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42 minutes | Jul 9, 2021
Overshadowed by the Spirit of God
In this episode, Jerusha Neal, assistant professor of homiletics at Duke Divinity School, explores a homiletic theology that reclaims the absence and presence of the fully human Word, offers fresh conceptions on the embodiment of Jesus in the sermon, and compares the Spirit-empowered pregnancy of Mary to the work of preaching.Jerusha Matsen Neal, assistant professor of homiletics at Duke Divinity School, is an ordained American Baptist minister. She has also served as a Global Ministries missionary to the Fiji Islands through the United Methodist Church. Neal has spent her ministry preaching in cross-cultural spaces and bridging denominational communities. God’s work in these in-between locations has convinced her that preaching matters more than ever. Her new book, The Overshadowed Preacher (Eerdmans, 2020), asks the sticky question of what we mean when we say preaching is “anointed.” It challenges preachers to leave behind false shadows and be overshadowed by the Spirit of God. It received a 2020 Christianity Today Jesus Creed Book Award for the Preaching Life. A former actress and playwright, she has also authored a collection of dramatic monologues, Blessed: Monologues for Mary (Cascade, 2012).
55 minutes | Jul 2, 2021
Relevance to Resonance
In this episode, Andrew Root, the Carrie Olson Baalson Professor of Youth and Family Ministry at Luther Seminary, talks with us about his recent book, The Congregation in a Secular Age: Keeping Sacred Time Against the Speed of Modern Life, the third in his series of books on ministry in the secular age, in which he engages the work of Charles Taylor and understanding congregations in contemporary life. Andy discusses how to make sense of the cross pressure of time, speed and fatigue as they relate to engaging with “depressed” congregations and argues how the demands necessitated by these changes, and the acceleration of social norm paces, contributes to imposing this despondency. Andrew Root, PhD (Princeton Theological Seminary) is the Carrie Olson Baalson Professor of Youth and Family Ministry at Luther Seminary. He is most recently the author of three-volume Ministry in a Secular Age series (The Congregation in a Secular Age, The Pastor in a Secular Age, and Faith Formation in a Secular Age), and The End of Youth Ministry. He has also authored Christopraxis: A Practical Theology of the Cross (Fortress, 2014) and Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker (Baker, 2014). Root puts together theology and storytelling to explore how ministry leads us into encounter with divine action. His book The Relational Pastor (IVP, 2013), as well as a four-book series with Zondervan, called A Theological Journey Through Youth Ministry (titles include Taking Theology to Youth Ministry, Taking the Cross to Youth Ministry, Unpacking Scripture in Youth Ministry, and Unlocking Mission and Eschatology in Youth Ministry) break new ground in this direction. In 2012 his book The Theological Turn in Youth Ministry (with Kenda Creasy Dean, IVP, 2011) was Christianity Today Book of Merit. He has written a number of other books on ministry and theology such as The Children of Divorce: The Loss of Family as the Loss of Being (Baker Academic, 2010), The Promise of Despair (Abingdon, 2010), Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry: From a Strategy of Influence to a Theology of Incarnation (IVP, 2007) and Relationships Unfiltered (Zondervan/YS, 2009). Andy has worked in congregations, parachurch ministries, and social service programs. He lives in St. Paul with his wife Kara, two children, Owen and Maisy, and their dog. When not reading, writing, or teaching, Andy spends far too much time watching TV and movies.Dayle Rounds (00:00):How can congregations keep pace with the speed of life today? Andy Root is Carrie Olson, Baalson professor of youth and family ministry at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, and a Princeton seminary alum. In this episode, Andy returns to talk with us about his third book in the series engaging the work of Charles Taylor. In the congregation in a secular age, keeping sacred time against the speed of modern life. Andy offers a new paradigm for understanding the congregation and contemporary ministry, articulates why congregations feel pressured by rapid changes in modern life, and encourages an approach that calls congregations to re-imagine, what change is, how to live into this future, and to help them move from relevance to resonance.New Speaker (00:48):[percussive music begins] [water droplet sound]Dayle Rounds (00:51):You're listening to The Distillery at Princeton Theological Seminary.Dayle Rounds (00:55):Andy, thank you. It's great to be able to talk to you again about one of your books and particularly this one, which is the third in a series of three, and we've had the opportunity to talk about the first two. This is another one where you engage the work of Charles Taylor, in his, his published work, A Secular Age. Would you give our listeners just a brief sketch of your series and for those who are not familiar with it, the essential claims made by Taylor that are key, for, for the three books. And then particularly for this one that we're talking about today about congregations.Andy Root (01:31):Yeah. I mean, it's interesting to try to, you know, be in dialogue with this big, this big brick of a book called The Secular Age by Taylor. So it's taken me three books that just kind of, analyze it and be inspired by it and, yeah, then go from there. So yeah, I mean the, the, the series starts with faith formation in a secular age, and I don't know why it starts there to be completely honest. Like it just, it just kinda started there. I'm not a systematic theologian, so I didn't have a grand system in my mind. I think it was more, I don't know, problems kind of facing the church as we, as we thought about decline, as we thought about, how we pass on faith, particularly to younger people, but really across just, the, the church doing its thing.Andy Root (02:18):That was in the forefront of my mind and the project it's kind of developed from there. So there's no real, like methodological reason on why faith formation comes first. But I mean, one of the main elements I pick up from Taylor and that is just the way we are so deeply embedded in an age of authenticity. And so what does it mean to kind of pass on faith in a, in an age where in many ways, in some very good ways and some very challenging ways we live in a time where we believe every human being has a right to define for themselves what it means to be human and that - and there's an ethic out of that that says everyone, no one should tell anyone else how they should live their life. Well, that's, there's a lot of good things around where we respect people's experience and things like that.Andy Root (03:01):There's also some real challenges on how you take people deeply into a tradition, how you form them in a way to follow someone who isn't them, how, you know, the core of discipleship is actually following someone else and, and giving your life over to Jesus Christ, as opposed to finding the uniqueness within yourself. Those aren't completely mutually exclusive, but they're, it's a, it's a challenge. So we started, I started there in, you know, Taylor, the thing that's so interesting about him. And I think for me, he's, he's impacted the way I, I think, theologically with his larger philosophical system. And I think we'll probably get into that as we talk about book three, but, it's really his description of our moment that is so interesting to me. And, you know, all the way back when Dayle, I first met you when I was, you know, during the last Cicada season, when I was, I was a student at Princeton Seminary, the question that was really always driving me from the moment I stepped on that campus.Andy Root (03:58):And even earlier was thinking about how is it that we concretely encounter the living presence of God? And, I wouldn't have had the language then to say that, but how is it that the modern world and particularly late modernity makes that really difficult? And that's really what Taylor is trying to articulate. He's trying to say, yeah, we can talk about secular and we throw it around. And it's confused in, yeah, it's not just that people are less, less religious. That's not really the issue. The issue is that there's an overall kind of movement within our Western societies that makes this a, the sense of transcendence or of a living personal God who speaks to us that becomes harder for people to hold onto. Or even when they do hold onto it, there's, there's currents that kind of, undercut it and can wash that away.Andy Root (04:46):And, and they have to deal with kind of doubts or the realization in very pluralistic societies that their neighbor across the streets, you know, never goes to church really has no, religious affiliation at all, but yet feels spiritual. And then when you watch them raise their kids, you think, oh my gosh, they're way better parent than I am. And, you know, I'm, I'm a pastor or I'm a Bishop or whatever. And, you know, that does thrust you into some kind of level of, of doubt or what Taylor would call cross pressure. So that just feels like a big, a big challenge we face. And I feel like he describes that so well. And then, so in book two, it's really trying to, to place those realities. Where the place where I think they're most acutely on the lap of someone is the pastor, that the pastor has to deal with that reality.Andy Root (05:33):And not just even externally, like within your people and within the culture your people are living in, but within yourself. Like, you know, you have to deal with the kind of the cross pressure of here you are standing at the communion table saying, you know, this is the real presence of, you know, depending on your traditions, I suppose, on how much you, how much, how much you push those, theological commitments, but in many ways for most of us, like this is a holy act that this is the real presence of Jesus Christ in one way or another. And yet, you know, we're very different than medieval people who were, you know, tempted to smuggle the host out of church and use it on, you know, their dying crops or their sick pig. You know, like, I don't know, pastor who's ever been tempted to take the host from communion and, you know, put it, put it on their car to make, because it's not running well, you know, or, or put a little wine in the gas tank to get home from church because they're cause they're out of gas.Andy Root (06:27):Like we, we don't, we don't think that way. And I think often as, as pastors and leaders of - inside of Christian ministries in congregational life, it's, it's the challenge is, geez, do I really believe this? Or how, how do I make sense of this? And I think sometimes oddly people in our congregations are willing to confess, experiences with transcendent realities or hearing God speak or praying and, and feeling like God led them to do something, particularly in mainlinr communities, often more than the pastor is like the pastor. She's kind of like, wow, I, I don't want to be, I don't want to be too weird here about this. And so it's just interesting how that secular age imposes on us. And I think it raises a lot of other challenges for the pastor, but then it just made a lot of sense to end this, this trilogy, which I still kind of laugh calling it a trilogy because it should be like, you know, I dunno it should be cooler than it is, or it should be a movie or something.Andy Root (07:23):So I always feel a little bit of you know, imposter syndrome, when we call it, the trilogy. But, it just made sense to go to the congregation and think about the congregation here. And I originally thought, and I originally pitched it that I would write like a full fledged ecclesiology. And you know, so it'd be like the church in a secular age and thinking about what's the church and that's started to feel a little bit too broad. And, so the book is pretty, it's, it's, it's at times unwieldy probably. I mean, there's a lot going on and a lot of theory, but I was trying to kind of focus just on the local congregation and what kind of late modernity does to the local congregation. And, yeah, the challenges we confront there, especially inside of just anxieties about the climb and things like that.Andy Root (08:17):And then I took, in the midst of that, the first two books are, so Charles Taylor focused in this one still is really Charles Taylor focused. But, you know, there's always a big question of like, what's next. And for me, one of the, the pursuits was like, okay, who else is dealing? Who else is building off of Taylor in a significant way? And that's how I came across this really, I think very interesting thinker named Hartmut Rosa, who's really, well-known on the continent of Europe, a really well known across it, but very well known obviously in the German speaking countries, is becoming, I think more well-known here in the states. But I just find his, his, his work really interesting. And he wrote his dissertation on Taylor and is doing his own thing, but is a kind of inside of those, that same kind of thought world. And so this book, we came a pretty significant conversation with, with Rosa and kind of Taylor becomes more so he's there, he's more supporting actor than, than, than lead actor where Rosa kind of takes, takes the lead here.Dayle Rounds (09:17):Yeah, that's right. We'll, we'll get to Rosa a little bit more in, in a couple minutes, but I want to dial back to, in this volume you spend a lot of time, a lot of real estate in the book talking about time, right? So, and our relationship to it, and you begin the book with a discussion of a depressed congregation, which is how this pastor describes it and how people are to, use you phrase as too fatigued to be the church. Would you talk about the connection that you're making in, in, in this work between time, speed, this sense of fatigue or depression as it relates to congregations?Andy Root (09:59):Yeah, I mean, it was a really interesting,` you know, the, the stories that are in this book and that set this book are all true, but have been, you know, it'd be like if it was a movie, it would not be this, this is a true story as much as this is based on a true story. So these are all conversations that have been shifted, but vividly remember talking to a pastor in a state that I've put it, that the pastor is not in. So, but in, in a, in a, in a flyover state where the pastor was in all for all outward appearances was in an incredibly successful congregation. You know, there was, it was a, it was a big middle America church that had just done a capital campaign or was in the middle of it. But I had finished the building project.Andy Root (10:44):There were, you know, posters of programs and trips everywhere in the narthex you, walk to the pastor's office and there were you walk by, I don't know, half dozen, eight, nine offices with, with multiple staff in there. I mean, it was, it, it was a very impressive church. And yet this pastor of the deep sense that, they couldn't keep up, that they, that they just couldn't keep up with all this, in his words, over, you know, a sandwich to me where that he really thinks that his congregation was depressed. Like he just couldn't get them engaged beyond showing up on Sunday morning. And even those numbers were kind of inconsistently dissipating in some ways or downtrending, but for the most part fine. But when it came to any kind of sense of engagement, he just felt like they weren't. And yet when you would talk to them individually, they, there was, they wanted to be.Andy Root (11:38):And, and so his words were that from his own experience was that he just felt like there was a depression. Like it just, it, that there was a will to do more, but there just didn't feel like there was time, but it wasn't even just busy-ness though. I think busy-ness is a huge piece of it. But there was a, there was just a teetering on burnout. Now he would say, if you talk to, and I think, I think this is true. If you talk to a lot of individuals within the congregation, a lot of them weren't feeling like clinically depressed necessarily, but as a collective, that's how he, how he kind of named it. And, one of, you know, we were talking about Rosa reading him led me to this, this, Parisian scholar named Alain Ehrenberg, which does not, I'm probably pronouncing it terribly. And, you know, if I was in Paris, we would probably have to say it a different kind of way.Andy Root (12:25):And it does not sound like a Parisian name, but he's a really interesting sociologist. And he wrote this book that in English is called, the weariness of being, the weariness of - The Weariness Of The Self is what it's called. But the French translation is more interesting, which, if you translate it directly from French, it's the fatigue of being yourself, which is really haunting to me and his, in what he does in that book is try to trace a genealogy of depression and how depression for individuals in the west has become a pretty core, kind of mental illness struggle. And he wants to make an argument that these senses of kind of mental illness or mental struggle, or how we interpret those is really dependent on the way modernity imposes, certain goods upon us. You know, so, there, you know, we, we, in the book I talk about, you know, you go back to the late 19th century, early 20th century, the big issue is hysteria and really psychoanalysis and Freudian psychoanalysis is based off Freud doing rounds, particularly with Parisian women who are in clinics for going hysterical.Andy Root (13:35):And so all psychoanalysis is kind of built off that, and there was something that was going on in modernity that could lead people to kind of have these hysterical moments and not be able to kind of control themselves or kind of come out of their minds or go out of their minds. And you know, you can go back earlier in this kind of sense of madness is not being able to really be this rational agent you're supposed to be, but he says like post seventies, the big issue we confront is this sense of this looming depression that is, is before us. And so he kind of traces the genealogy of Prozac and how Prozac became such an essential thing, but he, what his argument actually is, is that what depression is he thinks is this fatigue of needing to be always keeping up with curating the self, that the responsibilities always, you kind of curating yourself and depression comes upon you, or you, you, you start to, you start to burn out and then you realize you can't keep up.Andy Root (14:34):And it's a much more complicated. And I think more sensitive argument than even, I think I'm, I'm making here, but it was, it was really interesting hearing, reading that book and then having the pastor say that. And so when I'm kind of exploring in this book is, is part of our issue, the fatigue of being church? That, that people just are too exhausted to actually be Church? They like the idea of it, but the church, especially in American Protestantism is on you curating it. And so we say to people in our churches, like we need to change. And I do think we're at a really interesting time in the history of at least, you know, North American Protestant Christianity, where people finally, I think, I don't know, Dayle, you may have a different opinion, but like people finally agree that things need to change, you know, like all levels of the church. Where if you were to go back during last Cicada season, or even back the one before that, not everyone would agree with that.Andy Root (15:29):You know, like you would have thrown change on the table and some people have been like, not what are we talking about? Do we really need to change? I don't know, this is overstated and other people would have been like, yeah. But now I think everyone around the table, seminary presidents, you know, bishops, you know, executive presbyters, local congregational leaders, you know, people leading organizations, foundations, and endowments. I think everyone now agrees we need change. And yet my experience has been, now that we have that moment almost no one has the energy to meet, to meet that, that, that this moment. You know, so, and I think we could see that as just unfortunate, like, oh, that's too bad. It's like getting flu, getting the flu when you have tickets to your favorite concert. You know, you wouldn't blame the concert for giving you the flu. It would just be bad luck. So is this just bad luck that here it is, we all agree we need to change and no one has energy for it? Or is it possible that the demand necessitated by the change actually is imposing this, this despondency?Dayle Rounds (16:32):Well that's the argument you make, right?Andy Root (16:33):That is exactly the argument that I make. That if we're not that we shouldn't see this as just unfortunate, but we should be very, we should be very careful. And Ehrenberg says that he thinks depression is actually, is actually an issue of change. That constant need to keep changing yourself and continue to change it and not fall behind the need to change that can lead to this deep sense of, of kind of malaise that can, that can come over.Dayle Rounds (17:01):You connect that also just with speed and the speed of change, right? So just this constant, it's not, it's not like things need to change and we have all the time in the world in which to do it.Andy Root (17:15):Right. And that's kind of the connection to, to Rosa's project is, yeah. Rosa wants to say what it means to be a late modern person. Is that things just keep speeding up.New Speaker (17:25):[percussive music begins] [water droplet sound]Dayle Rounds (17:28):So let's go to Rosa let's, let's, let's dive into that a little bit and, and, and see, you know, like how you discovered that and kind of talk a bit about the thread of that throughout.Andy Root (17:38):Yeah. Well, I mean, that's, that's a huge piece here because what Rosa thinks happens is - as we kind of back our way in to talking about him - is that once you change, and this is why I think it, it imposes and why this pastor in this fly over state is saying that he thinks this congregation has a kind of sense that depression. Is once you change now, you have to meet the bar of that change and to continue in the dynamic of change, you're gonna have to change more and then more, and then more so there's a kind of, there's a, what he calls a kind of dynamic stabilization. Like if you're going to stabilize that change, if that change, that change is going to be sustainable, it also means that everyone has to do the effort of keeping that going and not just at a baseline, but at a kind of sense of growth and anything.Andy Root (18:22):So Rose's point then is that what modernity is, is this continued acceleration of, of our lives in every dynamic of our, of our lives. And it just keeps speeding up. And so it speeds up technologically, but it does more than that, which is we always kind of feel like, oh, of course, yeah. I mean, of course things have been speeding up technologically. Like you watch a movie from a, you know, 2000, and you're just amazed at the technological differences that have happened at 20 years. And, you know, the last half of the 20th century has been this extraordinary, just advanced in technological acceleration. And usually, particularly with young pastors, that's kind of the pitch why the church needs to change, like, look at the technology's changed. The church can't fall behind, but I think it's really helpful that Rosa says it's not just technology and technology is the speeding up of communication and of production and of transportation.Andy Root (19:17):So those things just keep speeding up. And he says, well, what that, what occurs when that happens is it also at the same time because communication and production and transportation are indelibly, social realities, you know, it starts to impact our social lives. So the very norms of our social lives start to really speed up quite quickly. And I think pastors on the ground feel this, like, especially over this last election season, you know, like there's, I think there are a lot of Protestant pastors feel this kind of fraughtness of people, even in their congregations at different acceleration paces in the changing norms of their, of their, of their congregational life. So you have some people who have kind of kept up with the accelerating pace of different ways of talking of different ways of thinking about these kinds of social issues and other people who are resisting it, or who have simply felt left behind by the change.Andy Root (20:15):And then maybe feel resentful about leaving, being left behind where the change and so are angry about it, but so that it leads to this deep kind of sense of just social norms changing as well and changing really quite quickly, which is why in the book I use the example of The Office and Steve Carrell being asked if he would reboot The Office. And he said he wouldn't, you know, and this, I think he was asked in like 2016 and the show was over and I dunno, there's you have mega fans listening to this like 2013 or something like that. So it was like a short three years and he was asked, would you, would you be part of a reboot? And I think Peacock is planning a reboot. So, but he said, no. And he, in this main reason, wasn't just that he was a big movie star now and didn't need the show.Andy Root (20:58):He said, I don't think Michael Scott's humor works in this cultural time. I just don't think, I don't think that I don't think you can get away with saying those jokes anymore. And that's really interesting and I think he may be right, and that may be a good thing, but it is a huge accelerated change in social norms between three years. You know, that what we were laughing at before, we now feel very uncomfortable, laughing at and Aziz, who was on Park and Rec, he has a little thing in his standup where he talks about that as well about thinking back to scripts from Park and Rec and thinking, you know, now, and he's doing a standup in like 2019, and he's looking back like now I wouldn't do some of those things. Like those things seem creepy now, but at the time I felt like they were fine.Andy Root (21:43):So you just see this kind of acceleration of, of social norms. And I think the pastor and the congregation becomes a place where sometimes those come to loggerheads of people just being at different paces of those. But then the third one is the one I think we feel most existentially. It's just that the pace of our lives continues to speed up. It just feels like we're busier and busier and busier. And there is a kind of weird, I mean, we all know this weird irony that supposedly Silicon valley in all its technological advances was supposed to be time-saving innovations. We're supposed to have more time now, you know, so the example Rosie uses that I develop in the book that I think is really most helpful to think about is email and that, you know, pre email, which, you know, most of people listening here, don't remember a world pre email, but pre email, if you had to do you had to write letters, I don't know if you had 10 correspondence you had to do a day.Andy Root (22:37):It probably took you an hour and a half, you know, to write those 10 letters and address them and get them in envelopes and get a stamp on them. When email comes along my gosh, 10 emails? You should be able to do 10 emails and 15 minutes, a half hour at tops. So there you go. You should have a full hour back of your life to just to actually exercise like you want to, spend more time cooking and eating right, reading, reading your kids' books. You should have so much time. You can finally read Dostoevsky, you've bought all the books, but never had time to read them. But now you can actually read, read all this stuff. You can read Russian literature, but of course it doesn't work that way. And anyone who has an email account, which is all of us, knows that we all live under the burden of, you know, a piano of a piano falling our head of just email after email, after email, because what happens is it's not that we're given more time what those kinds of innovations give us is more actions inside a unit of time.Andy Root (23:35):So of course, why we don't have more time is because you don't have 10 correspondence to do anymore. Email means that you now have 60 to do, and now it's pretty hard to do in an hour and a half. You actually need two hours. And now you have to somehow find another half hour to do, to do correspondence and get your emails down. And now your multitasking and you're at your son's swim meet also trying to respond to emails, which means you're really not at the swim meet, even though you're sitting there at the swim meet because you're trying to multitask and get these things done. So this just adds, and I do worry. I mean, I think, I think, you know, in some ways, and maybe we'll talk about this, but kind of, I'm pretty hard on innovation, with, within the book, because I just want us to be careful that innovation often has meant in this kind of logic, we don't exercise this kind of logic out of innovation.Andy Root (24:30):It has meant more actions inside of units of time. It means doing more with less, the really innovative person often does more with less. And, you know, in, in my world, for instance, it's just, you know, bishops love that. To do, to get pastors to do more with less. That sounds great. Yeah. And so to kind of glorify the person who can do more with less as innovative maybe there is some kind of genius in that, but there's also a sense of pushing a person closer towards burnout too. And, you know, it's, I don't want to over, over make these claims, but it's just no wonder that it feels like people who find a lot of fullness and another, in another way of saying that, like there, the sense of the good life is through being very busy are also really prone towards, senses of burnout that leads to some kind of debilitating depression.Andy Root (25:22):So, you know, we have a younger generation of people who are more linked into the advances of getting more actions and more reach out of time. And yet we also are seeing epidemics of anxiety and depression at the same time. So those things I don't think are disconnected. And you know, I don't, I don't want to go too far in connecting them either. I think there's, there's really complicated issues, but, that becomes part of the challenge. So this just becomes, this continued acceleration in these three ways. Rosa says, and, as a good kind of Frankfurt school, social theorist, he thinks what this does to us is something pretty diabolical. Is that it alienates us, that we end up going so fast that we feel disconnected from ourselves. We feel disconnected from the people in our lives, which you only have to watch someone who's continuing looking at their phone to, you know, be, make sure they're on the right, you know, Twitter conversations or seeing how many people are re tweeting them to see how disconnected they are from the people around them. But he actually thinks it goes so far that we feel disconnected from the world that we just feel like the world becomes quite a dull place. It doesn't speak to us anymore. We just feel, we just feel like we're not, we're above it. We're not in it. And, and those become pretty, I think depressive in many ways.Dayle Rounds (26:42):Yeah. And that's what we don't want congregations to feel disconnected from the world and their communities. Right? So if we're falling into that with, at the congregational level, but you're using innovation to try to get them to be connected, then we're just, are we just exhausting everybody?Andy Root (27:04):Yeah. That becomes that, that, that's the, that's the, the, the warning maybe I think that this is signaling? It's not to say there wouldn't be a way to think about innovation and there might be some kind of to put it kind of in philosophical, theological language. There may be some dialectic that innovation has to go through. You know, it has to be put to death to be resurrected in some way that it has to have some kind of theological movement where it becomes, which I think all things in many ways, at least in the traditions that I kind of rest in, all things have to go kind of through death to life, they all kind of move through a baptismal sense of being drowned and brought back to life. And, and I do worry that we haven't thought enough about how innovation has to go through that, so that some of these, some of these kind of corrupting forms from kind of late capitalism and in hyper late capitalism, that just is like, hurry up so you can get more.Andy Root (27:56):And this is a competitive game, and this is a, this is a place where you can express your most singular unique self. And this is a fight between selves to be who has more, more value or who has who's more interesting or who has more reach. Yeah, I think we have to worry about that. We have, we have to worry about how we take that to a deeper theological perspective, so we can kind of do that innovation. The biggest problem with all this speed-up is what connects us back to Taylor is that it, it flattens the world. And, you know, if we become alienated from connections and I guess this is making this larger theological argument, that's connected with the kind of full breadth of my project, that if we really meet God in connections and in relationships, and yet this acceleration severs those. Well, it's no wonder then that late modern people have no idea or continue to doubt that they could hear the voice of a living, speaking God, or encounter a personal God who speaks to them or be pulled into something transcendent.Andy Root (29:00):And yet they long for that. And so I do think one of the reasons innovation, and kind of Silicon Valley creativity draws people in initially is it does have a kind of allure of the spiritual to it. I mean, there's nothing more interesting than watching a biopic of someone who creates, you know, the great, a great invention or something, you know, like we love the story of the great inventor and, you know, when Steve Jobs died, how many biopics did we get of Steve Jobs? And we, we admire that and there's a kind of pseudo if not direct spirituality to it. But how much is this that spirituality disconnected from a kind of, kind of deifying of the self and the self's own uniqueness. And, does it end up putting us on a kind of accelerating path that eventually burns us out and, and crushes our humanity, in the midst of it?Dayle Rounds (29:52):Another thread throughout the book that intrigued me is your discussion of the good life. So you talk a little bit more about that, about what it is? How our understanding of a good life has maybe changed? How the acceleration impacts it. And then also you, toward the end, you weave around to this concept of resonance and what that might have to do with your understanding of the good life.Andy Root (30:20):Yeah. So, you know, I don't know, Dayle, I keep on talking about the last Cicada season just because I know you're in the middle of it and it just, now I'm thinking like my gosh, it just like frames my, my life it's been, yeah.Dayle Rounds (30:33):I know, yeah the Cicadas are chirping inside. I'm a little worried, you can hear it through my microphone but-Andy Root (30:36):and it's been 17 years and I was on campus at theDayle Rounds (30:41):It's a marker of time. It's a matter of time, you know?Andy Root (30:46):Yes. Interestingly, it can't be accelerated, you know, so it's a marker of time that kind of natural marker of time, but it's different than kind of, it comes back every 17 years and you, you can't speed it up. And that's, and that's how it works. But yeah, back back in that first Cicada season or last Cicada season when I was there, I, would've never thought of talking about the good life like that was in my theological kind of imagination in this kind of Lutheran sensibility that I grew up in. And then now I teach in a seminary at as well as this kind of Bartian reality that I was in and reading Bonhoeffer, like the good life would not have been, I would have looked sideways at it. But kind of reading my way back into it, through Taylor particularly find it really helpful.Andy Root (31:32):And, what, what Taylor thinks as, as a larger philosophical argument, even more than his descriptive argument about what it means to live in a secular age is even back to his time writing in the fifties and sixties is he really thinks that all forms of human action have some kind of sense of the good connected to them. That for us, even to have an identity for us to be able to answer the question, who am I, whether directly or just tacitly that we have to have some kind of sense, some kind of directionality even, towards the good, and sometimes we don't explicitly know what, or can't lay it out, but we have that. We have a sense of what would make our life full is what he often says. What gives us a kind of sense of full life. And he thinks that that is inherently connected to narrative, that you need a story that, that kind of directs you towards the good.Andy Root (32:21):So when you find yourself in an identity crisis, what often happens is you find the stories that you would tell yourself about what made your life good. You find all of a sudden they don't work or that you've been deceived by them. And so sometimes you can find someone who betrays you and you thought you thought, what made life good was your relationship with this person. And they've betrayed you and said, well, I've been, I've been cheating on you for three years. And when that revelation comes up, the person who encounters that revelation, who didn't even do the moral violation, feels like they'll say things like, I don't know who I am. Oh my gosh, I, who am I anymore? You know, so we call this an identity crisis. And what actually happens is you, the stories you have that directed and kind of framed what made your life full, all of a sudden feel like they're not real or they weren't working anymore.Andy Root (33:09):So his sense, which I really do agree with is we all really have this implicit, sometimes explicit kind of sense of what makes life good or full. And those can be contested and often are contested, where, you know, like the neighbor across the street seems to be living a good life in, in a very different way. And, and they, they can, they can change and they can be misdirected in times too. But I think one of the ways that we've tended to define what it means to live a good life, particularly kind of middle-class upwardly mobile, congregational life even is that we've tended to see it as, busy-ness - busy-ness as fullness. Like your life is full when you're busy. So when we meet, when we meet somebody or we see somebody we haven't seen for a while, or see a colleague after a pandemic, and you say, Hey, how you doing?Andy Root (34:05):Our response a lot of the time is things are good, but it's busy. Things are really busy right now, or how's your family? Things are good, but it's busy. And that signals a couple of things. I mean, it does signal that things feel stretched and new things, things do feel busy and you are kind of signaling that if things get any busier, it could push you into a depressive state or it could lead you into burnout. But you're also communicating when you say that it's busy, that you are near, or you are being directed towards a form of the good life. That you are in demand, that you have a lot going on, that you have reach, that people are interested in you, that you are getting emails. And unfortunately you have to respond to all those, but people are emailing you and asking your opinion or inviting you out to wine, or whatever, a social