Category Archives: Writing

MattOCrouchPines

Matt Orth’s Tragic-Comedy for the Disillusioned

My friend Matt Orth has written a book. The two of us are both a bit squeamish about squirrelling our way into the powerful marketing mechanizations that give books a prominent showcasing in our society today, but we decided we could at least review each other’s books on our respective slices of cyber real estate (that is, our blogs).

Matt’s review of TheoMedia was very gracious. My own review of his Questions of a Curious Nature: The Incredible Interviews of Annabelle Farrow (henceforth QCN) will be highly positive. This is NOT because Matt is my friend and wrote a nice review of my own book. QCN is one of the quirkiest, oddest, and uncategorizable Christian-themed books that has made its way into print. And honestly: it is also one of the best. (I think I just made up the word “uncategorizable” for the purpose of categorizing it.)

QCN is an exposé of the American Christian landscape. It is a book for those disillusioned with the church… and perhaps for those who blindly do not suffer from disillusionment but need a good dose of it. QCN is no tirade of a cynical Gen-Xer, nor is it a work vindictively typed by Millennial with an ecclesial chip on the shoulder. This book is an exposé of the American church by someone who loves his own local church as much as anyone else I know… and has struggled in the inevitable brokenness years of faithful pastoral ministry always bring.

What is interesting is HOW the book proffers its exposé. QCN is a fictional satire. I am not talking about “Christian fiction” and all that category seems to imply. I am referring to something as wildly creative as Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, but perhaps even more genre-bending.

The book is written from the first person perspective of Malachi Evans. Evans is the cameraman (and husband) of Annabelle Farrow, a rising star in journalism who embodies in her character an admirable amalgamation of sweetness, tenderness, and compassion along with bare-knuckled grit and undaunted daring. In QCN we follow these two protagonists into a series of interviews.

These are not normal interviews. Orth opens up a portal—a narrative rabbit hole, a literary wardrobe—and we follow Annabelle and her husband into a new dimension of reality. Or at least into a place from which reality can be perceived at fresh angles. Annabelle and Malachi are afforded a unique series of one-on-one face time with evil entities (Fear), dead saints (King David and John the Baptist), and a range of contemporary Christians who represent a range of contemporary trends and stereotypes thriving in the American church (like the young and hip pastor Neatrick Funhopper and worship-buzz addict Sidedoor Sally).

This is weird stuff. But what Matt does here works. It really works. By taking us down fun and exciting fictional paths, he casts brilliant light on the church’s twisted ways of thinking. QCN is eerily effective.

But part of the reason is works is because it is so laugh-out-loud hilarious. QCN resists a polemic that places us on the defensive. Instead, Matt appeals to comedy and satire for his polemical strategy and thereby lovingly allows us to start laughing at ourselves for being so silly.

Of course, there are times when I wondered if maybe I should be crying. But the graciousness abounding in QCN accounts for a God who is much larger than the foibles and failings of his Bride.

Questions of a Curious Nature is the most insightful work on pop-Christianity I have come across. And the insights are shared with love. Thanks, Matt, for all the hard work….

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Preparing for the Release of TheoMedia: Endorsements

Cascade Books sent me a cover design of my forthcoming book TheoMedia: The Media of God and the Digital Age. The design is not finalized but the image above offers a sneak peak.

Look, I could really use your help: I am not that great at marketing as a writer, so I really need some grassroots support for getting the word out on the book. Sharing blog posts like this one would help! And please do feel free to ask questions or make suggestions.

In this post, I am including the endorsements from the back cover (I am so honored by these gracious words). I will include a blurb about the book soon, as well as the table of contents. Stay tuned… and if you have any ideas for how I can spread the word, let me know!

“The church has been unsure about how to discern God’s presence in the new media deluge. Andrew Byers’ work gives us much-needed language to draw on: from Scripture, tradition, and a savvy and nuanced wisdom about these media. This book should have existed long before. It is the definitive word on the church and digital technology.”

Jason Byassee, Fellow in Theology and Leadership at Duke Divinity School, and Senior Pastor, Boone UMC.

“Andrew Byers has put new wine, a culturally savvy reflection on the church’s engagement with modern media technology, into an old wine skin: biblical theology…. If the medium is the message, then the church needs the guidance Byers gives as it seeks to fulfill its vocation as God’s new media for communicating the gospel of Jesus Christ in a spiritually distracted, culturally noisy world.”

Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Research Professor of Systematic Theology, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School

“In this arresting book, Andy Byers has brought together three things: the reality of living in a media-saturated culture, the priority of Scripture as a presentation of God’s mighty acts and deeds, and Jesus Christ, the consummate TheoMedium, who holds them both together. A book of wisdom for today’s—and tomorrow’s—Christian.”

Timothy George, Dean, Beeson Divinity School of Samford University

What do the voice of God and the voice of Siri have in common? Andy Byers answers this question by retelling the biblical story with fresh and vivid detail, carefully pointing out the rich and varied ways God used media in each chapter. With his unique blend of compassionate pastoral care and insightful but accessible scholarship, Byers offers us a theologically rich vision of the proper place of media in the life of the church.

John Dyer, Executive Director of Communication and Educational Technology, Dallas Theological Seminary and Author, From the Garden to the City: The Redeeming and Corrupting Power of Technology

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Faith Without Illusions, Dutch-Style

I discovered a few months ago that my book on cynicism, Faith Without Illusions: Following Jesus as a Cynic-Saint, was in the process of being translated… into Dutch.

FWI has not had much of a readership since its release in the Spring of 2011.  This has been hard on the ego, but really good for the soul.

Somehow, a Christian journalist from the Netherlands caught wind of the book, liked it, and pulled of some impressive work behind Dutch and American scenes to bring the book to life in his own country.

This journalist is now a friend of mine, and I am excited about visiting with him over the weekend.  I think the behind-the-scenes story goes something like this: this new friend found my article “We Need More Boring Christians” at RelevantMagazine.com and traced the links to my blog and the book.  He eventually found an English copy of FWI, read it, found it helpful, and set up a Skype interview with me last Spring.  His magazine (CV Koers) has featured some of the material from the book and from that interview in a new re-launch of sorts.  At some point, the Dutch publishing house Jongbloed (Youngblood) got into the picture.  I contacted InterVarsity Press to see if they were on board with all this.  Turns out the wheels were already rolling on that end as well.

And so the book is released this week in The Netherlands.  I have lived in two different countries since the book’s release in English, and no where has interest in FWI been stronger than in this country I have never lived in.  All I can say, is that the whole thing is just bemusing, interesting, ironic, exciting… and fun.

Now, I have had no real involvement in this entire process.  And I am an amateur author, with no idea how these author-ish things work.

I found out the title last night:

Leve de Saaie Christenen! Hoopvul Realistisch

Guess what it means?

(Long) Live the Boring Christians! Hopeful Realism

Authors do not get to choose their titles… at least not amateur authors with low readership.  And when it comes to a translation, I have to trust the folks on the ground, so to speak.  They know what they are doing more than I do.  What is interesting about this new title is that it capitalizes heavily on the second chapter of my book and on that Relevant piece I wrote.  What is also interesting is that Busby and I have toyed around with another book idea for which “Long Live the Boring Christians” would be a rather apt title.

This appearance of my book in a new language and a new culture provides me a personal vantage point for understanding “reception history,” something I am studying as a PhD candidate in New Testament.  Written works have a history of how they are received.  Those energetic proponents of the material in FWI are keen on bringing it to their own cultural niche, and they received that material in ways Americans or Indians or Bolivians or Italians would not.  Certain elements are more accentuated and feel more urgent.  Others may seem less significant.

When you write something and it gets published, it is eerily and joyfully out of your hands and into the hands of others.  Ultimately, it is in the hands of God, so may it be done to that book according to His will.

 

And long live boring Christians… in The Netherlands and elsewhere.

 

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Celebrity Culture, Speaker Circuit & Church: Meet John (The Baptist)

This post draws on last week’s “Celebrity Culture, the ‘Speaker Circuit,’ and John the Baptist.

In that post I struggle over being an author who believes deeply in his message to the church, but feels uncomfortable with the apparatus for getting messages out to churches: booking speaking engagements, beefing up a network, using social media to expand a platform, etc.

Please note—I have friends in the speaker circuit who conduct themselves nobly and with integrity.  They do the practical networking stuff in a way that seems grounded in Christ-centered devotion.  I’m just expressing my own personal discomfort with the whole thing.

(Paul refers to “weak” believers who could not eat the meat sold in the Greco-Roman markets.  Some people held convictions that were unnecessary, but not necessarily wrong.  Maybe I am one of those sort when it comes to this.)

