Matt Morris just might be the ultimate archetype of postmodern spirituality.
He’s a cradle Episcopalian who became one of American neo-Paganism’s most famous voices, only to return to the Episcopal church, where he served briefly as a parish music minister in Portland, Oregon. Of late, he’s been investigating Quaker spirituality. Morris’ religious wandering as what he calls a “minor-league celebrity” has played out in cyberspace and on the pages of the New York Times.
As a child, Matt Morris steeped in the liturgy of his mother’s Episcopal church in Denver. As a teenager, he performed on the All New Mickey Mouse Club with its familiar roster of future celebrities: Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake among them.
After high school, he moved to Nashville and briefly attended the Southern Baptists’ Belmont University before launching a successful songwriting career, crafting major league hits. He tried some of his schoolmates’ evangelical and Pentecostal churches before landing at the Episcopal Christ Church Cathedral.
But as a gay man, Morris wearied of Christian conversations about sexuality that have raged in the new millennium. At the suggestion of his husband, English instructor Sean Michael Morris, he explored Druidry. In 2010, he released a solo album, When Everything Breaks Open, and started a neo-Pagan blog, Bishop in the Grove, under the pen-name Teo Bishop, which eventually became his legal name.
Over the course of just a few years, the former Mouseketeer built his blog following as high as 10,000 unique visits per month. His writing appeared in the leading Pagan portal The Wild Hunt, and in 2013, just as his face landed on the cover of Pagans and Witches magazine, Morris felt called back to Christianity.
“I’m overwhelmed with thoughts of Jesus,” he blogged, as recounted in the New York Times. “I am just going to give myself over to it, not intellectualize it.”
Teo Bishop changed his name back to Matt Morris. Evading the limelight for more than a year, he recently started blogging again, this time as a Christian, under the title Faith and Formation. Though he stepped down from his music ministry at St. Andrew’s All Souls in Portland after only a couple of months, he performed at Wild Goose in July .
He spoke with Jesse James DeConto by phone in June.
What did your upbringing impress on you as most important for your Christian identity?
I don’t know that I really was having those sorts of conversations. As an Episcopalian I was participating in the liturgy. I was living into the liturgical calendar. I was in Sunday School, with certain stories about Jesus and about Scripture.
The discussions about what it means to be a Christian or about what it means to be a follower of Jesus, which are common in certain traditions, and where that engagement with Christian identity is so much on the surface and so central to the practices of worship—I don’t think I experienced it that much. I might have been exposed to elements of the Christian narrative that emphasized living as a kind, honest, compassionate person in the world. But the question, what does it mean that I’m a Christian? That wasn’t a conversation that I was having.
My experience as a younger person was that those people who were discussing what it meant to be a Christian were often having it as a cultural reaction to the things that they were not.
So as somebody who was growing up with a slowly growing awareness of his sexual identity and sexual orientation—which did not fit into most Christian contexts as a permissible, acceptable thing, something to be nurtured and cared for, and supported—I recognized really quickly that those who sought to identify non-Christians, those who were trying to figure out who shouldn’t be allowed in the crowd, could very easily point the finger at me.
So I wasn’t racing to have these conversations about what it means to be a Christian.
Before you started exploring Paganism half a dozen years ago, was there a time when you stopped identifying as Christian?
There was a good portion of my teenage years when I didn’t really attend church and didn’t identify as a Christian, although I didn’t feel like I was something else. I just didn’t feel like I was that. In my early 20s, I very much identified as an Episcopalian, as a Christian.
But, still, I had an unwillingness to participate in the Christian identity politics. At that point, I was identifying as gay. At the time, Gene Robinson hadn’t been ordained as the first gay bishop yet.
There was very much an active discussion going on in the church I attended about how to understand gay rights within a Christian context. [The Rev. Ken Swanson, dean of Nashville’s Christ Cathedral where] I attended was presenting about sexuality being morally neutral. In the South, it was a very charged conversation. I was very much a part of those conversations and identified as a Christian.