distance walk or something that you, your life is busy.Andy Root (34:56):And that means it's also has a sense of fullness. So I do think we haven't been critical enough or thought about how we even think about how we define a good, a good congregation in this kind of moral sense of what it means to be good. And I, and I do think ,this is a little bit of an overstatement, but I think if we talked about it more, we could, we could justify it. Is that the way we've tended to think the good congregation as a congregation that can get busy people connected to it. And one of the only ways to get busy people connected is to be busy yourself. So, unfortunately in a weird kind of way, because again, this is a deep, moral sense, maybe test, that maybe implicit of people trying to direct themselves towards the sense of fullness that they think will reward them with a sense of living well. That people tend to, if they feel like they're getting their sense of meaning out of being busy, like that's their sense of fullness.Andy Root (35:57):They will look for a church that's busy. I mean, it's an odd kind of thing. Cause you'd think super busy people would want to go to like meditative small churches and just sit in the sanctuary and like reflect on an icon. And, you know, it's been an hour doing that, but they don't, they tend to go to big churches with a ton of programs and then they can't go for six months cause their kids in AAU basketball. And then they find out that the youth pastor has decided that they're not going to meet as a, as a youth group for six months because people are too busy and those parents would never even be able to get their kid to the youth group write the most angry email. Even though they can never get their kids to that program, they don't want that program to be disbanded even for six months because they feel like, well, we go to this church cause it has these things going on and we're busy people and we want to be affiliated and connected to a busy church.Andy Root (36:48):So I think that, that it plays in, but it has this kind of connection with what they view as, as fullness this busy-ness. And, and I get it and this is a way we kind of interact with our community. And I think one of the ways we kind of contextualize ministry in a positive way is to be aware of people's kind of senses of fullness. But it also is potentially really dangerous too, because you now, when you make the good congregation, the busy congregation, you are moving it closer to that the, that law fatigue detra eglise where we become too fatigued to be church. And so, yeah, I think busy-ness becomes that, that sense of fullness for late modern people, at least middle-class late modern people.New Speaker (37:32):[percussive music begins] [water droplet sound]Dayle Rounds (37:35):We haven't, we haven't talked too much about resonance yet, have we? Can we do that toward the end, you, you introduce that concept and that how modernity speeds us up to a rate that leads to alienation, which you were just talking about a little bit, but you lift this up as maybe a way to combat alienation? Is that too strong, a way to describe it?Andy Root (37:58):Yeah, that's really fair. So, you know, like the trajectory of Rosa's work, which this book really is following more of his early, early work, where he's talking about acceleration and how acceleration kind of gets imposed within us and how every part of our lives accelerate. And so he, he presented that stuff in his early books and in Germany and, and became quite famous. Like I said, quite well known in the German speaking world. So it was like on our equivalent to Sunday morning political, you know, round table discussions. And, it was in newspapers everywhere. It became known as the slowdown guru, you know, that's what they started calling him. Because he was warning, like we can't accelerate too fast. And there has a whole movement culturally of slowing down, you know, there's slow food and there's slow, slow parenting. And I don't know, slow everything. And even, even people, you know, making, I think really important cases for kind of slow church and things like that. But Rosa wanted, and I really, I completely follow him on this and think he's really right.Andy Root (38:57):Especially as we put it into the connection of the church is that it's not enough. Like slow down the acceleration is so, so all encompassing and does something, he wouldn't quite say this way, but I would kind of echoing Jim Loder or something like it does something to our spirit. Acceleration does something to the human spirit and becomes a kind of spiritual crisis that simply slowing down won't solve the issue. That, that there has to be something else in place of that. So the second half of his work that's been, I think really brilliant, is he wrote this book called, Resonance where he thinks the other to this alienation of acceleration is actually resonance. So what we need is not just a slow down, but we need a whole nother form of action and a form of action that doesn't accelerate us so that our connections get cut off because we're going too fast, but there are forms of action that we have, that we have to have, or we wouldn't be, you know, the kind of beings we are though.Andy Root (39:57):They get kind of thinned out, unfortunately, but we do have these deep connections. We do have these kind of kind of actions and kind of kind of engagements in our lives that connect us deeply, where we feel again, there's a live wire connecting us with the world. And particularly like when we engage in an artistic activity, or see a movie that we love or have a long conversation with a friend, like we, in those moments, we can become tired. Like I needed, you know, we've been talking for three hours, I need to go to bed, but you often don't feel alienated. You feel connected and you feel drawn into something really full. And you often don't even know time. You look at your watch and are like, oh my gosh, we've been talking for three hours and I'm tired. I should go to bed, but you don't feel like something was, something was carved out of you and taken out of it.Andy Root (40:49):You feel, you feel full with this kind of deep connection. So he, he really in his beautiful ways tries to articulate this, this idea of resonance. So resonance, isn't just a kind of spiritual thing. It's a form of action that there are forms of actions we can take that really connect us deeply with the world that stand in opposition to this acceleration where time doesn't become, hollowed out. And this is kinda my argument throughout this, like the sacredness of time becomes pulled out of it and modernity, so it can continue to be sped up really starting with the industrial revolution. But beyond that, so we can just continue speeding up. It has no sacredness whatsoever, but yet we do have these moments, like when you sit with your grandchild and eat an ice cream cone, or when you just have a walk with somebody you love on, on vacation, or you do sit in a moment of silence, or take on certain mystical practices, that all of a sudden time becomes full of something.Andy Root (41:47):And what he really wants to argue, which is connected with the trajectory of my work these last 15 years, is that it becomes full with these deep forms of relationship. These, what I, what I call following Bonhoeffer like these deep senses of place sharing these relationships, where we're just with and for each other, for the purpose of being with and for each other, not to accelerate off to something else, not to try to make, ourselves into or, or achieve some kind of goodness, but in the relationship itself is this kind of sense of goodness. So I'm trying to take a turn here at the last half of the book. I think it is true. Like some people have said, my gosh, first 200 pages of this book. I was so depressed. And,Dayle Rounds (42:31):I know, that's how I felt.Andy Root (42:31):Yeah, I do keep that. You're not going to miss the point that acceleration is a problem, whether you agree with me or not, that's for you to de- but I think I've given you a 360, kind of sense of why it's a problem, but so the solution is kind of resonance and I have another book coming out that will even get more into that, that, that ecclesiology that I didn't get to, I will get to you in my next project where resonance will become kind of more, more central, where here it is the answer to a really big problem that I, that I've laid out. But I do think that maybe the good congregation isn't the busy congregation, but the congregation that finds a way to create environments that allows for actions of resonance. And, in this forthcoming book, we'll try to even more theologically articulate how, how resonance and, and, and the act of God, kind of connect in some waysDayle Rounds (43:22):And you brought up Bonhoeffer. So I feel like I should talk about Bonhoeffer when we, whenever we talk with you. So you do bring him up toward the end of the book with this, with the notion of his phrase, carrying the child. Can you go into that a little bit?Andy Root (43:39):Yeah. So this is, the original kind of brainchild of, of this project. Like I told you was supposed to be a full ecclesiology and it didn't become that. It was because of that phrase, like insect torum commino - so much good scholarship has been done on that, that book. And yet almost no one really centers Bonhoeffer's statement of his really practical form of the church for him. What a faithful community, what a faithful gominda, as he would say as a faithful kind of church community, not necessarily an institution, but a community of people together. It's most practical form that reflects its faithfulness is that children are at the center of it and that children are being carried. And, almost, you know, God bless, Bonhoeffer scholars everywhere. But very few people focus on that and, you know, get caught in kind of philosophical ideas that need to be really articulated, and larger theological ideas.Andy Root (44:33):But this is his real practical sense of that. And I've just been always so intrigued by that. And what would it mean to have a kind of whole ecclesiology where caring children becomes the central piece? And so I returned to that here, and it doesn't become as full blown maybe as, as it should be, or as I originally thought it could be. And I had a whole thought of like doing a kind of Mariology with thinking of Mary as the one who carries, carries the Christ child. And there's a long footnote where I talk about how I wish I could have gone that direction, but you, none of you would've read a 600 page book and, who knows if I could have pulled it off anyhow, but there is something really beautiful about Bonhoeffer's sense that, we, when we know, and I guess to put this in kind of Rosa language is that the deep temptation is to have our congregations be accelerating, to keep up and to be busy, to attract busy people.Andy Root (45:25):And when that happens and when those are the kind of forms of church, usually children always get pushed off into potentiality. They either get literally taken out of the congregation or we need a children's ministry. We need to think about children because they are what we will potentially need there. It all is based on the kind of potentiality, or we need them as a kind of a felt, need marketing ploy to get young, fast, busy people to come. You know, like if you have a good children's ministry, then you're gonna have young professionals who want to come to your church with kids. But Bonhoeffer thinks something really differently. He thinks that, that first of all, we, that that's a bad image of the church. But if the church is really a community, then children are there at the center, but why children are so important is because children fundamentally represent to us.Andy Root (46:15):That's true about our own humanity that we have our own humanity through. He doesn't quite, he doesn't say this, but to give him Rosa's language, we have it through actions of resonance, of relationships, of connection. A child is fundamentally bound to others. That a child has to be carried by another. It's like Winnicott the great object relations psychologist said, "there's no such thing as a child, there's only a child and a caregiver, a child, and a mother." He says like, there it's that dynamic of a relationship. And Bonhoeffer's getting at that, in that relationship often of a child and a caregiver, when it's at its most beautiful, isn't accelerated, I mean, there's temptations for acceleration. Like how many, how many baby times should we go to? And should we start music lessons here? So our child - you know, there's, there's, there's, there's the temptations of the acceleration for development, but at its most core and its most beautiful, there's just something about being in each other's presence.Andy Root (47:14):And that relationship is full of a deep kind of connection where you can, where you feel spoken to in many ways or you feel connected to something deeper and where there's a kind of sacredness that lands inside of time and time becomes full of something sacred and connected. But it also is. It's done deeply through this kind of dialectic for Bonhoeffer where we, the child has - the child is a resonant creature to give him, Rosa's language because to give Rosa Bonhoeffer's language because it's fundamentally dialectic, they're dialectical beings. A child, even an infant is both spirit and will, is both open and closed. These things, these, these dynamics that play out, you know, that infant has its own will I need to eat, I need someone to hold me, but also can't be without being inside of a relationship. And when, when that's acknowledged and when that shared in, it feels a deep connection of something of something sacred.Andy Root (48:14):And so there's just also a deep kind of Christological element here of you know, the fullness of the second person of the Trinity, can't be disconnected from being a being that was carried by his mother. You know, so Mary becomes, I think this picture of, of maybe what it means to be church in this kind of resonant way. So that's kind of - Bonhoeffer, doesn't quite go with the Mary element here. He's too, too much of a early 20th century, Lutheran, but there is, there is something I think in that dynamic, that's, that's important. And so I use a little bit of a - or quite a bit actually of, a Greek Orthodox theologian named, Yannaras, who, who touches on some of this stuff as well and the importance of person. And he has this really important book, I think called Person and Arrows, where he tries to talk about what this kind of this passionate love is is about.Andy Root (49:10):But it has to be found within this kind of sense of personhood too, which I think, gives us a way of even thinking about what change might look like within a church instead of it being about this acceleration to do more, that it has to be embedded in this deep sense of person sharing in each other's lives. And that could be slower, but more so it's, it moves us into something. Well, it moves us into deep connections that feel, or that we can testify to being sacred or full. In full, I would want to say I'm full of divine action full of God's being, full of participation and, and God's life. It has a deeper kind of spiritually mystical element while it's completely concrete and lived also.New Speaker (49:54):[percussive music begins] [water droplet sound]Dayle Rounds (49:57):Last question is, I mean, at this point, I'm sure you're hearing from people, I've had some conversations with pastors or folks who've read the book, how are those conversations going? How are people engaging with this? Are they all walking away depressed because they read the first two, two sections of the book and don't get to the third? Or are they leaning in into this, into the last section of the book where, where there's some tools for figuring it out?Andy Root (50:24):Yeah, it's, it's, it's interesting because yeah, it's, I call you not, you know, to be wary of becoming a depressed church by going too fast. And then my diagnosis could just make you depressed in the other in another way as well. So, yeah, I think my, the, the pushback is been, or the interactions have been that this, that this does describe something. I think one of the beauties of Taylor and I hope what I've offered in a way that's congratulate with his work in, and hopefully in a little bit of a unique way is to try to articulate what people already sense and feel, but haven't had the words for maybe. And so I think some of the feedback has been, yeah, this really names that. And I think where it's maybe been most helpful for people right now is thinking about coming out of this pandemic because the book was obviously composed before the pandemic then, you know, released in the middle of the pandemic, which is, you know, every author's nightmare that some huge historical event happens after your book is already in production.Andy Root (51:33):But I think, you know, so there, there, I think there could be an, their initial pushback, like, well, wait a minute, you talk about acceleration acceleration, but from, you know, March, 2020 until pretty much February, 2021, there was no acceleration. We were all at home. So I guess that didn't work out, but I don't think that's really true. I think we felt deep forms of anxiety and feeling overwhelmed as we detox from some of that acceleration. And yet I think we also felt lost in the world. You know, like in the Twin Cities, particularly, violence has gone skyrocketed and, and just, there's just been incredible ways that when people have not been able to continue at the accelerated pace, they accelerate in other ways or they, they lose or kind of get pushed into, to, you know some destructive things. But the other element of this, and as we sit right now here at the end of May, is that there's just going to be a huge temptation, I think.Andy Root (52:34):And we saw this with the Spanish flu, a huge temptation to make up for lost time. And I think pastors and congregations are going to feel that. Like, okay, our young people did not get to go on a mission trip last summer. So let's do two this year or, you know, we gotta do, we, we need our youth group to meet twice a week or, or whatever, or, you know, people are gonna think, I gotta, I gotta preach my best, my best sermons now. You know, I really have to make sure that those, those are, those are out there top match, or we need more programming to get people more involved. And so I think we, we need to be really careful of that, the careful, the temptation to try to make up for lost time. And I think where the book has been helpful is reminding people, that this isn't just a little issue or this isn't just a needed tweak, but there is a whole way we have to kind of rethink, rethink what we do and really at its most base, what makes a congregation good.Andy Root (53:32):What does a good congregation? What does it mean for us to be living well together? And I think it has a lot more to do with our connections to one another and our confession of our connection to God then how, how far our reach is. And how, how fast we're accelerating to win resources to make sure we survive. And that's a worry, but I think ultimately what we desire most is to be connected to one another, which is something we became so deeply viscerally aware of through this pandemic too, is that the, that the we're lonely and that we need others in a significant way.Dayle Rounds (54:13):Thanks, Andy.Andy Root (54:14):Thanks, Dayle.Dayle Rounds (54:17):Been listening to the distillery interviews are conducted by me, Dale rounds and me Sue Sharma Austin Conner,Speaker 4 (54:24):And I'm Sherry hosting Peterman. And I am in charge of production.Dayle Rounds (54:29):Like what you're hearing subscribe at apple podcasts, Stitcher, or your preferred podcast app. The distillery is a production of Princeton. Theological seminary is office of continuing education. You can find out firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for watching.
50 minutes | Jun 25, 2021
The African American Interpreter and Paul
New Testament scholar Dr. Lisa Bowens takes aim at this question in her new book, African American Readings of Paul: Reception, Resistance, and Transformation. In this interview, Sushama Austin-Connor talks with Dr. Bowens about the inspiration behind this work, the “hidden figures” of African American hermeneutics, interpretations of Paul that resist white supremacy and racism, and more. Lisa Bowens, associate professor of New Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary, earned a BS (cum laude), MSBE, and MLIS from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and an MTS and ThM from Duke Divinity School. She received her Ph.D. from Princeton Theological Seminary. Her recently published book, African American Readings of Paul: Reception, Resistance, and Transformation (Eerdmans) is the first book devoted solely to investigating a historical trajectory of how African Americans have understood Paul and utilized his work to resist and protest injustice and racism in their own writings from the 1700s to the mid-twentieth century. Her previous book, An Apostle in Battle: Paul and Spiritual Warfare in 2 Corinthians 12:1-10 (Mohr Siebeck), is a revision of her dissertation and examines Paul’s ascent to the third heaven through a cosmic/apocalyptic lens. It traces martial imagery in the letter and explores how this imagery facilitates understanding Paul’s journey as an example of spiritual warfare. Dayle Rounds (00:00): What is an African-American interpretation of Paul? Dr. Lisa Bowens is associate professor of New Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary and author of the book *African-American Readings of Paul: Reception, Resistance, and Transformation. In this episode, Sushama Austin-Connor talks with Dr. Bowens about this groundbreaking work in New Testament studies. Dr. Bowens begins with a story of Howard Thurman's grandmother and her discomfort with certain readings of Paul, particularly the preaching of Paul that states that slaves must obey their masters. The story led to Bowen's interest in researching the complex history between Paul's teachings and Christianity's relationship and complicity in racism and slavery. In this conversation Dr. Bowens highlights how, despite this complex history, African Americans have still interpreted Paul's letters to protest and resist oppression. She speaks at length about several of the African American interpreters surveyed in her book, including Harriet Jacobs, the first African American to write her autobiography, and Lemuel Haynes, the first ordained African American in the United States. [percussive music begins] [water droplet sound] You are listening to The Distillery at Princeton Theological Seminary. Sushama Austin-Connor (01:18): Alright, Dr. Bowens. I'm so excited to be with you this afternoon for our interview, for The Distillery, on your newest book. I wanted to start with just a general idea of this topic. Like, why this topic, what was so important about it for you? Lisa Bowens (01:38): Yeah, so, a couple of things were happening simultaneously that brought about this project. So when I was working on my dissertation -- my dissertation was on Second Corinthians, chapter 12, Paul's Ascent to the Third Heaven. And when I was working on that, I wanted to include in that project a chapter on how African Americans have interpreted that particular passage in Paul. And so within a conversation with my Doctor Father at the time, and he suggested that I do that as a separate project. And so while we were having those types of conversations, I was also attending different conferences. And at these conferences, people were lifting up the story of Howard Thurman's grandmother as the way African Americans interpreted Paul. And so I kept hearing that over and over, and I thought, is that really true? Is that really the case? So to make a long story short, the conversation I had with my Doctor Father and my attending these conferences and hearing a story of Howard Thurman's grandmother as the way African Americans interpreted all kind of converged for me. And so I said, well, let me not just concentrate on Second Corinthians 12. Let's just do an investigation and just see -- how have African Americans interpreted Paul overall. So those kinds of those two topics just kind of merged. And I just expanded my focus on Paul and African Americans' interpretation of Paul. So that's how this project came about. And it's been an interesting and formative journey for me. Sushama Austin-Connor (03:24): And I want to get to the journey and I want to get to Howard Thurman's -- the story of Howard Thurman's grandmother and how that relates to how African Americans look at Paul. So you have an idea like this, how do you get to start researching? Where do you start? What are, what are kind of the key milestones to even get started? Where do you know to look? Lisa Bowens (03:48): Yes. So one of the things that happened, I was in conversations with different scholars about my project at the time when I was just focusing on Second Corinthians 12, and different people started recommending, "Oh, you should read this person. You should look here." And so one of the things that's interesting about research is once you look at a source or two, those sources will lead you to other sources. And so one of the first sources I looked at was *God Struck Me Dead*, a very important volume in which the readers are presented with conversion stories of enslaved Africans. And so reading those stories really got me to thinking about just how powerful these narratives were. These African American people were just talking about these amazing divine encounters with God. And so, you know, reading that volume, looking through those narratives, led me to this anthology of narratives edited by Yuval Taylor. *I Was Born a Slave*. It's a couple of volumes, huge volumes, where the editor has compiled autobiographies of enslaved persons. And so looking and reading through those narratives, which were powerful, but also very difficult to read, they're very candid about what they experienced in slavery, but also very candid about their own divine encounters with God and what was preached to them by white enslavers and how these African Americans interpreted scripture for themselves. So, reading those narratives kind of led me to other sources as well. *This is in the Spirit*, edited by William Andrews, the autobiographies of Jarena Lee and Julia Foote and Zilpha Elaw. So, it's kind of like once you start that path, different other sources come up. And so I was very fortunate to be in conversation with great scholars who recommended readings, but also just once you start reading again, you just, it leads you to other sources as well. Sushama Austin-Connor (06:16): And for something of this magnitude, are you traveling a lot? Is it, I'm assuming it's a post-, I mean a pre-COVID research. Lisa Bowens (06:26): Yeah. Yeah. So I've been working on this for quite some time. So I started working on that chapter, like for my dissertation, like back in 2014 and finished the manuscript, I think I finished it in '16, '17 around that time. And then, you know, did some editing afterward, but yeah, so it took me a while to kind of go through the material, read the narratives. And one of the things that was really interesting about this whole process is that once I started, it became clear to me that there was no way I was going to be able to include all of what I wanted to include because originally the project was -- I wanted to focus on how have African Americans interpreted Paul from the 1700s all the way to the present. And that just -- it just became clear that this is not, I would not be able to do that. Sushama Austin-Connor (07:24): Right. I bet. Lisa Bowens (07:26): Yeah. So I ended up stopping mid-20th century, with the civil rights movement, and even, you know, stopping there, I ended up not including all of the interpreters that could have been included. It was just too many, but I think that's a great problem to have. And so, you know, one of the things I hope that this work does is spur interest in this topic and that other researchers, writers, scholars will be interested in doing more research in this area because I think it's a fruitful area that needs to be explored not only because it helps us to understand, you know, Christianity's relationship with racism and slavery, but also the legacy, the great legacy of these African interpreters who have gone before us and how they have utilized scripture to protest and resist racism, white supremacy. And there's such a rich legacy and a rich heritage that I think needs to continually be uncovered and revealed. I like to call these figures 'hidden figures,' because I think, you know, some of them are well-known, but many of them are not well-known. And so I think their voices are so important and they need to be heard. Sushama Austin-Connor (08:48): And actually one of my questions for you is about some of the individual interpreters that you talk about. And we can talk about that in a sec, but give us the context: talk to us about Howard Thurman's grandmother and that important story. And then about generally, how do African American congregants and people and religious scholars look at Paul? Lisa Bowens (09:14): Yeah. So the story of Howard Thurman's grandmother is really a powerful story. So Howard Thurman was a prominent civil rights leader, activist, theologian of the 20th century, just a really profound scholar in his own right. And in his book, *Jesus and the Disinherited*, he tells the story of his grandmother, Nancy Ambrose, who was born a slave. And, you know, once she was emancipated, Howard Thurman, her grandson, would often read to her because she never learned to read or write. And the way he tells the story is just so powerful. He talks about how she was always very particular about which scriptures she wanted him to read. And he noticed that, you know, she would have particular portions of scripture for him to read to her, but nothing from Paul, except from -- except for First Corinthians 13. And so he says, one day he gets up the courage to ask her why. Lisa Bowens (10:20): And she tells him that, when she was an enslaved person, the white minister would always preach from Paul, "Slaves, obey your master." And she said, she told him that she promised herself that if she ever became free, she would never read that part of scripture ever again. And so it's a really powerful story in so many ways because first of all, it tells us how scripture was used and preached to enslaved persons to try to justify their enslavement. But it also shows, gives a glimpse into this complicated relationship that African Americans have had with the Apostle Paul because of how he was used and how he was preached to them. And so, this story becomes an important part of illuminating that relationship. And what I try to do in my book is to show that, yes, that is an important part of the relationship between African Americans and Paul, but there are also other voices too, and embarked on this research journey. Lisa Bowens (11:37): I wasn't quite sure what I would find -- if I would find that there were many African Americans who follow Nancy Ambrose in really kind of rejecting Paul in some sense. But one of the things that was really surprising to me was that for the most part, African Americans really gravitated towards Paul in their writings and their autobiographies, in their sermons and their speeches. And they actually utilized him to argue for their freedom, to argue for justice, to argue for their own humanity. And I think that's one of the surprising -- and I think one of the gifts that these interpreters leave us, I think, seeing how scripture can be used and really does provide resources for the struggle for justice. [water droplet sound] Sushama Austin-Connor (12:36): Talk to me and talk to our listeners about just calling them interpreters and what that means. So all of the interpreters that you talk about in your book, who are interpreters? Why are we calling them interpreters? Lisa Bowens (12:54): That's a really good question. I guess I'm calling them interpreters because it's [inaudible]. So I call them interpreters and I also call them hermeneuts in the book. So I call them that because they are reading scripture, but they are analyzing it in a way that speaks to their own context, to their own situation. And they are using their agency to go against what the other interpretations of Paul they're hearing. Right? So, their hermeneutics, their interpretation, their interpretive posture, the way they're reading, analyzing scripture, all of that is so important because it shows that these African Americans do not rely upon white interpretations of scripture. They are utilizing their own agency. I like to use the phrase that Brad Brexton uses. They are seizing hermeneutical control of scripture, and they are saying we are not objects at which scripture is directed toward us, but we are subjects in which we have agency by the spirit of God to interpret scripture for ourselves. So yeah, that's why I call them interpreters. [water droplet sound] Sushama Austin-Connor (14:39): Dr. Bowens, can you talk some more about African Americans' connection to Paul and to the scripture? Lisa Bowens (14:48): Yeah, so I think, one of the things you see in the book is that African Americans connected to Paul in so many different ways. Some of them connected to him through the idea of shared suffering. Paul often talks in his letters about the things he endures for the sake of the gospel. In Second Corinthians 11, he gives this litany of sufferings where he's shipwrecked, he's stoned. He just suffered so many things because of the gospel that he proclaimed. And so you have, some African American interpreters gravitate toward him because they see in him a companion, a shared co-sufferer, someone who shares their suffering. And so you will often see in some of their writings, how they talk about their sufferings and they see Paul as a kinship -- they have a kinship relationship with him. Others share experiences with Paul in terms of his mystical encounters. Lisa Bowens (15:58): Earlier we talked about his travel to the third heaven, that ascent episode in Second Corinthians 12. And so a number of these interpreters in their stories talk about these profound encounters they have with God and the language they use to describe them is often the language Paul uses to describe his own experience, going into the third heaven, having an angel appear to them. And so they gravitate to Paul in that sense that their divine encounters with God in many ways mirror or reflect Paul's own encounter with God. The other thing I would say in terms of how they relate to Paul, they pick up on his, what I call apocalyptic or cosmic sensibilities. This idea that sin is not just something that's personal, but sin is something that's causing it. That it's a power and it affects structures and systems. And so you'll often see in these interpreters, some of them gravitate towards this sensibility in Paul. They talk about sin as not just something personal, but as something that affects societies, that affects systems and structures. And that salvation then is not just about the individual, but salvation is also cosmic. And so I think, for some of these interpreters, they pick up on these apocalyptic elements of Paul and use them to talk about their own experiences with God and what they see happening in their own context, in terms of racial injustice and how evil is not just about being inside the body, but it's about the outside oppressive forces that affect the body. So yeah, there are a number of ways that these African American interpreters gravitate toward Paul and find his voice to be important for their own voices. Sushama Austin-Connor (18:14): Yeah. And it feels and sounds like that suffering and trying to make some meaning-making out of suffering is a big, big part of it. Would that be something that you think interpreters through the ages, this meaning-making was about making-meaning of their own suffering and looking at Paul's suffering in order to do that? Lisa Bowens (18:38): Yeah, I think so. I think it's a sense of -- so I think one of the things I try to do in the book is to show the importance of the context to these interpreter's interpretation. So their contexts oftentimes are really horrendous contexts in which they are suffering mentally. They are suffering in their bodies, and they're also being tormented spiritually in the sense that they are being told consistently that they have no God, that God did not create them. And they're consistently being told that they're not human. And so their suffering is taking place on multiple levels. And so one of the reasons I think these divine encounters that they have are so important is because these divine encounters counter what they're hearing, what they're being preached to, how they're being preached to, it's countering all of this dehumanization that they're facing on so many levels. Lisa Bowens (19:53): And so these divine encounters they have with God and the Holy Spirit affirm their humanity, affirm that they are important. They have value, they are significant, and so many of them talk about being called to preach the gospel. And so when they're called to preach the gospel, they're able to understand their own suffering in the sense of how Paul suffered for sharing the gospel. So they're able to make this link between their suffering and Paul's suffering. And in a sense, understand that it's -- I think for us in modernity it may be kind of hard for us to get that part, but you're able to make sense of it in a sense that -- I'm suffering, but even at the same time I'm suffering, my body has value. I am significant to God, God loves me. I am human. You know? And so I think for them, Paul becomes this kinship figure who kind of understands them and they understand him. Yeah, it's an interesting dynamic. Sushama Austin-Connor (21:15): The link is interesting, because you could go completely the opposite way. I mean, I think is that part of what Howard Thurman's grandmother is saying -- that, is there possibly not a connection that she wants to make because of the link to how, you know, slave masters used Paul. Is that part of it? Lisa Bowens (21:41): Yeah. And so I think for Howard Thurman's grandmother, you see this horrendous use of Paul to justify what's happening to her, and then you have other African American interpreters who actually in their own way, push against that use of Paul, and say, like -- I'm thinking of, for example, Lemuel Haynes, who says Paul doesn't justify slavery. Actually, when you read First Corinthians 7:21, Paul is saying, if you can get your freedom, attain it. And he also talks about how, just because slavery existed in Paul's day, it doesn't mean that it's right. In every generation, you have people who go against what God has called for and ordained. So you have these interpreters who gravitate toward Paul and hold on to him, but then you have others, like Howard Thurman's grandmother who rejects Paul. So it's a very interesting relationship that you see that these interpreters develop with him on different levels. Sushama Austin-Connor (22:50): On different levels. Yeah. Yeah. As we're on the topic, I'm wondering about some of the women, the black women interpreters that talked and shared their voices through your work here. Can you talk about some that really -- and there's so many -- that really made an impact on your work. Some that just stand out, and I know there's so many. Lisa Bowens (23:16): Yeah. I mean, yeah, I think that was one of the treasures for me in doing this research, uncovering or recovering some of the voices of