Interview with Michael DeFazio

Michael DeFazio graduated from Ozark Christian College in May of 2005 after which he went to Fuller Theological Seminary, graduating with a Master of Arts in Theology in September of 2007. Michael is a Life Groups Area Pastor at Real Life Church in Santa Clarita, California where he has been serving since 2005. His wife is Beth DeFazio. They are expecting their first child, Claire Elizabeth, in June of this year.

Solomon Burchfield: There are so many different parts of a Christian’s life that come back to how we understand the gospel and prioritize its different aspects. How has your conception of the gospel changed in recent years?

Michael DeFazio: Wow, that’s a great way to get started, and also a difficult question to answer because it really is everything for me. If I had to characterize how my own thinking (and living, I hope) has changed or grown, I would say that I now see the gospel as much bigger than I did in the past. But of course that’s really vague so I’ll try to be more specific.

When I looked back over my own journals in prepping for this, the one thing I noticed was that for so much of my journey the gospel was really about me. Whether it was about me getting my sins forgiven and going to heaven, or me getting my self spiritually formed here and now, or whatever else, I thought about things primarily in terms of what it had to do with me or how I fit into it. Then I kind of realized (by God’s grace, for sure) that God’s plan or purpose or mission is much larger than me, that it is actually cosmic in scope, creation-wide, community focused, etc. Beyond that there was the realization that in addition to being me-focused, the gospel as I heard and believed it – in essence, that my own sins can be forgiven so that I can live forever with God – was only a portion of what the gospel is in Scripture. Now that is certainly (and thankfully!) an important part of the gospel (and it is very good news), but it is equally certainly not the whole gospel. (Just do a good old-fashioned word study on “gospel” in the Gospels, or in Acts, or in Paul’s letters, and you will see this).

To get at this another way and fill out the picture, let me share a quote I recently read: “More and more evangelical and missional leaders have begun to characterize the gospel of justification by faith alone, penal substitution, and the salvation of souls as a small gospel.”

Well, I’m not an evangelical or missional leader but I agree with those he is criticizing. If he is right, then Jesus himself isn’t allowed to define what “the gospel” actually means. Because Jesus defined the gospel as being about the arrival of God’s kingdom. Now, once again, I have never denied the truth of what this guy thinks is “the gospel” (I teach and tell it often), nor have I denied that it is part of the gospel, but it is not the whole gospel. I call it “small” not because it isn’t a big message, but simply because the full Scriptural gospel is even bigger. If someone were to deny the gospel of justification, atonement, forgiveness, etc (say, in favor of “social justice” or whatever) I would also characterize their gospel as small.

He says later on in the same piece, “It seems that, on one side, we have many moving towards what is becoming known as a ‘missional’ approach, focusing on God’s mission to restore all things to Himself through the person and work of Jesus Christ.”

To this I’d respond, I certainly hope so! Actually I’d probably say something like, “Are you alluding to Ephesians 1.10 and Colossians 1.20 on purpose or by accident?” At any rate, it is within this that both the forgiveness- or eternity-centered message and the more justice- or present-centered message find their proper place. Again, neither are either the fullness or the core of the gospel, but both are something more than just implications; both are dimensions of the gospel declaration that God raised Jesus from the dead and thereby made or declared him Messiah and Lord. (Sorry to use this guy as a foil. I admit that I don’t know him, and I don’t at all mean to demean him. But he said what he said publicly, so I figure it’s fair game. And he represents how a great many think.)

One more way of putting it: we have located “the gospel” in Acts 2.38, which is actually about how to respond to the gospel, rather than Acts 2.36, which is the gospel declaration itself (as the conclusion of the preceding narrative culminating in Jesus’ resurrection). This might not be the best way of putting it, since the benefits of Jesus being Messiah and Lord are certainly part of what makes the news “good,” but what needs to be stressed somehow is that the declaration of Jesus as Messiah/King and Lord – which of course connotes the arrival of God’s saving reign – quite simply is the core or center of the gospel. This is exactly parallel to the uses of “gospel” in Isaiah (52.7: “Your God reigns”). And it is just like how the word operated in the first century. “Gospel” was a declaration about a new or victorious political ruler. And it was good news because their reign (supposedly) meant peace and freedom for all.

There’s of course so much more to it, but that’s already too long of an answer to the first question! 🙂

SB: So the gospel, by Jesus’ way of speaking, is the arrival of a new “political reality” that changes us individually but is also, in some very real sense, a social phenomenon. Sometimes the way we talk about sin and conversion only includes that individualistic aspect. How can we talk about sin and about conversion in a way that reflects this expanded conception of the gospel?

MD: In a very real sense, yes (and not just Jesus but the rest of the NT as well). In terms of sin, we have to recognize that sin is Scripture’s way of talking not only about what has ruptured the creator-creature relationship(s); it’s a comprehensive concept about all that’s gone wrong with our world in every sphere – whether individual, personal, familial, cultural, social, political, structural, imperial, or whatever. I think this is what Gensis 3-11 fairly clearly teaches, and this of course forms the backdrop to Romans 1-3 and other places. Our world is broken and we are broken with it; what’s more, we are the ones who broke it (though not excluding the reality of non-human evil, but that’s another topic). My best attempt (to-date) at a broad-brush description of sin breaks down into five parts:

(1) We refuse to trustfully acknowledge God as superior, and so we set up ourselves as competition. This is the issue in Genesis 3 – we want to be like God, knowing all the things that he did. Or as Paul puts it in Romans 1, we refused to thank him and glorify him as God. The root of this is fear that God can’t be trusted; we don’t think he really has our best interests in mind; we think he’s holding out on us. It is rooted in a denial of God’s love for us. I’d call this first step rebellion.

(2) We assign sacredness to some other group (our team, family, country, clique, etc) or symbolic object (the sun, a flag, a clothing brand, dollar bills, the Bible, etc) or idea (liberty, happiness, art, socialism, capitalism, religion, etc); we, however, are still in control (or so we think). We are choosing what to value – to make ultimate, to devote ourselves to – but it is something other than God. This is again what Paul talks about in Romans 1, echoing the mocking of human-made idols we see all over the prophets (Isaiah 44.9-20; Psalm 115.1-8). This second step I’d specifically call idolatry.

(3) We become like what we worship and so spiral downward into something less than truly human. One of the basic biblical truths about worship is that we end up looking like what we make ultimate in our lives (2 Kings 17.15; Psalm 115.8; Jeremiah 2.5; Hosea 9.10). Again this is part of what Paul is describing in Romans 1 – we trade in lives and a world made in God’s image for lives and a world made in the image of something much smaller, so our humanity shrinks. We become less human and more beast-like, tearing one another apart at the seams. Witness Genesis 4-11, for example. I’d call this step corruption.

(4) We find ourselves controlled by the system, unable to break free from the huge suicide machine we’ve constructed. Think about the problems of corporate greed, neglect of the poor, and abuse of the environment. These things are inescapably sinful, but the people making the harmful decisions often feel like they have no decision at all; they feel trapped – trapped by their history, trapped by a competitive market, trapped by an unaware public, etc. The same is true in families: marriages spiral downward until spouses have forgotten how to show one another love even if they wanted to, and they’re afraid to want to because their love efforts might not be reciprocated. It’s also true on an individual level (we can’t not sin). This is the enslavement described in John 8, Romans 6-7, Titus 3, etc. I’d call this stage bondage.

(5) We resign ourselves to despair, believing the lie that our dungeon is actually paradise, or the lie that though it is indeed a dungeon there’s nothing we can do about it. There are two tracks this can take. One is that we end up “calling evil good” as Paul talked about in Romans 1. We accept a purposeless existence where anything goes; of course this only makes the problem worse, but who cares, right? Or the second track is that we see problems and feel totally helpless to do anything significant about them. So we give up and we settle for a decent existence with an adequate house, 2.5 kids, a car that runs, and maybe a few church or humanitarian donations to ease our conscience. I’d call this step depravity or despair, since it really is twofold. (Another option is that we try to save or fix things on our own, often with or through our idol of choice.)

So the spiral here is rebellion, idolatry, corruption, bondage, and depravity or despair. (And it’s not hard to see where God’s “justice” and/or “wrath” is both aroused and manifested throughout.) I really do believe that this provides a solid base from which we could understand everything happening in our world. And I believe all of this is what Jesus came to overcome, and the gospel is surely about Jesus doing no less than that.