I think I reached a certain point where I felt like I couldn’t be part of a religious community that kept needing to have this conversation about me. It’s just kind of exhausting, and there’s this sense that I had an obligation to constantly be an exemplary Christian because I was a gay Christian.
A lot of gay Christians have this discussion about what their role should be in the wider community. I was in the Episcopal church—much more liberal than many other denominations—but at the time, in my mid-20s, I felt like it wasn’t progressive enough.
This is about the time that I just started to meander into metaphysical bookstores and start to explore a different language around ethics and belief and spirituality.
On your most recent album, When Everything Breaks Open, you’ve got a song “Bloodline” where you sing, “God loves her more than the Christians do.” This is a common (and potent) critique of the church in our spiritual-but-not-religious age. Do you think that the American church can recover from it?
I think it depends on whether the American church decides to live into an identity that affirms the love of God for all people. It’s not like it’s a wound from the past. It’s a wound in the present.
Everyone wants live into Easter, but no one wants to be on Good Friday. Everyone wants to live in Resurrection, but no one wants to recognize the people being crucified. That to me would be a first step for American Christian churches living more into the reality of God’s love.
That doesn’t just have to do with the church’s relationship to the LGBT community. The white American Protestant Christian church doesn’t want to acknowledge its role in systemic racism. It doesn’t want to acknowledge the ways in which it has been complicit in and part of all kinds of injustice, because that’s messy. Everyone wants to have post-Christian identities that feel warm and fuzzy, but there are people who are persecuted, and Christians aren’t standing up in droves to rush to serve them and to help to change the system that persecutes them.
As much as certain American denominations want to reject the early Gnostic Christian writers for their desire to escape this world – they paint Gnosticism as a form of Christianity that is focused more on the ascension to some sort of spiritual perfection than being in the world – there is a sort of escapist desire in some of these very churches. They don’t want to face the ills of this world that they themselves might participate in. It’s ironic.
You wrote a post on Bishop in the Grove where you said the Pagan season of Samhain seemed to fit better with the dark and cold of winter than does the Christian season of Advent, which calls us to hope. Was it easier as a Druid to be honest about the state of the world?
Yes, I think it was easier to be vocal about the ways in which religious cultures interact with the world in both positive and negative lights. It might actually be more difficult now as a Christian, in part because of the size and scale of Christendom. It may be on the decline, but it is so big, and in America it is the cultural foundation.
I don’t say that we’re a Christian nation, I don’t use that rhetoric, but Christian culture is ever-present.
Christianity is a kind of umbrella term for many different Christianities, and each of those Christianities has different conceptions of God, different ideas of Jesus. A polytheistic Pagan might even make the argument that there are all of these different gods in the Christian pantheon, in the Christian universe – different religious practices, different ways of critiquing of it.
With the connection between Christian culture and politics in this country, engaging discussion about Christian life and Christian culture is inherently political and potentially a firestarter. It can be very difficult to have frank discussions. It’s why people like me were just turned off. It’s like, “I don’t even want to deal with this. It’s such a mess.“
When I was a Pagan, I forgot what it felt like to have to have conversations about being gay. I spent several years not having to have conversations around sexual orientation and gender identity. Those weren’t hot-button issues (in my local community).
And then as soon as I began participating in a Christian congregation, living as a Christian, there it was again. There it was. The conversation hadn’t been resolved. Everyone was still saying the same things.
Fascinating, and a little disturbing.
Do you think the language of “mystery” and “a God too big to understand” is a way of evading the challenges of our diversity?
Even that idea that God is “too big” still presumes a singular understanding of the holy. God is still one.
Some people make the argument that that is a colonialist, imperialist perspective. Basically, you’re still saying, “While there is diversity, everything is still as we conceive of it to be.” It’s tricky.
Oftentimes in Christian culture, there isn’t the same kind of conversation about religious diversity that’s happening in Pagan communities because there are these assumptions that make interfaith dialogue impossible. It’s a kind of non-starter to even talk of God as God in your terms and not acknowledge confessions of the divine and divinity and “gods” in polytheistic language.