these women who were so powerful in their own right. Because many of them, you know, they not only faced discrimination because of their race, but also because of their gender. And they were called to preach and proclaim the gospel. And they faced a lot of pushback from society at-large, but also from the church. And so when you read their autobiographies, you just get just a glimpse of how powerful they were and how they refuse to be stopped; no matter what, they would not be stopped. And so people like Jarena Lee, Julia Foote, Harriet Jacobs, Maria Stewart, Zilpha Elaw, all of them, I think, made an impact on me as I was reading these stories. Lisa Bowens (24:15): And the fact that many of them used or employed Paul's letters to argue for their right to preach when the church and other people were using Paul's words to silence women, they would come back and say, wait a minute. I'm thinking of Zilpha Elaw in particular, but all of them do this in some sense, but Zilpha talks about, if you look at this historical context in which Paul is writing, you see that there are women, he says, who are laboring with him in the gospel. And so if you look at the historical context, women are preaching, they are prophesying, they are in ministry. And so you can't take what Paul says in one particular place. And she talks about in that particular place in Corinthians, he's addressing a particular congregation. You can't take that passage and use it to justify silencing women for all time in all places. So these women were really remarkable in the way they understood scripture and the way they understood the historical context of scripture and how they were able to marshal scripture to support their own call to ministry, even in the face of ex-communication from their church. Just, just really remarkable women. Sushama Austin-Connor (25:38): It is. Let's focus then on -- Harriet Jacobs was one of the stories that stood out for me. And you talked about her -- really, some of these stories are beyond what is possible to imagine, but... and her story and her use of the one blood doctrine. Can you just talk about Jacobs and how she uses this doctrine? And you know, I'm encouraging people to, if they haven't already read the book, to read the book, just to get into the -- sort of the granular detail. But could you give us some idea of Harriet Jacobs' story? Lisa Bowens (26:17): Yeah. So Harriet Jacobs is a phenomenal woman on several levels. First, she is the first African American woman to write her autobiography. You have other women before her who dictate their autobiographies, but she's the first one to write her autobiography. And her story is published on the eve of the Civil War. And one of the reasons why she writes her story is so that people can see and understand what is happening to African American women in slavery, that they are being sexually abused, they are being raped, and she wants her story to be known so that -- she says in the opening part of the book -- so that the women of the north, the people in the north can understand the great evils that are happening in the south. And so her story is phenomenal because, first of all, she is very candid and she's very forthright on what's happening to her in her life. Lisa Bowens (27:32): And what's happening in other African American women's lives during this time. And she opens herself up to -- opens her story up, which is a very painful story. But one of the things she does in her narrative, which is so powerful, I mean, there's so many powerful elements, but one of the things she does is she shines a bright light on African American women being raped by their enslavers. , so one of the passages that she uses to critique what's happening to her and other black women is Acts 17:26. And this is where Paul says, in Acts -- God has made of one blood all the nations of the earth. So that passage is being used by other African Americans and, you know, before her, and even after her in a positive way to talk about the unity of humanity and because humanity is one, they do not, there's no race superior to the other. Well, Jacobs, in her ingenious move, she cites this passage, but she cites it to critique what's happening to African American women. Lisa Bowens (28:57): And she calls it a libel upon the Heavenly Father what's happening. So God has already made humanity of one blood, but what is happening to African American women is that when white men are raping black women, they are, in a sense, perverting this passage, they are making one blood of humanity, but in a way that goes against what God has called for. God is not called for the raping of black women. So she uses that scripture to critique what's happening to African American women. And it's a really ingenious move, because she says, this is a libel upon the Heavenly Father. What's happening is not right. And she's making a call for people to recognize what's happening and put a stop to it and put and end to it. [water droplet sound] Sushama Austin-Connor (30:05): I'm going to change gears and get you to give us the definition of African American hermeneutics. And if you can define it in relationship to Black theology, like how are they different? How do they build on one another? Do they build on one another? And in what ways? Lisa Bowens (30:24): Yeah, that's a really interesting question. I would say -- so one of the things I'm trying to do in this book is to lift up African American hermeneutics. But African-American hermeneutics as it relates to Paul. And so what I'm trying to do is give a glimpse, if you will, of how African Americans from the 1700s to the mid-20th century, how have they interpreted Paul and his letters? And I think one of the things that comes about from this research is that they're often interpreting Paul in a way that counters the way many white interpreters of their time were interpreting him. So they're offering different understandings of Paul and his letters, different understandings of really what the gospel is. And -- but one of the things that you see, I think, coming back again and again is this theme of God as a liberator in Christ, God as a liberator of the oppressed. Lisa Bowens (31:34): And in that way, I think it very much converges with what Black theology is about -- God as a liberator of the oppressed, right? And so you see that theme, I think, repeatedly in these interpreters, but in different ways. And for them, the gospel that Paul proclaims is a gospel of liberation, which is one of the reasons they gravitate toward his writings, because they see him as a figure of liberation. So I think that emphasis on God as a liberator in Christ is one of the ways that these interpreters, how their writings really merge with Black theology, that we tend to think of, getting into the sixties and seventies. But I think these interpreters foreshadow, anticipate the later Black theology movement in the sense that they were doing and writing about Black theology. Early on, one of the interpreters, Lemuel Haynes -- we talked a little bit about that. One historian calls him a founding father of Black theology. And so, yeah, so I think, I think you'll see, see a number of similarities between Black theology of the sixties and seventies and now, and what happened early that's... Yeah. Sushama Austin-Connor (33:01): Yeah. And that overlap that happens. Dr. Bowens, one of the things that you ask in the book is a body hermeneutic. You ask about a body hermeneutic and you ask, can my Black body interpret Paul, and can Paul interpret my Black body? And I think, again, these are large questions, right? [inaudible] Yeah. I know. I know. And it's fascinating. I mean, this book is fascinating, but did you find or find the answers or the beginning of some answers to that really large question? Lisa Bowens (33:36): Yeah, I would say beginning of answers. Yeah. These interpreters kind of offer, they kind of offer a multitude of answers. So, yeah. So, and that's one of the reasons why I try to lay out in each chapter, like the historical context so that readers could see what's happening as these interpreters are interpreting scripture, like what's happening in the larger society, what's happening in the nation. And what gives rise in a sense to this body hermeneutic? Like, why is it that that question has to be asked? It has to be asked because Black bodies are being devalued and dehumanized. And so this question of -- can Paul interpret my body and can my body interpret Paul -- becomes a really important question in light of the context because Black bodies are constantly being assaulted. And so I think when you read these interpreters, you see that their answers that they give in these writings, for the most part, their answer is yes. Lisa Bowens (34:51): I mean, you do have -- I do talk in the book about a couple of interpreters who say, Paul can't understand my body. You know, [inaudible] and Thurman, but for the most part, these interpreters say, yes, he can, and they answered that question in a variety of ways. Some of them use the language of Paul's language of the spirit of adoption. Their bodies have been adopted by God. They are now children of God. You also have this understanding of the body as sacred, which comes out of this baptismal language that Paul uses. You also have this sense of agency, bodily agency, that they use Paul's letters to talk about being able to use their body, not only just to protest and resist, but also in the spiritual transformation of their bodies as well. Lisa Bowens (35:57): So this body hermeneutic question, I think these interpreters answer in a variety of ways. Another way you see it talked about is that the body is being oppressed from the outside, and this understanding of the body being oppressed by a system, by structures that are outside of itself. And that's important in light of the, you know, the prevalent understanding of that time in which the Black body itself was seen as evil. And you have these interpreters saying, "Nope, it's not our bodies that are evil. It is the system, it is the structure that is oppressing and afflicting us. So they answer this question, I think in a variety of ways. Sushama Austin-Connor (36:47): And for you personally, any definitive understanding or relationship to Paul once now that the book is complete, like any gleanings from your own life and work? Lisa Bowens (37:01): That is a huge question. [laughter] Sushama Austin-Connor (37:03): I know, we can talk about any of these questions for an hour. Lisa Bowens (37:08): I mean, it is, it is. I think, I mean, I definitely want to do more work in this area, but I think one of the things that struck me, I keep going back to these mystical experiences because I think one can get caught up in reading these experiences and saying, oh yeah, this, these were nice experiences that happen. But I think when you see the context in which they happen, and you think about these bodies that were so dehumanized and tortured, and when they talk about how these experiences affected their body, like they say, I look at my hands and my hands look new. I looked at my feet and my feet look new, I look at my body. I mean, I think when you hear, when you see them talking about how their bodies are changed and transformed because of these experiences, I think it gives at least it gives me a deeper appreciation for what these divine encounters meant for them. Like, it wasn't just a feel good type of moment. It was a real transformation of how they saw themselves, like my body matters. And I can say my body matters because it matters to God -- look at how God has touched my body and I can see myself as new. I can say, I'm a chosen vessel by God. I can go forth and proclaim what God has called me to proclaim. And I think when you read their experiences, it just gives at least for me, a deeper appreciation to the power of God and how God was at work in their lives, even in the midst of really horrific circumstances. Sushama Austin-Connor (39:22): Yeah. It -- well, it gives me goosebumps because the language of our bodies mattering and our lives mattering feels like we could be talking about 2021, and we are, and it translates to 2021. And it also gets me to a question that I was going to ask you, Dr. Bowens, about modern interpreters. I know you had to end the book at some place. And so it's sort of -- we started thinking about Dr. King and we, you know, start thinking about the mid-20th century. And I wonder for like, even in the last decade or two, modern interpreters that you're thinking about are reading and then the context of this moment. The moment that we are currently in, you know, Paul and some of these interpreters, and I'm sure new interpreters have something to say. And so who are those new ones that you're following or are modern interpreters that you're following or thinking about? Lisa Bowens (40:22): Yeah, that's a great question. So, one of the interpreters I'm really excited about, and I actually had him as a guest in one of my classes this term, is Esau McCaulley and his book *Reading While Black* and the way he talks about Romans 13, as it relates to a New Testament theology of policing, I think is so amazing. And I think he's doing now what these interpreters were doing in their own context. Like they were showing how Paul was relevant for their contexts. And speaking out against racism and white supremacy. And the thing about these interpreters too, is that many times they were relating the historical context of scripture to their context. And that's what I think Esau does in the way he's talking about Romans 13 and policing and how soldiers during that time often perform the duties of policing, of police that we see today. And so I think he is, I think he's one of the interpreters who've kind of picked up the mantle, if you will, in talking about how Pauline scripture relates to what is happening in our own context in time. So yeah, I'm very excited about his work and yeah, actually we use it in my classes because I see that trajectory continuing in what he's doing. Sushama Austin-Connor (41:57): Yeah. That's exciting. Lisa Bowens (41:58): Another interpreter is Dennis Edwards. His book is called *Might from the Margins.* In *Might from the Margins*, the gospel's power to turn the tables on injustice. And he has several chapters in there where he talks about, I mean, he's looking at scripture overall, so not just Paul, but there's a couple of places that, where he does talk about Paul and one particular passage, he talks about the power of anger and how anger can be used positively for justice. And he gives this episode from Paul's life in which Paul is angry and cries out against the injustice that he endures. So I think he's also another interpreter who's kind of picking up where these interpreters have left off in talking about and using Paul and scripture to relate to what is happening in our own context in terms of injustice to African Americans. So yeah, I think those two, I would lift up as people who are caring for him. Sushama Austin-Connor (43:12): That's wonderful. Also curious what you want readers to glean from this work. And I think, you know, us in The Distillery in this art department, so, well, it will be lots of different types of people that listen to this -- clergy, mid-career, early seminarians, students, people who are interested in Bible and religion. And what do you hope people get from this book? Lisa Bowens (43:39): Yeah. So, my hope is a couple of things. Well, a few things, actually. One of the things I hope is that this book opens a conversation or continues the conversation about the relationship between Christianity, racism, scripture, and white supremacy, because I think the church, and I mean the church more broadly, there's a history that we have to reckon with. And my hope is that this book will allow a deeper understanding of how deep the wounds are and how deep the church has been involved in facilitating racism. So that's one of my hopes. I hope it will help us to have an honest conversation about this and not just try to pretend like, oh, it really wasn't all that bad, but I hope it allows us to have a real honest, deep conversation about our history. And then I also hope that part of it too, would be, it would help us in having that honest, hard conversation, because it is a hard conversation to have, that we will, in some ways, be able to see how to move forward. Like how do we, now that we know this history and we're having these hard conversations, how do we move forward? How do we go forward? The other thing I hope that readers will get is I hope they will get inspired because even though these stories are, you know, they are painful to read and they are hard, but they're also inspiring because you see how these interpreters, in the midst of such odds, hold to their faith in God. They refuse to give up, they refuse to be deterred. They are so strong and so courageous in the midst of everything they face. And so I hope that people will be inspired by that. Like even in this moment in which we live, it seems like there are so many obstacles. There are so many challenges. How in the world would we get through this? I'm hoping that we can hear these interpreters' voices and saying -- and I think, you know, I think about Hebrews 11, these crowd cloud of witnesses, right? They are, they are in our corner. Like they are pulling for us. We did it in our generation. We struggled, we protested, we resist it and now we're pulling for you. And so I hope that people will get inspired by their stories and, and hear it as, hear their voices as cheerleaders, as people who have left us a very rich legacy that we have to continue. We have to, need to, we must continue their, yeah, their struggle, their fight. I was inspired doing the research myself. And so I hope that people will be inspired as well in reading their stories and their journey, because their journey -- they're part of us. We're a part of them, we are part of the same people of God. And so I hope that readers will take that away. Yeah. Sushama Austin-Connor (47:36): They're pulling for us. Just -- I feel that so deeply. It's so true. It's so true. It's so true. And I know, you know, working with students and young people and, you know, the gift of knowing that they're pulling for us is just, so... I feel that so deeply. Thank you. Oh my goodness. Yeah. [water droplet sound] Lisa Bowens (48:03): Well, I'm working on a few projects. One, I'm actually a co-editor of an upcoming volume with Dennis Edwards called *Do Black Lives Matter: How Christian Scriptures Speak to Black Empowerment. And so it's a collection of essays from African American scholars in different areas. So, prayerfully, hopefully, that will be out within the next year or so. [percussive music begins] Working on another book with Scott McKnight and Joseph Modica on *Preaching Romans from Here* in which we are having different groups talk about how to preach Romans from their context. So, Native American, Asian American, African American, different contexts. How do you preach Romans? So we have essays and we'll have sermons in that volume. And then I'm working on a couple of commentaries, one on First and Second Thessalonians and the other on Second Corinthians. Sushama Austin-Connor (49:08): I'm so grateful. Thank you for this conversation. And just for just really this, this tremendous work, this is a beautiful book. Thank you very much. You're a gift, and this is such a pleasure and we're so lucky to have you at Princeton Seminary. Lisa Bowens (49:24): Yeah. Thank you. Thank you. Dayle Rounds (49:26): You've been listening to The Distillery. Interviews are conducted by me, Dayle Rounds. Sushama Austin-Connor (49:31): And me, Sushama Austin-Connor. Shari Oosting (49:33): And I'm Shari Oosting. Amar Peterman (49:36): I'm Amar Peterman, and I am in charge of production. New Speaker (49:38): Like what you're hearing? Subscribe at Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or your preferred podcast app. The Distillery is a production of Princeton Theological Seminary's Office of Continuing Education. You can find out more at thedistillery.ptsem.edu. Thanks for listening. [water droplet sound]
70 minutes | Jun 18, 2021
In this episode, Jim McCloskey, MDiv ’83, a lay minister and founder of Centurion, the first nonprofit dedicated to the vindication of the wrongly convicted, speaks to this question in his book, When Truth Is All You Have: A Memoir of Faith, Justice, and Freedom for the Wrongly Convicted. He shares his minister-turned-prisoner-advocate experience, which inspired author John Grisham’s book, The Guardians. Listen to Jim’s astonishing story of faith, justice, and liberation and how this work provides a beacon of hope for those seeking justice in a flawed judicial system.Jim McCloskey spent three years as a U.S. Naval Officer, including a year in Vietnam, subsequent to graduating from Bucknell University in 1964. He spent the next 12 years working for two different management consulting companies specializing in Japanese business affairs, the first in Tokyo and the second with the Hay Group in his hometown of Philadelphia. In 1979 Jim felt a call to leave the business world and enter the ministry. In 1983, upon graduating with a Master of Divinity degree from Princeton Theological Seminary and freeing an innocent man he met as a student chaplain at Trenton State Prison, Jim founded Centurion Ministries. After 35 years, although still a member of Centurion’s Board of Trustees and still managing several cases he has been working on for years, Jim retired from the active management of Centurion’s organizational affairs in May 2015. He is co-author of When Truth Is All You Have: A Memoir of Faith, Justice, and Freedom for the Wrongly Convicted, a book about Centurion’s experiences with our nation’s criminal justice system. Dayle Rounds (00:00:00): Have you ever been face-to-face with the truth in such a way that you just couldn't ignore it? In this episode, you will hear from Jim McCloskey, a lay minister and founder of Centurion, the first nonprofit dedicated to freeing individuals who are wrongly incarcerated. He talks with Sushama Austin-Connor about how he met a prisoner who insisted on his innocence, and why he decided to take a year off of seminary to work full-time towards this prisoner's freedom. You will not want to miss Jim's astonishing story of faith, justice, and liberation. Interlude (00:00:36): [percussion music + water droplet sound] Dayle Rounds (00:00:36): You are listening to The Distillery at Princeton Theological Seminary. Sushama Austin-Connor (00:00:40): Well, Jim, thanks so much for doing this. Princeton Seminary is obviously, for all the reasons, really excited to have this conversation with you and Continuing Education at Princeton Seminary. And me, of course, personally I'm just thrilled. And just, this is just a joy to be able to speak with you about your book and about Centurion Ministries, which means so much to the seminary and to me and to my family. Jim McCloskey (00:01:05): Well, thank you very much. So I've been looking forward to this ever since we had it scheduled with the seminary. Well, Princeton Theological Seminary has changed my life, and I might add the life of many others because it provided me with an opportunity. Although I had no idea what was around the corner of meeting the first person in whose innocence I came to believe which kicked off and inspired me to, to rather than going... ordained after I received my MDiv, which I did in 1983, to begin the work of Centurion Ministries to help free people who we believe are innocent, wrongly convicted, sentenced to life or death with pretty much no way of getting out, except for maybe our effort. Interlude (00:01:56): [water droplet sound] Sushama Austin-Connor (00:02:00): Amazing. I want to go back a little bit though, and start with life maybe right before you decided to enter seminary and going from business to seminary, what a huge deal that is. What a life changer that is. What were some of the thoughts that made you pivot from business to seminary life? Jim McCloskey (00:02:21): Well, I was 37 years old, living in the suburbs of Philadelphia and a working... employed by a management consulting firm in Philadelphia called Hay Associates, H-A-Y Associates. And my job was to build its business, its consulting business, with Japanese companies in the United States, and to eventually establish our office in Tokyo, Japan. The reason they hired me to do that was because I had spent the prior five or six years in Tokyo working for a Japanese joint venture consulting firm between American bank and the Japanese bank in aiding American firms, interested in entering the Japanese market. So I had that Japan background, so they brought me aboard. Everything was going well. Now, we're in the 1970s, from '74 to '79. I'm well in my thirties. And during that time the business was going well, I was making a good... you know, it was a nice salary position. I'm bringing in Japanese clients. But when you get underneath that surface, I was not happy with my personal life, with my conduct in my personal life. I had kind of gone off track. I was kind of like the prodigal son. And I was, for the first time in my adult life, I decided, you know, I got to start developing some spiritual element to my life 'cause that was lacking. And it was, there was a total void there. So I attended Paoli Presbyterian Church in Bailey, Pennsylvania, and the minister there, Dick Streeter, who is a Princeton Theological Seminary grad, I found his preaching compelling because this constant theme was to serve others, to wash the feet of others, particularly folks who did not have the advantages that we did in the suburbs of Philadelphia, the economic and social advantages that we did. Jim McCloskey (00:04:38): And at the same time, you know, I was hungry. The scriptures became my meat and drink rather than -- at the same time, my business aspirations were waning. I was losing interest in the business world. It wasn't real. It wasn't real to me. What became real was the truth of this, of the gospel and the scriptures. That's what was real to me. And over a period of years, slowly but surely, I was -- every Saturday, practically every Saturday night, I was in a scripture study, reading the prophets of the Old Testament and the Gospels and Paul's letters. And I saw -- this is the truth of life as I saw then. So anyway, I consulted with no one, except Dick Streeter. I didn't consult with my mother or father, although I'm very close to my family. I had a ton of friends. Because I was thinking about Dick Streeter as a minister was touching the hearts and souls of people in a transformative way, including my own. Jim McCloskey (00:05:51): I was touching nobody's heart and soul. I was touching my own pocketbook and the pocketbook of the company, but that was, that proved to be very unsatisfactory and unfulfilling. So I felt a call to follow in Dick Streeter's footsteps, go to the seminary and become an ordained, church, Presbyterian pastor. So that was what was going on within me and externally, internally and externally, that led me to go... Now I was going to go to Eastern Baptist, which would have been easier because it's only about a 20-minute ride from my house. And Dave said, no, Jim, if you're going to do this, you have to go to Princeton. That's where you're going to get the best education. And so I took his advice, sold my house on the Mainline, and came up to Princeton. One thing I did not sell was my 1976 Lincoln Continental Town Car. I just couldn't. I couldn't part with that. So I pulled up, I pulled up to Brown Hall, with my Lincoln Continental. People thought I was on the lam or something, but anyway, that's what brought me to the seminary. Sushama Austin-Connor (00:07:09): Yeah. That's awesome. So you know, Jim, I feel like I learned so much about you personally in this book. [laughter] Jim McCloskey (00:07:16): Yeah, of course, all the good, bad, the ugly, you heard a lot. [laughter] Sushama Austin-Connor (00:07:22): I learned so much! There were parts where I had to stop. I was reading it aloud to my husband, Rob, who you know, and so I was reading some parts to him, and we were like, wow, we have so much to cover. But talk to me about this idea of kind of your personal conduct that you mentioned in the book that you just referred to, and that I've heard you talk about in some other interviews that I listened to as I prepared. What was going on for you? And it wasn't atypical, I don't think, in some ways to what maybe 20-somethings go through, or the kind of risks you may take, not even knowingly really; inherently we're a little more risky in our twenties. But talk to me about that personal conduct. What was life like? What were you doing? What were you up you? Jim McCloskey (00:08:03): Well, what I was doing was I was -- again, this is in my, well, in my twenties and in my thirties. Yeah. Yeah. I was very... let's just say promiscuous. And I had relationships with women that -- I was selfish, self-centered, I used women for my own gratification. And I came to realize that this was wrong. This was immoral. I was leading an immoral life. And, that was in contrast to the way I was raised by my mother and father. And, I didn't feel good about my, I lost my self-esteem. Who am I, what is my real identity? And, you know, I had one foot in the secular world and one foot in the spiritual world, the church world. And, you know, as an example, when I told my boss at Hay Associates -- Bill Densmore was his name, great, a great human being. Jim McCloskey (00:09:05): I said, Bill -- this is 19-early-79 -- I said, "Bill, I need to talk to you about something very serious." He said, "Okay." So I went into his office and I told him that I was not only leaving Hay, but I was leaving the business world to go into ministry. He said -- I'll never forget this. His first words were, "Jim. I didn't even know you went to church." So I was two people. I was one person to the secular world and another person to the spiritual church world. And it was time for me to announce to the world who I really was, and that I considered myself to be, although a deeply flawed, but nevertheless convicted Christian. And that's -- it's about time that I showed the world who I was, and not -- I didn't hide that anymore. And once I made that announcement, then it was amazing. Jim McCloskey (00:09:58): The reaction I got from my corporate colleagues... They were very supportive, surprised, shocked, as I found out. I'm still very close to my fraternity brothers at Bucknell, every year 20 or 25 of us get together with a golf outing up at Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. And a number of them have told me that when I told them what I was doing, they were afraid that I had gone off the deep end and had lost... and they were going to lose my friendship, that somehow I was going to change, my own personality, which I didn't do. And my poor mother and father, they were, you know, they were supportive, but skeptical. You're 37, 38 years old. And you know, my mother told me, she said, Jim, you're never going to be a church pastor. You're just not cut out to do that. And as it turned out, she was right, but I didn't know that at the time. So she knew. She knew. But getting back to your question. Yes, I was -- I had descended into what I thought was an immoral life and I wanted to... I needed redemption as much as anybody else. That was part of it. And, and, and -- I wanted to really touch people's lives in a meaningful, significant transformative way. And I thought by being a church pastor, that would give me the opportunity to do that. Sushama Austin-Connor (00:11:29): To touch people. Yeah. But you weren't without religion. So growing up in your childhood, your family is Presbyterian. Can you talk a little bit about your childhood and some of the religious upbringing and also your mother's illness and how that manifests in your spiritual life, in finding redemption and finding hope. Jim McCloskey (00:11:53): Right. And that's -- thank you for bringing that up. That's a good subject to talk about a little bit. First of all, when I was in grade school -- I wanted to reclaim my boyhood faith,, because it was authentic. It was real. I was a standup Christian, young boy in grade school. That was what was most important to me. And then as soon as I hit junior high, that started going south, because the most important thing to me at that point was peer pressure. I wanted to be liked and popular. And I, you know, I let myself drift in that direction. So, another element was, in deciding to leave the business world and go into ministry, I wanted to reclaim my boyhood faith. And that was inculcated into me, by my mom and dad, who were very active in the church, that my upbringing was very in the church was very important. It was the foundation that ultimately I yearned to reclaim. So that was very important. Interlude (00:12:55): [water droplet sound] Jim McCloskey (00:12:55): When I was five years old, in 1947, my mother who was 30 years old went to bed one night in June of 1947, feeling fluish -- tired, fever, whatever, body ached. She -- Su, she woke up the next morning and was paralyzed from the waist down. It was like the polio virus hit her like a bolt of lightning, and doing some research about that, that phenomenon occurred in about 10,000 men and women across the United States. Sushama Austin-Connor (00:13:35): So out of nowhere? Jim McCloskey (00:13:37): Out of nowhere. Out of nowhere. Yeah. So, friends of our family -- now in those days, people were afraid that if they even came near our house, they would catch the virus. They would walk on the other side of the street. However, only one -- good friends of my parents, Katie and Tom Boyd, who were also the parents of my best friend, Tom Boyd. We lived around the corner from each other, and they offered to take me in, so my dad could get, could settle in and start to find the right resources to take care of Mom who was home-bound and paralyzed. And they took me in. Now, that was a great thing. That was a courageous thing because they didn't know, maybe I'll bring the polio virus into their home to attack their family. But nevertheless, they went way out on the limb and took me in for six months. Another family took my brother in. So I never forgot that -- what the Boyds did for me and what the [inaudible name] did for my brother. So that was kind of formative as well. Yeah. Sushama Austin-Connor (00:14:48): Absolutely. Absolutely. So you get -- so let's go back to Princeton Seminary. So, you get to Princeton Seminary. And I, you know, I was so familiar with some of the places that you mentioned -- Route One and Library Place -- like actually, Continuing Ed offices are now on Library Place in Adams House. Jim McCloskey (00:15:09): Oh yes. Sushama Austin-Connor (00:15:09): So I know where you are. So it was really nice to have like the visual of where everything is. So you get to Princeton Seminary and it's year two, and you're doing field education. Jim McCloskey (00:15:19): That's correct. Sushama Austin-Connor (00:15:20): And what happened? Jim McCloskey (00:15:21): All right. The first year, my junior year, I did not do field ed 'cause I just wanted to focus on the studies. In my second year, I decided to do my field education as a student chaplain at Trenton State Prison. Now, why did I do that? Why did I choose that? I don't really know why I chose that, other than I've always had an adventuresome spirit and I've never been in a prison before. Who are these people? What are they like? Sushama Austin-Connor (00:15:53): I mean, were there options, Jim? Like were you -- Jim McCloskey (00:15:53): Oh yeah. Sure. I could have been a youth pastor. I didn't want any of that. I could have been assigned to a church as a student intern in a church, a hospital. There was all kinds of options available, but I chose Trenton State Prison. Joe Ravenell, the chaplain at Trenton State Prison, also a Princeton Seminary grad, had set up a program between the seminary field education department and the prison administration every year, they would bring in six or seven Princeton Seminary students to be student chaplains for the full school year. So that's what I decided to do. And then, Joe Ravenell, he assigned me to what they call the Vroom Readjustment Unit, which is a real euphemistic term for the maximum security -- people who are sent to the Vroom Readjustment Unit, they had been in trouble in whatever state prisons in New Jersey they had come from. So they put the bad boys in that prison for however long a punishment they were to serve. And that's where I was assigned. And the reason Joe -- I said, Joe, why did you send me there to this day? I'm good friends with him. He said, I'll tell you why I sent you there. Because you were cocky that I wanted to bring you down a couple of notches, one or two. And I said, well, you did a good job there, Joe. But anyway, to the Vroom Building I went. There for the -- now we're talking about September of 1980, which was the beginning of my middler year at the seminary. Sushama Austin-Connor (00:17:45): And then you go there with another seminarian, and you guys are... Jim McCloskey (00:17:51): There were two of us and Joseph Checa who was a friend of mine who also lived in Brown Hall. Joe assigned him to two cell blocks and assigned me to two cell blocks. And so we would go there together. We would drive down at my very comfortable plush Lincoln Continental Towncar [laughter] which by the way, I got about seven miles per gallon. [inaudible] But the first day we went down there in September of 1980, I'm 37, 38. I've been in Vietnam. I've been all over the world. And Joseph was 28. He'd been -- he's had some secular experience, but we were both scared to death. Sushama Austin-Connor (00:18:38): Yeah, I can imagine. Yeah, yeah. Jim McCloskey (00:18:38): Because, you know, they tell you, they tell stories, they are myths, this myth, that -- don't stay, don't get too close to their selves. They're locked in their cell. And we go down a cell block from cell to cell. We're wearing the collar. I looked like an Irish Catholic priest. And you just go cell to cell. You just want to make friends. And you know, they don't get any visitors, by and large. Interlude (00:19:03): And are you wearing a collar because they, like -- Princeton suggested it or you just decided to, or... Jim McCloskey (00:19:10): No, Joe Ravenell. No, it was part of the uniform, if you will, that Joe Ravenell wanted us to wear, as being student chaplains. We pulled up to the parking lot of the prison, you know -- a fence with all concertina wire. And it was such an intimidating, forbidding building. I said to Joseph, let's have a word of prayer. So we held hands, we asked God to give us a spirit of calmness and courage. And, that didn't happen. That was an unfulfilled prayer. Anyway, we walked in there and that began my student chaplaincy at Trenton State Prison and encountering a life-changing opportunity, a life-changing event where I met... One of the 40 men on the two cell blocks I was assigned was a man by the name of Jorge de Los Santos. And, he was... So I'd go, you know, cell to cell. And he was gregarious. He was friendly. He put me at ease. He was very open-hearted. He talked about himself and everything that he had done in the past, which was not murder. He was in prison for a Newark, New Jersey murder. He was convicted of an attempted robbery, which ended up to be a fatal shooting of the proprietor of a used car lot in Newark. And he was the only one, by the way, who was proclaiming his innocence. Sushama Austin-Connor (00:20:45): I mean, I'm wondering too, before you even hear his story, is he standing out because of that openness? How, why is he standing out more than the rest of the guys on that floor? Or was that once