The question of conversion is such a huge one, probably the most important question we could ask as far as actually being the church and going about ministry. For now I’ll just say that we need to communicate something of God’s overall mission or plan and what it would mean to make that story our story, so to speak. And we need to be clear with people that we’re calling them to what really is a radical change that totally impacts every portion of their private and public lives. Since we’re finally in a non-Constantinian or non-Christendom context again, we have much to learn from the church in the first few centuries. I think we need to return to the idea of a catechism or something very much like it. I could say much more about conversion, but I’ll push pause for now.

SB: If sin is implicated in all that is broken in ourselves and the world, and the scope of the gospel is meant to be good news both personally and socially, doesn’t this call for an expansion and diversification of how we think about the church’s vocation in the world? In your own ministry context at Real Life Church, how have you tried to apply a bigger vision of church mission?

MD: Yes, I’d say it certainly does (depending, of course, on how we’re thinking about it now). I have another list, but I’ll spare you that and jump to your next question! I don’t pretend to have thought this all the way out (as if that’s possible) or to be doing it extremely well, but I can give two or three examples of the small steps I’ve taken.

Probably the simplest thing I do is teach this stuff whenever I get the chance. For instance I just finished a six-week course called “The Forgotten Message of Jesus” where we explored Jesus’ vision of the kingdom of God (which the title assumes we’ve neglected or forgotten). In the class I tried hard to expand people’s vision of what Jesus came to do and be along some of the lines we’ve been talking about. So teaching and preaching a larger or broader gospel is a must, and of course this means communicating that the church is not just a factory for saving individual souls but a communal incarnation of God’s kingdom, the firstfruits of the renewal of all creation.

But obviously that’s not enough. Another of my responsibilities is to walk people through the process of conversion and baptism. And I have worked (and am still working!) to lead people away from sub-biblical ideas about what they’re doing and toward the things mentioned above. Often I will refuse to baptize people for quite a long time because really what they want is some sort of generic “new start” or they want God to sanction what they’re already doing, etc, etc. Again, I/we are only beginning to grasp what it would mean to re-think conversion properly, but I do hope we’re headed in the right direction. Whatever we do, we will probably have to learn how to help people identify the story or worldview (or whatever you want to call it) they’re coming in with, and how it is (in part or whole) adopted, adapted, or rejected by the story they’re entering. (Again, a catechism of sorts seems necessary to me.)

And my main job at RLC is to help oversee about half of our small groups. We’re pretty fiercely committed to forming our groups based not on affinity or demographic but simply on whom you happen to live near. There are many reasons for this but one of them is that we don’t view “community” as a place to hang out with other people just like you, or to have your consumeristic relational needs met by getting together with people you already like. The idea is that we actually learn to love one another, eh? So we seek diversity (as much as we can in suburbia), which means we inevitably have conflict. If there’s one thing I have come to see (to my own surprise) as essential to believing in, embodying, and witnessing to a larger gospel – or, in other words, to living a “saved” life – it is working through conflict rightly. So much of the New Testament is about exactly this (I think about Romans 14-15 and much of 1 Corinthians, not to mention the more theological and programmatic statements in Galatians 3, Ephesians 2.11ff, and Colossians 3. The gospel is demonstrated in our relationships with one another in the church, which is the present context for salvation to become a living reality. (Maybe extra ecclesiam nulla salus is true after all. 😉 ) So that’s a start. A small one for sure, but a start nonetheless.

SB: When you speak of how each of us are embedded in a larger story or worldview and how becoming a Christian is like entering a new story, it makes me think of the cultural context of each gospel community. In your view, what are the unique challenges and opportunities for being the church in America today?

MD: Oh my, that is a huge question. I keep thinking I’m going to be able to write shorter answers, but I’m afraid it might never happen! The church’s missional challenge is always to ask questions about how a given culture shapes persons and communities away from God’s purposes for their lives, and how to form holy (i.e. alternative or counter-cultural) communities that live by a different mandate; in America this is perhaps especially difficult because of the ambiguous history of “Christianity” here (which we don’t have the space to discuss much here). Let me make two or three specific remarks and we’ll go from there.

1. We need to be honest about the degree to which consumerism and militarism (or greed and violence, if you prefer; among other things of course) have shaped us, and we need to allow the Spirit to re-shape us into the ways of God’s just and peaceful kingdom. We need to confront these ideologies head on in our teaching ministries (much as we would analyze and confront the caste system if we were in India, or communism or Islam or whatever), at least insofar as they shape us into something other than disciples of Jesus (and insofar as they harm the world’s weakest and most vulnerable). Similarly and perhaps on a deeper note, we need to become aware of how liberalism (the kind that encompasses both “liberals” and “conservatives”) has shaped many of our most fundamental values and convictions. In short, we need missional cultural analysis based on our shared commitment to obeying and embodying Jesus in every possible way. Or to put it one more way, we need to spend lots of time praying together and reflecting on the very question you just asked me.

2.  A little more concretely, we in the church have a choice to make with regard to how we relate to our changing culture. It’s no secret that the world we inhabit seems less vaguely “Christian” than it did fifty years ago. (I should perhaps stress seems.) Your average person on the street probably has less understanding of Christianity (its basic teachings, the Bible’s main stories, etc) than in the past. So we have a couple of options. Do we make it easier for people to cross the line of faith by adopting something like a seeker-sensitive (or whatever) approach to ministry? Or do we acknowledge that it will take much longer and be a much slower process for people to become part of our faith family (that is, to become “Christians”)? Do we embrace our strangeness, so to speak, and not hide the fact that we’re calling people to a fundamentally different way of life than they’re currently living, that they’ll be forced to rethink everything (and perhaps, for example, find a new career or say goodbye to a current relationship) when they surrender their life to Jesus?

3.  The challenge here is that everyone already thinks they’re Christian (or something fairly close to it) when in fact their lives on almost every level have no real resemblance to the way of Jesus. This is true both inside and outside of the church. We’ve got to help people (perhaps ourselves) come to terms with this fact, to begin to re-imagine what life with Jesus is all about and re-decide who they/we are and what we will call ourselves. Or as Hauerwas would put it, we need to show the world that it is the world, and then we’ll be in a better position to invite people to join the church.

Goodness, I hope at least some of this makes some sense. To sum it up, we need to listen to Lesslie Newbigin, Hauerwas, and John Howard Yoder in dialogue with each other.

SB: Speaking of John Howard Yoder, I know it’s important for you that Christians engage on issues of violence and peace in the world today. But whether on the personal or political levels, this issue ignites fierce controversy. Why is this issue so important to you and how does pacifism relate to the gospel?

MD: (Let me first offer this disclaimer: I speak only as an individual here – and on everything up to this point, for that matter! – and not on behalf of my church or any other group or institution with which I am affiliated.)

It’s important to me because it was important to Jesus and the rest of the New Testament writers. I know that sounds cheesy or like it’s cheating or whatever, but the fact is that suffering love for enemies was one of the most revolutionary and integral aspects of Jesus’ mission and the earliest Christian communities. We would all grant that “love” (rightly defined) was central to Jesus’ vision of life in God’s kingdom. This is especially evident in the writings of John, where it’s almost comically central and pervasive. And when we ask the necessary next question of what it means to rightly define love according to Jesus, right there we have love for enemies staring us in the face. Another reason it’s important to me is because it is so widely ignored or rejected by most Christians (ever since the Constantinian overhaul), so it is a particularly ugly stain on the church’s white clothes. I’ll admit that it may also be part of the Spirit’s unique call on my life (as well as a very helpful test of how far a person or community is willing to go in order to obey Jesus [to death?]), but I defy anyone to use that fact to dismiss the New Testament’s clear and consistent witness on the topic. (Sorry if I sound a little punchy. I realize that many Jesus-loving, Bible-believing people (who probably love God more than me) disagree on this issue.)

As far as how it relates to the gospel, I see the cycle of violence as one of the many ways Sin has enslaved us to our own destructive patterns, from all of which Jesus saves us. I also see it as reflecting to the whole world God’s kind of love revealed in the gospel. But I tend to view “pacifism” most of all in terms of its consistency or inconsistency with our identity as Christians. Who are we (called to be), and is violence/killing compatible with that or not?

We are disciples of Jesus… As such our first and last goal in life is to be faithful to Jesus by following his example and teachings, both of which fairly clearly forbid violence / killing and call us to seek peace and justice through creative nonviolent means only. Certainly we don’t want to die, but we’d rather die than disobey our Master and King. And this isn’t just a matter of “moral effort,” though there will be plenty of that. God is transforming us by the power of his Spirit into the image of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus – his actual life, as in how he lived and loved – is being reproduced in us.