Could you lay out the broad streams of neo-Paganism for readers who want a primer?
I don’t think I could do that accurately. I don’t really think of myself as a bridge—and it would run the risk of over-generalizing. But there are great resources. There’s great scholarship being done.
The American church would do great to learn about a lot of different faiths traditions. But it’s challenging to the American church and particularly its more conservative elements.
If you believe that conversion is fundamental and that conversion can’t be understood as a kind of personal experience but as a mandate which a person of faith brings to other people who don’t believe yet, then I’m not sure how you can really have conversations about different people’s practices and expressions of faith and conceptions of the holy.
How do you have that conversation without impressing upon those people that you think their beliefs are wrong? It’s tricky. The Christian paradigm makes interfaith dialogue very difficult unless the Christian is willing to accept a certain kind of fluidity and a certain amount of unknowability of the reality of God and the reality of the holy.
There are certain Christian practices which don’t really have need to shape the world around them in their image, and then you have those that do.
What are those Christian practices you think can co-exist peaceably with other faiths?
I think if you focus on being attentive to God’s voice and the movement of the holy in your life and your experience of being alive, and you respond to that voice. It’s not the same voice as the one that’s rambling on in your head all the time. It’s not the one that’s trying to satisfy your ambitions or your desires about success and progress and a lot of things that are connected to our identity as Americans and as Westerners in general.
I think if you listen to that small, still voice, you end up being moved more toward a life of compassion and you have less of a need to impress upon others some very rigid understanding of reality. If you’re humbling yourself in an attempt to listen to God, I don’t think you can do that. I think the two are mutually exclusive.
I think if you’re railing against others for their practices because they don’t line up with your beliefs, then you’re not spending any time listening and discerning how God may be moving through that very discussion and through those people.
I think that God is interacting with all of life. I think that God is present. And I think that God breaks open our lives in moments we don’t anticipate before, in moments that we don’t expect. And I think that God’s working into our lives inevitably leads us to be more compassionate toward one another, more loving to one another.
I think that Christianity provides an opportunity to have a discussion about what that means. We look to Jesus as an example of that being lived out.
I’m not really interested in what happens after we die. I’m not really interested in discussions about our souls being saved. I think that’s all just missing the point.
When I think about what it is to be a Christian, it’s about, what does it mean to live in this world? How do you live in this world? I think there’s a connection between Christian practice and a heart for social justice. I think there’s a connection between Christian practice and compassionate service to the least of these.
I think that the Beatitudes should be engraved in stone on our courthouses, not the 10 Commandments. I think that if we lived into that, we would reshape the world in the image of love.
After your reconversion to Christianity, you went silent for a couple of years. Why?
Toward the end of Bishop in the Grove, I found that I didn’t want to process my own conversion experience and my story publicly any more. I didn’t want to process it with everybody. I didn’t want to negotiate audience while also trying to make sense of my own inner world. It just felt too burdensome.
It’s something that bloggers have to deal with. This just felt too sensitive, particularly with all the attention that came after the New York Times piece. Pagans by and large were saying, “Cool. Go, do your thing, with whatever god is calling you.”
What I found to be most confusing (and a little bit jarring) was the response from Christians who took this as a sort of like, “We’re so glad you’re back” or “You’re finally coming to see the light.” I wasn’t willing to be the Prodigal Son on my blog for everybody, which is what a lot of people wanted. It didn’t have anything to do with me. It affirmed something about their own belief system.
Besides pulling back from the blog, how else do you resist becoming a sort of icon, whose story suggests a pattern for others to follow?
I haven’t become that because I’ve never said that. I’ve never suggested that my faith journey should be a blueprint for anybody else’s.
I think that’s one thing I learned from being a Pagan and one thing perhaps I always instinctively understood. My journey is my journey and yours is yours. For me, closing the blog and shying away from a lot of interaction online was a way to keep that fire from raging.