you heard the story? Jim McCloskey (00:20:58): That's a good point. There was something about him. We just clicked. Our personalities just clicked because he was an engaging personality. He was friendly, open, funny. But he would also speak from his heart. He was married to Elena, a Native American Cherokee. And, you know, from day one, he said, Jim, you know, they caught me, Jim. And he said, I didn't do what I'm here for. I'm an innocent man. So that got my attention. But I also, at the same time, you know, I was under the -- oh, they all say they're innocent. Well, first of all, that's a canard. They don't all say they're innocent. He was the only one of the 40 who did say he was innocent. So, but anyway, to answer your question, he was just a gregarious, very human -- just the opposite of what I imagined a hardened murder convict would look like, or be like. Jim McCloskey (00:22:06): He's in his cell, hot outside, standing in front of his cell, cell bars. I could see him perfectly, standing in his shorts with his thongs on, with long brown hair, down to his shoulders. And 'Elena' was tattooed on his heart, name of his wife. And I'm standing there in my priestly garb. And, you know, we just... I had to be careful because I couldn't spend too much time with him, because that would create some problems with other inmates. And by the way, my reception there was surprisingly friendly. Most of the inmates in their cells were -- they wanted somebody to talk to. Sushama Austin-Connor (00:22:53): Of course. Of course. Jim McCloskey (00:22:53): They wanted a friend, they wanted somebody who didn't judge them or in any way be critical of them, just to basically listen. There was a lot, they all wanted to say -- 'cause nobody would listen to them. [crosstalk] It was not hard for me to feel comfortable every day I went there, nor to establish some relationships and rapport with most of the inmates. New Speaker (00:23:22): [water droplet sound] Sushama Austin-Connor (00:23:24): So in those first meetings, Chiefy [de Los Santos] is sort of pushing you and challenging you and telling you his story. And you're getting -- I hear you say, "Well, I didn't believe him of course, because who would believe him?" But what changes you or changes your mind in how he is sharing the stories? He's saying, you know, actually, no, I'm actually innocent. Jim McCloskey (00:23:45): Yeah. Well, yeah. Well, first of all, he wasn't pushing me, but he was -- that's all he wanted -- he only wanted to talk about two things: his innocence and his wife, Elena. And he spent a lot of time. I mean -- I actually have chills right now -- because he loved her, and she was completely devoted to him. She was a hair salon person up in Newark. She had three kids by a prior relationship that she was, you know, raising. And she would visit him twice a week, for limited visits. She was an incredible woman who I got to know and really have a nice relationship with, a good friend. Jim McCloskey (00:24:31): But anyway, up until hitting up the cell block, I never had any involvement with the criminal justice system whatsoever. I was never asked to be on a jury. I'd never been in a courthouse before. I knew absolutely nothing. So I was bringing with me what turned out to be a complete ignorance and naiveté about our criminal justice system, in that I thought police and prosecutors were very honorable men and women who were serving the community. It was a great noble service of catching criminals and putting them away. And surely they would never suborn perjury or lie themselves, or... They wanted to catch the real people who did this, not innocent people. And the same with the judges. I held those positions -- police, prosecutors, judges -- in the highest esteem from my suburban mainline perch. And as far as I was concerned, they were there to protect and serve -- at least my white community in the suburbs. So anyway, I found it very hard to believe two things. Number one, that he was innocent. Number two, not only was he saying he was innocent, he was saying the Newark, the Essex county prosecutor's office in Newark framed him, knowingly framed him. Sushama Austin-Connor (00:26:05): Right. Right. Jim McCloskey (00:26:08): I said, "So Chiefy, are you telling me that the prosecutor himself knew that his witnesses were lying and he brought them in just to get a conviction?" He said, "That's exactly what I'm telling you." I said, "Why would they care about you?" He was a heroin addict. And he had a number of drug-related arrests, never spent any time in prison, but he was in and out of the local jails for drugs. And he was a full-blown addict, off and on over those -- you know, he was 28 years old when he got convicted for this crime. I said, "Chiefy, why should they even believe -- why should they be conspiring --" [crosstalk] Jim McCloskey (00:26:51): You're a throw away. He said "That's why!" He said, "Because I was an easy prey. I was an easy target for the police -- to arrest and make them look good and clearing a murder -- and for the prosecutors to get a conviction, to make their trial record good. Slowly but surely, over the next couple of months, we would talk about this. And we became close. I mean, I couldn't wait to get down there to talk to him. And secretly -- I didn't tell Joe Ravenell or anyone else -- I gave him permission to call me at 72 Library Place. Thanksgiving comes. And I said, "Look, Chiefy, I've heard your story time immemorial, you've gone, we've gone over it. Many times. I need your trial. I want to read your trial transcripts. And by the way, we were told by both the administration and Joe Ravenell -- don't get involved [crosstalk] whether it's personal or their case work. Jim McCloskey (00:27:57): That's a no-no. If you do, you're out of here, banned from the prison. But I was so provoked by the possibility that he might be what he's saying he is. I said, "Chiefy, there are two sides to every story. I want to get -- so I got ahold of his trial transcripts. That took some work, but I got ahold of them. And I took them home over Thanksgiving of 1980. That's all I did during the Thanksgiving holiday was read 2000 pages of transcripts. I was obsessed with them. Sushama Austin-Connor (00:28:30): Yes. Jim McCloskey (00:28:30): Totally into this. And so I learned that whatever -- all the details he gave me were born out by the trial transcripts. So it came to really provoke me and to say, I'm taking it to another level. Maybe this guy is innocent. All right. So come back from Thanksgiving. He knows I've read the trial transcripts. He's nervous as a cat when I approach his cell. He said, "What do you think?" I said, "Well, Chiefy, you know, you know, it backs up everything you've been telling me over the prior couple of months. He said, "Well, let me ask you." He said, "Jim, I answered a million of your questions over the last couple of months. I have a question for you." And I gulped. I said, "Oh boy." [inaudible]. Jim McCloskey (00:29:20): He said, "Do you believe I'm innocent?" And I said, "Yeah, I do believe you're -- I don't know you're innocent, but I do believe, I believe you, Chiefy." I said, "I don't know if I believe that the prosecutors framed you, but I do believe you're innocent. Then he said to me, and it took me completely aback, he said, "What are you going to do about it?" I said, "What do you mean, what am I going to do about it? I'm a... I don't know anything about criminal justice or murders or courts of law, investigation. I'm a former businessman, and I'm now at the seminary studying church history and scriptures and... Sushama Austin-Connor (00:30:01): Becoming a minister! Jim McCloskey (00:30:01): And he said, "I've been on my knees for the last seven years, praying to God to bring somebody to me, to help free me. And whether you know it or not, and whether you like it or not, you're that man. God has sent you to my cell to liberate me, to bring me home to Elena. I'm asking you -- God works -- He said, "What are you going to do? Go back to your seminary? And, in that nice, secure little environment and pray for me? That's not going to get me out. God works through human hands. And it's your hands that I believe God has assigned to get me out of here, to free me." Jim McCloskey (00:30:49): I said, "Well, let me think about that, Chiefy." But it stunned me. Sushama Austin-Connor (00:30:55): Yeah. It stunned you. It's a stunning ask, or [crosstalk]. Jim McCloskey (00:30:59): It was a real challenge. He was challenging my faith. Sushama Austin-Connor (00:30:59): Yes, that's what I'm thinking, right. Jim McCloskey (00:31:03): You claim to be a man of God. Well, what are you going to do, leave an innocent man behind and just go about your business, like, I don't even exist anymore? I mean, it was, it really got me. Were it not for that challenge, Su, I don't think I would have worked for him. He made me, he compelled me. So I got back to the seminary. And I'm praying. And again, I'm consulting with nobody, because nobody's going to believe this. And so, but I go to the scriptures and I opened them up to the book of Isaiah, where Isaiah is talking about how people go to law and they lie. And there is no justice. Truth has fallen from the public squares. The Lord wondered why there was no one to intervene to bring about justice, to find the truth. And it bothered the Lord. And so I saw that and I'm saying, is this a sign that I'm to intervene on behalf of Chiefy? I felt that it was. And so, that was a turning point, in addition to his challenge, and other factors. I said, you know, I think I'm going to take a year off and work on his behalf. I believe he's innocent. And that's what I did. That's what I did. Sushama Austin-Connor (00:32:21): That's what you did. At that point, you're founding Centurion at this point... Jim McCloskey (00:32:22): No, I'm not founding Centurion. All I'm doing is taking a year off from school. I had completed three of the six semesters for a Masters of Divinity. Now we're in February of 1981. Okay. And I decided to take a year off, independent leave, from the seminary and work full-time to see if I can free him, and I could move the ball forward. And now, you know, you're a parent. Imagine -- now a year and a half before this, I told my mom and dad, I was gonna leave the business world and go into the ministry. And now here I am a year and a half later. Can you imagine if your eldest son, if your eldest son, came to you and said, Su and Rob, I've decided to take a year off from school. And I'm going to -- I believe that a former Newark heroin addict is innocent of murder, and I'm going to investigate the case and try and free him. Well, that was very, very unsettling to my parents... Sushama Austin-Connor (00:33:33): To say the least. Yeah, right. I don't know what I would have said. Jim McCloskey (00:33:37): Well, I'll tell you what my mother said. Sushama Austin-Connor (00:33:39): What did she say? Jim McCloskey (00:33:39): My mother said, "Jimmy, this is going to be Vietnam all over again. I could never sleep for that year you were over there. [crosstalk] And now, you're going to go investigate a murder, which you know nothing about, in a city like Newark, which, you know, you've never been there before, for God's sake. What do you know about it? And I'm going to worry about you every single night." Now, I had not thought of that. I didn't put myself in my mother's -- Sushama Austin-Connor (00:34:07): No, of course. But it's natural. The reaction is natural. Jim McCloskey (00:34:07): I said, "Mother, I completely understand, but I got to do it. I just have to do it." And so ultimately they supported me. But they were obviously very concerned for my safety. Sushama Austin-Connor (00:34:20): Of course. Of course. Jim McCloskey (00:34:22): So then, I announced to Jim McCord [crosstalk] -- when you take an independent leave of absence, you get an exit interview tp the president of the seminary. At that time, it was Jim McCord. Sushama Austin-Connor (00:34:38): That's so intimidating. Actually, I looked up the dates just to see who the president was at that time. And I was like, how intimidating is that? You had to go see Jim McCord? Jim McCloskey (00:34:45): Did you know him at all? Or have you ever had any encounters with him? Sushama Austin-Connor (00:34:52): I just know of him, and that's [inaudible] Jim McCloskey (00:34:52): Right. He had this deep voice. It was like God was talking down to you, you know? So, I'm ushered into his office for this exit interview and..."Jim, what church are you -- where are you gonna -- what church you go to serve while you're off?" So then I explained to him what I was doing. [laughter] Now, what I didn't know. So he had a button at his desk. He would press that button. And that was his secretary's signal to come in and get this person out of there. Sushama Austin-Connor (00:35:24): Oh no! Jim McCloskey (00:35:24): Oh yeah. So, no sooner do I tell him what I'm going to do than I'm ushered out of his office. And he sends me over to Dean Mass's office and I told him the same thing and they both want to know -- are you sure what you're doing is legal? Is that legal, Jim? I said, yeah, it's legal. Nothing illegal about it. Anyway, that was my exit. And then I moved in -- because when you have a leave of absence, you can't live in the seminary. Sushama Austin-Connor (00:35:55): The dorms, right. Jim McCloskey (00:35:55): So I moved out of Brown Hall and then found a place to live on 72 Library Place. Sushama Austin-Connor (00:36:01): So cool. Yeah. Jim McCloskey (00:36:02): It was a home owned and occupied by a lovely, delightful octogenarian, Mrs. Yateman, and in exchange for me doing errands for her, I had a second floor bedroom, free of cost, which turned out to be the first headquarters for Centurion Ministry. Sushama Austin-Connor (00:36:20): Wow. Jim McCloskey (00:36:21): My bedroom in that home. Sushama Austin-Connor (00:36:22): In that home -- on Library Place. Yeah. Jim McCloskey (00:36:26): When you turn onto library place, it's the first house fully facing Library Place. 72. It's a white Victorian home. Sushama Austin-Connor (00:36:37): Yeah. I know the street. I passed by -- pre-COVID I passed by all the time. Yeah. So talk... Finish your thought and talk about the end of Chiefy's case. And then I want to get to some of your work when Centurion is kind of up and running. Jim McCloskey (00:36:53): Right. Right. Well, so I took that year off and ended up doing several things. I became the investigator. And so I did two things. One is -- well, three things. One is to investigate the case. Sushama Austin-Connor (00:37:08): Like yourself. Like you are [crosstalk] ...to be clear, because I was so impressed with your true crime investigative skills. Jim McCloskey (00:37:17): Well, you know, it just, you know, it... All it is, is common sense, you know. You know, you just knock on people's doors and you're trying to get them to -- one leads to another, you know. My main purpose, one of the main things was, there were two... Chiefy was convicted based on two prosecution witnesses. One of them was Pat Cuccillo, who claimed that when he was driving his tow truck by the used car lot, he heard shots and he saw Chiefy and another man he identified as Lamont Harvey (nickname Grasshopper) flee the used car lot. So it was an eye witness, the claim to see Chiefy and this other man flee. So they arrest Chiefy based on that eyewitness account. Then, now he's in the Essex County jail awaiting trial, based on that one eyewitness account, and what the police did, which I was able to prove, to the satisfaction of a federal judge, they placed a career criminal Richard Dellasante on that tier, to enable Richard Dellasante to talk with Chiefy, and come into the court, to his trial and say that Chiefy confessed the crime to him. It's called the jailhouse confession. So those two, those were the two witnesses against him. Jim McCloskey (00:38:38): There was a lot of work to do in terms of investigation. And I finally met up with Richard Dellasante and... About a year after I started this work... And he was in the Hudson County jail at the time. And I visited with him for two days straight. And by that time, he had agreed to talk to me and tell me the whole story. He was a lifelong informant for the Essex County prosecutor's office. He testified at trial that he's never testified in any other situation against anybody. He did this because what Chiefy did was a bad thing. And he thought he should come forward. When in fact, he had testified in numerous other cases, both before the Chiefy del Los Santos trial and after. He was a professional snitch. And the payment for all his different testimonies by the prosecutor was -- he never went to prison. They would excuse his crimes. So he was free to be out there, to be a thief and an arsonist. And all this, that, and the other, he did all sorts of crimes. But he would do the bidding of the prosecutor, particularly this one detective in the prosecutor's office, Ronnie Donahue. He would -- Donahue was his handler. And it was Donahue put them on the tier with Chiefy and told him what to do, and he would do it. But he got tired of being their pawn. He just got tired of them using him for 10 years of doing this work. And so also, he had testified in the same manner, jailhouse confession against his first cousin, Danny Dellasante. He put Danny away another murder. [crosstalk] Sushama Austin-Connor (00:40:30): There's so many characters. Jim McCloskey (00:40:32): Yeah. And I got to know the Dellasante family. Dotty Dellasante, Danny's mother, and his aunt. Richard [inaudible]. Anyway, she kept asking Richard, please talk to this Jim McCloskey, you got to talk to him. If you help him out with Chiefy, maybe that'll help free my son, your first cousin, Danny Dellasante. He resisted for a year. And he finally agreed to talk to me. And then he told me the whole story. And so, he led us to other cases where he had in fact testified and helped the police prior to Chiefy's case. And then, we got an evidentiary hearing, and Pat Cuccillo, I met him. And, you know, one of the things that the trial prosecutor, Kevin Kelly, told the jury was, "Ladies --" (this was the summation), "Ladies and gentlemen, you heard Pat Cuccillo's eye witness account. You heard Richard Dellasante. So I think these two men, they didn't know each other, that they independently, they come forward and they give this incriminating evidence against Mr. del Los Santos. They're very credible. There's no reason to think that they're lying." Jim McCloskey (00:41:41): When in fact, my investigation, I discovered -- and it's got the documentation to prove it -- Richard del Los Santos and Pat Cuccillo went to grade school together. They were fast friends. They were both drug addicts. They would shoot up together, you know, so we were able to establish that. So we have an evidentiary hearing in federal court in March of 1983. Now in February of '82, I finished my one-year leave of absence. I returned to the seminary to finish my Master of Divinity degree. And I found a great lawyer to work for, with me, on behalf of Chiefy. Paul Castalero. He was instrumental in freeing Chiefy with me. And Paul, leading up to the evidentiary hearing in March of '83, the judge, the federal judge gave Paul authority to go into the prosecutor's files and see what information [crosstalk] files that might be exculpatory or go towards this, a bad conviction. Jim McCloskey (00:42:49): And Paul discovered in Kevin Kelly's own handwriting in the file, he was the trial prosecutor, that he said Richard Dellasante had a habit of giving testimony. So he knew [crosstalk] that he had given that testimony in prior instances, and he had him do it anyhow. He hadn't yet under direct examination, Dellasante, under Kevin Kelly's direct examination, testified that he's never done this before. Kelly knew he was lying. He wanted to present him as a, you know, as just a concerned citizen, even though he's in county jail. And I talked with Kevin Kelly on two different occasions. And on the second occasion when I told him, "Hey, Kevin, I still think it might not -- I tell you that I'm working for Chiefy... If I can convince Kevin Kelly that through no fault of his own, that he convicted an innocent man, maybe he can help me free the man he convicted. Jim McCloskey (00:43:51): That was my idealistic naiveté. Well, when I told him what I had on... I met him one time, then a year later I met him another time. I telephoned him. And he got very, very angry with me and said, "Jim, I don't care if 10 people confess that they did this crime and not Chiefy -- he's guilty." And he hung up on me. But, at the evidentiary hearing, Paul Castalaro really unmasked him for his [crosstalk]. The judge found that as a fact in his opinion, which ended up freeing and exonerating Chiefy in July of 1983. So by July of 1983, Chiefy was free and exonerated. I had finished my MDiv degree. And... but by that time I had met two or actually three other New Jersey inmates who Chiefy introduced me to, by the way, in whose innocence I had come to believe. So now I have a choice. Do I get -- do I go on and get ordained as a church pastor? Or do I set up a nonprofit organization, which I ultimately called Centurion Ministries to work to free innocent people at present? Obviously I chose the latter and set up Centurion. Sushama Austin-Connor (00:45:19): So from the beginning, you take on these two cases and... Talk more about like the trajectory for Centurion. Jim McCloskey (00:45:27): First of all, I named it Centurion after the centurion at the foot of the cross in the gospel of Luke, who looked up in chapter 23, verse 47, and said, "Surely this one was innocent," looking up at the crucified Christ. That's where the name comes from. So, but anyway, yeah, so I set up and I'm still working out of Mrs. Yateman's house, and long story short, of the three people whose cases I took on after Chiefy was freed, by 19 -- by November of '86, I was able to free two of those three people. The third one I freed two years later, 1989, but the seminal case that really puts Centurion and me on the map, on the map, was Paul Castalero, again, and I, he's a solo practitioner out of Hoboken. He and I worked for Nate Walker. Nate was convicted and given life plus 50 years for an Elizabeth, New Jersey sexual assault and kidnapping, and Paul and I together met with the Union County and Elizabeth, New Jersey, we met with a senior prosecutor there, and we had several discussions. Some of them pretty intense because by this time, 11 years after Nate was convicted in '75, this is now '86, 1986. We provoked that senior prosecutor in that office. We said, look, 11 years ago, when the victim was assaulted in this manner, a rape kit was taken from her. And there's a vaginal swab taken from her as part of the rape kit. If semen is on that swab, if you could find that swab. Now this is before DNA now, right? Sushama Austin-Connor (00:47:27): Yep. I remember. Jim McCloskey (00:47:30): Can you send that to a lab to see if they could determine the blood type of the semen on that swab? And he agreed to do that. Richard Reibart was his name. Richard Reibart, 11 years earlier, was the prosecutor that put Nate Walker away. Now he's a senior executive in that office and I give him full credit. He found that swab and he sent it down the FBI crime lab and they came back and said, the donor of this semen on that swab has blood type B. Nate Walker, and the victim, have blood type A, because some of her vaginal fluids might've got mixed up there. So it completely exonerated Nate Walker. We freed him, we freed him in November, early November of '86. And, I'm still working alone out of Mrs. Yateman's house. This got us a lot of publicity nationwide because at that time, very few --I mean, this was unheard of, exonerating innocent -- Sushama Austin-Connor (00:48:40): No, 'cause it's pre- what many people may know of, innocence movements and the innocence projects. Yeah. Jim McCloskey (00:48:50): Exactly. So, next thing I know Nate Walker and I are on the Today Show with Bryant Gumbel. And this was obviously seen nationwide. Now letters are pouring in from all over, from state prisons all over the United States because nobody else was doing this at the time. And, asking me, Centurion, to help free them like you did Mr. Walker. And not only that, but... And also Kate Germand, who is still, was my lifelong partner at Centurion. She had just moved to New York with her husband and she read about the Nate Walker exoneration in New York Times, she saw a photo of me in my bedroom with transcripts spilling all over the place. And she said, this man needs help. And besides that, she had always fancied herself as an investigator. She, as we were in our generation, we were raised on Perry Mason. She idolized Paul Drake, the investigator for Perry Mason, not Perry Mason himself. So anyway, she contacted me and here we are some 30 years later still working together. Sushama Austin-Connor (00:50:15): [crosstalk] so many people over the years, working with you, with the passion and the vocational pull to this work for people who are around you as well is incredible. Jim McCloskey (00:50:26): Absolutely. We, you know, in the movie The Field of Dreams that said, if you build it, they will come. You know, so many good, talented, dedicated justice-seeking people, volunteers, staff members. You know, Centurion now... Let's see, Kate joined me in January of '87, 13 plus... Some 33, 34 years later. We have a staff of 14 paid employees, lawyers, investigators, case development people. We get over 1200 letters a year from people asking us to, to serve on their, to work on their cases. Now, not all of them are innocent, of course. The vetting process is a real large undertaking. But anyway, yes, so, so many -- and not only that, but you know, we've gone national and have been, ever since Nate Walker was freed, people who saw Nate and me on the Today Show, one of them contacted me, Ozell Brandley, his brother Clarence was on Texas death row, was going to be executed three months later. And that got the attention of Kate and me. And we decided, we got the record and transcripts and all that. So we got to do something here. I've never been to Texas, never worked at death row case. We just went where the current took us, and the current took us to Texas. And then many other states after that. Interlude (00:51:59): [water droplet sound] Sushama Austin-Connor (00:52:01): How many exonerees are there? What [inaudible] Jim McCloskey (00:52:06): We have taken, since I started this work in 1981, early '81, really, we have freed 65 people. And collectively -- we only take cases where somebody has been given a life or death sentence for either a murder and/or sexual assault. They're the only cases we take on, the most serious cases. Well, we've taken a total of a hundred cases on since the beginning. 65 are free. Collectively, those 65 people have spent 1,388 years falsely combined. We are currently working for 20 -- so we have finished, we have finished 79 cases, 65 have been free. And the other 14 or so or 15 have not. We did not free them. Six of those 15 or so, we determined that our original assessment of innocence, after we had fully vetted the case and began our investigation, we made a mistake. We came to believe they were guilty. We dropped them. Jim McCloskey (00:53:26): And you know, several died in prison before we were able to complete our work on their behalf. And then five, although we still believe in their innocence, we had to leave them behind, because we were not able to develop enough new evidence or find a good legal basis to go back to court with. Two were executed; one in Louisiana, one in Virginia. So... but of the 79 cases we've concluded, 65 were freed. That's a little over 80%. The other 21 cases we're still working, Centurion is still working. You know, of the 65 that we have freed, 41 are African-American, 20 are white, and 4 Hispanics, including Chiefy. Of the 21 we're currently working for, 19 are African-American and one is a Native American out of Minneapolis. Sushama Austin-Connor (00:54:27): Yeah. And that actually takes me straight to -- what has this taught you about the justice system, where race is concerned? Jim McCloskey (00:54:34): Well, in, in my view of 40 years of work, in a hundred cases, in addition to thousands of pleas for help all over this country, there is no question in my mind that the racial bias and prejudice on the part of juries, police, prosecutors accounts, or is one important reason, for African-Americans in particular to bear the brunt of being falsely accused and wrongly convicted. You know, you take as an example, several examples, I'd like to point out in that regard.Since 1989, the National Exoneration Research Center, they document all the exonerations that have taken place in America since 1989. 1065 mostly men have been exonerated. In other words, they got convicted of murder, sent away for life or death, and later were exonerated, just like we exonerated Chiefy de Los Santos. 50% of those exonerees are African-American. Same thing with sexual assaults. 360-some men have been exonerated from life sentences for sexual assault. 60% African-American. So people of color bear the brunt of this, because, you know, I believe that there is a strong undercurrent, implicit, explicit, both, of racial that, you know, first of all, these folks have no resources. Jim McCloskey (00:56:29): They are poor. They have no way to defend themselves. There's a pre-- when, if you're a person of color sitting in that dock, and you have an all-white jury or a mostly white jury, the presumption of guilt is going to be there. And that's going to be a very difficult invisible barrier to overcome from the outset. As far as death row, 170 men, and a few women, have been exonerated off of death row, and 50% of them are African American. So it goes on and on. You take New York City, the stop-and-frisk policy. For 18 years, it was legal for police officers throughout New York City to stop people on the street and frisk them. They did that to 5 million people over 18 years. Now, 80% of those who were stopped and frisked are brown or black people. Sushama Austin-Connor (00:57:27): That's incredible. Jim McCloskey (00:57:32): I mean, you know, so it's, it's there. And, oh, sorry. That's not even to mention all these fatal shootings of innocent black citizens by white police officers all over the country. I mean, my view and I -- I include myself in this -- we, the Caucasian folks like myself... There's still a segregation between African American people and their social environment. I'm talking about regular law abiding people where, you know, regardless of the social economic status, and white people, we don't, we don't intermingle very much. And because of that, and you know, I think we're, we -- whites -- are raised, are programmed. We're raised with these erroneous assumptions and fears and expect-- We categorize people of a different race in a way that's wrong and unfair. We falsely profile them. I don't think there's any question, given what I've just tried to explain, that law enforcement people have within them both explicitly and implicitly, this racial bias that triggers them to come down on the Black population, much more than [inaudible]. There is systemic racism across America. It always has been, you know, for 400 years, and there might be a greater awareness now because of these fatal uncalled-for murders. Sushama Austin-Connor (00:59:21): And video. And evidence. Jim McCloskey (00:59:22): But now if it weren't for the videos, nothing would have happened. Sushama Austin-Connor (00:59:29): Earlier, you touched on it a couple of times, I think what is always startling to me, and it was an important part of your book too, is the presumption that white folks, good white folks, and other white folks have that the system's fair, then it's like just fair. And that all is fair. And that you must've done something. You must've done something. I think it's that -- it's changing those hearts and minds that is so difficult. Like, no, the system's actually not fair. Let's, let's start there as the baseline. Jim McCloskey (01:00:01): Well, we have two different perceptions of the criminal justice system, based on our own human experience. We, and I'm generalizing, but it's true. We, whites have not been abused generally by law enforcement. They're out there to protect and serve. And we whites have no idea what's going on in communities of color with the interaction and the interfacing between police and the communities of color. We have no idea about that. And you know, another thing is, another thing is, that... In my work, Su, the last 40 years, I bet I've been in a thousand Black homes, every major city in the United States. I don't care where it is. South LA, south Dallas, Harlem... Newark. And I know from my conversations with African-Americans in their homes, that... what goes on, and the heavy hand of the police that they've experienced. And you can even be of a higher socioeconomic status, and... You know, I know of no white family, and I know a lot of white families in my world, not one that I'm aware of have their parents ever sat their kids down and said, if you get stopped by the police, here's how you must conduct yourself. Otherwise, you're going to be in danger right. Now, I was watching a Major League Baseball racial, race seminar by Black baseball players, not too long ago. And one of them pointed out that when white people get stopped by a police officer for a motor vehicle violation versus black people get stopped. We have two different objectives. The white person is going to be very nice and polite to prevent from getting a ticket. The Black person is going to be very nice and polite to save their lives, to save their lives. And that is, I don't have to tell you, but you know, that's a conscious thing that African American families have to contend with, regardless of their station in life. We have no idea. We don't know. We're ignorant about that, talking about whites. So, you know, I've had the good fortune. I'm no expert, I don't claim to be an expert, but I do have more experience in this field and this interaction with, between communities of color and myself than most of my white friends do. And they just don't get it. They don't know. [inaudible] Sushama Austin-Connor (01:02:52): They don't get it. Yeah. Yeah. That's an important point. Jim, one final question. We, our audience is gonna want to know what, what can we do? What can we as clergy and faith leaders and people interested in you and your work and in Centurion and in freeing people who deserve to be freed, what can we do for Centurion? And what can we do to learn more about this justice system that is so different for so many of us? Jim McCloskey (01:03:26): Well, first of all, I read the Philadelphia Inquirer every day. That's where I'm from, that's my home paper. And if you... It's just, you know, Philadelphia is a war zone. The violence down there and fatal shootings. And I mean, it's just, it's out of control. But what I'm trying to say is, read the newspapers with an open mind, understand what's going on in your local community. One example could be, there have been a number of progressive men and women who have been elected district attorneys. As an example, in Baltimore, in Chicago, in St. Louis, in Boston, in Orlando, there are a number of Black women who have been, Black women have been elected as prosecutors, county prosecutors, and what have they done there? And it is a -- that's a tough job if you're Black and you're a woman. And the police, the white police unions and the white police entrenched, you know, you have your hands full, because they resist you with all their might and abase you, and all of that. Jim McCloskey (01:04:56): They're having a lot of problems. I'm thinking particularly of Kim Gardener out in St. Louis. Boy, she's going through hell, dealing with the police unions there. And even Larry Krasner down in Philadelphia, a white male. He having a -- he's a progressive, reform-minded prosecutor, but what's going on there in those offices, and in other offices around the country, they've recognized that this wrongful conviction, this is a phenomena that is far wider, deeper than we ever... Our criminal justice system is flawed, to a far greater extent than we ever imagined. So even district attorneys are setting up what they call conviction integrity units, to review, a separate unit within the office, to review former convictions where an innocent person may have been convicted. I mean, Larry Krasner down in Philadelphia, when he took office three and a half years ago, he set up a conviction integrity unit, and they have freed and exonerated 17 men who have been wrongly convicted of Philadelphia murders. Jim McCloskey (01:06:09): And I might add 16 of the 17 are African-American. It happens that way. But what people can do, you know, who am I to tell people how to vote? But, you know, voting is so important. If you have a choice between a progressive-minded candidate for the local district attorney and an entrenched, "tough-on-crime," old school person. Look at that very carefully. If you want justice and you want change, then you got to go with a progressive person. You just have to. Lives are at stake. Lives are at stake. And it's so important who we, the electorate put in authority in the criminal justice system. That's one thing. Now, as far as Centurion, you know, look, when this pandemic is past us, one way that they can -- we -- I'll just flat out say it -- we depend on financial benefactions from the public. If you think that you want to explore the possibility of giving financial support to us, just go on our, you know, just Google Centurion Ministries and find out all about us. Go to our website, and then you make your determination, if you think this is something that deserves your support. As far as volunteers go, I don't think we're -- we're not taking any more volunteers at this time, because of the pandemic. But when that ceases, if you're a local person, local being in the Princeton area, then you might want to, you might want to contact Centurion with the idea of becoming a volunteer. Right now, we have 20 volunteers, from all walks of life, you know, so there are a lot of different ways that you can support not only Centurion, but those reform-minded, people who want to do who want to make change. Sushama Austin-Connor (01:08:08): [percussion music begins] Awesome. You're a delight. We salute you. We salute your work and your ministry, Jim, this is just a gift. Centurion is a gift. And I'll say personally that I don't really know a more worthy cause to support in helping people and in saving people's lives. And we're just really -- Princeton Seminary is proud of you. And, you know, I just find the work so compelling. I hope people read the book. I hope people get to know what you're doing and what your amazing staff is doing. And we just salute you and your ministry and your amazing, fascinating life. Jim McCloskey (01:08:46): Well, you know, thank you, Su. And I appreciate that very much. There would be no Centurion Ministries were it not for Princeton Theological Seminary. Dayle Rounds (01:08:56): You've been listening to The Distillery. Interviews are conducted by me, Dayle Rounds. Sushama Austin-Connor (01:09:00): And me, Sushama Austin-Connor. Shari Oosting (01:09:03): And I'm Shari Oosting. Amar Peterman (01:09:06): I'm Amar Peterman, and I am in charge of production. Dayle Rounds (01:09:08): Like what you're hearing? Subscribe at Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or your preferred podcast app. The Distillery is a production of Princeton Theological Seminary's Office of Continuing Education. You can find out more at thedistillery.ptsem.edu. Thanks for listening. [water droplet sound]
