Photo credit: www.lovecohen.com
The American Academy of Religion (AAR) is in Baltimore this year: at this time last year I was courting publishers for Grace Sticks; this time I’ll be working on a publicity plan for the book. In the meantime, here is a short interview with yours truly that publicist Caitlin Mackenzie (Wipf and Stock) helped put together as part of a press kit, and apologies for a couple glitches in the formatting which I’m working to rectify with Beliefnet:
What first compelled you to write Grace Sticks?
I wanted to write a spiritual memoir that could belong to a bigger, more light-hearted conversation about who God is in Jesus and what it might mean to say that Jesus is “The Way, The Truth and The Life.” And I wanted that conversation to be accessible to everyone, not just to folks in the church but to people who live in my downtown neighborhood, the “spiritual-but-not-religious” types and the so-called Nones (many of them my generation and younger). Many of these folks have heard a version of “The Way, the Truth and the Life” that, as I say in the book’s dedication, made them feel “more lost, swindled and less alive.” My hope was that for those inclined to write Christianity off as judgmental, close-minded, and backwards, Grace Sticks would offer a fresh look at the depth of meaning, truth and life there.
Why did you choose to tell your story in bumper stickers of all things?
Bumper stickers are often silly, stupid, frivolous—you name it—and I wanted this to be a light-hearted book. There is, I think, a preconception among non-Christians and nonreligious types that is not entirely unfounded—namely, that Christians take themselves way too seriously. But I believe humor and laughter are central to the good news that God loves us: because God takes us seriously, we don’t have to take ourselves so seriously. And when we can talk about our deepest beliefs in the context of laughter, these things seem less divisive and threatening to discuss. I also wanted to find an easy, accessible language in which to converse about faith matters that would be familiar to more readers than traditionally theological, “churchy” language.
You say in your introduction that Grace Sticks is for “restless souls”? Who qualifies as a restless soul?
I am for one. By “restless souls” I have in mind really anyone, whether in the church or out, searching for more meaning, more truth, and more life than what they’ve found so far. The expression “restless souls” comes from religion professor Leigh E. Schmidt (formerly at Princeton now at Washington University in St. Louis) and his book Restless Souls: The Making of American Spirituality, insofar as “restless souls” describes the quintessentially American quest for the More still not found (to recall another great mind, Bono). I broaden Schmidt’s definition a bit by including in that definition all of us who remain in the church, but restlessly. If in America bigger is better with respect to cars, houses, and just about anything else, I’m guessing it’s also true that in America we tend to want more for ourselves spiritually; and many of us are looking for more and patching together our own, very individualized brands of spirituality—for better or worse.
You say you wanted to write a light-hearted book, but you take on some pretty serious issues like suffering and the absence of hope. Why?
Yes, when my husband read the first draft, he exclaimed that it was “really dark.” By the third draft I had managed to tone down the dark parts a bit more . . . but as story and as a drawing board for a conversation about the grace of God, my life, much like many others, has had its share of pain and difficulty. I couldn’t leave those parts out; they belong to the narrative of the grace of God in my life as much as the silliness and laughter do.
Some readers may see your appeal to these restless souls as inherently anti-church. What would you say to them?
“I don’t have a problem with God, it’s His fan club I can’t stand” (a bumper sticker in my neighborhood) is the title of my chapter on the church, and it’s there because that bumper sticker resonates for me. I sympathize with the Anne Rices and Bonos of the world who either have left the church totally or maintained their Christian faith despite feeling uncomfortable being around other Christians. I count myself in the latter category. I attend worship services and even occasionally preach and lead worship in them; but across the course of my life I’ve also seen and experienced the dark underside of the church. And I think the church does a disservice to itself when it ignores the reality that so many people are leaving church and not looking back or never even darkening the doors of a church building. The church needs to find ways to engage these people rather than pretend they’re not there; hopefully Grace Sticks will help with this endeavor.
What main idea do you want your readers to walk away with after having read Grace Sticks?
I want readers to walk away with a deeper, more grace-filled appreciation for what it means that Jesus is “The Way, The Truth and The Life” (if Jesus really is who he says he is in the New Testament); and with the assurance that if they’re hungering for more meaning, more truth and more life, they’re headed in the right direction. And I hope readers will keep hungering for More, laughing along the way and holding their views lightly as they do, because as I say in the introduction, there really is as much grace to be found in the journeying itself.