We are beloved sinners… Though we were enemies of God and deserving of death, God took upon himself the death we deserved. God chose to let us kill him rather than to justly destroy us. While God at times seems to engage in violence, Jesus-followers are never commanded, invited, or allowed to participate in any way. Instead we are repeatedly commanded to imitate God’s undeserved forgiving and suffering love.

We are kingdom witnesses… By the power of God’s Spirit, new creation has become a present reality in us. We embody God’s future kingdom in the present as a sign and foretaste of what’s to come. Because (a) this kingdom does not “fight to defend itself” (this is how Jesus fleshed out what it means to be “not of this world” in John 18) and (b) this world is as yet unredeemed, our witness often takes the form of suffering and even death, as did Jesus’ (and countless martyrs’).

And we are spiritual warriors… We are very much in a war against evil forces and indeed we fight to the death. But we know the real enemy is not flesh and blood and so we simply do not use the world’s weapons; our warfare methods are to resist the temptation to avoid suffering through violence and to love, bless, and do good to our enemies. To lose our lives in this battle is to triumph over Evil. (I can provide lots of supporting texts if anyone wants them.)

Of course I’m assuming everyone would agree that we are (a) disciples of Jesus committed above all to following his teaching and example / being conformed to his image, (b) beloved and forgiven sinners through Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross, (c) witnesses to God’s counter-cultural kingdom, and (d) soldiers in a battle against Satan/Sin/Evil/Death. Again, I know that not all would agree with the conclusions I draw from there. I’d be happy if the question, posed in this way, were at least taken seriously.

The next step for me is to honestly ask in what ways my lifestyle is made possible or propped up by injustice or covert violence. I admit that it’s a little silly for me to pronounce ethically on an issue like this to people in other, very much more dangerous, situations. But that doesn’t change what Scripture says.

SB: You work at Real Life Church in California – is it a Restoration Movement affiliated church?

MD: Yes, it is, though probably somewhat loosely defined. It was planted by the Idleman’s, for what that’s worth. 🙂

I would love to say a few things about the RM in general and Ozark specifically. As far as our movement, I really have come full circle in a way. Early on at Fuller I noticed kind of a derogatory feel towards “restorationists” and almost a dismissal of sorts. “Oh, you’re a restorationist,” I heard more than once, as if it was like being a Clippers fan or being in the wrong political party. I was never ashamed of our movement, but I wondered for a while if I’d eventually come to feel like it was something I’d need to outgrow. Also learning about the American frontier context does a bit to humbly put things into perspective. But then as I continued not only studying but ministering in the local church, I really saw the brilliance of the Restoration vision and became very proud of my heritage. It clears the right path through so many issues, at least potentially. Take the whole New Perspective question, for example. I was in a New Testament class with Donald Hagner at Fuller and he said, in reference to it, “You really think Luther didn’t understand Paul?” And I realized that for all the ink he may have spilled trying to disprove it (along with all sorts of stupid “Wright is wrong” jokes), he probably never really gave it a fair hearing – maybe even couldn’t – because for him it was out of the question that Luther may have gotten things wrong a bit or stretched some texts to fit his own questions. For us this isn’t – or shouldn’t be, I should say – an issue at all, because it is the text of the New Testament that is determinative for us, not later interpretations (whether Lutheran, evangelical, or otherwise).

I also think about the “Bible wars,” where using the wrong label to describe Scripture causes all sorts of problems. I get the sense that if our movement’s original leaders were asked to define their doctrine of Scripture, they’d have quoted 2 Tim 3.16 or something. We could pick any number of issues. At any rate, there is lots of wisdom in saying, “This is what the Bible says and we don’t need to go beyond that.” And in treating no opinion or doctrine as sacred or undebatable so long as the challenge to it is likewise based on the Bible. So I love the Restoration Movement and I’m proud of it. (Of course it helps that pretty much all the early leaders were pacifists. J)

And about OCC, I know this project is dedicated to how we’ve developed since Ozark but I want to make sure it’s clear that I see my own growth and development as an outworking of what I learned there. In my experience Ozark has not been something to grow out of but rather to build upon. Honestly, I don’t like to think of where and who I’d be had I not gone there, and almost everything I’ve said here can be traced back to classes I took and/or relationships I formed while there. Beth and I support OCC however we can and I happily have three siblings planning on attending this and next year (my sister Cassandra will be a freshmen in just a few months!!). I was grateful to see that the tenor of Turtle Dialogues (to the credit of you guys running it) has not at all been anti-Ozark, which is why I said yes to the interview!

Anyhow, not that you were asking all that, but yes we are a RM church and I continue to feel very at home in our movement.

SB: For people that might want to pursue further some of the trajectories you brought up, who are some of the authors and teachers and books that have influenced you the most?

MD: We’ve talked about many different things so it would certainly depend on which “trajectory” someone wanted to follow. I’ll make a few suggestions and then I can follow up with more in the comments if anyone’s interested.

Two very readable books that didn’t necessarily get me to where I am but reflect it well are The Drama of Scripture by Bartholomew & Goheen, Mere Discipleship by Lee Camp and maybe Reading Paul by Michael Gorman. That’s a great place to start. I already mentioned Yoder and Newbigin, and to that I’d definitely add N. T. Wright. In different ways they are the biggest recent influences on my thinking about the gospel, the church, being “missional,” etc. I’ve also found Joel Green, Alan Kreider, Stanley Grenz, and Vinoth Ramachandra helpful in different ways. Getting more specific… on nonviolence I’d suggest Ronald Sider’s Christ and Violence, Robert Brimlow’s What About Hitler?, chapter 14 of Richard Hays Moral Vision of the NT, and probably Greg Boyd’s Myth of a Christian Nation. On America more generally, Richard Hughes’ Myths America Lives By and the more radical/iconoclastic Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the USA. (You don’t have to agree with Zinn to benefit from reading this book.) On the church I try to keep Resident Aliens and Rodney Clapp’s A Peculiar People on one hand, Dallas Willard on another, and Newbigin on a third. More practically, I’ve benefitted a great deal from Alan Hirsch’s The Forgotten Ways and What is Missional? by Roxburgh and Boren (and to a lesser extent, Frank Viola’s Pagan Christianity and Reimagining Church, and David Fitch’s The Great Giveaway). Even more practically, the way we do small groups is based on Randy Frazee’s two books.

Wow, that’s kind of a mess of a list! There are other books that have meant a great deal to me personally, but in terms of my thinking and the things we’ve discussed this is a good summary of my influences.

SB: Michael thanks very much for your time and thoughts and congratulations for the baby girl you have on the way.

MD: My pleasure. And we are very excited to welcome Claire Elizabeth in just a few short weeks! I’m sure she will have years of fun rolling her eyes at me talking about all these kinds of things.

Interview with Matthew Umbarger

Matt Umbarger is a recipient of the Dally Evangelism award and he graduated from OCC in 2000.  His life has been eventful ever since. This Kansas boy moved to Israel, where he now lives with his wife and three children.  Currently he is completing his PhD at Ben-Gurion University in Israel.  But perhaps the most significant point of his spiritual growth came from outside the university.  In 2004, after much prayer and meditation, Matt and his family joined the Catholic Church. As you will see below, Matt has thrived in the Church, but as he will be the first to tell you, his leap of faith was not without its difficulties. Yet throughout this process Matt has demonstrated a maturity, a commitment to humble self-evaluation, and above all an abiding faith. What you can read below is an excellent example of the integration of learning into spiritual praxis. I invite you to read with an open heart, and see that “all who wander are not lost.”

Solomon Burchfield: Tony Blair. Newt Gingrich. Matthew Umbarger. Aren’t you just another case of a celebrity converting to Catholicism for political gain?

Matthew Wade Umbarger: Yeah. Today Beer-Sheva. Tomorrow the World!


SB: So, you grew up in a conservative tradition derivative of the Protestant reformation, what attracted you to the Catholic tradition?

MWU: That’s a hard question to give a single answer to. As you would expect, I am asked that all the time, and I find myself giving a slightly different answer almost every time.

In retrospect, I keep coming back to aesthetics. Catholicism cares a great deal for beauty, and that’s important to me. But the biggest reason was an ache for the unity of Christ’s body. That provoked us to make this decision more than anything else. Those two things, unity and aesthetics, probably sum the rest up pretty well.