43 minutes | Jun 11, 2021
The Gift of Augustine
In this episode, Shari Oosting sits down with author James K.A. Smith, professor of philosophy at Calvin College, who sets out to speak to this question in his book, On the Road with Saint Augustine: A Real-World Spirituality for Restless Hearts, revealing how Augustine’s timeless wisdom speaks to the worries and struggles of contemporary life.James K. A. Smith is professor of philosophy at Calvin University, where he holds the Gary & Henrietta Byker Chair in Applied Reformed Theology and Worldview. Trained as a philosopher with a focus on contemporary French thought, Smith has expanded on that scholarly platform to become an engaged public intellectual and cultural critic. An award-winning author and a widely traveled speaker, he has emerged as a thought leader with a unique gift of translation, building bridges between the academy, society, and the church.The author of a number of influential books, Smith’s writing has also appeared in newspapers such as The Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and USA Today, as well as in magazines such as America, the Christian Century, Christianity Today, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and LitHub. He serves as editor-in-chief of Image, a quarterly journal at the intersection of art, faith, and mystery.Dayle Rounds (00:01): How does Saint Augustine, an early church father and theologian, still speak to us today in the 21st century? In this episode, James Smith, a professor of philosophy at Calvin University speaks with Shari Oosting about his new book, *On The Road With Saint Augustine: A Real World Spirituality for Restless Hearts*. They discuss how Augustine's teachings provide fresh perspectives for our contemporary context. Smith speaks about how the myth of self-sufficiency could be the root of our anxiety, how a refugee is an appropriate metaphor for the Christian journey, and how we can find liberation in the midst of restlessness. Interlude (00:48): [percussion music + water drop sound] Dayle Rounds (00:48): You're listening to The Distillery at Princeton Theological Seminary. Shari Oosting (00:52): Jamie, thank you so much for talking with me today. James Smith (00:54): Oh, it's really a treat. Thanks Shari. Shari Oosting (00:56): So it was great to spend some time with what feels like you and Saint Augustine. So I'd be curious if you'd walk us into kind of why it felt significant to write this book? Who is Augustine, and why does he matter? James Smith (01:12): Yeah, it's a great question. Because, on the one hand, it's like really? Augustine? Today? It's the 21st century. Hello. Maybe there's more relevant... On the other hand, my intuition and my conviction are that actually, this ancient character gives us a fresh take on our own contemporary contexts. So it really stems from the fact that I think, Augustine has this kind of perennial insight into human nature, into the psychology of the human heart. And, in that sense, he feels like a contemporary. So, we should remind folks, just as a refresher. So when we're talking about Augustine we're talking about somebody who lived in the late 300s and early 400s, so late Roman Empire. But a feature of Augustine that's really interesting is that he's from North Africa. So he's kind of from the provinces. He grows up in a bi-cultural and probably biracial home. James Smith (02:19): So there's all kinds of, sort of, fresh aspects of who Augustine is that we also maybe don't get from the typical theological textbook. So... And then the last, the other piece of it -- is I'm trained as a philosopher. And one of the things that fascinated me was the extent to which 20th-century thinkers who have, you know, influenced us like the writer, Albert Camus, or Jacques Derrida, you know, the terrible postmodernist or Martin Heidegger. These, these were all people who were still grappling with Augustine firsthand. So, there's ways in which we are heirs to this Augustinian inheritance that we might not have realized. Shari Oosting (03:05): Yeah, there's a part where you talk about how, even for those of us who would never define our worldview as Augustinian, or have any of that language, we've been swimming in the water anyway. Can you give, like, a couple of examples of what it means to have kind of absorbed some of his influence along the way? James Smith (03:23): Yeah, let's try this as an example. So one of the things that maybe people don't immediately think of when they think of Augustine is -- he has this really fascinating diagnosis of the restlessness of the human heart. Do you know what I mean? And he's very vulnerable and open about his own sort of struggles of, like, not knowing who he was or what he was about. And especially, you know, in his twenties, he's like trying to figure these things out. And he talks about that specifically, as a kind of restlessness, because as we all -- everybody who's heard of Augustine has heard that famous opening line from the Confessions -- "You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you." What's interesting is, so -- fast forward 1600 years. And, our language of angst, of anxiety is a direct influence from Saint Augustine; the way, you know, we talk about angsty teens now, or whatever it might be. But it's interesting that what put that language on the map for us of an angst, anxiety, this unsettledness, this dis-ease, really trickles down from a German philosopher who was kind of the father of existentialism named Martin Heidegger. And he gave this really sort of influential analysis of angst that then started influencing in France and film and television and literature and things like that. It turns out angst is Heidegger's German translation from when he was reading Augustine's Confessions in like 1919. Shari Oosting (05:11): And now it's all over pop culture and... James Smith (05:14): And you would never know the genealogy of that. So then, what becomes interesting is, I mean -- man, is anything more relevant than anxiety, right? And, so now what, what happens is... My hope is that people come back to an ancient, theologian and bishop like Augustine with these new eyes and say, okay, this was a person who was trying to diagnose anxiety, like cultural and personal and existential anxiety. And that's when I think a text like the confessions sort of opens up afresh to us, and it's not -- it's no longer a kind of spiritual memoir. We don't read it as this moralizing preachy kind of thing. It now it's this interior investigation of his own dis-ease and unsettledness and anxiety. And that, that's why I think he also maybe has something to offer us, as we continue to struggle with that today. James Smith (06:20): Well and it's hard not to think about anxiety, dis-ease without also thinking of our contemporary context, where we've just -- we're living in a global pandemic and our country is in the midst of more and more public exposure to incidents of racial injustice, on top of the ongoing experience, of course. But I wonder, the book came out in '19 and then immediately after we, you know, have been collectively experiencing heightened anxiety and dis-ease. And I wonder if you've had a chance to reflect on that. James Smith (06:56): Yeah. That's... and I can totally identify. I have to say the... Somebody in the New York Times recently described our situation as this languishing that we find ourselves. And it just, I felt so seen. Shari Oosting (07:13): Yeah. Yeah. A friend pointed that same article out to me, and I said, thank you. James Smith (07:17): Yes. It was like, almost gave us permission to sort of name where we are. And I think, I do think someone like Augustine kind of gives you categories and lenses to think about that. So how would that go? Well, on the one hand, Augustine thinks a lot of our anxiety and unsettledness, and not being at peace comes from looking for love in all the wrong places, so to speak. Right? In other words, what he would say is it actually comes from us sort of over-expecting from the even good things that God has surrounded us with. And so what happens is, we kind of like glom onto things, or we fixate on things that we think this is the one thing that's finally going to give me meaning and significance and happiness. And it -- when we, sort of cling to it in that way, it melts between our fingers. That I think is still a very, very powerful analysis of, sort of, our own penchant to look for love in all the wrong places. Interlude (08:30): [Water drop sound] James Smith (08:32): Now, if you pivot and say, okay, well, how would Augustine help us understand where this anxiety comes from in the amorphousness of isolation in the pandemic? Well, this is where, I think, he also has a really interesting account of how and why we are these inherently social creatures. That we are made for friendship. In some ways, friendship is one of his most perennial metaphors for what the good life looks like. And to wither those possibilities of connection is to sort of encase ourselves. And it starts to feel like we are imprisoned within our own mind, we start to feel like we are losing the chance for these connections and webs of meaning and love and significance... And service, I would say, too. Augustine would say the myth of self-sufficiency might be the root of so much of our anxiety. And so then I think what happens is when we are left on our own, we start to experience this dis-ease and we realize, gosh, I need others. I need, and I also need to be needed by others. And that's, I think, what so many of us missed during this past year. Shari Oosting (09:59): Yeah, and we have a culture that's told us that we're independent and we're rugged individuals, but of course, none of us actually is. James Smith (10:06): No, exactly. The other thing I would say too, I mean, if you think of then the sort of injustices that we have witnessed and that too many people have experienced over this past year, Augustine can also... I mean, he has a lot of powerful resources in *The City of God* to help us make sense of why a disordered people sort of steamrolls the neighbor, right? So for Augustine... There's just no possibility of the Christian life for Augustine that is not a social vision. And in that sense, whenever we experience this disruption of the commonweal, because neighbors are being ground under by oppression and exploitation and marginalization, Augustine says, in a sense, the entire -- the fabric of the commonweal itself is rent. And we lose a sense of hopefulness. We lose a sense of commonality and we lose a sense of neighborliness. And there's a lot of ways in which Augustine's diagnosis of what happens in and to Rome (including by the way, Rome's own tendency to idolize itself) actually breeds injustice. And, so I would love to make the case that Augustine's *City of God* is very, very relevant reading for us today. In fact, I couldn't help but geek out when President Biden's inaugural address quoted from *The City of God*, which is... And his point was exactly right. Shari Oosting (11:49): Now. That's fascinating. That's a great transition point. You made choice to think about Augustine as a 'refugee' and as the Christian life as a 'refugee' experience, where often that would be translated as 'pilgrim.' Can you talk a little bit about that choice and what that means, what the implications of that choice are? James Smith (12:08): Yeah, and I have to give a shout out here. The footnotes are in the book, but I have to give a shout-out to a scholar named Sean Hannan, who... I heard him give this amazing presentation at the American Academy of Religion probably four years ago, where he suggested that the language that we typically translate into English from Augustine's works, that we translated as 'pilgrim,' he says that actually there are connotations and resonances in which it would make more sense to translate it as 'refugee.' Well, what difference does that make? Pilgrimage is a kind of sojourn where you actually leave home, go make your pilgrimage, but then you kind of circle back, and for the pilgrim, there's a certain voluntariness almost you could say about that. And there's a kind of -- maybe not... Security isn't the right word... but there's at least a sort of intentionality about it. Shari Oosting (13:13): Or a temporary nature of a pilgrimage? James Smith (13:14): Yeah. And it's temporary. Exactly. Exactly. And it's this kind of circular path. Hannan points out, he says, well, actually, some of the connotation of the phrases that Augustine uses are not of somebody who's going on a trip for spiritual purposes, it's somebody who is fleeing danger, who is trying to escape brokenness, who is running away from injustice and trying to -- importantly -- reach a home they've never been to before. And I think that is a very, very powerful way to re-imagine what the sojourn of the Christian life is in time, which is, in a sense, we are aspiring for a home we've never been to. And yet, to arrive there would be the place where God has built many mansions and says welcome home. The other thing that I found really powerful about that metaphor is, and Hannan highlights this too, the refugee's journey is fraught and vulnerable. Shari Oosting (14:35): Yeah, I'm thinking of Syria. I'm thinking of unaccompanied minors at the Southern border. James Smith (14:40): Absolutely. The tenuousness of the whole endeavor. And it is almost always, even in those contemporary examples, it is so often communal. It's the caravan, it's the boat laden. It's a whole people that are hoping to get somewhere. It is tent cities on the way. And it really kind of opened my eyes to see Augustine afresh. And I felt like it was also probably learning to read Augustine the way, say, the Black church has always read him. In other words, from my white comfort and privilege and status, I'm like, oh yeah, pilgrimage. I would love to go to the El Camino. And that'd be a great to have a trip to Spain. Whereas what we're talking about here is immigration. What we're talking about is asylum. And I think it's spiritually powerful. And then when you see the way that Augustine preaches, one of the things I really try to do in the book is try to say, yes, we know the Augustine of the books of the treatises, confessions, De Trinitate, and so on. But I don't think you can ever really know or understand Augustine until you listen to, read his sermons and read his letters. And in the sermons, you will see him preaching, especially from the Psalms, in a way where he's kind of like with his parishioners in that boat and in the storm-tossed to sea, and he feels the fraught nature of this Christian life. And I think it speaks to a lot of the challenges of an authentic Christian life, one that one that's genuinely, sort of in the world and facing the world. Shari Oosting (16:27): Alright. So you brought this up, so I have to push a little further into this direction. Is there some hesitation about universalizing, in a sense, the refugee experience as the universal Christian experience in some way? Does that question make sense? James Smith (16:43): Yeah, absolutely. No. And I think you're right, that I do think that there is something at the heart of the Christian life as such, that will always experience a spiritually fraught situation if we're really being honest and open about things. Do you know what I mean? On the other hand, I don't think that that should translate into imagining that I experience, the storm-tossed sea the way everyone does, or, that there, that there aren't, for example, Christian communities, for whom this isn't just a metaphor, this is reality. And then actually to see how much the vision of the hoped-for coming city of God animates and sustains them in that situation. I still... It's so unbelievably humbling, for example, to see the way hope works in Black churches, which is almost unthinkable, given what they've endured at the hands of other Christians. Shari Oosting (17:53): And the origin of the Black church in the United States. James Smith (17:56): Yes, exactly. Exactly. What's interesting is that, for Augustine this also wasn't just a metaphor. Like, he kind of put his money where his mouth was, and as a bishop in North Africa, he was actually a really strong advocate for sanctuary for those who were in flight and... Shari Oosting (18:16): Yeah. Talk about that more. That was fascinating to hear about. James Smith (18:19): Yeah. So it's interesting. He really stood up for sustaining congregations and churches as spaces of sanctuary for those who are fleeing all kinds of persecution and injustice. And even to the point where somebody says, well, you know, you never know you might be giving comfort to a criminal or whatever. And Augustine says, I would rather risk that and make sure that I'm giving shelter to those who are fleeing slavery, for example, or fleeing political persecution at the hands of the empire. This church should be a sanctuary. And if that even means we don't always sort of sort out who quote-unquote deserves it. He says, that's not my job. I'm not sorting wheat and tares here. And we have to remember, too, in Augustine's time, a Bishop did have quite a bit of cultural sway and influence, and they're connected with people in power. And how does Augustine use that power? He advocates against the death penalty constantly. He is constantly appealing for clemency, for mercy in judgment. So you see him standing up for those who are being ground under by this experience in ways that I think a lot of people might not have realized. Shari Oosting (19:42): When you think of Augustine as being this kind of journeyer or refugee, at one point, you also described him as an ethnographer, perhaps that's just like a nerdy aside, but I found it just an interesting claim. James Smith (20:00): So what I mean by ethnography -- and by the way, I do think that this is really relevant for those who are engaged in pastoral ministry -- so, let's say, for our purposes, by ethnography, what we mean is: an ability to read the practices of a people in order to understand, sort of, who they are and what's at stake. Do you know what I mean? Shari Oosting (20:25): Can we also call it a little bit of cultural exegesis, but much more locally contextual? James Smith (20:31): Yes, exactly. Cultural exegesis. I love that. I think it's great. And the difference is, we're not just listening to what people say. We are trying to look at what people do. We're trying to understand the rhythms and rituals and routines that shape a people's life. And I'm using people as a community, a sector, whatever, whatever it might be. And so in that sense, it's not just... It's a kind of cultural exegesis, where you're not just attuned to the messages. You're looking at, what I call elsewhere, the cultural liturgies of a society. What are the things we do that do something to us? And I think pastoral care and I think really, really good preaching, has to be informed by that kind of ethnographic attunement, where you sort of read the world that your parishioners are living in, moving in, and what's at stake and what is it doing to us? I have a good friend, Mark Mulder, a colleague of mine in sociology here at Calvin who teaches actually in D.Min. Programs an ethnography course for pastors. So I think this is a really great skill for pastors to develop. What you see in Augustine is exactly that kind of cultural exegesis, where, in his preaching -- and then I would also say, especially in *City of God* -- he doesn't just say, you know, what does Rome stand for? What are the values of Rome, or what's the constitution say or something like that. He's like, no, what are the rites -- R-I-T-E-S of, or what are the rituals that Rome sort of asks of us? And when it asks us to participate in these rituals, what are those rituals subtly doing to us? And so he becomes I think very attuned to the formative dynamics of culture and in some ways the malformative dynamics of culture, which is also, of course, why he's very intentional about sacraments and liturgy as a kind of counter formation to that. Shari Oosting (22:49): But it gives you all these tools, right, for reading our own culture about what are the practices that we engage in, what are the norms? And it kind of makes visible things that otherwise seem invisible if you have been soaking in your own context. James Smith (23:02): Yes, exactly. Especially if, if we've been primed... I bet this is probably less true of your listeners, but I would say in, especially in other wider sectors of Evangelical Protestantism, there's been a tendency to analyze culture as sort of -- propositionally, do you know what I mean? Like, what are the ideas and standards and values and laws or whatever it may be. What we're talking about is, yeah, if you have this sort of Augustinian ethnographic posture, it's not like -- what message is being said? It's what, you know -- what is capitalism? And that's not about economic policies that are set. It's about -- what does the consumer ritual of looking for fulfillment in stuff do to me? Or what do parades of militarism and weekly rituals of nationalism do to us? That's the kind of, sort of, radar that Augustine works. Interlude (24:11): [water drop sound] Shari Oosting (24:14): Let's talk about the concept of being on a journey, being on the road. And, you say at one point that you can go on a journey without moving an inch. So, so talk about some of the different kinds of journeys that Augustine can be a companion for. James Smith (24:29): Yeah. And the title of my book, *On The Road with St. Augustine*, is also a play on the Kerouac, of course, which is this sort of... Basically what happens is, we have absorbed this sensibility, that life is a quest, right? That everybody's on a journey. And what do we mean by that? Well, we're on the road to some destination. We're looking for something, we're chasing something we're after something and whatever that is, whatever we kind of picture as the destination is what we imagined happiness would be. Fulfillment, a significance. Shari Oosting (25:07): Somehow you're going to arrive. James Smith (25:07): Somehow you're going to arrive, exactly. And what Augustine would say is, what happens is so often we imagine, oh, if I can just get to here, then I'll be happy. Then I will have arrived. And what he'll say is, well, basically, if anything you pick as your destination that will count as arrival, if any of that is just finite, your hungry heart is going to chew through it and eventually be dissatisfied. It's not going to work. And so that's the exhaustion of this kind of question. Shari Oosting (25:50): I have to confess. I kept thinking of the *Hamilton* musical song, "They'll Never Be Satisfied." James Smith (25:56): Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. You can also think of Bruce Springsteen at this point. Everybody's got a hungry heart, and there's a sense in which, to put it this way, almost sounds cliche, except I still think he's right... If, because that heart's hunger is infinite, the only thing that could ever satisfy it is ultimately infinite. And so, whatever we're settling for, these finite substitutes, we're deemed to disappointment and that's the exhaustion -- so, okay. That didn't work. What's the next thing. What's the next thing. And I think a lot of us can identify with that. It's like, oh, if I could just get tenure. If I could just get, you know, this pastorate or something... Like now, Augustine's point is this is not about geography, or at least not about physical geography. It's more like the geography of the heart, which is you can be sort of chomping at the bit to "get away" and never leave home because the point is, you're looking for this satisfaction. You're looking for something else and outside of you. Now, I should say, I don't think Augustine wants to demonize or criticize actually that hunger. I think he thinks that's what's built-in. I think he thinks you can't be human and not have the sense that your heart is kind of made for some other shore. Shari Oosting (27:29): So if you're restless, it's not as though you have some sort of human deficiency. James Smith (27:33): No, exactly. It's almost a backhanded testimony that you are the kind of creature who was made for more. That's why I think, you know, pastorally, you might almost say apologetically, Augustine would meet folks in that situation and say, I see you're longing for more. Yes! Yes! Yes! You know, deep, deep affirmation of that. It's just then, where could we find satisfaction? What would arrival look like? Shari Oosting (28:09): Well, you brought up tenure. So can you talk about ambition? Like the way in which this plays out with something akin to ambition? James Smith (28:16): Yes. Yes. And I suppose only egg-head academics would think tenure is ambitious. Shari Oosting (28:22): But Augustine had some, like, he had ambition, right? James Smith (28:24): Absolutely. I mean, I say, if you really want to understand sort of who Augustine was in his time, he was basically a Manhattanite, 1500 years before Manhattan existed, or he's the person who wanted to be working on the hill in the thick of things, changing the world and being admired for doing it. And Augustine is very honest about this, even when he's a bishop. That he says, you know, I'm still ambitious. It's not ambition that's the problem. It's when I imagined that achieving whatever I'm ambitious for would be the ultimate satisfaction. So if I've... What would happen... Let's take my silly example, if, you know, getting tenure was my vision of, like, arrival. There's nothing wrong with hoping to attain that goal. The problem is when I thought that's all I needed to be happy. James Smith (29:25): And then what happens is you get to the top of that hill and, and we all know this. We all know this. You get to the top of the hill. And on the other side of it is this - for lack of a better... A kind of postpartum depression that sets in. And everybody's like, that's it? Really? This is not... So now it's the next thing. And it's the next thing. And it's the next thing. And that's, again, this sort of exhaustion sets in. What is that exhaustion? Restlessness. So what does it look like to be ambitious, but also find rest? Shari Oosting (30:00): Yeah, and what would like a reordered ambition look like? James Smith (30:02): Yeah. So I think Augustine envisions a reordered ambition where now I'm ambitious, not because I think achieving this goal will ultimately give me meaning and satisfaction and happiness. But because now, because I know I rest in God's love for me. In a sense, now, I'm not doing this to prove anything. My ambition is not driven and fueled by demonstrating my worth. Instead, my ambition is propelled from knowing that God's love for me is not dependent on what I accomplish. And I don't know about you, but I find that incredibly liberating. Because now... And so God doesn't say, I love you, sit back and do nothing. It's I love you, you can't do anything that would possibly make me not love you, including failing, not even that it would never affect anybody. So launch out into the deep, take your gifts, discover who you are, and now, you know, unfurl and unfold possibilities that I have packed into this creation as only you could do, so that we can celebrate it. So that it can be a gift to your neighbor. So that it brings joy to the world. And do it excellently and do it as well as you can and train yourself. And what you will find then is now your ambition is sort of the thing that you hold with an open hand. Shari Oosting (31:43): Sounds like a freeway. James Smith (31:45): Yes, exactly. I think so much of how Augustine imagines, what rightly ordered love for the world looks like is it's not love God instead of the world. And it's not cling to the world instead of God. It's receive all of these good and beautiful gifts and hold them in that open hand and be grateful for them, which also means that you could know how to lose them. And I think that's a very vulnerable place to be in. Another reason why I think Augustine is a gift to us is he's also really honest by saying in this life -- that is, in this temporal mortal life, in which we find ourselves, even in Christ -- in this life, it's a long road. There are many miles to go before we sleep. There's still not... Being in Christ is not an escape from restlessness. There's just a kind of different orientation and almost therapy for us in the midst of that. And I find that very liberating too. Shari Oosting (32:53): Yeah. That sense of like an open hand and being able to lose something. There's something that seems really comforting about that. Again, given that we're in a pandemic where there are legitimately so many things to grieve. So how to kind of hold, not because they don't matter. Right. But because things are temporal. James Smith (33:13): Yes. Yes. And it's almost kind of counter-cultural to name that a little bit, but I think you're right. I actually think doing that enables us to grieve more fully. To lament, to honestly lament, and yet do so with hope. Shari Oosting (33:30): Yeah. Well, you've mentioned exhaustion a couple of times, so I have to ask you to talk about what... It sounds to me, the way that you talk about Augustine is he's been a pastor to you. And his sermons and his letters, even in his relationship to his mother. So can you talk about maybe how he's pastored you and what you think rest looks like, in a temporal life that can be exhausting? James Smith (33:55): Yeah. It's, you know, it's funny, I, so many of your listeners must... I imagine pastoral ministry comes with its own loneliness because you're the one who always has to be the pastor and being pastored, I bet is astonishingly rare. And so that can be a very lonely place. And, I would say, Augustine... What I found in Augustine was somebody who like, in a sense, he only gives to me. He doesn't ask any, you know, I don't have to give anything in return and there's there. There's, like, no end to what I learned from him in his sermons in particular. There's such a powerful pastoral presence in those sermons that I find he's almost like the pastor I wish I had. And, rest (this will sound strange) but I would say one of the aspects of rest that I think Augustine articulates is the rest that is found in confession. James Smith (35:02): So that there's something unbelievably liberating in being able to be honest about not getting it right or failing, or as we said, languishing, or just, you know... When Augustine is talking about ambition, you know, in the present tense for himself, and he says, you know, man, I don't know if I'm doing this for God or if I'm doing this for myself and actually I'm probably doing it for both reasons. And there's something like, oh, so we can just say that we could be honest about that. Yes. And God says, I forgive you. I find that incredibly enduring, and I would say it's like, it's counsel, it's, it's deep counsel that you sort of carry with you for a lifetime. Interlude (35:49): [water drop sound] Shari Oosting (35:52): All right, someone who loomed large in Augustine's life was his mother. So, can you introduce us to Monica? James Smith (36:00): Yeah, Monica... She's such an interesting character. She's like helicopter mom extraordinaire. So she, Monica, is an African, probably of Berber origin. She was a Christian and his father was not. She was kind of constantly concerned about the state of Augustine's soul, especially when he was living his kind of frat boy life for 15 years. And what's interesting is Monica is in some ways the star of the Confessions, because she is the sort of incarnate embodiment of God's covenant faithfulness to Augustine. And so she keeps her persistent presence, her indefatigable love for Augustine and also her just confidence that God would hold him and care for him -- is such a steady presence. When I was writing the book, so we, we had an opportunity to spend three weeks, doing sort of field research. James Smith (37:13): And originally we -- unfortunately, because of terrorist activity, we couldn't get to North Africa at the time. So we spent all three weeks tracing his steps from the port city of Ostia up through Rome, and then the ways that he would have made up through Tuscany to Milan, and of course the real sort of culminating scenes of Augustine's life take place in Milan. And then eventually he makes his way back to Africa through Ostia. One of the things that struck me so powerfully is that, in many ways, Monica is more recognized, more celebrated, more revered than Augustine. I mean, if you just think in popular Christian piety in Italy, if you just take, you know, tiny little chapels in out of the way places, how frequently Monica is present is a sign that, of this perennial reality -- which is here is a mother who is praying in tears for the children who are on the run. And if we can all identify with this. Some of us have been that child, we've had those mothers and grandmothers. And so in the sense -- the cult of Monica is such a beautiful, picture of God's own sort of love for us. I was so moved by it. Shari Oosting (38:37): Why do you think that that resonated so deeply with you? James Smith (38:40): To be honest? It's because I have watched my wife, Deanna. So we, I don't know how much autobiography you want to hear. Deanna and I both come from like multiple broken homes, multiple times over. And so we, in a sense, have been trying to be something for our kids that we've never had. And, we've -- you know, our kids are all in their twenties now and things -- and we knew something of what that journey was to like stay alongside children on the run. And Deanna's just utter devotion, just utter unconditional affection and devotion, was such an incarnation of God to me and to her kids that it was so moving. So when we visited the church in Rome where Monica's relics are, and I spotted Deanna in the chapel, and Monica was new to her at that time. And she found this prayer card that listed a sort of a prayer to St. Monica for children on the back of it. And I just looked to the left and I saw Deanna was weeping in this chapel devoted to St. Monica. And I knew that there was this just intense identification. Probably, I bet it's the case, that mothers surely identify with Monica, unlike anybody else could, but there's a sense in which she's also just this human embodiment of indefatigable love and it's so strange because as a philosopher, the way I learned to read Augustine was slanted, if you will. Do what I mean? You come to Augustine in a certain way, and it's crazy that, you know, I'm almost, I was in my forties before I realized, oh, Monica, Monica, Monica is the engine here. And it was... So that was probably my favorite chapter to write. Shari Oosting (40:55): [percussion music starts in the background] Well, that's striking. I mean, when you think about the constellation of people who form others as Christians, the Monicas in that, in that cloud of witnesses, so to speak, loom large, the Deannas loom large, if everyone were to draw out who their kind of religious influencers were, right? James Smith (41:16): Yes. And you know, what's maybe one of the reasons why I'm so humbled by Monica, too, is she's so devoted to prayer. And if I'm honest, this is not what I do. Like, that's not my... It's very hard for me, but you can see that this is somebody who, in a sense, chases her son in prayer to God. And it's -- I think you're right. There are Monica's everywhere. Shari Oosting (41:46): Well, that's beautiful, Jamie. Thank you for the conversation today. James Smith (41:50): It's my pleasure. Thanks for your interest. Dayle Rounds (41:54): You've been listening to The Distillery. Interviews are conducted by me, Dayle Rounds. Sushama Austin-Connor (41:58): And me, Sushama Austin-Connor. Shari Oosting (42:01): And I'm Shari Oosting. Speaker 5 (42:03): I'm Amar Peterman, and I am in charge of production. Dayle Rounds (42:06): Like what you're hearing? Subscribe at Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or your preferred podcast app. The Distillery is a production of Princeton Theological Seminary's Office of Continuing Education. You can find out more at thedistillery.ptsem.edu. Thanks for listening. [water drop sound]
34 minutes | Jun 4, 2021
Agents of Redemptive Interruption
