery, rather than the effusive participation that happens via traditional congregational singing and interaction.  If you “get it,” you are engrossed in perhaps a more complete way than unison singing can even afford.

JG: I feel like the world doesn’t need many more congregational songs.  There are so many people, past and present, with this new hymns movement, how have a great vision, there are plenty of people “on the job.”  Writing local songs, for local congregations is great, but I feel like there is a lack of music that isn’t just stuck in the pews and can work in other crevices of life.  Music that you can have a personal, private relationship to, a different one than just on Sunday.  I’m really wrestling with the extent to which Christian music can go on a Sunday.  Can it really work in a rock club, both textually and texturally?

HR: Some of the focus of this site is the dialectic of hopeful realism.  That our Christian faith has something integral to say to “the way things are” in its imperfect beauty and brokenness but also witnessing to the fact that because of Christ we live in an overlap with our hopeful future, anticipating and being pulled into that reality.  Tell me about how that sort of Christian eschatology might play in the aesthetic of your recording projects.

JG: It’s always a constant fight to be super concerned with both the present and the future.  And it is always a fight.  You can fall in love with what you’re making and forget about the future.  You can think about the future and forget your community and the needs of people around you.  And for an artist, some of those needs are aesthetic needs.  Handing people arena rock again and again and again is kind of like pulling the wool over people’s eyes.  When you look at the bible, it is the most incredibly diverse book.  The stories and styles, even the responses it warrants: confusion, frustration, incredible excitement, it changes your life, embarrassment.  It is an amazing range and yet for some reason it is not always fully represented in Christian art.  So when I feel like I’m most human and most spiritual, when those two really fuse together, I have to explore places I don’t really want to go or have been before, because I know they’re good for me.  And I know that I’m going to have the same dumb tendency to find a hit song and repeat it twenty times.  The people I most look up to, both on a human and spiritual level, are the ones where those two facets are tied together.  Where they have an authentic response to the situations of life, like Jesus did.  Where they don’t recycle things, live through the quotes of other people, the anecdotes of other things, they can be fully engaged in the present while fully confident and aware of what Christ has done.

HR: Tell me in particular about Funeral Song.  Though nearly wordless, this song struck me as able to carry this weight, to epitomize this kind of bifocal vision.  The title already betrays a grim reality at hand.  Then there are nearly five minutes of instrumental before haunting and hopeful chorus.  What did you experience that went into the making of this song?

JG: We had a crazy couple of years.  There was a couple in our church who’s sister had a child born with cancer who lived for a couple of months and died on Christmas day.  What are you going to say to that?  About a year later, another couple in our church she had a miracle baby, born three and a half months early.  He could fit in your hand and had like a ten percent chance of survival and is now a laughing, crawling, walking toddler.  But got pregnant again and went into labor early again had twins, and they lived for twenty minutes.  What are you going to say to that?

Meanwhile, my grandmother passed away this last year.  She lived to be 101 and was set to turn 102 in a couple of weeks.  So you have the most extreme lengths of life imaginable.  And I found myself thinking about the way God sustains and takes people.  Sometimes it is absolutely inexplicable.  So the natural Reformed response is to read books on it and come up with a really smart answer and feel good about yourself because you did your homework.  But I’m not sure that that’s always the best way to go about things.  So this song was my attempt to be still and trust in the truths of Lord.  And that’s where I think that music can step in, where words and books can’t.

I tried to tie it with the track before it, the Horatio Spafford track.  Here’s a guy who wrote a hymn after his four kids drowned on a boat, the least likely response you’d imagine.  I quoted his hymn in Funeral Song, but I didn’t want to do a big treaty on life and death, I just wanted to give an offering for people that would hopefully encourage them.

HR: You alluded to the things that music can do that text and typical ways in which we process cannot.  When I listened to Funeral Song, I was reminded of something Bonhoeffer notes in his Letters and Papers from Prison.  The repetition, but also the horn flourishes off of the baseline and standard movement, feels like how Bonhoeffer talks about Christ as the cantus firmus [1], which we hold to and, by the Holy Spirit, improvise off of.  He offers that this baseline holds together the polyphony of life, the fragmentation on the verge of disorder that we experience around us.  This song seems to make sense of the wordlessness we may feel at those times.

JG: I suppose you can get that in the Taize tradition, where you repeat a chorus.  When you’re not used to it, you feel like you’re going nowhere.  I had a funny experience visiting a local Greek Orthodox Church.  We went to a day service, the guy leading the prayers repeated the “Christ have mercy on us sinners” portion a hundred times in a row.  It was like a road trip: exciting, miserable, exciting…  Musically, aesthetically, there is a time and place to repeat and just sit in it.  And it’s not a stagnant thing, there are subtle changes.  There is movement within the meditation.  It is definitely something that was important to that track.  But I thought a hundred times might have been too much.

HR: This record seems to have much more electronically manipulated vocals and instrumentation than your previous works.  It’s interesting considering the content of the record, the ways you’ve taken “synthetic” music and managed to communicate the earthiness of these stories.  Listening to some of the recent music that does this, Bon Iver, James Blake, or Animal Collective, they use manipulated sounds to communicate disintegration, confusion, alienation.  It makes sense though; it’s rooted and earthy.  In some sense, those songs and sounds can only happen now, describing the way things are.  Right now most of us live virtually and realistically.  So it would make total sense that real voices are run through Autotune over a real piano.  We have a hard time discerning between “manual” and “automatic”, but at the same time emotion that results seems no less organic or real even though the ingredients have been manipulated and are obviously not completely “real.”