You spent a couple of months this year leading worship music at St. Andrew’s All Saints Episcopal Church in Portland and you’re playing at the Wild Goose Festival. What has made you feel comfortable taking on these public roles at this point?
I don’t really feel like I’m stepping forward as a public Christian figure, anymore than anybody else with a Twitter profile. Everyone is engaging publicly in discussions about their lives now. We have to all ask ourselves how we’re engaging as public figures and how we’re all expressing our religious ideals. Everyone with a Facebook page and Twitter profile does it. It used to be something that was reserved only for the famous, only for those who wanted to be in entertainment. I’ve been having these discussions and answering these kinds of questions for 20 years, 25 years.
Now we have these technologies that allow us to broadcast to the world what we think. And now everyone has to decide how they’re going to present themselves. Now everyone has to decide what their PR campaign is going to be.
I’m at the point in my life where I’m just not quite as invested in developing a calculated plan. One of the things I learned through this whole experience of journeying into Paganism, in writing Bishop in the Grove, in changing my name, and having a conversion experience that sort of broke my world open again—this whole experience has shown me that your plans don’t mean much.
What you are going to try to make your life will be tempered necessarily by the world and by the movement of God in the world and by the choices that other people make. There’s very little that you can actually control. I don’t believe that you can manifest in everything and make your life into one thing if you’ll just build the right plan and think the right way. No, man. You don’t know.
A part of me wants to take a step back from engagement with the broader public about religious practice. It doesn’t mean I don’t want to have one. It doesn’t mean that I want to retreat into solitude and not communicate. It’s just that my life has been saturated with discussion and exploration of different religious traditions for the past, oh my gosh, six or eight years.
One of the things that’s interesting to me now about Quakerism is its emphasis on silence as a form of worship. I tell you what, silence and stillness sounds pretty good right about now.
You once wrote that Druidic studies called you “to look at the world as an enchanted, alive, vibrant and magical place.” Does Jesus make that same call on you?
Sometimes that’s more difficult to see in a Christian context because of the way that Christians think about God as Creator. There is this reaction to animism, to thinking of the world itself being God.
Everyone wants to draw a distinction because God created the world, God is not the world. They start to worry that people might start to have a misunderstanding of God if they think too highly of God’s creation. Those are lines that are drawn around God, those are lines that are drawn around nature and Creation. There’s a lot of lines.
Whereas what I found in Paganism was, it’s actually mysterious the way we’re interconnected with things, and that should lead to a place of stillness where one goes, “The holy is present in this. “ Yes, I think it’s possible for one to be a Christian and also to recognize the amazingness of Creation, the way in which the world is any enchanted place. The language that Christians use to articulate their theology is just very different.
I recognize that I’m speaking of this as though I’m not also a Christian. It’s just me trying to step outside of it and see what it looks like. The language that Christians use around theology or what the holy is, pointing to Scripture as proof – those are things that just don’t really happen that way in Paganism. There’s no proof-texting to be done.
One’s engagement with the world and one’s engagement with life and one’s engagement with the holy as they experience it is, if anything, their proof-text.
But don’t Christians look to the world’s createdness, its coming from God, as what makes it enchanted or magical?
If we’re going to talk about God the Creator, we should understand that we’re speaking metaphorically. Understanding Creation and Creator as both metaphor and symbol – it becomes so much richer when you engage with it that way.
I think Christians have to be willing to engage creatively with their own theology – to understand that theology itself is a living, poetic experience. Theopoetics is something I’m interested in. There’s something in the idea of attempting to describe the holy in a more creative, expressive, metaphoric, imaginative way—and sometimes Christian theology feels scientific, like it’s attempting to explain everything as a kind of equation.
Is this related to Marcus Borg’s explanation of the ancient use of the words for “belief” to mean “beloving?”
This idea of belief as giving over one’s heart to something, as opposed to an intellectual assent to a specific truth, is very appealing to me. That makes a lot of sense to me. Belief is not about saying, “I think that this is the correct thing.” Belief is like, “I’m giving myself over to this because I feel pulled to do that, or I feel called to do that.” I think that Borg points to a very generous way of approaching the Christian faith.