In this episode, Sally Brown, homiletician and Elizabeth M. Engle Professor of Preaching and Worship at Princeton Theological Seminary, talks about these themes and more from her new book, Sunday’s Sermon for Monday’s World: Preaching to Shape Daring Witness, in which she shares ways preachers can help spark their hearer’s sense of divine imagination.Sally A. Brown, PhD '01, is Princeton Seminary’s Elizabeth M. Engle Professor of Preaching and Worship. She earned an MDiv from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and a PhD from Princeton Theological Seminary. An ordained Presbyterian minister with more than 20 years of parish and non-parish pastoral experience prior to beginning her academic career, she continues to teach and preach in local congregations. Her academic interests include the theology and rhetoric of the cross in contemporary preaching, with attention to issues raised by feminist theology and postmodern theories of discourse; exploring the history, theology, and rhetoric of women’s preaching in a range of cultural contexts; identifying trajectories of continuity and change in worship today, with attention to the what and why of Christian worship, theologically, as well as the difference context makes in worship practices; and hermeneutical theory and constructive practical theology. She teaches preaching and worship as well as a PhD seminar in theories of interpretation and constructive practical theology.Dayle Rounds (00:00): Can Sunday's sermon inspire listeners to practice Christian witness in their day-to-day life? In this episode, you will hear from Sally Brown, an ordained Presbyterian pastor and professor of preaching at Princeton Theological Seminary. She spoke with us about her new book, *Sunday's Sermon for Monday's World: Preaching to Shape Daring Witness*. Sally talks with us about how preaching can help people be agents of redemptive interruption and inspire others to exhibit the inclusive love, radical mercy, and restorative justice of God. Listen in to learn about embodied Christian witness, imagination theory, and sermons that have the capacity to influence action. Interlude (00:43): [percussive music, water droplet sound] You're listening to The Distillery at Princeton Theological Seminary. Dayle Rounds (00:47): Alright, Sally, thank you for sitting down today to talk with me about teaching preaching and about, particularly, your new book that has come out. I want to start our conversation, just to simply ask you what drew you to study homiletics in the beginning, and then to commit yourself to nurturing and teaching preaching all these years? Sally Brown (01:12): Thank you. That's always interesting for me to reflect on, finding myself now having taught preaching for 22, almost 23 years. I was in the ministry for 18 years -- non-parish for five and parish ministry for 13. It was early in the second call that I really started thinking more about my own preaching and felt that I really didn't know what I was doing. I had had exactly one course. I took the course at a time when actually I didn't believe that women were called to preach. So, you can imagine I didn't take it terribly seriously. But then, you know, one thing -- you change, and your mind is changed, and the Spirit changes your mind. And I realized I was called into the ministry, called to preach, called to the pulpit. And I found myself in a call where I was preaching regularly, not every week, but on a regular basis every month in three services. Sally Brown (02:15): And by the end of the morning, whatever I'd done, I'd done in the hearing of about 1100 people. And I was very self-conscious about how little I really understood what I was up there doing. So I took a seminar that was on preaching parables. And by about the end of the -- and this was at Princeton, continuing education, Tom Long was doing a seminar on preaching parables. And by the end of day one, I knew that whatever this was we were doing, which was really more homiletical theory and rethinking how we read a text, how we move from text to sermon, whatever this I wanted to be doing it. So one thing led to another, I did some tutorials, not only with Tom Long, but also Christine Smith. Just one-day tutorials. They gave me reading lists. I did the reading. We would have a conversation. We would listen to my own sermons and critique them. And, eventually I decided I wanted to at least, attempt to get into a PhD program and that happened. And, I, I guess the rest of this story is, is clear enough. My first call was to Lancaster Seminary, where I taught for three years. And I'm happy to say that the current homiletician there is a graduate of our program, Catherine Williams, and I worked with her on her dissertation, and then I moved to Princeton in 2001. Dayle Rounds (03:50): That's great. Thank you, Sally. The next thing I want to ask you is, so that's what drew you in, how you began to teach preaching. And then so through your career, when you've studied, you've written, you've, you've been teaching pastors -- what prompted the writing of this particular book *Sunday's Sermon for Monday's World?* What brought you and why did you write this? Sally Brown (04:17): I've always taught preaching, as I say to my students, with one foot in the congregation. You know, I think if you've spent enough years just immersed in congregational ministry, you always feel the interconnection between the sermon and the rest of life, the rest of parish life, you know, the rest of congregational life. But also, you get more conscious of what is it like for these people in the pews to step out the door. You know, by the time they get in their cars, do they even remember what the sermon was about? You know, and what can help people? What I'm hoping happens in the pulpit is that we hand people a lens on the basis of the texts we're preaching and the way we open it up for them. I hope that when I'm opening up is a lens into the world and the Monday-to-Saturday world, not just talking in sort of an echo chamber of Christian Sunday morning or Saturday night worship. I want their world to look different because of what happened in the sermon. Sally Brown (05:30): So that's always been a preoccupation of mine. And then it seemed to me that sermons had to get to be something more than memorable. They had to somehow become portable in the sense that, that you could grab that lens and look through it and see your world differently and recognize how God is working in that space. And you can be a participant in whatever God is doing to work redemptively in that moment in time that may be at work or school or in the cafeteria, or, you know, at the, you know, with the other soccer moms at the soccer field. And I got interested in what makes the sermon portable into the world of Monday-to-Saturday. So I began reading on the subject of how -- what inspires any human action. And I got interested in imagination theory because as Paul Ricoeur says, imagination is essential to all human action. Sally Brown (06:32): We mentally rehearse in a nanosecond, our choices in a situation, and then we choose. But there's this dynamic of imaginative rehearsal. And I wondered how could the sermon itself become part of the imaginative rehearsal for human action in the everyday world? I also then got interested in what is Christian witness because one of the dominant models over the last 15 years or so -- more than that, probably 20 years, 25 -- has been a missional approach that really emphasizes the witness of the whole congregation as a body that lives out and embodies forth Christian convictions in the world. But even insiders to the missional movement have said, what's happened to the witness of the individual? And the reason I think that's so important is that public worship really isn't so public anymore. A lot of people regard worship services, religious gatherings, as private, not public. Sally Brown (07:40): And so where are people likely to encounter a believable embodiment of Christian faith? Well, in individual lives, in the individual lives with the Christians they happen to rub shoulders with an ordinary space, any day of the week. So that became my interest. What's the connection between a sermon that develops this capacity for faith-shaped, imaginative rehearsal that influences the action that one might take on an ordinary day and an ordinary space, in a situation that maybe has some ethical edge to it, or calls for a way of exhibiting the -- what I call in the book, "the inclusive love, the radical mercy and the restorative justice of God." Interlude (08:39): [water droplet sound] Dayle Rounds (08:42): The other thing you lift up in the book and use as a lens, and that I have actually heard you talk about in your teaching and in the conversations we've had over the years, is you talk about "promise-grounded hope," and that's a key part of this book. But you came to that idea before you even wrote this book. So can you tell our listeners a little bit about what you mean about "promise-grounded hope"? What is it? And why is it so important? Sally Brown (09:13): Yeah, I do think that's a critical question and a critical point of departure in the work I do. I think, especially in this pandemic, we've really been conscious of how -- what is hope and where does it come from? And then we've been living through really a double viral pandemic, as the COVID pandemic exposed so many inequities that are traceable to systemic racism in American society, inequities in healthcare and access, and even vulnerability to the disease and to dying of it, all of that, connects to race and a long history here. So, where does hope come from? I've been very much influenced by what's sometimes called apocalyptic theology. And some of my other colleagues here represent that too. And the accent there is that hope comes from the God who promises again and again and again -- it happens in both the Hebrew scriptures of the Old Testament. It happens as well in the New Testament -- promises the renewal of all things, that God is bringing about a new creation, God promises to make all things new. And there are visions of what that new creation will look like. For example, you find it in Isaiah 65 and in other places in the Old Testament. You find it in Revelation, of course -- "And behold I saw a new heaven and a new earth." And then, Paul the apostle talks about "we are a new creation," or actually he simply says (it doesn't even use 'is'), he just says "behold, new creation." When he went, speaking of the risen Christ and our participation in the life of the risen Christ. So, what that does, if we can affirm in preaching, that God has promised and is bringing about a new creation, then what we're doing in preaching is to invite people, to see and participate in that reality. Sally Brown (11:27): In other words, we don't come up with the hope. Human optimism and endurance are powerful things. There's no question about that. And I don't mean to diminish the meaningfulness of human optimism and endurance, particularly during this pandemic. The endurance of people of color, through decades and now, hundreds of years of oppressive, systemic bias against them. And I don't mean to diminish that, but genuinely Christian hope anchors itself in the future that is already established in the risen Jesus Christ who's called the firstborn of the new creation. That God has already begun this transformed future. It is reaching out to meet us from the future. And I believe that the Spirit is at work all around us in the church and outside of the church, creating this ferment of transformation toward this renewal of all things -- all created things, not just humans, but the whole, the ecology in which we live, the environment, all creatures, all living things and, and even the inanimate. Sally Brown (12:44): So my understanding of preaching is that we preach anchored in the future. Every sermon is anchored in the future, in a sense, in the promise of God to bring about that renewal of all things. And then that enlists, maybe, our optimism and our endurance, but the hope doesn't, isn't something we have to generate. And we don't go into the pulpit to say, you know, we got to get it right, or the reign of God can't come. In other words, that makes us always pushing from behind and scolding people for their failures and telling them, do this, do this, do that. You know, we lengthened their to-do list, which was long enough when they came into church. I don't think that's what Christian preaching needs to do. First and foremost, it needs to announce that despite all, whatever may have happened to you this week, God is still at work and God's promises are good. Sally Brown (13:43): And the new creation has begun, and we have the opportunity to participate. So that a sermon says, because God promises (and then fill in the blank, depends very much on your text) we can. Rather than saying, we must, we ought, we should all the time. What do we now have the opportunity to be, to become, to do, to say, to create, because God's new creation is laying claim to the present and to us? So that's what I mean by promise-grounded hope. And the third chapter of *Sunday's Sermon Monday's World* is devoted to that. Dayle Rounds (14:23): You talk about wanting to anchor the sermon in that future reality, in that promise-grounded hope. And the book is about how we might preach that way. But the real purpose is -- I think -- is not just about the preacher's witness, but it's the sermon that then ignites, enlists, encourages the witness of the community of each individual that makes up that community, and how they can bear witness in their everyday lives, you know, Monday to Saturday. So you touched on it a little bit talking about Christian witness, but I wonder if you can spend a little more time about what does faithful Christian witness look like for you, for the average everyday person who's coming up and sitting in the pews on Sunday morning? What's a story or a description of that in your mind? Like, what are you -- what image are you using as you're writing this book for Christian witness? Sally Brown (15:26): What I have in mind is a person who is going about her everyday week, the roles she plays, as parent, maybe as a worker, as a volunteer, as a voter, maybe she's a board member for a nonprofit, whatever that person is doing. And just even in the most mundane kind of interactions, for instance, at a social event of some sort, and say that, she finds herself in the middle of a discussion, which involves some kind of belittling language say toward women, toward women's leadership or something. I would imagine her as a person who speaks up about that, and says, you know, I have trouble with the kind of language that diminishes women's capacity to lead, or to lead with authority. Their authority may look different. It may look more like achieving consensus to move forward, but I have trouble with diminishing women in this way. Sally Brown (16:48): So that just in an ordinary conversation, you would bear witness to go back to that, try to the inclusive, love the radical mercy, the restorative justice of God, maybe that's a restorative justice kind of comment? In, that you, you want to help us see differently aligned with a new creation in which women, as well as men are called into leadership and fullness of the use of their gifts. So, it can be just as mundane as that I do begin the book with some examples, which actually only one of the examples that I used is someone who consciously identified with the church, and that was Rosa Parks. I mentioned Rosa Parks and what she did. And actually there was a lot of activism on her part that led up to the day that she did not give up her seat. But in the moment because of the person she had become, and because of the person of faith that she was, she had courage to seize a moment that would make a difference that would change, shift the situation and challenge the status quo. Sally Brown (18:02): And then I speak of, for instance, the individual only known as the tank man, the young man who stood in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square in China. And then I mentioned a couple of others. What these have in common is that this person is actually acting as a couple of my colleagues put it in a book as agents of redemptive interruption. Well, actually the redemptive is my contribution, they talk about witness as acting as an agent of interruption of the status quo to bear witness to a transformed reality. The future that God is bringing about. And, so I talk about people -- and I want to see the people in the pew think of themselves as agents of redemptive interruption, potentially in an ordinary situation to shift things toward rightness, toward justice, and toward inclusivity, and toward mercy. Sally Brown (19:03): But that takes imagination. So then you roll it back to the Sunday, to the Sunday morning pulpit. And even behind that to the work and the study on the sermon and the sermon needs to be about how can we help people become imaginative, anchored in their faith tradition, anchored in understanding God's inclusive, love and radical mercy and restorative justice by, you know, being steeped in the stories and the metaphors of scripture and in the practices of faith and the church and individually. So you have all these resources and then like a jazz player, you draw on this deep tradition and you play out something new, something imaginative and something apt to the moment and the situation. That for me is embodied Christian witness in an everyday world that imaginative improvisational drawing out of a deep tradition. And my job is to help people inhabit that tradition as I draw them inside a story. Sally Brown (20:14): You know, we're not supposed to really -- I think we're not supposed to so much explain the stories of scripture as explore them and help other people to explore their dynamics. And I do think that an awful lot of emphasis has been on information. If we tell people -- if we give people enough information about what they ought to do, then they will act. Well, what if they need us to help them develop their imagination, rather than just stuff their head full of information? Because unless you are able to look imaginatively into the world and discern what I call the public presence of God, the presence of the Spirit, the possibilities of the Spirit in that setting, you don't need to flip through a manual, you know, sort of (this is a metaphor) flip through a manual and try to find the right injunction for that moment. Sally Brown (21:16): You need to be able to relate to it imaginatively, coming out of the stories of scripture that have shaped you. But I think often the missing move at the end of a sermon is, wow, what could this look like? An imaginative move on the part of the preacher. So too many sermons analyze a problem, apply, in some sense, the scripture and give the list of shoulds and oughts on the basis of the scripture. And then just say, "and may we go into the world as true disciples of Jesus"? Yeah. But show me what that looks like. What does that look like on Main Street? So I, I really encourage my preachers to spend at least one-fourth of the sermon toward its end saying, what might this look like in our community? What -- how could this change the way that we interact with neighbors of other cultures than our own? It might look like this. What if that? There are some preachers who do that exceptionally well. And one well-known one is Barbara Brown Taylor. She's just one of many who are doing this, have been doing this for a long time. Interlude (22:32): [water droplet sound] Dayle Rounds (22:34): In the book, too, when you unpack Christian witness, and you talk about it in terms of participation and imagination, you draw on the work of Craig Van Gelder and Dwight Zscheile. Can you say a little bit more about that? Go a little deeper into their work and how that has informed your understanding of what it means to be a Christian person bearing witness in the public square? Sally Brown (22:57): Yeah, it's partly Van Gelder and Zscheile, also Craig Dykstra and Dorothy Bass redefined Christian witness as participation. I think the imagination move comes particularly from Van Gelder and Zscheile. The participation move comes especially from Craig Dykstra and Dorothy Bass. And, so, so this is the idea that God has proceeded us into every situation. I sometimes say in sermons, no matter where we find ourselves, God got there first. And so then our job is to be alert to the possibilities that the Spirit of God is opening up in a situation for us to participate in the flow of God's redemptive, transforming grace expressed in the situation, or maybe just name it or bring it to bear, call it forth in a particular situation. So it's not that we bring God to a godless world. We go to meet God where God is already working in the world and in ordinary space. That's what I mean by participation, we participate in something that is already underway in the power of the spirit. Dayle Rounds (24:19): The thing that kept coming to mind to me was remembering... I had a class years ago on the gospel of Mark with Don Juel at Princeton Seminary. And in the crucifixion, when the temple curtain is torn, the phrase Don used was that God is on the loose, you know, so God has gone before us and, right, it's not us to bring God around, but to point out and to discover where God is already at work in the world. Sally Brown (24:49): [water droplet sound] Dayle Rounds (24:49): Another move you make toward the end of the book -- you do have an interesting chapter toward the end that I wanted to get to a little bit on metaphor. Because as you acknowledge in the book too, some people become squeamish about metaphor, but you really point to it as one particular preacher move or whatever -- that might allow us to bring it home to the witnesses who are in our pews as a way to maybe do that move. So, so what? You know, what does this mean? What does this look like? Can you say a little bit more about metaphor, maybe address the issue that why some people are uncomfortable with it and why you think it actually can be used well for preaching? Sally Brown (25:35): I think historically the theological mistrust of metaphor is that metaphor is a poetic device. Generally, it's something like, well... Let's take one that's been common in our conversation over this past year of the pandemic. People -- I guess you'd only say this in Christian circles, but -- people are saying these days, I've been living in exile so long. I'm really ready to get back to normal. Well, what are they alluding to there? They're alluding to a sense of displacement from whatever feels like home or normal. But they use the term 'exile.' Are they literally in exile? To be exiled is to be banned, you know, from one place to a foreign place. It's a major trope in scripture. There are literal -- there's a literal exile of the inhabitants of Jerusalem to Babylon and there's a return. Although home doesn't turn out to be, you know... Even home is, is kind of a metaphor. Sally Brown (26:45): And we use metaphors all the time in common speech. For example, we might say, in a discussion and it's ranging all over the place... You might say if you're trying to bring people back, "Let's get back to home base and deal with, you know, the problem at hand." Are you really asking everybody to go outside, find a baseball field and find home base? No, you're not. You're using a metaphor, but the metaphor evokes the whole kind of, you know, the game and we get it. We know that we need to get back to the place from which we start. So that's one. And I already used a metaphor actually in this conversation. I talked about, is preaching meant to hand us a rule book, sort of a pocket rule book for how to handle every conceivable situation is a crucial element of information. Sally Brown (27:40): Do we really, are we really expecting people to compose or are we composing a literal physical rule book? No, but you know what I'm talking about. And I say that I don't think that's what preaching is meant to do. So we use metaphors all the time. It's a very common way of communicating in shorthand with each other. And then there are some that, you know, are used so much that they're called dead metaphors because they're not really very interesting anymore because we've been using them for so long. Like, you know, I don't know, my father used to say, boy, it's hot as blazes today. You know, which was sort of a euphemism for hell. But, that that's obviously a metaphor, you know, is it, is it literal hell out, out on the sidewalk? No. So it's non-literal and theology has treated metaphor as therefore untrustworthy obfuscation you could say the same thing perfectly clearly. Like the philosopher, Paul Ricoeur, who I mentioned earlier in relation to imaginative rehearsal for action, also wrote a bit about, quite a bit about metaphor. And he says that a metaphor allows us to evoke a depth of understanding that literal language could not achieve. For example, I talk in the book about a sermon that's well-known already to at least some of the readers of the book, preached by Dr. Anna Carter Florence, way back before she was, when she was just a brand new, young pastor, she preached at General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church. And the sermon was called "At the River's Edge." She uses the story of Pharaoh's daughter, encountering the -- hearing this infant cry coming from a basket that's floating toward her on the river. The river's edge is the metaphor -- is one of the dominant metaphors of that sermon. And by the end of the sermon, we are... She places us all on the river's edge. And the river's edge is wherever we find ourselves in our ordinary lives. And the river that is life flows by and brings to us human identities and situations that we can't ignore, that we can't pretend not to hear, not to see. The river's edge is a place of being confronted with what is out there and making a decision about how we will act. So... and what's so powerful about it is that it's portable. After hearing that sermon, you recognize that you're on the edge of the river when something confronts you that you've got to deal with, you have to make an ethical decision about how to respond. So that's just one example of a metaphor and many, excellent preachers use metaphor. Dayle Rounds (30:43): That's great, Sally. What I want to ask you last is what do you hope the preacher, or just the person who picks up this book and reads it -- what do you hope they will receive by reading this and maybe have the courage to do? Sally Brown (30:59): I hope that preachers will have the courage to invite people into an imaginative engagement with stories in scripture, and also help people to reimagine their everyday world as the arena of God's constant transformative redemptive activity. And that preachers would help the people in the pews to see themselves as those potential agents of redemptive interruption in ordinary places. And it doesn't have to be as dramatic as being that the guy who stood in front of a tank in Tiananmen square. I think often it simply is looking for that opportunity in the ordinary situation to exercise mercy, inclusive love, and justice. To challenge the status quo in some way, with courage and with some imagination, and to be willing to get it wrong. I mean, improvisation is not an exact science. I guess if you ask any jazz player, for example, and I don't think improvisation is an exact science and some days it goes better than other days. But, I do think that we're called upon to be creative and inventive participants in what God is doing in the world. And I hope that preachers would be excited about that life-forming, vision-forming task and begin to use more imagination, more of the 'what if' and 'what might it look like here' kind of move. [percussive music in background] And that people in the pews would feel that transfer of energy that, you know, this sermon is finally handed to them, in the form of a new lens or a new metaphor or an animating story that helps them experience everyday life differently. So that would be my hope. I did teach out of the book this last semester, I heard some wonderful sermons from my students who really caught on to this idea of imaginative rehearsal and encouraging those in the pews to be agents of redemptive interruption in the world. Dayle Rounds (33:32): That's great. Thank you, Sally. Sally Brown (33:33): Thank you. I appreciated the conversation. Dayle Rounds (33:37): You've been listening to The Distillery. Interviews are conducted by me, Dayle Rounds. Sushama Austin-Conner (33:42): And me, Sushama Austin-Connor. Shari Oosting (33:44): And I'm Shari Oosting. Amar Peterman (33:45): I'm Amar Peterman, and I am in charge of production. Dayle Rounds (33:49): Like what you're hearing? Subscribe at Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or your preferred podcast app. The Distillery is a production of Princeton Theological Seminary's Office of Continuing Education. You can find out more at thedistillery.ptsem.edu. Thanks for listening.
54 minutes | May 28, 2021
Finding Joy in Sorrow
In this episode, Angela talks with Sushama Austin-Connor about her research on joy and her book The Gravity of Joy: A Story of Being Lost and Found. They consider how we can study joy with a theological lens, how our emotions are always teaching us something, and how joy is a realization of relatedness and connection. Dr. Angela Williams Gorrell is an ordained pastor and assistant professor of practical theology at Baylor’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary. Prior to joining the faculty at Baylor, she was an Associate Research Scholar at the Yale Center for Faith & Culture, working on the Theology of Joy and the Good Life Project, and a lecturer in Divinity and Humanities at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. She received both her Ph.D. in Practical Theology and MDiv at Fuller Theological Seminary, and her BA in Youth Ministry at Azusa Pacific University. She is the author of a new book, The Gravity of Joy: A Story of Being Lost and Found, which shares findings of the joy project while addressing America’s opioid and suicide crises. Intro (00:01): What is joy? What is the difference between joy and happiness? What's the relationship between despair and joy? Angela Williams Gorrell has been exploring these questions. Angela is Assistant Professor of Practical Theology at George W. Truett Theological Seminary and an ordained pastor in the Mennonite Church USA. In this episode. Sushama Austin-Connor talks with Angela about her work recently published in the book entitled, "The Gravity of Joy: The Story of Being Lost and Found". Together, they explore what it means to study joy with a theological lens and how joy can be sustained alongside sorrow. [light percussion music and the sound of a water droplet] You are listening to The Distillery at Princeton Theological Seminary. Sushama (00:50): I was very interested in learning more stories and illustrations from your childhood and your background. Can you give us even a more full idea of your background and your childhood in life leading up to your academic career? Angela (01:04): Yeah, sure. Thank you so much for having me today. It's great to be talking with you. I grew up in Eastern Kentucky in Appalachia, in a little town called Pikeville, and it might -- actually in Appalachia though, like, it could be called a big town. [laughter] But I grew up there, spent the first seven and a half years of my life there and really grew up in church, went to church the first Sunday after I was born, as my parents like to tell the story. They like literally, you know -- back then, babies, they just, they didn't worry about them, you know, catching anything. I don't think [laughter]. Sushama (01:39): That's right. [laughter] Angela (01:39): They're like, "Hey, you were born three days ago, we're taking you to church and passing it around to everybody." [laughter] So that's me, and I've been going to church my entire life. The church has really been a sanctuary to me, a safe haven, which I know it hasn't been that way... I mean, and not, and not in every respect. And certainly there's been a lot of hard moments, being a part of Christian communities, but in many respects, I'm very grateful to say, especially youth group, I think was a really powerful safe haven for me and my life. But, anyhow, my parents got divorced when I was seven and a half, and that meant that my mom decided to move us to Lexington, which is in central Kentucky. And I, you know, I'm really grateful that that happened because of some opportunities that I got in Lexington. Mostly two things that I think are important for people to know about me. One is that I've been writing since I was like -- could write. Like basically when I could write things, I began to tell stories and to write poetry. And so it's interesting to look back at like my second-grade self and the kinds of poems that I wrote. But I've always been an observer of life, like someone who deeply... Like my friends like to say "Angela lives in the deep end of life." [laughter] Angela (02:56): So, yeah! So I, when I got to Lexington, one thing that was really important was that I got to attend The School for the Creative and Performing Arts. So, from fourth to eighth grade, every single day for two hours a day, I wrote, which many children can not say that. But, we all have -- we had to all different majors at our school. So some people did arts -- like did art for a couple hours. Some people did dance, singing, you know, violin, piano, whatever. But for me, it was creative writing. And so that was very formative for me and important. And then the second thing that happened was that I got a special speech pathologist to help me because, as I described in The Gravity of Joy, that I was born deaf. And so for several years, basically until I was in sixth grade, I had a really hard time communicating with other people. Unless you knew me really well, it was difficult to understand me because I had a really significant speech impediment. And so it actually made it hard to make friends in elementary school and to be myself, 'cause I constantly was fighting for my words, which is interesting because... I say that to say -- today too, that the two things that I am most known for other than teaching are writing and speaking, and until I was in middle school, I couldn't be understood by people very well. So, but in Lexington, you know, I had this, like this special speech pathologist who really invested in my life -- for three years, every week -- and then went to the school that was very formative and important for me. After high school, I went to school to become a youth minister. So I, you know, I went to school, college, I got my bachelor of arts is in youth ministry from Azusa Pacific University in Los Angeles, lived in LA for 13 years. And the whole time I was living in Los Angeles, I kind of... I kept one foot in the church. I was always in ministry, mostly in youth ministry, but on a lot of preaching teams as well and doing family ministry of course, and then one foot in the academy. So I was kind of like always getting a degree, but also hanging out in the church. And for me as a practical theologian, that's super important because it was like, you know, I would be in the church. I would be among Christians in community. And I would be seeing the sorts of things that were keeping people awake at night. And then I'd be like, okay, as a researcher, as you know, I'm a Ph.D. student, for example, I want to think more about that in relationship to their faith. But then as I was, you know -- when you're in the academy, when you're getting degrees and you're reading books, like you're like, okay, but what's going on in people's real lives? Sushama (05:31): Right, right. Angela (05:32): Like, how did this relate to people's everyday experiences? And so, for me as a practical theologian, it was very important to kind of always be in ministry and -- while learning in the academy. And I still to this day try to be a very grounded theologian. So while I was finishing up my PhD in Los Angeles is when I got an email about a job at Yale University, working at the Yale Center for Faith and Culture. And I received that job in March of 20-- I accepted that job, excuse me, in March of 2016 and ended up moving to Connecticut. And that's how I'm... yeah. So I went from Kentucky to Los Angeles to Connecticut, and then I worked on the Theology of Joy and the Good Life Project. That's what I was recruited to Yale to be on that research team. And then, after the project ended, I applied for this job that I currently have at Baylor University. And so I moved to Waco, Texas in fall 2019 to become a professor of practical theology at Baylor University's Truett Seminary. Sushama (06:33): That's great. That's great. I wanted to jump right into the Life Worth Living course, but before I do that, I want to talk a little bit about what you mentioned about keeping one foot in the church and one foot in the academy. Because I know in our work in continuing education, where this podcast series is housed, that's kind of our work. That's what we hope we're doing well. So what do you feel that doing your work in both of those spheres, what does it offer to you when you're out and about talking to pastors and their congregations or to pastors and lay leadership? Angela (07:13): I think that, you know, for -- like, people ask me, you know, what are you an expert in, Angela? Like, what do you research? And, certainly I can say a few things that I think that over the years I've become more adept at talking about, like the ability to help people like make sense of like, like the meaning and purpose in their lives, joy, new media. Those are some of the things I've focused on a lot. But in general, I tell people that I feel called to research the things that matter to people and to shine the light of the gospel on them. And I think that as I hold both the experiences that I have in Christian communities and the research that I do together, like, the more that I hold those together, I think the more that pastors feel like, you know, "Yeah, Angela, the things that you're doing and talking about, they do relate to our congregants lives. They do relate to everyday Christians lives." And I think that there's something that feels to then pastors, like, very honest about it. Where they're like, "Okay, you're a theologian who does care about what's happening in people's lives every day. That's good." Sushama (08:22): Talk to me about the Life Worth Living course at Yale, because, in doing the research, I realized that it has a profound impact on people and is really well known. Yes. I would love to hear more about what that course is and what it entailed and how you got to be a part of that. Angela (08:39): Yeah. So, seven years ago, Miroslav Volf -- and that's whose research team that I was on and anybody who, you know, most people are familiar with -- if they know about Miroslav's work, they know about his very, very famous book *Exclusion and Embrace*, and he is just an extraordinary systematic theologian and person. And I'm very grateful that I had the privilege and the honor of being on his research team for the Theology of Joy the Good Life Project. Seven years ago, Miroslav and my colleague, our colleague, Ryan McAnnally-Linz, who still works at the Yale Center for Faith and Culture, they read two books that were really pivotal to them. For them. One was "Education's End" by Anthony Kronman and another book is called "College: What It Was, What It Is, and What It Should Be". And both of these books argue that the meaning of life used to be central to the college experience, that the search, the examination of, and the articulation of meaning and purpose used to be not just a part of the college experience, but actually like fundamental to it. Angela (09:52): And so they wondered what would it look like to bring the meaning of life back to the classroom. So they created a course called Life Worth Living, and they pitched it to the humanities department. I mean, they're housed at the divinity school and Miroslav is a professor at the divinity school, but they wanted to do it with Yale undergraduates. So they reached out to the humanities department there. They said, sure, you can have 14 students for a semester and do Life Worth Living. And that's what they wanted. And then 60 students signed up for the class, and then every semester, no matter how many times, no matter how many sections of the course that we offered -- because we always want to keep it small, like 14 to 17 students, because it's a conversation, it's a dialogue; it's about helping young people to grow inarticulacy about the good life, the flourishing life. So we can't help them develop articulacy if they're not actually talking. So we want it to keep it small, but no matter how many sections we offer at Yale, every spring, we have way more students than we can accept. So the last time I taught it was spring of 2019, and I think we had 75 spots and about 235 students apply and they all wrote essays to get into the class. Sushama (11:08): Incredible. Angela (11:08): Pretty extraordinary. Yeah. And so what, we've -- what we're finding... And then the more that we tell people about this program... I've taught it in a prison with my colleague, Matt Crossman, who's the Director of Life Worth Living at the Yale Center for Faith and Culture. We have taught, done weekend retreats with people who are on the brink of retirement, weekend retreats with people who are in business and, you know, corporate leaders who just want to have this conversation. There are people who are doing this in all different types of settings, in high school settings, you know, those sorts of things. And so we're actually trying to figure out more how we can spread, like, basically our methodology to more and more people. And right now I've actually been training chaplains in the US army at multiple bases, all over the country in how to help soldiers articulate meaning and purpose. And so it's been really exciting. And then at Baylor, I teach a class on Mondays at Baylor called Jesus and the Meaning of Life. And in this class we are -- so whereas Life Worth Living in... Like when I'm training chaplains or when we're doing it in a prison or at Yale, we do it in a pluralistic way. You know, it's very, we look at how different people... So Life Worth Living has these key questions. Sushama (12:20): Mm hmm. Angela (12:22): What does it mean for life to go well? What should we hope for? What does it mean for life to feel well or to feel right? What does it mean for life to be led well? How should we live? What is the role of suffering in a good life and how should we respond to suffering? And what happens when we fail to live the life that we have that we hope for? And so those are the key questions. And when we ask them in a pluralistic setting, we look at how different people have answered these questions from religious and philosophical traditions throughout history. When I do it at Baylor on Monday afternoons, right now, we are thinking about these key questions in light of the life and teachings of Jesus specifically, and really at Baylor, in this class, we are looking at contested Christian visions of flourishing life, which I feel like has