SB: How would you define aesthetics in theology, and why is it important?

MWU: I’m no philosopher, but somewhere in philosophy there is this idea that truth, goodness, and beauty are all different modes of being. Evil has no substance in and of itself. It only perverts and mars “being.” God is the only self-existent being, and is, in a matter of speaking, pure Being. All other “beings” are dependent upon him for their existence. Even His name, YHWH, seems to mean “being” in Hebrew. Taking all of this into consideration, it only makes sense that truth and beauty should be closely related. If I am trying to articulate truth in a manner that is not inherently beautiful, then I think that raises real issues about how in touch with truth I really am.

I think this explains a lot about the process of revelation. God chose subjective vessels like poetry and narrative to reveal Himself in. Even the Torah, the law-code of Israel, is framed in narrative. They didn’t just get a pile of statutes or a constitution with glowing letters. And of course, the incarnation is the summit of this process of revelation, and with that you get more beauty and more subjectivity.

This is not to say that objective truth is non-existent or irrelevant, but it seems to me that God cares just as much about the way truth is conveyed as He does about what data is communicated.

SB: The Restorationist tradition (Christian Church, Church of Christ, Disciples of Christ) you grew up in was also dedicated to and animated by a vision of church unity right?

MWU: For sure. In fact, and this always gets a really colorful reaction from folks, I really believed that we were pursuing Restoration Movement principles when we decided to become Catholic. For a long time I was convinced that we had not really left the movement. Looking back, I realize that we were pretty naive about all of that. I now see that we interpreted that unity message in a different way than most Restorationists do.

When I say something like that, I always hear Obi-Wan shouting, “You were supposed to destroy the Sith! Not join them!” I have gone back and read the Campbells since all of this, and I have to admit, I was hearing what I wanted to, I guess.

Let me just add, while I’m on the subject, that I’ve always been very grateful for my experiences at Ozark and get homesick for the Restoration Movement quite often. I have long dreamed of being able to return there in some manner.

There is a real tension between unity and doctrinal purity in the Restoration Movement. I must say, much of the ecumenical movement has pursued unity at the price of giving up a whole lot of doctrinal purity. It’s not even an issue for so many. It’s seductive, because pursuing unity without pursuing truth will only lead to more fragmentation, ultimately. I still agree with what I was taught at Ozark, “Truth is the only way that you can really achieve unity.” I still admire the Restoration Movement for this.

But we all have to admit that none of us has the truth down 100%. So there is a need for charity in our pursuit of truth.

I think that a lot of the criticisms of the Restoration Movement began to sound uncharitable to me at a certain point. There seemed to be a lot of pride involved, an unwillingness to concede that there was a possibility that their other brothers and sisters in Christ might be right about a few things, too. Sometimes it seemed as though other viewpoints were painted as willfully rebelling against the Word of God, rather than obeying their conscience.

All of this raised questions. Ultimately, it raised the big question: “Were the Reformers justified in splitting the Western European Church?” Eventually, I had a hard time believing that they were. Please understand, I know that the Catholic Church was in dire need of reform at that time. I’m just not sure that it was the Spirit of God that was telling the Reformers to take their ball and go home.

I must add, by the way, I see that God has used all of these divisions, rooted as they are in our human falleness, to accomplish great good.

SB: As you wrestled through these issues, who influenced you the most? And when did you decide you needed to take the plunge and become Catholic?

MWU: My biggest influences were the Apostolic Fathers. They had inherited leadership of the Church straight from the Apostles, and their ecclesiology is very Catholic. They preach over and over again on the necessity of remaining united with the local bishop in all things. They were writing just about the time that Gnosticism was making real inroads in the Church. They insist that unity with the bishop is unity with Christ. The tradition I grew up in has tried to interpret this development of “monoepiscopacy” as an aberrant, local development, but at a certain point that seemed to be a real stretch. It’s just too widespread. It’s hard for me to believe that so many orthodox Christians would have unanimously allowed such a development to occur if they had not been prepared for it by the preaching of the Apostles.

I remember one day a box of books arrived in the mail from “The Coming Home Network,” a Catholic apostolate dedicated to bringing non-Catholic clergy into the Catholic Church. Robin, my wife, asked me what they were, and where they had come from. Now, you have to understand that I was absolutely terrified of where this road was going to take me. I had kept most of my studies private, even from Robin. But now I couldn’t hide it any more. I told her that some guy that I had met online had sent them to me, (which was essentially true). I took out a book entitled Journeys Home, and said, “Here, why don’t you read this?” I was pretty sure that she would either refuse or read it with a lot of criticism of what she found in there. I was actually hoping that she would. Instead, she read it through and came back to me a few days later and asked, “So, are we going to become Catholic, or what?” That’s when the crisis moment came. I walked to the university in the rain that day, and I remember praying the whole way, propping up one reason after another why it was just ridiculous for us to do this, reminding Jesus how much we stood to lose. After each reason, He replied the same way. “Do you love Me more than your family? Do you love Me more than your support? Do you love Me more than Ozark? Do you love Me more than being an ordained minister?”

We were in contact with a catechist a few weeks later. That was about six years ago.

SB: Now that you’re Catholic, what are the biggest differences you see between the Evangelical and Catholic theological perspectives? And have you found the experience of community and mission to be different?

MWU: This may sound ironic, but I find Catholicism to be much more focused on God’s grace rather than on our own works. Most spiritual instruction has a greater emphasis on retreating and allowing oneself to be embraced by God’s love as received in the sacraments as well as in non-liturgical prayer and meditation. There is not as much of a “let’s do something great for God” kind of push about it. This has been hard for me to adjust to, because I came into the Catholic Church wanting to do something great for God. My spiritual directors remind me time and time again of the necessity to allow God to do what He has already begun in me, and to be patient with His agenda. I am learning a lot more about the virtue of prudence, I guess. I suppose that this is more a question of spirituality than theology.

The biggest theological difference, I think, is probably that Evangelicals read the New Testament almost as a legal document, and Catholics consider the New Testament to be a covenant in the same way that marriage is. This touches on virtually every thing that we read in the Bible and every doctrine that we hold true. For instance, for Catholics, justification is not just a “legal fiction” that we acquire in the divine courtroom through Jesus’ blood. For us, Jesus’ blood not only takes away our guilt, but it actually transforms us into righteous people. We are not declared justified. We are made just, conformed into the image of His Son.

I know that when you get down to it, Evangelicals believe that, too, but they have a different way of explaining it. They tend to say that our good works flow out of a gracious heart in thanksgiving for what Christ has done, for instance. We would say that those good works are the result of the infused life of Christ that we have received in baptism, the Eucharist, etc. Really, I have to admit, that it all kind of seems like a semantic argument to me at times.

Another huge difference is that Catholics have a truly different understanding of the role of suffering in our life. Suffering has a purpose. It disciplines us, and can bring us further into fellowship with the Father. But more than that, all of our suffering is a real opportunity to participate in Jesus’ passion. It can become a type of prayer and intercession. When we are going through a hard time, we tell each other, “Offer it up.” We actually believe that having a cold can be a way to help save the world.

Our experience of “church community” is not so different, I don’t think. Theologically it has a different tone in that Catholicism is not nearly as individualistic as Evangelicalism. You don’t hear things like, “personal relationship with Christ” as often, (although it would be wrong to say that it has no place in Catholicism. It is especially prevalent in the mystics, for instance). We have a rather communal experience of salvation. And, of course, we read Scripture as a community rather than relying on individual interpretations.

Missiology is truly different. I think this goes back to relaxing and allowing God to do His work through His grace and in His own time and way again. You will not find many Catholics urging one another to go on evangelistic crusades in the same way as Evangelicals do, for instance. This has been a major adjustment for us. In more specific, local terms, the Catholic Church has clearly and routinely stated that she does NOT have a mission to the Jews. This does not mean that we do not maintain a witness to the Jews, as we do for all peoples, and anybody, including Jews, are welcome to become Catholic, but we do not actively preach the Gospel here as the Catholic Church does in other countries.

SB: What about the doctrine of papal infallibility and the role of Mary in the Catholic system of belief?

MWU: When I became Catholic, those were the two biggies that I was still not sure about. I did not consider them to be grave enough differences to prevent us from entering the Catholic Church. Today, we joyfully accept those doctrines, and most of that has come about by way of putting it into the perspective of the whole of Christian doctrine instead of analyzing them up close. I’ll try to explain that, but first of all it will be important to clarify what it is that we believe about these things.