When you talk about Creation as metaphor, it reminds me of scholars who have framed Genesis 1 as a poem.
That is exactly what I’m getting at. For a long time, many Christians have read the Bible as a flat document. To bind it up into this book and suggest that it should be read from start to finish ignores a lot of what the text is. Some of it is poetry. Some of it is law. Some of it is allegory. It’s a lot of different things. The idea of even sitting down and reading it from start to finish is a relatively new way of engaging with the text.
In the past, it would have only been heard in community spoken aloud by someone, by one person, a rabbi, a religious leader who would have read this out. It would have been heard, definitely. That’s one thing I think the Episcopal tradition does well — it gives people an opportunity to listen to Scripture in community.
That’s a very different engagement with the text than those who carry their Bibles with them places and read it. They’re just engaging with it differently. I’m not attempting to privilege one over the other, but I think it’s important to acknowledge that there is a difference. That way of reading it has made possible certain misunderstandings about why it was written, what it was written for, what the intentions of the writers were.
If you understand that certain books in the Bible demonstrate the characteristics of poetry, but you’ve been using those books to explain the nature of God in some scientific fashion or the history of Creation in some scientific way, then that’s a misunderstanding. There’s something in that theology that needs to be addressed and adjusted.
One of your blog posts likened epistemological certainty to Pharisaical self-righteousness.
That sounds like something I might have said.
Poetry’s pretty slippery. Does it give us enough of a theological hand-hold?
I don’t know, sometimes life is absolutely slippery. Gosh, sometimes it’s slippery? Life is slippery! It’s messy, and it’s beautiful and amazing, but sometimes incredibly dangerous and difficult. Sometimes the earth opens up.
What do you hold onto? I’m not sure that you get to hold onto anything. Jesus certainly didn’t. I’m not sure that you get to. If you’re a Christian and you’re looking for to the story of Jesus to inform your life and faith, I’m not sure you are really granted some of the comforts that you want. “Take up your cross and follow me.” You don’t get to say that, and then also not want to face the injustices of the world.
To me, the Bible doesn’t provide a kind of retreat from the world. Using Scripture as an “anchor” or as a “foundation,” I think that language needs more inspection.
That’s a valuable practice in any religious tradition. One should be inspecting this thing that we do because it’s a thing that we are creating. It’s a thing that we are doing. Our systems of belief can tell us that these practices come from God or that they are given over to humanity on the top of a mountain, but ultimately in our day to day lives, we are actively creating these religious practices, they are alive and they are vibrant, and they are immediate.
If we’re not inspecting why we’re doing it or how we’re doing it, then we run the risk of becoming automatons, of becoming mindless. I think we should be mindful. I think the Buddhists have a good point. If you don’t take those moments to look at what you’re doing, to step outside of those practices, to say, “What is this thing that I create?” then I don’t think you’re living fully into your religious life. I don’t think you’re giving it everything.
Before returning to Christianity, you stopped short of taking an oath with the Druid fellowship Ár nDraíocht Féin. A lot of people in this age resist binding themselves to an authoritative text. What do you think is going on there?
It’s not exactly the same thing as a creed. Making an oath within the context of ADF Druidism is different because its whole cosmology is different. It’s a polytheist tradition. It’s a kind of life oath, a to-the-end oath. Creeds I think are different, but I’ve had trouble with creeds as well. Maybe this is something about my personality or something about the idea of a public profession of a specific faith.
Creeds are also kind of unifying things. By saying them, we become united in a way. It’s a kind of intellectual gymnastics, because you’re still making these professions of “I believe,” but what does that mean exactly when you say that?
I didn’t end up making that oath. It just didn’t feel right.
You’ve said you felt called back to the Church in an experience of serving someone in need and that that call came with simultaneous call to ministry. Was leading worship music an attempt to express that?
That was I think my primary reason for stepping into that position and helping out at that church. It was an attempt to discern how I might be of service and whether or not marrying my experiences and talents as a musician with my life of faith was something that was connected to that calling.