been, I mean, I think if you look over the last few years in the United States, we have contending visions of what it means to follow Jesus. And so on Monday afternoons at Baylor University, we are debating those visions. Sushama (13:35): Yeah. I feel like it's just an amazing career when you can study joy. That even the ability to study joy feels like it would be inherently a part of a good life for a scholar. Like, how do you study joy? What, what is the process for studying joy? Why joy? Angela (13:54): Joy is actually one of the most under- -- or before the joy project -- it was one of the most under-explored, positive emotions across multiple disciplines, actually. And many people conflate joy and happiness. And we wanted to try to understand the difference between the two as well. From a theological perspective, people like, for example, Thomas Aquinas say that joy is the culmination of all positive emotions, like, that sort of every positive emotion culminates in joy, it's the ultimate positive feeling. And so we wanted to explore what is joy from a theological perspective? What does it take to cultivate joy? What is the difference between joy and happiness? Why is joy important in our lives? If so, why, what does it do for human beings? And so we actually brought together 239 scholars from over 140 institutions on, I think, four continents and multiple countries from all different kinds of disciplines. Angela (15:02): We had psychologists, philosophers, literature professors, historians, all different kinds of professors come together and researchers and... Every consultation had a theme related to, so, you know, maybe the theme was, like, joy versus fear. And then people would submit papers from their academic discipline, like their perspective. And we had emerging scholars and senior scholars and we would read papers and we would debate. And then we would distill big ideas into bite-size pieces. And a lot of things were written over the last few years about joy. Many books were written, a lot of articles were submitted to journals. A lot of popular articles were submitted by scholars. And so we're really grateful and excited that over the last few years, there's been a lot more written and thought about in relation to joy that I think is going to be really helpful to people. Sushama (16:03): Why is it understudied? Why do you think that was? Angela (16:08): I don't know. It's a great question. I... my hunch is that it was so associated with happiness because happiness is not an underexplored phenomenon. Sushama (16:19): No, it's not. Yeah. Angela (16:20): Positive psychologists have contributed, have dedicated a lot of time to happiness over the last probably 20 years or so. And so positive psychology is such an interesting movement because for many years, psychologists studied and focused on pathology and how do we, you know, reduce depression? How do we reduce mental distress of all sorts? Um, how do we treat mental illness? Whereas positive psychology came along and they said, instead of focusing on pathology, like what if we focused on how do we nurture positive emotions and virtues in people's lives? So what if we focused on how do we cultivate happiness, for example? And so I just wonder if maybe the study of happiness... Sort of, like, people just assumed when they were studying happiness, that they were studying joy. Sushama (17:11): I mean, this seems like a good place to maybe give your definitions and ideas about the difference. So like what, what is joy versus happiness and how do they relate? Angela (17:23): Yeah, I think for me personally, like from a theological perspective, when you look at happiness and I think that Adam Potkay's book, *The Story of Joy* is very helpful for understanding the etymology of joy. So how did it come to be -- and happiness -- and like, what did they mean when people began to use these words? Joy is actually a much older word than happiness... In like, so it was used much more. But it really, and it really is a biblical word. It's actually, like, throughout the Hebrew scriptures and in the New Testament, joy is used quite frequently. And so Potkay talks a lot about that, but basically happiness became very popular in the 1800s, I believe, is when he was talking about it, as a way, a calculus of material conditions. So, generally happiness from my perspective is associated with people's sense that their lives are going well. Angela (18:23): People assess the circumstances or the conditions of their lives and they sit back and they think, yeah, my life is going well, I'm happy. I'm happy in this moment with the circumstances that I'm in, and I'm content with how my life is going. Whereas joy is a much more profound emotion and it is... and it, and it actually occurs less frequently,I think. I think happiness is easier to access for people than joy. But joy is -- so one thing about joy is that it's very modifiable in a way that few positive emotions are, I think, which makes it a strange emotion in the sense that joy... There is, there can be exuberant joy. And I think when we think about joy, most people associate it with like exuberant joy, like, oh my goodness. Sushama (19:12): Sure, yeah. Angela (19:12): So like, this is amazing. This is so great. Right. But joy, there's also quiet joy, sobering joy, healing joy, restorative, redemptive, joy. And actually from a theological perspective, I think that theologians and also in the, in the scriptures, what we see is that joy tends to be more like... For me, Luke 15 is the biblical ode to joy where... In Luke 15, what we see is the parable of the lost sheep, the lost coin and the prodigal son. And so what's lost is found. And so there's the sense that joy is often the result, the feeling of, like, reunion, of restoration, of redemption, of what is lost being found. And so in order to feel joy sometimes, I mean that kind of joy, I mean, you have to have lost something. So there seems to be for me... And what I explore a lot in *The Gravity of Joy* is that joy has this mysterious capacity to be held alongside of sorrow. Joy can sustain us and can be sustained even in suffering... Which I think is very helpful to all of us. And like, sort of in the moment that we're finding ourselves in. Sushama (20:34): [inaudible]. Yeah, yeah. This moment. And then just, the moments that you described in your book, too. Reading, especially the depth of the chapter about your father's dying. I was... I have to say I was really affected. I actually re-read a little last night of that particular part. Because it's, it's so clear. You almost feel as a reader that you're there, too. I have to admit I was teary. And it occurred to me, I remembered about, maybe longer than a decade ago, a student at Harvard Divinity School telling me that she had just gone through, like, a season of death and grief. She called it a season of death and grief. And she did like a, almost like a mini sermon about it for an introduction to a forum we were doing. And I'll never forget how she described that. But when I read yours, I thought this is a season of death and grief. And the implications of that, that you found in your work in joy and how much it mattered in your work in joy. So I wonder if you would give us some sense of what was happening for you in holding all of these things and holding all of these moments in this season of death and in grief for you. Angela (21:49): Yeah. Thank you so much for what you said about the chapter, about my dad's death. Sushama (21:53): Yeah. Angela (21:53): I think for me, it was very important in this book to honor the journey of grief, and to speak about it, to write about it very honestly and openly. I... And because I think I wanted to really -- and I do spend a good deal of time in chapter four, talking about how grief not only produces tears, but anger and fear, and that those are stages of grief that are really important, I think, for people to talk about. I think a lot of times people experience profound grief and then find themselves really angry like I was. And they don't, they haven't been told that the two are associated. And so then they feel a little bit like, "What's happening to me?" Like, "Why am I so like... Why am I waking up so mad every day?" But when you've experienced significant loss, especially sudden loss, or, for me in the case of my dad, you know, losing him after nearly 12 years of opioid use, there was so much anger about not just his death, obviously, but all of the years that were lost before that, like the death of the guy that I knew long before he actually died. And so for me, I wanted to describe in this book, I mean, it's called "The Gravity of Joy" for a reason. Sushama (23:22): Yeah. Angela (23:22): Because it is about the weightiness of joy. It is about the kind of joy that I found in the midst of suffering was more of what Alexander Schmemann, the priest, calls 'a bright sorrow' in one of his journals. He describes joy as 'a bright sorrow' in the sense that to give ourselves over to joy is to always, in any moment that we do that to allow for just a few minutes, the brokenness, the loss, the sadness, the sin of the world, to hang in the background and instead to focus on what is good, what the relationship we have with other people, what is meaningful, you know, and to give ourselves over to just that goodness for a moment, and to allow that -- the darkness to hang in the background, the loss, you know? And so, yeah, that's what I'm doing in this book, as I think I'm trying to describe what it was to hold both sorrow and joy together in my own soul. Sushama (24:24): Yeah. And in doing that, the fact that these deaths came pretty much one after another, did you try to pivot to joy? Or do you feel like joy is inherent in the grieving -- so you like have ebbs and flows of joy -- or are you thinking to yourself, you know what, this person had a wonderful life. I remember these memories with them. That makes me joyful. Like, I'm going to concentrate on the joy in this moment of this person's life. Angela (24:51): Not during those four weeks, not a year and a half after. No. Joy did not -- no. I think that it was not for about a year and a half that I really could allow joy in. I think that joy is a gift. I don't think we can manufacture the feeling of joy. I think that it finds us and then we open ourselves up to it. Or, you know, I think we can be postured for joy. We can get ready for joy. And then when it makes its way to us, we can give ourselves over to it. But yeah, even for that year and a half, I wasn't, I wouldn't say that I was someone who was postured for joy. I wasn't looking for joy. I was able, after I got into writing the book, to look at the weeks that -- those four weeks when I lost three people back to back in very sudden and very tragic ways each in their own, you know, suicide, senseless death of a young person, and then opioid use, like I was able to look back and to see a moment in each, after each person's death, when I experienced a kind of sobering, quiet joy or a healing joy. You know, I experienced some joy in thinking about them and what they meant to me. Sushama (25:56): Sure. Angela (25:57): And like, in moments that, like, God met me and my family in the midst of what was happening, which is what brought joy. Because I say in the book too, that joy is the very being and presence of God, ministering to you. And so I was able in, very much in hindsight to see where God was and that brought me joy, but like, I would not describe those four weeks as joyful whatsoever. And I also would say that it took me a good year and a half to actually start to write about joy. Again, like I had written, I was writing about it a lot, reading everything I could get my hands on in the first eight months, even outside of the consultations we were doing. And then it was just hard to go to work. And I lived in the fog of grief and then I became this chaplain at a maximum-security prison for women on suicide watch. Angela (26:47): And that's when -- and then, so I become this chaplain. I decided to volunteer, which was such a strange thing to surrender to because I was at the end of myself, I did not think that I had anything to offer anyone. And yet I felt the tug of the Spirit in church one night when they were asking for more volunteers and I just decided to do it. And then a few weeks into it, I realized I'd been assigned the building, like, with women on suicide watch. I realized that the overwhelming majority of women in my Bible study were in prison for heroin or crack. And then I realized that... So basically my, like my study of joy, my family suffering, and the suffering of these incarcerated women collided in that prison. And I began to wonder, like, what could our research on joy and visions of the good life and contemporary culture, like what might it say to my family suffering, to these women's suffering, to America's crises of despair, both suicide and death by opioids have been called deaths of despair. So I began to wonder like, what's going on in the larger picture of what's happening in America today? You know what I mean? And then finally I'll say that my friend, Willie James Jennings, who was a colleague of mine at Yale Divinity School, he gave this lecture about a month and a half after I started being a chaplain at the prison on joy. And he said two things that absolutely changed my life in this lecture. One was that he said, we can make our pain productive without glorifying or justifying suffering. And that, because that was the last thing I wanted to do. I did not want to write about my family suffering as some sort of like way of saying that like, God had this happened, that I could write a book about joy amid suffering. Angela (28:38): You know, I don't, I don't claim that to this day. I don't think that God does stuff like that in our lives. I don't make sense of my family suffering in that way. And so this book is not an attempt to justify or to glorify what happened to my family or to the women that I met in prison. It is an attempt simply to make pain productive, to say that, you know, I can take what I went through, what these women have gone through are still going through. And I can try to be a part of the groundswell of people who are addressing America's crisis of despair. Like, you know, and then the second thing he said was joy is a work of resistance against despair. Like, he channeled Habakkuk 3 and he was just like, you know, this is, this joy is a work of resistance against despair. And so as I, you know, it like all came together in this moment, in this lecture where I was like, oh wow, we have a crisis of despair in American culture. My family has experienced it. I'm meeting with women every Wednesday who experienced this. And then joy is a work of resistance against despair. I'm writing about that. And that is what *The Gravity of Joy* is, that is the thesis of this book. That joy is a counter agent to despair. Interlude (29:56): [sound of water droplet] Sushama (29:58): You talk about this counter agency of despair. Give more illustrations of how that joy, like if it's from the women's prison or in your own life, but how is it that joy might serve as this great counter agent to despair? Angela (30:12): Well, if despair is the feeling that many people I think have... When I think about despair, I describe it as a theologian. So that's important. I'm not a psychologist. You know, I keep saying that throughout the thing, but I just want to [laughter] -- like, I'm thinking about despair and joy and suicide and the opioid crisis from a theological perspective. And when I think about despair from a theological perspective, what I see is that people begin to feel that even though they can see others, that people cannot reach them. People cannot connect with them. People don't see them, understand them, truly hear them. Also despair tends to give us the feeling that... Nothing will heal or bring us relief from our pain. And so we've become hopeless about the idea that, like, healing is possible for us. Despair also tends to come from the sense that our life has become ineffective, that we've failed massively, and we can't recover from it. That we've lost our sense of self, that we don't know who we are or where we're going or where we've been. That we're not a part of some sort of larger story that's being told, you know? And so joy is the opposite of all of that. Joy is the feeling that we get when we recognize and feel connected to meaning, to truth, to beauty, to goodness, and to other people. Joy is a realization of relatedness, to these sorts of things, right? And so the more that we can help people to have realizations of connection, to meaning truth, beauty, goodness, to one another, the more we help people to resist despair in their lives. Sushama (32:01): Yeah. You're making me think about kind of the moment that we're in also as a country, I feel in some way, we're in a -- it feels like collective grief, collective despair on all fronts, in every way that you can think about it. And it could be anything from racial injustice to, you know, like the reshaping and kind of like, degradation of like our democratic ideals, like, and anywhere in between all, all these ideas in between. But there's kind of a collective grief happening, a collective despair. But I don't, I'm not finding there's room for much collective joy right now and how we, we get people to some joy or to some joyfulness or to looking at some of our, of these issues in a more hopeful way. What are you, what are you thinking about like collective joy? Angela (33:03): No, it is a thing. I think the best example, and Brene Brown has pointed this out in her work, is in sports. Sports really demonstrate collective sorrow and collective joy in a very powerful way. I mean, we saw it at the national championship game two Monday nights ago. And you know, I gotta give a shout out to the Baylor men's basketball team. You know, but it's so interesting. I actually preached about this last Sunday that, you know, at the national championship game, it's just, you see right at the end of that game, this collective sorrow and collective joy just collide. And it's, you know, because Jalen Suggs is crying and Mark Vital is crying. They're both crying for very different reasons. One is weeping. One is rejoicing. You know, and so we see collective joy and sorrow in sports. And I think that's why sports are so powerful in people's lives, because it's this space that we have to feel like I'm with these other people in what I'm feeling. Angela (34:04): So we feel very, very connected to other people, and we feel permission to feel deeply in sports. I don't know that there's any place that people feel such exuberant joy or such profound sadness, so publicly, right? Sushama (34:20): Yes! Angela (34:20): And so sports are interesting. And the Sports Institute at Baylor, they're doing some really interesting work in thinking theologically about sports, so I just want to give a shout out to them as well. But basically what you're saying about collective despair, collective sorrow. I absolutely feel it too. I literally, I woke up to the news headlines this morning of this young, 13-year-old boy being shot in Chicago by police. And I literally, I just, and I'm looking -- I follow black liturgies on Instagram. I commend them to everyone. And it's just literally all they can like post this morning is like -- inhale. Like, we are sad, you know, something to the effect of like, we're sad -- exhale, please, like, help us not to give over to despair. Angela (35:05): I, you know, it's like when George Floyd's trial is going on, and then we hear about Dante Wright. And now we hear about this young 13 year old. It's like, I don't -- it's so hard for me to have any hope going forward for policing in the United States. It is. It's like, and I want to believe that there's hope, but I can understand why so many people would say like, there is no hope for redeeming this, you know? There is no hope for, like... All we can imagine is that we have to rethink the whole thing because like, how can this be redeemed? You know? And so, yeah, it's very -- there are certain aspects of American life right now that it's very hard to not just say like, this is irredeemable. Like this is lost, and nothing can be found. Right. You know what I mean? Sushama (35:57): Nothing. And when you think about, you know, a 13-year-old boy, and I have a 13-year-old and an 11-year-old, and it's like, now I won't go, I won't be too dramatic. It's not all joy, but most of it, of their childhood is joy. It is pure joy. That's what we're aiming for. That's what they're aiming for. That mostly, it's a lot of joy. So for a 13-year-old to be gone out of our lives, because of a collective crisis is really, really painful. And I appreciate you naming that. It's really painful. Angela (36:32): Yeah. Well, and what I was going to say about it too, is like, when it comes to joy, it's like, we can't rush joy. And I do, I do think that in the case of the kind of week that we're having with [inaudible], you know, with this trial going on, and I mean, I think for me, George Floyd's trial is just so representative of the fact that, like the fact that we have to have this, like, very long trial, about a murder that everyone saw is so, so painful and disorienting. Sushama (37:06): I'm with you. Yes. Angela (37:06): It's like, we all watched it. Everyone watched it. Sushama (37:12): We saw it! [crosstalk] Angela (37:12): Everyone saw it! Like, everyone saw it. And so I think it's very important for me to say today that there are obstacles to joy, but not that -- in that they're bad, but like one is anger, especially righteous anger, and fear. Where fear resides, it's difficult for joy to make its way to us. When anger resides, like where anger resides, it's difficult for joy to make its way to us. And that's not a bad thing. Anger and fear are emotions that teach us. That -- if there's anything I've learned over the last four and a half years, it's that emotions are not -- I don't really like using the words 'negative emotions and positive emotions' actually. I mean, I have been saying positive, like, about joy, but I don't really think that there are bad emotions. I think every emotion is a teacher, if we let it, right? That there's wisdom there. Anger, especially righteous anger says there's something wrong. There's something broken that needs to be fixed. And so there, like, we have to work through anger and fear in constructive ways and saying, what are you teaching me? What do I need to do in response to this emotion? You know, we have to listen to them, you know? And so I don't, and I think that's for us to get to collective joy. We have to first, like, constructively work through our anger, our lament, our fear. Sushama (38:35): Yeah, yeah, yes. To all of that. I want to talk about the women's prison for a little bit too, because I wanted to hear some of your stories. That feels like that was a place of some healing, working with these women, that it was a place of some healing for you. And I want to know who (again without naming names, but just illustrations), who were some of the women? What did they offer you during that time that felt therapeutic or felt like it helps you along in your own healing coming off of this season? Angela (39:07): Yes, absolutely. These women got me on the road to healing. No doubt about it. There is... the second part of the title of the book, the subtitle is 'a story of being lost and found,' I'm the person who was lost, who was found. And I was found in this, strangely enough... I found myself and my sense of faith. And I found that I could hold my faith and doubt together with these women in this Bible study. I came alive for the first time after -- I felt, I think I felt numb. And I felt like I was dead for like a year and a half. And then they like, awoke -- and they awakened something in me. And I say very clearly in both the dedication of the book, and then in the last chapter, that I don't claim that the joy that they brought me was also present in them. But it's important for me, like, to say, you know, I hope that the joy that they brought me at some point is theirs, too. But these women were so critical in my own healing journey. One, because they had been through so much. These women had been, almost all of them, sexually abused. Almost all of them had grown up in foster care at some point in their life. They had spent time in foster care in a group home. Almost all of them were caught up in cycles of poverty. Almost all of them had parents who were caught up in cycles of substance use. And yet these women would cling to God. They prayed the most honest prayers that I've ever heard. And in that room, there was, like, such respect for one another. If you were over 45 or 50, they called you Miss, like Miss Aliyah, for example, as a sign of respect among each other. Angela (41:12): And so all of us, the Bible study co-leaders, we followed them. We called particular women Miss, like Miss Aliyah, just following their lead, but this was not something we did. It was something that they did. Their ability to humanize one another in such a dehumanizing situation, after all that they had been through, was remarkable to me. And specifically like, when I think about Miss Aliyah and one of those, like, you know, on the last day that I was in the prison, I said that she was like, "Angela, I want to sing a song for you." And, you know, and so then she just like stands up in the room, and she starts singing Amazing Grace, off-pitch, and then a few sentences in, she forgets what she's saying, and she sits down and it's like, "I'm so sorry. I forgot the words." And yet, after spending a year in that prison, it was so perfect because I had realized that to live... To live exposed, vulnerable, honest, without shame, is to be truly human. And that's the only way to actually live well. In this room, there was no shame, which is why we sang so loudly and we danced and we told bold stories. Angela (42:39): You know, I tell another story in the book. I mean, there was a moment when Vanessa was trying to help a young woman who was being bullied on her tier, get off a different, her tier and get into another part of the prison. And so Vanessa like, "Hey, grab -- like, we need a piece of paper. And so she rips out a piece of paper of her notebook, and she gives it to her and she's like, "Millie, like here, just start writing a letter to this person." Because Vanessa had been in prison for about nine years. And so she knew what was going on and she knew the places of power in the prison. Angela (43:10): And so she's like "Here, like, write down, you're going to write to this person." And Millie's like, "I can't write." You know, and she's like 22 years old, but the education system has failed her. Right. And so she cannot write, and Vanessa then says, "Oh, it's okay, I'll write it. And then you just sign it, and give it to this person." And it was like, you know, there's so many moments, I feel like, outside of that room where somebody realizes somebody else can't write, or they sing off-pitch, or they forget something. And there's like this moment of like, ugh -- like, where you kind of look at someone, and you're like, what? Like you can't -- what? You know, and you have this reaction to each other that then induces immediately, like, shame and a sense of like, "Oh, wow. I just told you something. I shared something. I made a mistake in front of you. Like, and now I feel vulnerable and exposed and it's not good." No, in this room when you were vulnerable and exposed and real, it was welcomed and accepted. And it was like, you're deeply human. Welcome. [laughs] Oh my God, it's the most refreshing thing in the world. Sushama (44:17): I was just thinking, where does that happen? That's so refreshing! Angela (44:21): I mean, I say in *The Gravity of Joy* in chapter five, that nothing is half-baked in prison. That's why I felt so alive there. And that's my great hope and prayer that these women leave prison and then are able to cultivate these kinds of spaces in their own lives. You know, because I just, I don't, like, I don't want it to have to be prison that gets people, people to that place. You know? Interlude (44:45): [sound of water droplet] Sushama (44:45): That's beautiful. I mean, so authentic and I don't know -- you're right, where... What other spaces that that would happen. There's so much, and I'm looking at our time. I want to get maybe two quick, two last quick questions. And if you're willing, one is to ask you about, as people read this, as they look at your interviews, as they're kind of Googling around who you are and what your work is. What do you want people to get from this book, of course, but also from your research and your life's journey of talking and thinking about joy? Angela (45:21): So there are several things that I want people to get. And one thing I want to mention is that my website www.angelagorrell.com (and Gorell is G-O-R-R-E-L-L) -- so angelagorrell.com -- you can have, there's a free discussion, story prompt, and activity guide that goes with *The Gravity of Joy*. And the whole point of creating that guide is that I want this, this book to cultivate conversation about every emotion that people experience in their lives. So, this guide is a guide to talking about the grief of your own life, the losses you've experienced, it's a guide to sharing stories about your own righteous anger and fear, but also of course, your own experiences of joy. It's a guide that all the activities are what I call 'gateways to joy.' And so we can't make it, but we can posture ourselves for it, and we can be open to it. And so, these are all ways to become more open to joy in your life. And so the whole idea of my book is, number one -- I want people to understand joy more and to become more open to it in their lives. And two -- I would love for people to feel like that in telling my story that they have permission to tell theirs. And third, I would love for more people to become part of the groundswell of people who are working to address suicide rates, the opioid crisis, or mass incarceration in the United States, and the epilogue describes each of these three things that are going on and resources for learning more about how to join the groundswell of people working so hard to address these very critical issues. Sushama (47:05): I downloaded the discussion guide. So, it's really great. So thanks for that. Last question for you. And it's... I think it's personal, but it doesn't have to be, I want to know how you're doing, how your life is, how you have grieved and come to some redemptive joy. How's your sister and your family, and where are people in their lives? They really live as characters and real people for me. And I'm sure for many, many, many people who have read the powerful book. So how's everybody doing? How are you doing? Angela (47:38): You know, what's so fascinating about this question is that I think I've done upwards of 25-plus interviews in the last month about this book. I mean, maybe, maybe more. You're the first person to ask that question. So thank you for asking it. Wow. I, you know, I definitely am someone who continues to hold together joy and sorrow. I described in chapter 8 Ezra being at the temple. And like, there are all these people watching the temple be rebuilt, and there's a lot of people weeping because they remember the old house and the way that things used to be. And then there's a lot of people rejoicing because they're seeing the temple be rebuilt and they're excited about it. And I feel so, like the -- I feel like both people that are watching the temple. I am incredibly grateful; this book is being received in the way that it is. The emails, the DMs that I'm getting on Instagram, on Facebook, the texts, it has been so beautiful to see people receive this book. And many people just say to me, you know, Angela, I feel so resonated with like, "I lost a parent a few years ago and I just feel like, wow, you described it in a way that was so, like, 'Yes, you get it.'" You know what I mean? Or "I have felt powerless to help someone that I love, and that I really get it. I have lost someone I love to suicide, and I feel like you honored the experience," you know? And so, that's been so beautiful, but then, you know, it's sobering that, you know, my book was, for example, like in, for the first week, it was the number one new release in Christian death and grief. Angela (49:14): And it was like, wow. I'm so grateful that, wow... This book cost my family so much to write. This book, you know, and then I'm thinking constantly about these women in prison. I prayed for them every Monday through Friday morning. And I'm constantly thinking, I wish I could tell you because now I'm in Texas, so I don't get to see them anymore. I'm going to be, I'm going to actually be a volunteer at a new prison. I'm so looking forward to it, and be investing in, investing in the lives of women who are going to be eight months out from reintegration in the next couple of years, I'm so excited about this work. But I... Even as someone who really is about prison abolition, but so I'll -- I just want to say that. I'm really not, I'm not really about prison reform. I'm more about prison abolition. And yet it's very important to me that as we're on the way to that, that I am with women who are in prison and continue to do this work anyways, I wish that I could tell these women what was happening, that their stories are being told, and that they were not for nothing. [emotional] You know, and that their pain is being made productive. And that, I'm just so grateful to them. You know, it's so funny though, because I say in the book and it's true to this day, to this day, they don't know who I am. They don't know that I have a Ph.D. or that I'm a professor or that I'm an author or anything like that. And it was important because it helped, like, I think our relationship would have been so different if they knew those things. But, so we were just human beings in a room together. Angela (50:54): But my family, you know, my sister Steph, who lost her son, to this day is having a very hard time. She misses him every single day. She doesn't wake up one day without having it, like, at the forefront of her mind. And it's hard. It's hard for her. She's like, you know, I don't know, like, like she -- she knows she'll never entirely like heal from it. And she's like, so she just tries to do her life realizing that, you know, that she just, she has this backpack. That's what she describes it as. Like, every day I put on my backpack of, like, grief and I just carry it with me everywhere I go. And she's like, you know, that's just her reality now. My little sister and my older sister, Alison, I mean, all of us, you know, we just... [sigh] we have ups. It's just like, there are days when we really think, you know, we're going to be okay and everything, you know, and we're making the best of this. And, you know, we're -- I don't know, we lean on each other. And then days when we just all kind of, like, text about it or call each other, we like Zoom or FaceTime about it. And we're just like, damn, like, it's still so hard. You know? So that's the honest, raw answer, is like, on many days, especially particular holidays and birthdays. And, you know, it's very hard for us still. Sushama (52:19): Yeah. Angela (52:19): And obviously like my book brought all of that back for everybody, right? And so I have to also, I guess, close this by just saying I am indebted to the women who I met in prison. I am indebted to all of my sisters, to my family, my extended family, for their willingness to allow their stories, to be implicated in the telling of mine. I'm grateful to them for giving me the consent to use their names, to tell their story as well. Interlude (52:54): [background percussion music] Angela (52:54): And just, yeah, it's -- so, and they're all -- a lot of them, they're leading their own groups about this book. They're doing a book club on the book, [crosstalk] and I think that's really good for them. Sushama (53:07): That's wonderful. Well, we're grateful for your story and for your work, your gift to the church, your gifts. This book is a gift. I really appreciate your honesty and just all that you have offered today and all that you offered in the book. So thank you so, so very much, Angela. Dayle (53:26): [background percussion music] You've been listening to The Distillery. Interviews are conducted by me, Dayle Rounds, and me, Sushama Austin-Connor, and I'm Shari Oosting. I'm Amar Peterman and I am in charge of production. Like what you're hearing? Subscribe at Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or your preferred podcast app. The Distillery is a production of PrincetonTheological Seminary's Office of Continuing Education. You can find out more at thedistillery.ptsem.edu. Thanks for listening. [sound of water droplet]
52 minutes | May 21, 2021
Wounds of the Soul
Joni Sancken is an assistant professor of homiletics at United Theological Seminary, and author of Words That Heal: Preaching Hope to Wounded Souls. In this episode, Sushama Austin-Connor talks with Joni about her expertise in preaching and her personal experience of trauma, sharing ways for the Church to become a place that welcomes expressions of trauma and offers love, care, and healing to survivors. Joni Sancken is an ordained pastor with Mennonite Church USA and has served as a pastor in Mennonite congregations in Indiana and Pennsylvania. Her credentials are currently held by Virginia Conference. She received her PhD from Toronto School of Theology (2009), MDiv from Princeton Theological Seminary (2004), and BA from Goshen College (1998). Prior to joining the faculty at United, she served as Assistant Professor of Preaching and Practical Theology at Eastern Mennonite Seminary in Harrisonburg, VA, where she also served as the director of their Preaching Institute. Joni also served as a sessional faculty member at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary and Candler School of Theology as a postdoctoral fellow at Emory University.
39 minutes | May 14, 2021
On the Move with God
Tim Soerens is a pastor and author of the new book Everywhere You Look: Discovering the Church Right Where You Are. In this episode, hear Tim talk with Dayle Rounds about why he feels hopeful about the American church and what he thinks the church might be called to do in this particular season of the pandemic. They discuss how the church might come to see its purpose not as creating God’s mission but joining it. Tim Soerens is the co-founding director of the Parish Collective, a growing network and global movement of Christians reimagining what it means to be the Church in, with, and for the neighborhood. His latest book is called “Everywhere You Look: Discovering the Church, Right Where You Are”. His co-authored first book “The New Parish: How Neighborhood Churches Transform Mission, Discipleship, and Community (Intervarsity Press, 2014) won multiple awards, including Christianity Today’s award of merit. Tim has launched multiple sold-out conferences including the Inhabit Conference, New Parish Conference UK, Conspire Gathering, and Neighborhood Economics Conference. He also co-founded Neighborhood Economics to catalyze entrepreneurship as a path to wealth for marginalized communities which has helped to raise over 3 million dollars. A popular speaker, Tim has spoken to a broad cross-section of organizations and denominations in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand. Closer to home, he and his wife are helping to start South Park Neighborhood Church and are co-founding owners of Resistencia Coffee, a neighborhood coffee shop, as well as the South Park Idea Lab. He lives in Seattle, WA with his wife Coté and their sons Lukas and Joaquín.