 

Celebrity (& Consumer) Culture and Mass-Marketing Divine Oracles

Beyond my own personal wranglings, the way the church and her “influencers” receive and relay messages is extremely important for us to think about.  Should we be examining the apparatus of message-marketing that serves as a primary means of shaping and influencing the church’s thinking?  Here is the question from the previous post:

How can we avoid the kitsch and the dangers of celebrity culture when God has assigned a public platform for so many members of the church?

To get a public message out to a wider audience beyond one’s own local parish requires public relations.  And that can get tricky for a Christian in a culture that loves (and loves to hate) local or regional or global celebrities.

What’s more, mass public messages to the church today are often in the form of purchasable material, like books (or speaker bookings, when can creep up into multi-thousand dollar figures per 30 minutes).

This means that the messages must be buy-able.

Which also means that public messages get intertwined not only with celebrity culture, but with the values and operations of our consumer culture.  I know I get squeamish quite easily.  But some of this is worthy of squeamishness.

 

A Voice in the Wild

Enter: John the Baptist.

I acknowledged in the last post that the prophets and the apostles (we could add Jesus Himself) offered public messages within a certain range of expected parameters for, well, ancient PR.  They were different from their contemporary public figures, and tried to draw distinctions: Paul could be easily looped in with the sophists, the (usually) itinerant crowd-wowers and cultural “influencers” of antiquity’s public square (1 Cor 1 offers a whiff of this).  Though different, they were using certain means of public communication already established in the culture.  Even in Jewish quarters like Palestine there was some understanding that a rabbi might take up followers and share his teaching in public with others.

By 1st century standards, John the Baptist was something of an off-the-charts sensation.

His fame, of course, cannot be understood thru our own pop-cultural lenses (in spite of the language I just used in the previous sentence).  But we can note that his was a household name.  Hordes gathered to him.  Were John ministering in a 21st century setting, his Twitter followership would have been enormous and his blog stats through the roof… assuming he would have used social media.

And actually, that is a big assumption, mind you, no matter how confident today’s media enthusiasts might assert axiomatically that he certainly would have been known as @JBap.

But maybe he would have—the man had a message.  He is described in terms of “a voice” (from Isa 40:3).  And he did not shy away from lifting that voice.  But before we jump to conclusions about how he might use modern-day PR methods, let’s consider this: his preferred attire was not that of fine robes (or designer jeans!) and his preferred venue was the barren wild, not the market or the palace lawn (on his dress and base of operations, see Mt 11:7-8).

So how did he manage his public persona?

Perhaps just as importantly, how did the Gospel writers present his public persona?

In all four Gospels, John the Baptist appears like a bolt out of the blue… and then he recedes almost immediately into the background, drifting backstage as soon as Jesus appears.

John’s Gospel, as I mentioned in the prequel to this post, seems most deliberate in presenting the Baptist as a loud, robust, vocal persona whose “platform” exists for one purpose only: to exalt another.  In Luke and Matthew, Jesus calls John the greatest man born of woman (Lk 7.28/Mt 11.11).

What we find in the Fourth Gospel is that the vocation of the greatest of all mortal men is to point to someone greater… and then fade away. 

Behold the Lamb! (Jn 1.29, 36)

He must increase, but I must decrease. (Jn 3.30)

John the Baptist is a good role model for anyone involved in public ministry.  To the extent that our books, “speaking events,” Tweets and blog posts are in direct service of the message we believe God has given us—these should point to Jesus while the author (the “voice”) intentionally recedes into the backstage shadows.

 

The Church of One Celeb

But there is something else to learn from John’s Gospel about today’s apparatus for conveying and receiving mass-marketed messages. Not only should we be concerned with the public persona, but with how the people of God receive and regard that “celebrity” figure.  One does not become “famous” without fans or “popular” without a populace.  How should the church behave itself in regard to our prominent leaders, “influencers” and messengers?

Like Andrew and the unnamed disciple in John 1:35-37—

The next day, John was standing with two of his disciples, and he looked at Jesus as he walked by and said, “Behold the Lamb of God!”  The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus.

When our prominent “influencers” point beyond themselves to the Best and the Highest, then we should follow the trajectory of their gaze.  As in the well-known work of art above, let’s follow the trajectory Grünewald depicts of John the Baptist’s long, re-directing finger.

 

 

 

 

Grune 2

Celebrity Culture, the “Speaking Circuit,” and John the Baptist

I am one of those tortured-soul types.  And this post is an invitation into one of my ongoing struggles.  (“Welcome all you suckers to Struggleville” as my friend Bill Mallonee used to sing).