By papal infallibility, we do not mean that the pope cannot be wrong about anything, like I have heard lots of Protestants say. It is a very specific circumstance, when the Church is at a quandary about an important matter of faith or morals. The pope, guided by the Holy Spirit, has the trump card that can guide the Church down the right path. This is called speaking ex cathedra, “out of the seat.” Now, to put that into perspective, it is important to realize that this is just a corollary to a belief that the Church has had as far back as we can trace, and that is that the Church itself is infallible (I can hear the rustle of eyebrows rising on that one). This means that we have the certainty that the Holy Spirit will not allow the Church to be shipwrecked on the rocks of heresy. We see this particularly in the ecumenical councils, where infallible doctrines were pronounced, things like the Trinity and the Canon of Scripture.

Now, I realize that this is still pretty far out for most Evangelicals to deal with. It’s really not any more far out than belief in the infallibility of Scripture, though. They think it is incredible that we believe that the Church is protected from doctrinal error by the Holy Spirit, but they have no problem believing the same thing about the authors of Scripture. I have come to see infallibility of the Church/Pope in this perspective. I doubt that I have convinced anyone with that, but that’s my stance.

Mary is a little different. Can I say that I believe the Marian doctrines of the Church because the Church has infallibly proclaimed them? [laughter]

Let’s begin with what we do and do not believe in regards to Mary. We do not believe that Mary is a goddess. We do not believe she is inherently righteous. We do not worship her.

But we do believe that she was preserved from sin through Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross in a retroactive way. So she was preserved as a holy vessel for the Incarnate Word of the Father to receive His genetic material from and for him to be raised by. She is the Ark of the New Covenant.

We love Mary because we love Jesus. Historically, questions about the person of Christ have always provoked Mariology. For instance, you find that the Arianists were the first ones to assert that Mary was not Ever-Virgin. Jerome was outraged by this and considered it to be an assault on the doctrine of Christ’s divinity. That doesn’t make sense to our modern mindset, perhaps, but I’m just trying to show that all of these Marian doctrines were built up to protect the Church’s proper understanding of who Jesus is.

The other thing about Mary that is important to understand is that she is Bat Zion, the “Daughter of Zion,” the archetype of the Church. So, for instance, when we see her assumed into heaven and crowned, that is a picture of our destiny. That should excite us. I know that it’s not in the Bible, but it’s not all that far-fetched, is it, when we see the same thing happening to Enoch and Elijah? Why couldn’t He have done it for His own mother? And Revelation 12 seems to hint just a bit at it. Of course, ultimately, this is the big difference between Catholics and Protestants: Catholics don’t have to have everything spelled out for them in Scripture to accept it as authentic apostolic teaching.

When we pray to Mary, we are actually asking her to intercede for us, even while we’re praying with her. We do not pray to her in the same way that we do to God, at all. It is an affirmation of the Communion of the Saints. Saints pray for each other, and that doesn’t stop when saints go to heaven.

SB: Some Evangelicals do not consider Catholics to be true Christians. Was becoming Catholic hard on some of your relationships with colleagues, friends or family?

MWU: Of course. I think that every one of our relationships has been strained to some degree, if for no other reason that we had to get re-filed into different folders for everybody. I have had every response imaginable. Many folks have expressed their continued fellowship and esteem. Some, after a bit of a squabble, were able to accept us more or less. Others broke off fellowship. We were asked not to come back to the Messianic Jewish fellowship we had been attending here in Beer-Sheva.

I think the most difficult thing was hearing all of the reasons that folks had conjured up for our decision. It has been very difficult for some folks to accept our explanations. I have been told that we were sucked in by the nice Catholic church we met here after being isolated from the Restoration Movement, that I was arrogant and thought that I knew better than our teachers and preachers, and I was even asked once how much the Vatican had paid us to convert!

SB: Some people find large-scale changes hard to believe. Another thing that has changed for you as you’ve pursued your PhD at Ben Gurion University is how you approach the Bible. If these are fair representatives, how would you compare the approaches of say, Hermann Gunkel and Gleason Archer?

MWU: Wow! Gunkel and Archer! Let’s take a minute to explain just who these guys are. Let’s begin with Archer, because he represents the school of thought that I have strayed from. In my Old Testament Introduction course, taught by my revered teacher, Wilbur Fields, we used his book, A Survey of Old Testament Introduction, as the standard by which other approaches to the OT were to be judged. This book was first published in 1964, has had three revisions, and the edition we used is copyrighted 1994. In the introduction, in the section labeled “The Purpose of the Bible” (p. 15), Archer states that the “Holy Bible comes to us as a set of directions, right from the hand of the Manufacturer who first invented and produced the human race.” There you have it. The Bible, for Gleason Archer, belongs to roughly the same genre as the manual for my Toyota. Riveting. (With literal rivets).

The rest of the book is dedicated to a thoroughgoing polemic against non-Fundamentalist readings of Scripture. I brought this book to Israel with me as a defense against the “liberal” instruction that I knew I would be bombarded with at Ben-Gurion University. Within a week of my studies here, I had pretty much shelved it and have not picked it up much since. I realized very quickly that the ammo that Archer was providing me with was woefully inadequate.

Today, I find two severe weaknesses in Archer’s approach (apart from its greatest weakness, which is the utilitarian appreciation for the Bible that I have already underlined). First of all, Archer assumes that there are basically two schools of thought: Fundamentalism (which he labels orthodoxy) and Source Criticism as defined by Wellhausen. The entire book is filled with JEPD this and JEPD that. The problem is, although Wellhausen is indeed responsible for opening new critical approaches to Scripture, no one has really relied on him for a good 100 years. In fact, the question of literary sources, though it creeps up often enough, just isn’t that important to modern Bible researchers. So Archer (and his disciples) are blasting away at source criticism without realizing that they are attacking an empty bunker. (By the way, Gleason Archer passed away in 2004, so it isn’t accurate to depict him as actively involved in the debate any more like I am doing here).

The second weakness is that Archer’s arguments are not very convincing. He dedicates pages and pages to exposing disagreements between various non-Fundamentalists, alludes to archaeological discoveries that confirm, for him, the historicity of the biblical account, and includes dozens of superficial linguistic studies that supposedly prove things like Mosaic authorship. But he doesn’t really address any of the difficult questions that biblical researchers have posited over the last hundred years. For instance, how do we explain the apparent contradictions between passages that state unequivocally that Jerusalem is the only place the sacrifices are to be made and those that seem to refer to legitimate sacrifices being made elsewhere? (The story of Elijah comes to mind). Folks in my university consider arguments like Archer’s to be ineffectual attacks upon straw men.

When I came across Hermann Gunkel (d. 1932), I was pleasantly surprised. I was predisposed to regard him as yet another unbelieving critic undermining faith in Scripture as the Word of God, mostly because of critiques from folks like Archer. Instead, I discovered a man with a vibrant faith. Here is a fellow who found himself at a dramatic period in biblical studies in Germany. A few years before his birth, the first essay in the first volume of Zeitschrift für Wissenschaftliche Theologie in 1858 suggested that Christianity needed to stop bothering about doctrine and pursue the real core of religion, which was supposed to be ethics. Then Wellhausen put forth his version of the documentary hypothesis. Almost immediately, atheistic critics of Christianity thought they smelled blood in the water, and began turning all of these new ideas to their advantage. More traditionalist scholars, like Franz Delitzsch, laid the foundations for Fundamentalist readings of the OT at this point in reaction to these attacks. It got pretty ugly for a while. Most of the research at this time was pretty polemical. Both sides, in thoroughly modernist fashion, were obsessed with bolstering their opinions with scientific proofs. They had a tendency to approach Scripture like archaeologists attempting to excavate the history of ancient Israel. The title of Wellhausen’s magnum opus, Prolegomena zur Geschichte Israels (“Prolegomena to the History of Israel”), exemplifies this trend very well.

Then along comes Gunkel, and he does something really remarkable. Basically, he says, “None of this really matters. Isn’t the text itself, as we have it today, what is important? What can we understand about the text of the Bible by comparing it with other literatures from the ancient Near East? What is the artistic form of the text? What genre does it fall into?” He appealed to approaching the Biblical text as literature. Today that doesn’t sound very earth shattering, but the world that Gunkel was writing in needed to be corrected in just such a way. He was one of the first biblical scholars to make extensive use of comparative literatures. He also established form criticism as a worthy opponent to the source criticism of the day.

