When Zondervan expressed an interest in working with me in the Spring of 2008, I had just come off of a very negative experience with a Christian (read “evangelical”) publishing machine, and was very reluctant to play in this pool ever again. However, they did publish the work of my mentor, the late Mike Yaconelli, and were taking some risks with some writers who definitely didn’t fit the stereotypical evangelical model of a “Christian writer.”
So, I said “yes” to a two-book deal. When I began brainstorming book ideas with my editor and agent, we realized that over the past few years, I’ve had a rather unique window into what religion scholar Phyllis Tickle terms the Great Emergence, a period of massive societal upheaval impacting technology, science, politics, religion, and the global culture at large. So we decided that I should chronicle my travels to help others navigate this sea change so that we all don’t become seasick, spiritually speaking. Also, I wanted to provide a window into contemporary church culture for who are outside of the faith but want to get a greater understanding of American Christianity given the influence this brand of the faith has in the geopolitical arena.
What’s the most important take-home message for readers?
For those who feel a stirring in their heart, I’d encourage them to embark on their own pilgrimage to see where the spirit may be speaking to them. View my book as an AA meeting, take what works for you in your quest and leave the rest.
Is there anything you had to leave out?
Given that various odd and sundry Monty Python motifs informed portions of my pilgrimage, I penned a chapter where I asked some of my fellow pilgrims how Monty Python informed their spiritual joruneys. The result was a hysterical romp that my editor thought detracted too much from the overall narrative. So she cut it; though fortunately I was able to post it elsewhere. Also, as I wasn’t given a final word count when I started the book, I turned in the first draft only to learn that despite cutting the Monty Python chapter, I had to eliminate an additional 8,000 words. In the service of tightening up the book, some admittedly self-indulgent pieces got the axe.
What are some of the biggest misconceptions about your topic?
I’ve often been asked by Christians who seem to delight in telling me I’m going to hell; that it’s inappropriate for Christians to satirize the faith. Apparently, they see my crititique of religion as though I somehow entered their saintly santuary and let one rip. What I try to convey throughout this book is the vital role that mystics and satirists can play in giving the church hope and grounding her in reality, respectively. Along those lines, folks don’t differentiate between comedy, which gently tickles one’s funny bone, and satire that aims to draw blood.
Did you have a specific audience in mind when writing?
My book predated the Ann Rice quitting Christ phenomenon but as I stated in an interview for the Austin American Statesman, “Like Anne Rice, I often find myself wanting to ‘Quit Christianity so I can follow Christ.’” In Brokeback Mountain fashion, “I wish I knew how to quit Christ,” because most days I’m in complete agreement with George Carlin, Bill Hicks, and Eddie Izzard that these faith follies make no freaking sense whatsoever. I’d like to let those who feel called to follow the teachings of Christ but are ashamed to be labeled “Christians” that they are not alone in this unease. Also, anyone interested in religion can get my reading of the spiritual temperature of America.
Are you hoping to just inform readers? Give them pleasure? Piss them off?
Those author/speakers and their fanatical followers who have a vested interest in branded Christianity—whether it be compassionate conservative, progressive evangelical, emergent, missional, organic, or whatever the brand du jour might be—laugh when I satirize other brands but lambast me when I skewer their sacred cow. Such is the nature of satire. It’s funny until it affects one’s own street cred and pocketbook.
What alternative title would you give the book?
None—this title has been brewing in the back of my head for years.
How do you feel about the cover?
I’m shocked and delighted that a Christian publisher put out such a provocative cover.
Is there a book out there you wish you had written?
I admire how Jeff Sharlet, author of The Family and C Street, has been able to speak to both religious and secular audiences. He inspired me to branch out and I begin writing for outlets like Religion Dispatches, Killing the Buddha, and The Revealer—sites that reach a more secular audience. Obviously investigative journalism and satire present with two diffent objectives, though we both strive to speak the truth to power. But I wish at times I had Jeff’s ability to be more detached from his subject because as I reflected in this book, I’m starting to realize how some conservatives felt in the mid-seventies when people they “thought” were their friends began to form what later became known as the religious right. Jeff can view progressives losing their prophetic voice in their quest to become Family-friendly with detachment, while my heart sinks when I see people who used to join me in rallying against the religious right now decked out in their Obama gear.
What’s your next book?
Right now I’m on the road continuing the pilgrimage I began in Jesus Died for This? to explore where this global spirit I keep encountering in my travels might be at work in the world. In light of the recent “Ground Zero-mosque” debates, I’m seeking out groups and indviduals who work with Muslims to answer the question posed by the rich, young ruler to Jesus: “Who is My Neighbor?” (See Luke 10:25-37.) Along those lines, I want to keep revisiting my ancestor Roger Williams’ legacy, as his work that laid the foundation for the first amendment has much to teach us about living in an increasingly pluralized society.
Also, some folks have indicated a strong interest in having me expound upon my family story that I highlighted in the chapter “Holy Hippies.” My Amazon Short “Swamp Water: A Memoir, an Amazon Short,” affords a window into that period of my life when my hippie-professor-priest father devolved into a narcissistic and deadly drunk while my enabler mother soon followed suit. I may do a memoir at some future date but for now, I’ve left folks with enough food for thought.
Finally, some of the Episcopal churches profiled in Jesus Died for This? are also featured in two projects for Church Publishing and in my article on transgender ministries for RD. While not even secular publishers want to tackle this subject, I plan on continuing to pen pieces on this topic until the climate shifts and I am able to interest a publisher in a book on religious and secular groups working with those members of the LGBT community still sitting on the sidelines.