50 minutes | May 7, 2021
Annie Lockhart-Gilroy speaks on how we can nurture a “sanctified imagination.” In this episode, you will hear Shari Oosting talk with Annie about her book, Nurturing the Sanctified Imagination of Urban Youth. They discuss what it looks like to do ministry in an urban setting and how we might prepare urban youth for a future that is designed in partnership with God.Rev. Annie A. Lockhart-Gilroy, Ph.D. is a scholar in Christian education and practical theology with a focus on youth ministry and emancipatory pedagogy. She has taught students on many levels from middle school to doctoral students. She has worked with youth as a teacher, coach, youth minister, and Christian educator for almost two decades. She earned her PhD. in Christian Education and Congregational Studies from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary and her M.Div. (’05) from Princeton Theological Seminary. Her teaching and research interests include: womanist approaches to working with Black girls, emancipatory pedagogy, faith and developmental theories, and ministry to, with, and for, youth and young adults. She is currently assistant professor of Christian education and practical theology at Phillips Theological Seminary, and author of Nurturing the Sanctified Imagination in Urban Youth (Urban Loft Publishing).Intro (00:01): How can we nurture the imagination of urban youth and prepare them for a future that is designed in partnership with God? In this episode, you'll hear from Dr. Annie Lockhart Gilroy, an assistant professor of Christian Education and Practical Theology at Phillips Theological Seminary. Shari Oosting talks with her about how we can spark hope and possibility in the future of urban youth and their communities by creating space for sanctified imagination. You're listening to The Distillery at Princeton Theological Seminary. Shari (00:39): Annie, thank you so much for talking with me today. Annie (00:42): It is my pleasure. Thank you for inviting me. Shari (00:45): Today, we are talking about your book, Nurturing the Sanctified Imagination of Urban Youth. And I would love if you would walk us into what sparked your interest in studying this. Annie (00:58): I did ministry for about a decade in a small city. So that was my context for a long period of time. I will say though, that although each chapter in this text starts with a story and although most of the stories start within a small city context, I also taught at an independent high school, which there is a story there that starts a chapter and my own childhood starts a chapter. And I am not from an urban upbringing at all. As I like to say, I am pretty country, as in, "I got a cow for my eighth birthday" kind of country. Shari (01:43): You did? Well, don't tell my children that because they will want a cow for their eighth birthday. Annie (01:48): I wanted one because one of my friends in my neighborhood had one and I wanted one, too. New Speaker (01:54): That's amazing. Annie (01:56): So, entering into this environment, there was a lot that I had to learn. It was not, it was not clear for me. It was like I said, it did not, for me as a child was not part of my upbringing. So it was a lot of information that I had to gather and to learn. So I had the opportunity of looking in my, looking at my ministry with a different set of eyes. Of course being an insider because I was a part of the congregation, but being an outsider because... understandings, language, all of those things were different from my own upbringing. Not only not being in necessarily an urban setting, but I was also raised on an island. I'm from St. Croix, US Virgin Islands. So the culture is different. So you're also looking at West Indian culture versus US American continental culture. So, so going into those experiences always tends to open one's eyes in a particular way, and they tend to see things that others who have been swimming in the culture their entire life don't necessarily see. Shari (03:09): Yeah. So you entered into urban ministry in a small city, so can you describe what you started observing as kind of this outsider coming in, so to speak. Annie (03:24): Yeah. So it was interesting the conversation about what I would describe as how great this city used to be. And again, this conversation does not only apply to cities, but it takes on a different feel. So there are a lot of empty factories in the city, right? So it used to be a great factory city that would produce a lot of things. And we hear this story from, right, across the country of these empty factories, empty spaces that used to employ a lot of people. One could work at these factories and achieve a middle-class lifestyle, not necessarily with a college education, right? But that was no longer the case. And one of the things that was the most striking to me is that there were a lot of "revitalize" conversations. And those conversations tended to be about going back to the way the city used to be. There was some conversation about how to move forward and what are some new things that are happening, what are new things other cities were doing, how could we imagine some changes, and those conversations will go forth a little bit and then it would get knocked back to, "We need to bring factories back, we need to bring this back. Remember when this particular space was booming. We need to do that again." Shari (05:01): Yeah. So it was kind of like this, this longing to bring back the economy, which was manufacturing. And then the [inaudible] came along with that. Annie (05:10): Yeah. And I call that in the text a crippling nostalgia. It's the idea that you are looking back so much, that you are unable to move forward. What you want to do is go backwards, and that is the actual desire to go back. Right? And like I said before, this is not unique, right. Even on the island that I grew up in, there is one major employer, an oil refinery, that closed for a couple of years and sent the island into economic chaos. Right? And employed a majority of people. And we see this in small towns, when factories go out of business, we have the conversations about coal mines, right? And I think what makes the small city a little different is that it doesn't have the same cultural myth as the small towns. Right. And it doesn't have the great, the cultural myth of the small towns being quaint, right? Salt of the earth people, hardworking folk, right? Folks who are worthy of help because they will help themselves. Shari (06:30): This bootstrap mentality. Annie (06:33): Yeah, that they don't need a hand out, but they, but, you know, but -- stop discrediting them in some ways, by taking away these jobs, right. What they need is just jobs, and all of these factories leaving -- they'll take away these jobs. And then there's the myth of the big cities where it's bright eyed, bushy tail. Right. I keep imagining that movie scene of someone from Kansas getting off the bus in New York City. Shari (07:00): The clouds part, and they're on a musical or something. Annie (07:03): Right. You know, it's beautiful. It's fabulous. You know, they're going to Broadway, they may get robbed on the way, but you know, they're dealing with it. Shari (07:12): Yeah. Hardship, but it's worth it for the glamour. Annie (07:17): Right. So we have our myths for Middle America, and we have the myth of the big city -- the New York, the Chicago, the LA, right. It's beautiful and glamorous. And we don't have those equal myths about small cities. Right. There's no... There's no great, like, "I just can't wait until I can move to a Baltimore or a Newark, Camden, Trenton, Tulsa." Right? And so those, so then what you have is this ongoing story of even though it's the same underlying problem as small towns, they're crime infested -- that's what you focus on -- they're drug infested. And it's not that they need jobs as a mythical, beautiful small town does. It's -- there's something wrong with the people. And what I had to walk very carefully on is: I don't think it's about the people, right? So I think even though "urban" is very clearly in the title, I think there's a lot to be gleaned from those don't do urban ministry. Because I don't think it's in the people. Like, I don't think that's where all the problem lies. There's lots of systemic racism and classism and all of these different issues that people have to deal with. And at the same time, as we push for government and many other things to do their jobs and help these people, we do that realizing that that's what they should do, but I'm not holding my breath that help is coming because I see enough of the coded language that is used, that when help goes to these small city areas, it's automatically a handout. It won't help them. When help goes to farmers or, you know, former coal miners, then it's aid. Shari (09:18): Or an investment. Annie (09:20): Right. So I'm not blaming them for their own oppression, but I don't... I'm not going to hold my breath that help is on the way. Shari (09:30): Can you talk a bit about your decision to use the word "urban"? You point out in the book that there's some tension in even making that choice, because the word "urban" can be coded. Can you talk about your decision about whether or not to use the word "urban"? Annie (09:45): Yeah. I mean, I went back and forth. You know, titling is not my strong suit and, as many of your readers should know, titling is also not always the decision of the author. But, so it's published through Urban Loft Ministries, and that is their focus. And this is part of the Urban Youth Series. And a lot of their titles have either "urban" or "in the city." And I chose "urban" specifically because "in the city" also gives a different connotation. Most of the people that I'm speaking about are Black and Brown people. So that is often what we think of when we think of the term "urban." And my goal in using that term is to say, you know, here are the various ways that these people are just like other folks and other types of folks that we mythically think wonderfully of. But this word is seen as synonymous often with "Black." Because even if we... I'm sorry, I think the first time I saw the term urban music and how confused I was, because the person, I can't really remember who the artist was, but I knew that the artist was not born or raised in a city. Shari (11:18): So you're like, how is this an urban artist? Annie (11:22): Right. And then I learned that I was synonymous with Black. And while I don't necessarily think the term should be synonymous with Black, right, the city is complex and diverse and has a variety of race ethnicities, you know, socioeconomic classes. And I do recognize a need for speaking about this term in a positive light -- look at the power that urban youth can have. Shari (11:51): So talk to me a little bit about what you... You were working in two really different contexts, this private school and a congregational ministry context, and you observed some pretty sharp differences in what you call the imagination of young people or the way that they envision their future. Can you break that down? Annie (12:15): Yeah. What they saw their future to be. The youth in the independent school where I taught is a college prep school. It is expected that everyone go to college, not even just to college, but to a *good* college that, you know, that adjective is often thrown in there. You know, every student has a college counselor that walks with them, that, you know, gets to know them talks about the types of college that works. There's a, you know, a growing list of colleges these days that are seen as the *right* college. And then college is meant to provide, you know, give them, provide them for their future wonderful, successful life. And the *right* college, the *good* college is important because it's not just about an education that ones gets, but it's about the connections that one makes. Annie (13:19): So when speaking about, one's future in that context, it is this like bright rosy (in some senses) future of -- I'm going to do, I'm going to go to college, I'm gonna have this career, I'm going to do this. I'm going to do that. In the urban ministry setting that I was in, and this particular program, which, was designed for "at-risk" youth, which I put in quotation marks -- let's define what "at-risk" means -- that they were taught to be more realistic, so to speak. So I talk about different language jargon. Shari (14:10): What does it mean to be "realistic" about your future? Annie (14:13): Right. Well, there's a particular rung that one should reach for. So the difference in language jargon for example, is, you know, the independent school kids talked about careers, urban kids talked about jobs. Right? In the summer the independent school kids talked about experiences that they would have and the camps that they go to, and the conversation for urban kids is about like, what, what do they do to spend their time and get out of trouble, stay out of trouble. Right? It could be doing very similar things, but what related to what you were doing, was seen as different, right? On one hand, you're either -- Shari (14:52): You're building a résumé or you're avoiding trouble. That's a very different framework. Annie (14:57): Right. And you could be at the same camp. Right? And also I talk about, you know, like, what were some of the -- what was the difference here? And the easy answer is socioeconomic class and how my independent school kids talked about these bright futures almost as a birthright. And if that is the case within was the birthright for the kids I was working with in the urban context. And what I saw was simply a perpetuation of the current class structure. Shari (15:38): Can you tell the story you wrote about Maya Angelou's experience at graduation? And I thought it was a really concrete example of this. Can you tell that story? Annie (15:49): Yeah. So in her autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, she writes about her eighth grade graduation, and she talks about how her town was all abuzz. And she lived with her grandmother and her grandmother sewed the dress, and the dress was gorgeous, and everyone was excited, and she was top of her class, and I think she was sitting up front or on the stage or something. And people were just fabulous. This wonderful thing was happening, right -- graduation of their students. And there was a speaker that came, I think he was an elected government official, and Maya Angelou, growing up in the forties, right? So this is segregated schooling. And this elected official comes to talk about, you know, the great changes they are making in the education systems, in this particular place. And he talks about how the school, the Black school, had just paved over their playing areas. And they had a new gym and, you know, and he talks about their heroes, like, Joe Lewis and such. And when he talked about the white school, he talked about their new labs, their new learning facilities. Right? And when Maya Angelou describes that, she talks about how the joy was just taken away from that space... that this is a group of people that when people talk, there are "amens" and "yes," and "lovely" -- responses. And when the elected official starts to speak, there's some of that, but then that quiets down. And as Angelou reflects, she talks about how that official had just placed a bar on them, right? That he made it very clear that the white students got to be scientists and doctors and all these other things. And the black students got to be athletes. You know... as she states, you know, there are certainly athletes in our community that are heroes, but we should get to decide that. He shouldn't get to decide that's all we can be. So she talks about how low, how just dull this place felt and how they felt so depleted. And then the valedictorian gets up to give his speech and he starts quoting Hamlet to be, or not to be, and she's sitting there going, why is he doing this? You know, it has just been made very clear to us that we are not to be. And he talks about, she talks about how the valedictorian -- I don't know if it's, I don't remember if it's in the middle of the speech or towards the end that he starts to quietly sing the song "Lift Every Voice and Sing, also known as the Black National Anthem, which would have been known then as the Negro National Anthem. And he starts to quietly sing. And, you know, this is a song that they all know. And the, one of the teachers who was overseeing music gets her group to sing along. And by the end of the song, everybody is singing. Their joy is back. Their feeling that they can indeed overcome is back. And I talk about that as an example of [indecipherable] education that does look back, not in a crippling nostalgic kind of way. I talk about the idea of Sankofa, which is a Western African idea of looking back, but moving forward... That you have this historical imagination as [indecipherable] would call it, that you remember that people have been here before and have overcome these obstacles that's been placed in their way. And yes, there are people, stories, myths, coded language, all sorts of things that are meant to put you in your place or keep you in a particular place or lane. And there are also resources, strength, right? Spirituals, ancestors, great power from one's own history and history of their people that reminds them that they don't have to listen to those people putting limitations on them. And in fact, what they are saying is a lie, right? Because you have no God-given limitations on you in that way. We have limitations, of course, right? Like we can't fly and things like that, but we can achieve things that other humans can achieve. So we know that one's zip code can often tell us a variety of things of where they will end up 20, 30 years from now. We also know that it does not have to be that way. Shari (21:07): Yeah. The Sankofa is helpful, right. It's our relationship with the past, but not one that's defined by nostalgia as you put it. The one that is future oriented. Annie (21:21): Right. And it's a critical look at history and using different thoughts and processes that were used and not simply looking at products. Right. So I think that a crippling nostalgia looked at products. This is what we had, but it doesn't necessarily look at the process of how you got there. I mean, factories were new at one point, right. So it was imagination that got us there. But Sankofa asks us to say, okay, so what exactly are we trying to bring forward? Shari (21:55): People also talk about imagination about the future as though imagination is fantasy. How do you think about that in-the-future orientation as not being fantasy, but something that's less abstract? Annie (22:07): Yeah. I do separate a little bit, imagination from wishful thinking. You know, wishful thinking can give us some sort of relief for a few minutes, right. So I could talk about how great my life will be when I win the lottery, even though I don't play, but you know, how great it could be if I struck oil and what I would do with, you know, a couple of million dollars, right. That is wishful thinking. That's not gonna happen. Even if I did start playing the lottery, that's leaving it up to chance. There is no plan, right? Imagination is different because imagination is the beginning of... The beginning of something that can come into fruition. So, every thing that we see starts with an idea, right? And along with nurturing this imagination is also nurturing ways to make our ideas come into fruition, which goes along with learning ways in which other people have made their ideas come into fruition in the past, how they make their ideas come into fruition now, providing folks with a variety of resources, you becoming a resource in and of yourself. And one of the reasons that I picked imagination is because I do believe that is a natural gift. I think it's something that is often inate in young people, right? So we don't have to give young people that imagination. They have an imagination. In fact, young people tend to have an imagination much more so than older adults because they haven't had, you know, "real life" (in quotation marks), you know, pressed down upon them, right, killing hopes and dreams. But they still see the possibilities of what could be, so it doesn't need to be given to them, but it does need to be nurtured. And more often than not, I think that it's not nurtured. It's kind of pushed out of young people. So imagination is a possibility of what life could be, with ideas of -- how do we get there. Now, for some, they could say, well, there really isn't a difference, right? Annie (24:47): Because you're talking about, you know, breaking down socioeconomic class systems -- like, that is not going to happen. Right. Is it, is it unrealistic? Are you just, is this wishful thinking, is this, like, you know, what is this? And I would say that it is as unrealistic as, you know, a group of people under monarchs, deciding that they were going to free themselves from that and govern themselves. It is that it's unrealistic as the slave, knowing that one day they will be free and their children will be free. It is as unrealistic as any historical story, person, representation, we have that said this way that we exist is wrong. There is another way. And we have seen the world change. So we know that it can happen. And it will happen. The thing is how involved will you be in the change? Shari (26:04): I'd love to return to the particularity of the small city, because you talk a little bit about the biblical character Hagar to really explore some of the particularities of the small city, and you use the imagery of wilderness, and how that's significant because the wilderness isn't just one thing. Can you talk us through that? Annie (26:33): Like you said, I, I focused on Hagar and Dolores Williams' treatment of Hagar and what she learns in the wilderness, but we also know from different biblical literature and all different types of literature through all the ages, the wilderness is a popular motif, right? Shari (26:52): Yeah, we're doing this interview during Lent. So for anybody on the liturgical calendar, we're in the wilderness, right? Annie (26:58): Indeed. Yeah. And there are several sides to the wilderness. One is that the wilderness is dangerous. There's unknown things out there, creatures, um, a variety of things that, that just basically is out to get you. This is particularly true in, like, fairy tales, when they, you know, go into the woods. The wilderness doesn't have always the necessary things that we need to survive. So in the Hagar story, when she is banished and sent out to the wilderness, she runs out of water and there was no food. She is afraid that her child will die, so she puts the child down and goes a distance so she doesn't hear her child wailing. There's nothing that she can do to provide for her child Ishmael. The wilderness is a dangerous place. The wilderness, though, is also a space for growth. The wilderness is a space for miracles happening where we see, for Hagar, God appearing to her, providing for her and her child. Twice, right? Because Hagar has two wilderness stories. We see the theophanies as the people of Israel is in the wilderness for 40 years, right? For that long period of time, we see the different ways that God shows up in miraculous ways. There is no food -- manna rains down from heaven. The wilderness is also a space where one comes into their own being. So I think of many stories in literature, that coming of age happens in that wilderness hiking, right -- thinking "Into the Wild" -- spaces, you get to know yourself in a particular way. There's something to having come through this wilderness experience, right? I'm also thinking of the second part of Little Red Riding Hood. So wilderness is all over literature. And using the Hagar story in particular helped me to talk about, in many ways, either growing up in these small cities, how it is wilderness experience for them in both the positive and the negative ways. And, you know, small cities can be dangerous, right? Crime, drugs, gang-related activities, there's often not enough resources to protect, provide education, right? There's a lot of danger there. Shari (29:53): And those dangers can be very real. Annie (29:55): Absolutely. And there is also a lot of hope there. There's a lot of people working to make these spaces better. So it is not just a horrible experience, right? Like, you know, I would tell people the work that I do, which was on mostly on the weekends at this particular city, and they'd be like, "Oh wow. You know, like, aren't you awesome." And I'm like, there's some really good things also happening in a small city that you are afraid of. And this is not to say that, you know, that the danger isn't real, but the wilderness experience is both. That is how that story helps me and, of course at the end, realizing that that God gives Hagar a new vision, right. She sees a well, and from this well, she is able to provide for her child. It is a beautiful, but still yet a simple provision, right. This water provision and the child is, you know, as the story goes and goes off and becomes a father to a large group of people. So there's something about planning, a particular seed that allows someone to say, okay, now I can, I have what I need and I can move on to care for myself and for my kids and for my community and I can move on to be great. So I think those are a couple of ways that the Hagar story helps me think about ways in which we can foster this type of imagination with this population. Shari (31:34): That's a great segue. When you get really practical, you, you talk about mentoring as one of the most significant aspects. It kind of creates this rich soil where the imagination that you're dreaming of can be cultivated. And I'm curious if you can talk a little bit about the kind of mentoring and maybe share a story, a mentoring story that's been really impactful. Annie (31:59): I think one of the things to recognize is the importance of community. And one of the factors for community would be different mentoring experiences. Shari (32:12): And you're not thinking of like this top-down -- I tell you things cause I'm old and wise, right? Annie (32:18): Right. I talk about bi-directional mentoring. So in bi-directional mentoring, you would have an adult and a young person working together, whether the goal is to plan a particular thing about their congregation, their community at large, but working to get together to imagine something differently. And I think that once you do whatever that something is, young people can see how we imagine this one thing differently and enact change. We can imagine this other thing differently and enact change. And then imagine this other thing differently and enact change. We don't have to be stuck in the reality that we are in. And I think about my own youth ministry upbringing, where there were different generations in the same room, you know, it was kind of happenstance of how that happened. You know, there, there wasn't like a young adult ministry, so people tend not to kind of age out. Shari (33:22): So there was like an intergenerational accident that happened? Annie (33:26): An intergenerational accident. And in this room where, you know, people like me who like grew up in the church, right -- I don't remember a time that I did not go to church multiple times a week -- and others who were new to the faith. So there were many times when me as a 14 or 15 year old, not only growing up in the church and it was a Roman Catholic congregation, but going to Catholic school (like I, you know, I was very Catholic girl) so that I could, you know, answer particular questions about Catholic doctrine, that someone who was new to the faith, even though they were 10, 15 years older than me. And I talk about how that happens by accident and imagine the possibilities if that was done on purpose. Shari (34:15): It feels like... It feels counter-cultural in a number of ways, both this idea of almost a shared authority or the reciprocity that can be present in something like that. But also in your suggestion of corporate imagination, they both seem counterintuitive, especially in churches where things can be pretty hierarchical. Annie (34:38): Yes. Some of the pushback that I get on this because it's so counter-cultural -- shared power with young people, right? And I recognize that... That certainly the power authority, it lies with the adults. This is not an equal relationship, and in some ways that makes it tricky. But interestingly enough, for me, there's a lot of conversation about intergenerational friendship. And in my particular understandings, I find that harder than intergenerational mentoring, bi-directional mentoring. Shari (35:14): Is that because friendship has less structure or intentionality to it, or... Annie (35:20): Yeah. That there isn't... This isn't necessarily a friendship. I mean, I've had great mentors in my life that it was a great relationship for that period. And we achieved a particular goal. They don't pop into my mind first when I think about throwing dinner parties, right? That we can have working relationships with clear boundaries and understandings with people of different authority and power, a little easier than we can have friendships. We do it all the time. Right? Our supervisors and our boss have different power and authority than we do. We have those working relationships all the time. Another pushback is people saying, you know, young people can teach. I don't think they can mentor because... a mentor requires a particular type of wisdom. Right. Another thing I hear a lot. And I agree with that. However, I would, I tend to redefine and talk about the definition of wisdom. I think that young people have wisdom, right? It's not the same, it's not backed by, you know, the amount of dead scholars that, you know, we academics like to quote... Shari (36:50): They are, perhaps, freed of that burden. Annie (36:52): Yes, indeed. It's interesting to me to hear from young people, their ideas, and sometimes it's their ideas that already exist. Right. But they're these ideas that I've had conversations with young people and I'm like, well, that's Plato, right? That's Aristotle. You don't yet know that it exists, but how awesome is it that you had the same idea as Plato, right? (If you hold Plato in high regard, right.) So they don't yet know what exists. But then there may be some other idea that tweaks it because Plato doesn't know anything about living in a small city. Well, I mean, I don't know, I don't really know much about Plato. But certainly not within the 21st century. Right. So it's... They can have that same idea that's an old theory, but they're not thinking about it in that old theory way. They are already placing it in a modern perspective. So we have this project together and we guide each other and we share wisdom with each other. And the other aspect of mentoring that I talk about when I go into the etymology of "mentor" coming from the Odyssey, and how Athena takes on the body and persona of mentor and talk about where is the divine within this? Shari (38:29): Okay, so, I was not well versed enough in mythology. And I forgot to check with my 12 year old, who is very well versed in, but to catch people up who might be rusty on this, like I am -- you're talking about the myth where the word mentor comes from. Can you get us on the same page for anyone else who's as rusty as I am? Annie (38:48): All right. So "mentor" comes from the book the Odyssey, um, which I taught as a high school teacher for a number of years. I am not a big fan of the book, but I thought, "Oh, here's the purpose of me having to teach this book for so many years; now it's useful to me. Shari (39:08): You used a small piece of it nonetheless, Annie (39:12): Yeah. So I was actually kind of surprised that that is where the word comes from. But, so it was the name of a character that... Odysseus goes off to fight the Trojan war. And he has a newborn son, Te-LEM-achus, or Tele-MAH-chus, depending on how it's translated. And he leaves Telemachus and his wife, Penelope, under the guise of his friend Mentor, right? Just as anybody else who would leave and say, please look after my family, right? You're one of my best friends care for my family. He goes off, he fights the war. Everyone comes back or does he has this and come back or they see his wanders for a really, really long time. Telemachus grows up into a young man, but Mentor is always his go-to, right? Mentor has upheld his promise. He has cared for Odysseus' family. Telemachus decides that he wants to go find his... he's going out adventuring to try to find his father, I think, and Mentor accompanies him. Right? So we have the accompanying... we have the caring for, the accompanying in one's journey, right? The advice-giving -- you see some dialogue between the two of them. And, Athena, who is the goddess of war and some other things, who is also looking out for this family -- when she comes to earth, she can take on different bodily formations. And she takes on the formation of Mentor. And at one point towards the end, it's the scene that all my ninth grade boys liked, there's this big fight battle, right? Like, this big fight scene, where Odysseus, Telemachus, Mentor take on these suitors that have invaded Odysseus' house and they're trying to get his wife Penelope, and they fight them off. Annie (41:12): So, then for me -- I look at Mentor. Part of being a mentor is not only journeying with, but also fighting besides. So I do a lot of critical analysis with this character as a way of throwing on some flesh of this word, because I find the etymology interesting. And, when I first read that, that was the etymology of it, I found that hard to believe. And did some more digging. I don't quite know why I resisted it. I'm like, words come from what you name a character in your story? But, you know, but I just, I find that intriguing. Shari (41:53): I'm curious if there's an example of somebody whose mentoring has been really inspiring to you, as you think about the possibilities for this with young people. Annie (42:05): There's a few. I have been lucky. Just, I have been graced with lots of mentors throughout my life. There is a woman when I was in college, Dr. Blake, who, you know, who walked me through the first three years of college or the director of the multicultural program and, you know, left the institution before my last year. But her guidance through kind of, like, Allowed me to, to, to make it that fourth year, without it, without her in college was a very difficult time for me, for many reasons. You know, I mean, I spoke to her recently and just said, I would not... I said, I would not have made it through that experience without you, at least not this way. So I may have graduated, but in far more of a broken way, so to survive in a somewhat healthy way, right, comes from mentoring guidance, you know, her fighting on my behalf, fighting next to me. And through different jobs and careers I've had, there's usually always been at least one person and many times more who reaches out to me in some ways and says, okay, let's get some, you know, let's get some understanding of what we want to achieve here. Right? So, I have been graced with some fabulous mentors, and what I've seen that is common between them, at least, you know, the good ones that I claim, it is a give-and-take relationship. At no point, is it a matter of -- I have the knowledge, let me pour it into you. It also is not -- let me turn you into a mini-me. It's -- let me get to know you. What do you want? What are your desires and goals? Well, what do you think about this? Can we stretch it this way? Can we do it that way? If you go along with me and then we'll keep going, if you pull back and say, absolutely not, then we'll go a different direction. What kind of student do you want to be? What kind of teacher do you want to be? What kind of scholar do you want to be? Those are the questions that have started my different mentoring relationships. And then, how can we broaden that? So, one of the benefits of a mentor is someone who has a broader idea, which is once again, why I think bi-directional mentoring can work because while adults have a broader idea because of their experience, youth have a broader idea, in many ways, because they haven't had, you know, that imagination kind of knocked out of them. They have not... they can come up with an idea and not automatically have 10 reasons why it won't. Shari (45:02): Yeah. When you talk about possibilities for young people, there were so many words connected with freedom, liberation, emancipation. So I think as we come toward the end of our interview, I'd love for you to talk about -- why those words? You mentioned liberation theology earlier, but it seems like there's a particular resonance with young people. And I'm wondering if it's connected to that sense of possibility. I mean, at the very beginning of our conversation, you talked about how sometimes language choice even about the future is limiting. But it sounds like, pushing beyond that, you use a lot of this emancipation language. Can you talk about that? Annie (45:43): Yeah. I think a lot of the ways that we use the language to talk about this population, a lot of the ways that we educate this population, the types of education that are in the schools and the offerings for them and all of those things, this is where I get really sad. And, I think it's oppressive. I think it's de-humanizing. I think that a lot of the shaping is made to put people within this particular race, socioeconomic class and geography in their place. And it's wrong, right? So all of this language of emancipatory liberation, that is what is needed when people are being oppressed and dehumanized. And understanding that you can be freed of this, that no one gets to tell you where your place is. And you can see things, as a friend of mine would say, through God-given glasses, right... that there is, there, there is, there can be divine vision of your place being greater than what society says your place is. And I'm very careful to use terms like greater, right? Because I am not suggesting that one career is better than another. It makes you a better human being or anything like that, right? When I say greater, bigger, I mean, being able to live into your vocation and calling without barriers, right? Realizing the human place to barriers in your way of your divine calling. Like I said before, in the sense of seeing that, like, you know, in many ways, many of the students that I worked with, whether they were in the independent school or the urban atmosphere, they were trapped, right? So you can be stopped of your divine calling by a family, the things that your job, that job is beneath you. But whatever your trappings are, we need to help each other be liberated from that. And I think that's the... that's the benefit of bi-directional mentoring is that tapping into some of that youthful imagination, right? Tapping into that annoyance and anger you used to have that made you cry, "That's not fair!" before every adult in your life told you, "Well, life's not fair." But tapping into that, like "Grr, it's not fair, and it should be, and how do we make it so?" Shari (48:48): I have an eight year old you can borrow for some of that. Annie (48:50): Right. And that's not something that I don't really think that we should beat out of them now. Yes. We want to prepare them that life is not fair, but at the same time, recognize that it should be. Right? And we don't want to live in, you know, la-la land -- Shari (49:05): No, but we need to have the ability to cry out when things are unjust... Annie (49:07): Exactly. Shari (49:07): ...and be genuinely appalled when they're unjust. Annie (49:10): Exactly. Shari (49:10): I'm so grateful for your time today and for this conversation. Thank you. New Speaker (49:18): Thank you. This has been great. Dayle (49:20): You've been listening to The Distillery. Interviews are conducted by me, Dayle Rounds... Sushama (49:25): ...and me, Sushama Austin-Connor, Shari (49:27): ...and I'm Shari Oosting. Amar (49:29): I'm Amar Peterman, and I am in charge of production. New Speaker (49:32): Like what you're hearing? Subscribe at Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or your preferred podcast app. The Distillery is a production of Princeton Theological Seminary's Office of Continuing Education. You can find out more at thedistillery.ptsem.edu. Thanks for listening.
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Welcome to Season 5
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