Most important from a theological standpoint, Gunkel never forgets that the Bible is the Word of God. Yet, he is not threatened by sincere inquiries that call into question harmonistic approaches to the text. For instance, he did not have to insist that Moses wrote the Pentateuch for it still to have value.

Many of Gunkel’s approaches have been discarded today, and for good reason, but my encounter with him was invigorating, because it showed me that the dialogue between the various schools of interpretation is full of various nuances, and that it is not fair to just label everyone as a “conservative” or a “liberal” and assume you know all about how they interpret the Bible or what their relationship with God is like. Gunkel prepared the way for the hermeneutic called “canonical criticism” which cares more for the final, edited product of Scripture than any considerations of literary sources. If I had to categorize myself as anything, I guess that I would be a canon critic.

It all comes down to aesthetics again. Gunkel reads the Biblical text as a work of art that conveys truth. It is not so important to him whether or not the literature that we encounter there is always a historical narrative in the modern sense of the word. Gleason Archer, who represents the school of thought that Ozark Christian College holds to, more or less, is more interested in polemics. The Bible is a vessel of true facts. You can read it using the same rules of hermeneutics that you would use to interpret the newspaper. I think this is the chasm between the two schools: a narrative of truth versus a collection of true facts.

People in the restoration movement do not like to be labeled as Fundamentalists. But, apart from a few things (Calvinism, Eschatology), they pretty much hold to a Fundamentalist hermeneutic. All you have to do is pull out the Creation narrative on them. If a preacher or teacher were to assert that the question of whether or not the world was created in a literal six days was irrelevant, they would not be able to hold their position for very long in most of the Christian Church institutions that I am familiar with.

There is a truly atheistic skepticism that is indeed at work in much of biblical research, but we can become distracted by it and lose track of the real message of Scripture if we’re not careful. Aesthetics again. Scripture is not just a collection of facts. If we are threatened by honest questions about how we received the Bible, does that not reveal that we have accepted the assertion of the atheists that the critical approach to Scripture has rendered it obsolete, at least to a certain extent?

I do not dare to let on as though I have this all figured out, but I think it might help to clarify all of this with a certain case in point. Most mainstream biblical scholarship accepts the hypothesis that the book of Isaiah as we possess it today is a redacted work composed of at least three compositions that have been (masterfully, I must say), welded together by a later editor. For instance, the prophecy of Cyrus by name in Isaiah 44:28 is considered by most interpreters to have been written not by Isaiah, but by a contemporary of Cyrus.

Archer seems to assume that the only reason that anyone would reject Isaian authorship of this verse is that they were rationalistic and had an anti-supernaturalist stance that prevents them from believing in the possibility of authentic fulfilled prophecy (A Survey of Old Testament Introduction, 370). That’s not a fair treatment of all of his opponents’ positions, though.

Fundamentalists have wasted a lot of ink on all of this, going to great lengths to “prove” that there was only one author of Isaiah. But you can’t prove something like that. Eventually, after spinning my wheels over here in all of my courses, it occurred to me that it really doesn’t matter whether or not Isaiah wrote the entire book attributed to him or not. If a contemporary of Cyrus wrote that prophecy, it is still inspired by the same Holy Spirit, and it still has the power to convey God’s truth. In fact, kerygmatically, it makes more sense. What would Hezekiah need to know about Cyrus for?

Fundamentalists would probably say that I am a rationalist, and that’s why I think someone besides Isaiah wrote 44:28. But that’s just silly; after all, I’m the one that believes that Jesus turns the bread and wine into His body and blood every time I go to Mass. So there.

It’s not that I don’t believe that the Holy Spirit could have inspired Isaiah to prophesy Cyrus by name. I just don’t understand why we have to insist that this must be the case when there is an easier explanation. We need to use Ockham’s razor here, I think. I mean, does it really make sense that the Holy Spirit would lower Himself to do the Nostradamus shtick?

One last thing. For most Christians I know, all of this is highly irrelevant. A good friend of mine who is a priest pastoring a flock of Filipino foreign workers here reminds me of this continually. He has managed, with God’s help and a lot of patience, to plant a deep love of Scripture in them, and to make it an important element in their daily lives. He says that if he were to take tangents in his Bible studies with them to explain the various critical approaches to Scripture, it would probably destroy their faith. I am sympathetic to what he has to say. Bible-dweebs like me live in an alternate reality where practical application of God’s Word is not as important as the Ugaritic background of the Leviathan myth.

But when a more educated person begins to expose themselves to the various non-Fundamentalist hermeneutics out there, there comes a dangerous moment of questioning when it looks as though the foundation of their faith is not very solid. If we insist that it’s an all-or-nothing proposition of Fundamentalism or atheism, then we will endanger such a person. (Trust me. I have passed through that death-shadowed valley).

Besides this, those same Filipinos would be done an equal disservice if all my friend did when they were studying the Bible together was obsess about all the bozos who had said the particular text they were reading was not true and give his list of archaeological proofs to show that it was. Fortunately for them, he bypasses all of that treacherous territory and consistently and prayerfully orients them to the Father and His care for them through that text.

SB: You’ve read a lot of primary source materials from the church fathers. What benefit would it offer the church today to reexamine some of these ancient books? Do they exhibit the same perspectives prevalent today?

MWU: Well, first of all, reading the Church Fathers is beneficial for all sorts of reasons, not the least being that they had a lot of wisdom and wrote a lot of very beautiful things. I am routinely edified by my encounter with the Fathers. Moreover, no matter how far removed we may feel from them, no matter how low church, modern and simple we may be, at least some of our Christian heritage has come down to us by way of these great men of God, and exposure to them helps to put our present-day faith into perspective. Finally, I think everyone ought to read the Church Fathers, because if they do, they will become Catholic like me.

I’m just kidding [laughter]

But seriously, the Church Fathers raise serious questions about just how “primitive” our faith is. The Apostolic Fathers do this more than anyone else, but Justin Martyr and Irenaeus are helpful (or troublesome, depending on your point of view), too.

You know, anybody can read at least some of the Fathers today, because they are on the Internet in English translation. I don’t know that everybody ought to do this, but nobody can do the same old smear job that anti-Catholics used to do without someone like me saying, “Wait a minute. Did you read what Ignatius said about that?”

The second question, about perspective, is pretty important. The answer is, surprise, surprise, the Church Fathers did not think or read the Bible like we do.

They were pre-modern. They were Eastern. They had a holistic, eternal perspective. By this, I mean that they were not troubled by questions of chronology and history like we are. For instance, it made sense to them that the Mass could be substantially the same sacrifice as was made on the cross, because they considered prayer and liturgy to have an eternal aspect to it. They didn’t have any problem using allegory to approach the biblical text. Those are just a few of the differences.

I do not think that we necessarily have to have the identical perspective that they had, but it would be wrong for us to scorn their interpretations as stupid like I have heard certain teachers do. Exposure to the Church Fathers can broaden our perspective of the Body of Christ in the same way that taking a missions trip can. It is exposure to a whole new culture. Some of it will be threatening to us, to be sure, but that doesn’t make it wrong.

SB: How has living in Israel alongside devout followers of another religion affected how you view other faiths?

MWU: It’s made me more charitable. I am less likely to try and convince someone that I am right and they are wrong. My own faith has been enriched by exposure to Judaism, in particular. I sometimes use a Jewish Siddur (prayer book) to pray. I have become more aware of the work of the Holy Spirit among non-Christians. (This reflects the teaching of the Catholic Church, as well, by the way). Jesus is the only Way to the Father, but I see more clearly that the Son and the Spirit are at work drawing people to the Father in ways that we cannot anticipate. We still have a duty, as the opportunity presents itself, to share our testimony, but I feel a lot less pressure about this than I used to. It does not depend on me. It depends on Him.

SB: What counsel would you offer to other people who may be considering a path similar to yours?

MWU: Do not deceive yourself. Don’t be naive like I was. This is going to hurt. You are not strong enough, big enough, smart enough, charismatic enough or holy enough to handle the fall-out from it. You will suffer more than you believe is possible. But at the end of it all, you will find a Holy God waiting for you to rest in His arms.

Apart from that, I would suggest two things. One I did. The other I did not. First of all, you need to read everything you can get a hold of concerning this “other path.” You need to know it inside and out. You need to know just how it is different and how it is similar to the tradition that you have grown up in. It is not a decision to be made lightly, and you want to be able to know for yourself that you knew what you were doing, because there will be a lot of people who say that you do not.