The struggle I am writing about here is more than a personal struggle.  This is a church struggle.  The issue is this:

How can we avoid the kitsch and the dangers of celebrity culture when God has assigned a public platform for so many members of the church? 

The question is important for both those who lift their voices publicly, AND for the church which gives them a platform and lends the ear.

I am struggling with this because I am an author.  As an author, I have this overriding sense that God has supplied a message that needs a public hearing.  But marketing techniques, strategies for “building your platform,” and trying to bag multiple speaking engagements can feel like dodgy enterprises.

I remember having coffee with a marketing pro while my first book was circulating between editor and copy editor as an unpublished pdf file.  She told me it was time to start making calls, time to get the word out, time to knock on the doors, utilize my networking skills and call on all my contacts: if you believe in your message, you have to get it out there, and that objective requires marketing.

This “marketing pro” is not a slick ad-woman with a knack for cut-throat business dealing.  She is a Godly, sensible person committed to getting the messages of God through certain authors to the church.

But did anyone ever have a heart-to-heart with Jeremiah and tell him he needed to beef up his networks and start Tweeting like a maniac?

No.

But… Yet…

Here is the thing: the Bible is full of people to whom God gave a public message and to whom He assigned a public ministry.  And in 6th century BC Judah and in 1st century AD Athens, there was a culturally accepted apparatus in place for how someone aired public messages in public.  Jeremiah could stand on the Temple steps and Paul knew to ascend the Areopagus.

I have been thinking about entering what folks in the know call “the speaker circuit.”  It feels presumptuous even to write that, and the phrase “the speaker circuit” makes me cringe with awkwardness.

But… Yet….

I really believe in Faith Without Illusions.  I remember those long hours writing on cynicism, revisiting my own disillusionment, praying and studying with such urgency—and all these practices were endured for the sake of finding and producing some cultural artifact (a book) that by the astonishing and ironic power of providence would be helpful to the church. And as I work on this second book (‘TheoMedia’) the excitement and urgency is no less.

Then again, when Jeremiah had a fire in his bones, he didn’t have a product to sell.

And it is quite unlikely Isaiah would have done much book signing while sitting nude outside that Jerusalem gate.

Now, I am not celebrity-material in personality or appearance.  I am a marketing flop, not a marketing pro.  I have tweeted about my book once.  I blog about it very rarely, and I feel a little weird about having the image of its cover on the  column to the right.  But the fire is in the bones, crackling within the pages, and perhaps it is irresponsible not to get the thing out there on the Temple steps and in the ears of those lingering about the Areopagus.

But how does one faithfully lift a voice in the public square without endorsing celebrity culture or co-opting the personality-driven tribalism so prevalent in the church?

Dear Church/Campus Ministry/University,

I am a gifted speaker and a published author.  I would love to share with your congregation/students what God has placed on my heart.  Please consider booking me for one of your upcoming church/chapel events so that we can all benefit from these insights together.

Sincerely,

Itinerant Speaker

I used to get letters like these quite often when I served in pastoral ministry.  And they always turned me off.  My book is on the stuff Christians do that make us cynical.  And this sort of thing can get my own cynical juices flowing.

But… Yet…

Many of us have been divinely appointed to the public role of lifting voices, whether through preaching or writing.  So how should it be done with integrity and with a cautious resistance to the trappings of celebrity culture?

I have some friends who do this speaker circuit thing for a living, and I trust them.  I just really trust them.  I can look to them as models. The one I will make the most influential model, however, will be John the Baptist as he is portrayed in the Gospel of John.  For the Fourth Evangelist, John the Baptist showed up, loudly pointed to someone greater, and then faded away….   That is the demeanor captured in the painting above where the Baptist juts his long, lanky finger out toward Jesus.

More on that in the next post….

 

 

A note on Writing

Writing is revelatory.  At least at times.  I am often not sure what to write until I write.  The process itself seems to have the capacity to unlock or expose hidden thoughts, concealed reality.  In writing this book on media and theology, in writing sermons, in writing blog posts, I have learned to trust God in this process of writing.

And then at other times, writing is like cutting a trench through concrete with a stick.  Nothing gives. The page or screen may even get filled, but no secret passageway opens up.  No path appears amidst the mental brambles. And you mix metaphors.  Like in this paragraph.

The answer is to keep writing.  Writing as if one is slashing through the brush with a machete, searching for divine guidance as to where to go.  And then at other times the answer is to stop. To just stop and take a walk.

I am about to take a walk.

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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.