I feel like I was called to a deeper awareness of God and that calling also was directly connected to an experience of service to an immediate moment of reaching out in kindness and compassion to someone and then a deeper awareness of God’s presence. My response to that call was to be a part of a Christian community, to try to explore what that might mean within the context of a church community.
But the church does not call people—God calls people.
I don’t feel like I was called back to the Church. I feel like I was called to a closer relationship with God and to a deeper awareness of God’s presence. Living that out in a church community was a choice that I made. But you don’t have to engage in our current expression of church in order to do that. Plenty of people don’t.
What was that church ministry experience like for you?
That’s still a little close for me to talk about it.
But I do feel comfortable saying I’m asking a lot of questions about liturgy. There are moments when worship can drift into something that is simply performative. I’ve done a lot of performance in my life. I know how to perform, and worship I think is supposed to be different. I think people acknowledge that, but then at the same time, I’m not so sure how different it actually is when you’re in the moment.
Praise bands have rehearsals, right? Sermons are written in advance. Liturgies are designed and bound up in books. Unless everything is an immediate response to the movement of a god in the moment, there is an element of performance to all of it, and I find that to be really fascinating, and I’m not sure how I feel about it.
Pagans look for the divine in the world around them. Is that related to how Christians might say they’re able to worship God at a rock concert?
That just depends on the different ways you conceive of God and of God’s accessibility, the meaning of praise, the immediacy of God. Some people have to construct very careful sacred spaces in order to enter into worship. They do this in order to create a certain environment to approach the holy. Pagans do that. Christians do that.
For other people, there’s never a space where God is not present. There’s never not a space where the holy is accessible. For those people, it might seem like everything can become worship, everything is prayer. It’s just different perspectives. It’s important for me to ask the questions about what those things are for me. I don’t really have those answers right now.
You’ve written that you find the divine in other people and their stories more than in religious myth or practice. Did Paganism give you tools for seeing the divine in other people?
I don’t know. I think that may have been a shared idea or belief with some people in the Pagan community. I think it just instinctively made sense to me.
I wrote a song many years ago with a friend of mine named Dottie Moore. We never did anything with the song. The line of the chorus was, “I want to know God through you, that I may come to know myself.” That was the lyric. That was before I explored Paganism. That’s been a kind of constant idea for me.
That’s one of the reasons that I’m feeling drawn toward writers like Thomas R. Kelly who wrote the Quaker text called “A Testament of Devotion,” this idea of the Inner Light, the Inner Light of Christ being present in every person, and then looking for that light.
In Bishop of the Grove, I used to talk about “the fire within.” To me, ministry is identifying the fire in others and helping to cultivate that fire and to help it grow so that it might shine outward into the world. That’s an understanding I’ve always had. I may actually just be a Quaker and never knew it.
Isn’t this sense of constant motion becoming more and more common as our experience of spirituality?
Maybe you can trace it to the condition of the modern church. Or maybe there’s a way to look at it more generously and less fearfully. Sometimes when the leaders of denominations look at that, there’s the sense that this is troublesome, that people are perhaps unwilling to maintain a religious identity or a consistent practice in one tradition, but we may be able to look at it as ongoing process of conversion.
Conversion keeps happening. A genuine religious life is a series of deeper and deeper conversions, deeper revolutions, deeper experiences of – to use Christian language – repentance. We are always turning back toward the source of life, seeking to understand better the vast, great, unknowable God.
This inspection of our religious systems is timely and necessary and should accompany the discussions that are happening in our culture about systemic injustices, not just in American culture but globally.
The discussion about how to keep people in the pews is extremely narrow. The discussion should be about, how do we keep water in the aquifers? How do we keep war from erupting? How do we keep our consumerism in check?
Those are questions that you don’t have to go to church to have—and often if you go to church, you’re not having those conversations.
We should be entering into deeper conversations about our interconnectedness, our dependency on one another. Our theology should point to that too, to the real lived experience of people on the earth right now.