What I wish that I had done, that I did not do, is this: I should have talked to some of my mentors in the Restoration Movement about what I was going through with all of this, so that it would not have given everybody theological whiplash. In the months before we converted, Robin kept telling me that I needed to call or write to one of our professors from Ozark. I was afraid to do that. I admit it. I was a coward. Eventually, circumstances over here forced us to make our announcement in a really unfortunate manner. Someone in similar circumstances should have at least two father figures from their tradition that they have discussed this with. They should be prudent about this, though. Don’t tell everybody, because everybody doesn’t need to know. There is a fine line between openness in the Body and prudence. I am not sure yet where that line is drawn, but I can see that I was not even looking for it back then.

And one more thing, I think I spent way too much time trying to vindicate myself after it was said and done. (Is that what I’m doing here with you?). I think it might have been better for everybody concerned if I had just deleted a few of the e-mails I received without responding. Some of the bridges that I have tried to rebuild didn’t need to be, in retrospect, and I do not think that I convinced a single person that I have debated with in the years since.

Interview with Jeremy Bacon

Jeremy Bacon attended Ozark Christian College from 1997 to 2001 and graduated with an impressive 5.0. He completed his masters at Lincoln Christian Seminary and was named a “Promising Scholar” by the Stone Campbell Journal. However, after spending two years in occupational ministry he decided that, occupationally, he preferred to work in retail. Jeremy calls himself a “ministry casualty.” Fortunately, this has not stopped him from continuing to think through some of the significant issues facing the church today in preparation for returning to ministry one day soon. In our interview he reflects upon the difficulties he experienced being in church leadership, discuses ways in which his theology has matured over time, and shares thoughts on some of the hot button issues of the day.

My thanks to Jeremy for accommodating our 14 hour time difference and joining me on Skype to have this interview. You are more than welcome to listen in…

Solomon Burchfield: You were considered something of an academic stud at Ozark Christian College when I first attended and later went on to excel at Lincoln Christian Seminary. Which mega-church are you pastoring now?

Jeremy Bacon: (laughing) My daughter knows that Christmas is Jesus’ birthday, so I guess I have one person I am involved in discipling. By in large, my co-workers at Menards never wonder what words of wisdom I may be about to impart.

SB: But for a time you did serve as senior minister at a church. How would you describe your experiences in located ministry, were you prepared for it?

JB: When I think about how confidently I walked into a position of spiritual leadership over a group of grown adults, I’m really embarrassed. I was prepared to exegete scripture and to share what I learned with others.

I was totally unprepared to recognize red flags when interviewing at a congregation. I was completely unprepared for the extent to which something nominally about God could be twisted and bent in so many directions. Yes, people told me the church isn’t perfect, but the sheer size, breadth, variety, and pervasiveness of it took my breath away. And I have to invent new superlatives for how unprepared I was for the level of spiritual warfare that can go on in a local congregation.

How would I describe my experiences? Have you ever heard of the Bataan Death March? Wikipedia it. That should describe it pretty well.

SB: You were burned pretty badly. What made you leave?

JB: I’ve realized that my experience is a little different from most friends that I’ve talked to. I can’t really give you a shocking story of a precipitating event that lead to my resignation. I like to think that I’ve played enough Texas Hold ’em to know when to fold.

But to put a little flesh on our reasons for leaving . . . my wife caught it worse than I did. She has a degree in Christian Education and we actually worked out an arrangement so she would officially be involved in the church. She cared passionately, but she beat her head against a wall, and the wall beat back. They just pounded down everything she tried to do for the youth until it broke her spirit. There were some personal attacks. No good.

I, on the other hand, was the golden boy. But I eventually realized two things: 1) they largely had no intention of growing spiritually. I was hired to be spiritual for them, and 2) Jesus was not welcome at that church. Trying to stand against the spiritual forces that were at the church was killing me spiritually. April finally gave me the go-ahead to resign when I told her how often I fantasized about my own death.

SB: Did your experiences cause you to rethink basic elements of your belief system, like the nature of the church or the character of humanity?

JB: I certainly had a profound reckoning with what it means for the church to be imperfect. It’s kind of weird, but I think I’m at a place now where I can walk into a congregation and assume, without bitterness, than many (maybe most) of them are slaves to sin and rarely, if ever, try to pursue God’s heart. That’s just the reality. I refuse to give in to despair (and that has been a very deliberate, long, and difficult battle), so I can trust that some of them sometimes do seek God’s heart, and that the miracle of that fact is so precious and beautiful that it makes the rest of the mess worthwhile.

Now, my wresting about humanity has probably been even harder. While I think I overcame the dark desire to always see the worst in people, I am also no longer willing to always look with starry eyes and see the best in people. I’ve met folks who do attempt to make this move mentally. The most articulate way they do this is to say that people do what they do because they think it’s right. This certainly puts a nice shine on things, but it is simply not true. I think some folks say this for one of two reasons. First, there may be the more philosophical reason that no one ever does evil simply for evil’s sake. Even the sadist does evil because he enjoys it. This reason is easy enough to diffuse. People don’t choose evil for evil’s sake, they culpably chose a proximate good instead of an ultimate one. It is enjoyable to get a good deal on a product from which you would benefit. It is not good to trample a store employee to death in order to get it.

Second, the folks who think that people do what they do because they think it’s right probably mistake empathy for forgiveness. They think “forgiveness” is a matter of putting yourself in the other person’s shoes, understanding why they did what they did, and realizing that what they did was not actually wrong after all. In other words, forgiveness is a matter of figuring out how you were never wronged in the first place.

This is not forgiveness. Christ on the cross was most definitely being wronged. Forgiveness is a matter of recognizing that you have been wronged, but that the person who wronged you can never make it right. They did take something from you, and they do owe you. Forgiveness is a matter of wiping out the dept, of not mentally holding it over them.

Now, do people do what they do because they think it’s right? No. Neuroscience has shown pretty conclusively that the vast majority of our actions do not result from any kind of conscious deliberation at all, much less deliberation over abstract principles of “right” and “wrong.” Most of the time, people do what they do simply because they go with whatever impulse hits them at the moment. It’s what they are inclined to do.

For a more theological argument, the entire concept of sin demands that people do not do what they do because it’s right. In some essential sense, if they don’t recognize, on at least some level, that what they are doing is wrong, it is not sin.

So there.

SB: So you’re saying that much of what we do results merely from what we are inclined to do – but what forms our inclinations? If nature is one part, what part is nurture? Isn’t part of the church’s mission to re-socializing people? That is, to redemptively orient us sinners into a new way of living shaped by new stories, new symbols, new rituals, and new practices? What role should the church play in helping bring about lasting transformation?

JB: Exactly. If most of my actions come from unconscious impulses (and they do), then my unconscious impulses need to be redeemed. This is serious work. It involves thinking about and focusing on things we ignore. More importantly, how can you seriously expect to root out unconscious patterns of thought and behavior by yourself? You need someone else there to help point that stuff out or you’ll probably never see it. Yes, we have scripture and yes, we have the Holy Spirit, but we also have way too many mechanisms for avoiding conclusions we don’t want to reach. We must have some kind of community to help us grow in maturity.

SB: Based on these observations, what changes could churches make in order to be able to catalyze genuine transformation?

JB: I don’t think there is any way to do this without some kind of small group system. Now, I’m the last person to know how to make small groups work, but you just can’t get down into the dirt of each other’s lives in a large group setting. Recently, our church (and I like our church) did a series on spiritual disciplines. Listening to some guy on a stage talking for thirty minutes about a discipline, and then just hoping that maybe some of these people might do some of it and maybe it will help was just ridiculous.

SB: Many of your friends have also encountered major challenges to their theology after attending undergraduate school, how has your journey differed from some of theirs?

JB: Wow. I think I found a pattern, in that, people react according to what they blame for their problems. Some blame evangelicalism, so they went liberal. Some blame the institutional church, so they only meet with a small group. Some blame the American church, so they went overseas. Some blame Protestantism, so they became Catholics. Heck, I have a good friend now who practically converted to Messianic Judaism.

My tendency is always to generalize, so I blamed God and humanity. That forced some very difficult wrestling. I can give up on humanity, but I still have to live with them for the rest of my life. How miserable would that be? I could give up on God, but I was honest enough to know that my suffering provided no valid premise in an argument against his existence. I wandered in a wasteland of not giving in to despair, but not really being able to hope for about two years.