JG:  People might not know the technical details of why that’s successful.  But I do think they come into play.  If you have a drum machine and you hit the play button and let it loop, there’s no fluctuation in what’s happening.  There’s just a drone.  But when you take that same loop and cut it up and manually paste it in, so that it’s slightly off.  It immediately becomes that much more human.  The way those guys produce their music, they treat the electronic elements in a way that a violinist approaches her instrument, so that it still breathes.

[1] Bonhoeffer Letters and Papers from Prison (Touchstone, 1997), 303.

Interview with Jason Byassee (pt. 2): The Rift between Church and Academy

This is the 2nd part of our interview with Jason Byassee (for part 1, scroll down or click here).  We have written quite a bit on the idea of the pastor-scholar / pastor-theologian here at HR (see previous posts for some links).  Jason’s pastoral and writing ministry seems to hug the edges of the (sometimes over-emphasized, sometimes under-acknowledged) divide between the church and the academy.  We are glad to feature some of his wisdom here at the blog….


Church, Academy, and the Pastor Theologian
HR: You used to have an office ensconced within one of the most esteemed academic institutions in the land (oak-lined quads, Gothic-style architecture, and a state-of-the-art library, even!).  What do you miss about the academic setting?  And what about the parish setting has been most freeing or most constricting?  

I really miss the library. Appalachian State University, the institution without which Boone would not exist, has a good one, but trying to borrow the obscure stuff I need for my work is really hard. The interlibrary loan people see me as a guy off the street, which technically I am. It’s almost tempting to adjunct just for the library card or use of the school’s sports palace.

App is a growing and strong academic institution that’s comfortable in its skin. It hitched its wagon to the green economy stuff before it was cool. It serves its region beautifully. And it’s growing in sustainable ways. Duke is constantly unhappy with itself. It was founded in 1920 to catch Harvard, founded a third of a millennium before. You have to hustle to do that. That hustle makes Duke great. It also makes Duke constantly dissatisfied with itself, and that affects how people treat one another.

At Duke I was surrounded by brilliant people with worldwide reputations in their (very narrow) fields who rarely even spoke with one another. In the church I’m surrounded with brilliant people, not all of them academics blessedly, and I usually get to have conversations with them much more easily than in Durham. But we talk about their work—in business, medicine, parenting, academia etc. The range of conversation is so much wider. The academy is great at going deep, not broad. The work I’m doing now often goes both deep and broad. It’s more intellectually challenging in some ways, with less bluster.

I do feel less shielded from the culture now. Broader culture has become more coarse, more outraged—outrage is the only coin in fact. FoxNews and talk radio are to blame for this. People deal with me as though those are appropriate ways to do so. And the church is made up of really kind people who aren’t good at standing up to their fellow members when they’re being bullies. Who is good at that really? Sometimes that’s my job, to stand up to people when others won’t. And I don’t like it anymore than anyone else. Surprisingly academia can be more civil than that.


HR: Suspicion towards intellectualism and academic institutions persists or even flourishes in many local churches (and sometimes for good reason, of course).  How can pastors inclined toward rigorous intellectual pursuits promote a healthy vision of the “pastor-scholar” within local churches and the wider community of faith?

Maybe my parish is different in this—I don’t find my folks anti-intellectual at all. They don’t want me to hide in jargon not designed for them, and I don’t blame them for that a bit. We do have town-gown tensions that come out in church. Someone thanked me once for praying for Boone’s businesses. Seems obvious—they’re struggling, like everyone’s. But what she really meant was that I’m sometimes solely focused on the university in my preaching and prayer. There are other industries in town. She was gracious in pointing out a genuine oversight.

One way this comes out is in how the church receives historical criticism. On that I find folks all over the map. Some want me to affirm historical accuracy on every point; others are reading Spong. This doesn’t trouble me. I don’t trust in historical criticism either, and it’s not my job to pass judgment on ‘what really happened.’ My job is to bring Spong readers and other fundamentalists of all kind closer to Jesus. They both want to be close to Jesus in their deepest selves, under the tarnished imago dei. So I think some of the strain between theological academy and parish in modernity has been something like this, “How come they don’t want to hear about Q or deuetero-Isaiah in my preaching?” Answer: because historical re-creation cannot save. Neither should it be feared.


Counsel for the seekers…
HR: Granting that everyone’s situation is different, what general counsel would you offer for young women and men in the church who are intellectually gifted and dreaming of doctoral work in theology or biblical studies, yet simultaneously sense a call to ministry?

Eugene Peterson borrows from Denise Levertov a description of a dog walking, “intently haphazard.” That’s been my life. There is no single job on which to land. Pursue what lights you up. That’s a sign from God, a healthy, gospel-shaped ambition. Do it as a servant to increase love of God and neighbor. There will be more kinds of jobs in the future, not fewer, with social media’s proliferation and new forms of church and the academy’s bubble perhaps bursting on the horizon (its funding model can’t be sustained, and competitors will move in that aren’t as stupid as the for-profit industry). So study hard as an expression of love of God and neighbor. I had no idea 2 of the 3 jobs I’ve had existed. This one, which I did know about, I was both hopelessly overtrained and underprepared for. That makes it really, really fun.