The direction I put the blame forced me to face the problem head on. I can’t run away from God or people. It was really grueling, but my struggle went straight to the foundational issue of whether I could trust God’s heart and whether I could reconcile myself to an imperfect humanity.

Right now, I’m feeling pretty good about where I’m at. God willing, I won’t forget what I’ve learned.

SB: You mentioned that in grad school Bernard Lonergan expanded your thinking. What have his books meant to you?

JB: Hold on to your hat. What Lonergan’s books mean to me won’t make any sense without me trying to explain his cognitive theory. He insists that a quick summary doesn’t do the trick, but I’ve gotta try. Here goes . . .

As Lonergan’s explains it, coming to know something starts with experiencing. You take in sense data. This is not good enough for knowing. Everyone has experienced sitting in class looking at something the teacher wrote on the board. Some students get it; others don’t, even though everyone is looking at the exact same thing. Sense experience is not yet knowledge.

The next step is called understanding. It is an entirely interior, pre-linguistic, pre-logical (and thus fairly mysterious) process in which we play around with the data of sense experience and try to find what makes it all intelligible. The point at which everything “clicks” is called an insight.

Next, we take our understanding back to our sense experience for judging. We want to verify that this isn’t just some neat idea in our head, but that the intelligible relationship of the data does, itself, exist in the outside world. If it does, then we have a new bit of knowledge.

Now, for the last few years, the most significant part for me has been the fact that no amount of sense data is sufficient for an act of insight. In simpler terms, it doesn’t mater what ideas I use, what vocabulary, what illustrations, what arguments. It is never sufficient to convince anyone of anything. At some point, it is up to them, and there is nothing more I can do.

Unfortunately, being in ministry for a bit less than two years and working retail for over three, I got to see repeated and intense examples of how often people are simply not interested in understanding. There is a flight from understanding. Again in Lonergan’s terms, they willingly give in to “personal bias”—a bias in which they refuse to even ask a question that is not in their own interests. The customer only asks, “How can I get the most for the least amount of money.” They never ask, “Is it appropriate for me to get this much for this little?” They don’t care about whether their demands would negatively impact me, my store, the company, or the entire economy.

There is also “group bias”—the same deal only for whole groups. This would be the church that only asks, “How can we increase our membership?” and never asks, “Should we increase our membership?” They assume that the congregation should exist, so they never stop to make sure it is doing anything worth existing for.

Then I get the same idea—that I can’t make people change—from other directions. As Susan Neiman says in Evil In Modern Thought (mind-blowing book, by the way), “The urge to unite ‘is’ and ‘ought’ stands behind every creative endeavor. Those who seek to unite them by force usually do more harm than they set out to prevent. Those who never seek to unite them do nothing at all.”

So how, then does one go about changing the world, especially if the world doesn’t want to change? This is not merely my own struggle; this is at the heart of ministry. Force won’t do it, so what possibly could? I don’t have an answer, but the something at the heart of Christianity does. A guy hanging on a cross obviously isn’t forcing anyone to do anything. Yet that is the pivotal, transformational event for all of history.

SB: In light of that conception, how would you construe the gospel? What is God offering in the church? What is the church offering the world?

JB: Honestly, I think the key word is “offering.” In the end, God simply offers. Not that it was easy–he had to move heaven and earth to do it–but the end result is nothing more than an offer. My mind staggers at how vulnerable and risky this is. God just puts himself out there to be rejected and scorned and to watch the people he loves careen off to their own destruction. But there is something unbelievably precious when people respond to his offer. He offers hope, healing, peace–all of this flowing out of a relationship with him.

As far as the church, I am desperately afraid that, most of the time, it has no idea what it is offering. We are supposed to be the tangible extension of this offer (implying that we share in the same risks God takes). Having worked retail for three years now, I understand the importance of knowing exactly what the features and benefits of your product are. All too often, I get the impression the church has no idea what it’s product is, so it’s flopping around doing an absolutely terrible job of selling it to anyone.

Bottom line, no church can afford to just do “church stuff” just because that’s what churches do.

SB: There are some theological issues that provoke perennial controversy, would you mind commenting on some of them?

JB: Bring it

SB: Would you say the Bible in inspired? How does that concept work in the way you think theologically?

JB: I do think the Bible is inspired. Now, my view of inerrancy has probably gotten a little fuzzy. As Lonergan says, an assortment of experiences is not yet knowledge. The insight into that experience and the judgment about that insight becomes knowledge. Now, would it be possible for a different assortment of experiences (translate this as facts, evidences, historical events, whatever) to lead to the same insight and judgment? I don’t see why not. If that’s the case, then I only need to say that something LIKE what the text says happened happened. I’m comfortable with that. It allows for details to vary, but only to a point.

SB: Did evolution happen? How do we judge between scientific claims to knowledge and theological interpretations?

JB: Plantinga did an article a while back about how there is a wide spectrum of positions on evolution. Just because you reject naturalism doesn’t mean you’re a young-earther. So, one has to be precise about what one means by “evolution.”

Personally, I’m not a fan of holding beliefs that do not cohere. If scientific claims and theological interpretations are mutually exclusive, then something has to give. Look again. Think harder. So I found a reading of Genesis that respects Mosaic authorship but still leaves open the possibility that the creation account is figurative (specifically, it is a metaphor for the week leading up to the Sabbath). I think it reads easier literally, but the science on the age of the universe is just too strong against young earth. So I found a way to reconcile them, if need be (in case the young-earthers never get their act together).

SB: How should we relate to followers of other religions? Do we have much in common?

JB: As followers of Christ, I don’t know how we could possibly relate to them with anything other than respect, kindness, and compassion. I had an interesting realization recently. I was struggling to find Jesus in the very secular world that I live in. Now, I believe that Jesus is life, he is happiness, he is joy. It occurred to me that, if he really is, then any instance of life, happiness, and joy that I see is really Christ at work. All the sudden the doors opened for me to see Jesus everywhere. I was fairly surprised to find myself dabbling in Inclusivism. Now, just because Jesus brings light and life all over the place doesn’t necessarily mean that this is saving light. Bottom line, a relationship with Jesus is what life is meant to be, and other religions obviously do not have a conscious, personal relationship with Jesus. However, Lonergan somewhere said something like this, “Truth is a strange commodity. No one has all of it, but no one has none of it either.” I love truth and anyone may have some that I don’t, regardless of our religious affiliations.

SB: How should the church respond to gay people?

JB: I think there is enough fuzziness in the psychological research to hold that homosexuality is more acquired than inherited. However, as mentioned before, I think very few of our actions are based on conscious deliberation. If homosexuality is a sin (and my stance on scripture kind of insists that I think it is), I think it is probably one of the least conscious and deliberate sins out there. That actually makes me feel far more sympathy than condemnation for the LGBT people. In fact, it makes the fact that some “Christian” folks focus on homosexuality as the key damnable sin almost completely incomprehensible to me. Now, if I were discipling a homosexual, there would be an obvious elephant in the room that we really couldn’t get far without addressing, but I simply don’t understand the folks who think “God hates fags.”

SB: What about gay marriage?

JB: Interestingly enough, most folks who oppose gay marriage would probably hold a theology of government based solely on Rom. 13. Bascially, government exists to keep the peace, end of story. Now, how can you seriously contend that homosexual marriage breaks the peace or threatens national security? Even if you want to try and say that it does; which erodes the fabric of society more, gay people marrying or Christians acting with no empathy or compassion? Which is more Christ like—to refuse to let people do something you think is wrong or to have the basic compassion to allow them the same freedoms you would want someone to allow you. If that last sentence wasn’t loaded enough remember what I said earlier—a guy hanging on a cross isn’t forcing anyone to do anything. I wouldn’t perform the ceremony myself, but I would attend and bring a present.

SB: Well, I know you need to get to bed, so just one last question: when you re-enter “ministry” – whether in the role of a teacher or a church leader, in what new directions would you like to help take things? How can we move toward healthier churches who live out the vision of church mission as you described it above? How can we faithfully live out the implications of the gospel in our own culture and moment?

JB: We have to hear from Jesus. One thing I’ve learned is that there is a gap between any scriptural principle and its application in any particular situation. That gap is an extremely dangerous place—there be dragons. Very often, only the Holy Spirit knows how to cross that gap. Also, I’ve been re-reading through the book of Acts, and I am stunned by how often people are led by literally hearing from Jesus what they need to do. We need to love him, we need to talk to him, we need to hear from him. Anything that’s not about him needs to go.