Mark D. Roberts

Today I’m part of a blog tour connected with the release of a new book, The Monkey and the Fish: Liquid Leadership for a Third-Culture Church, by Dave Gibbons. My website is one of fourteen that Dave will “visit” today as he promotes his new book. In fact, what you’ll read in this post is a Q&A “interview” that Dave and I had via email.
Before I get to this interchange, I want to say a few words about Dave. I have known of him for many years since he and I both pastured churches in Irvine, California for a long time. Dave is the founding pastor of Newsong, a ground-breaking, shaking church that was once focused on the large Asian population of Irvine, but has grown into a multi-site, multi-ethnic, “third culture” church. Oddly enough, given our common vision and location, Dave and I met only once during my Irvine sojourn. But I knew of Newsong and we had many mutual friends. I always thought highly of Dave and his ministry, though I was unaware of some of the amazing paths Dave has trod in the last few years.
Dave is a man of deep faith, wisdom, and integrity. You will see this in our email dialogue below. I’ve done blog tours before, and mostly authors answer questions quickly, as if they’re eager to move on to the next blog. Dave has given thoughtful, careful answers to my questions. And these questions were not happy slaps on the back. But I believe that Dave’s book deserves serious attention, and I had a hunch that he’d take my questions seriously as well. I was not disappointed. Nor will you be in our interchange.
Before we get into my interview with Dave, let me say that The Monkey and the Fish is an important book, one that Christians – and especially Christian leaders – should take seriously. Though I might quibble here and there with certain things in this book, that in no way discounts my appreciation for it and its potential impact. (For the record, I quibble here and there with things I have written too.) Dave Gibbons is helping, indeed challenging us to deal with the world into which we have been sent with the Gospel. His experience and wisdom open up new frontiers for those of us who want to live out the kingdom of God in the world.
Because my interchange with Dave was quite extensive, I’ve decided to break it up into two parts. Today you’ll get Part 1. Tomorrow you’ll get Part 2. And now, with no further ado, here’s Part 1 of my interview with Dave.
Mark: Dave, first of all I want to thank you for this stirring, timely book. Your main point, that Christians need to be “third culture”, that is, culturally-sensitive, culturally-engaged, bridge-building people, is surely right on. And you’re just the person to bring this challenge. One of the things I appreciate about this book is your openness in telling your own story. Thanks! I have admired your ministry for a long time. As you may know, I was also a pastor in Irvine, California for many years. I always had the highest regard for NewSong and for your leadership there.
Dave: Mark, great to hear from you! I’ve met you briefly before. We have a mutual friend that I hung out with named Tod, I believe in San Clemente. He was a pastor there. [MDR: Tod Bolsinger of It Takes a Church] I met him at a Max DePree Roundtable. Mark, I’m grateful for your work in Irvine. The people I have met from your congregation were kind and gracious. I can see why. You took a great amount of time to make sure to affirm the book where you felt legitimate. Thank you for your gentle but clear and forthright response. You got the art of third culture communication down! [MDR: Not bad for someone who is now a Texan!]
Also, I’m very appreciative of your scholarship, so your thoughts were very helpful for me to ponder. I’ll try my best to respond to some of your concerns and affirmations. I do so feeling honored that you would take the time to read the book and to reflect upon it.
Personally, I’m amazed people are reading it because after putting the pen down for this book, I wish I would have changed some things or added some thoughts. I guess it’s the period of normal regret after one finishes a work. I tend to be my own worst critic. [MDR: Yes, that’s the writer’s curse.]
Mark: You’re also hitting the bull’s-eye when you call both the church and individual Christians to the priority of love, to adaptability, to embracing pain, and to risking discomfort for the sake of reaching others. I expect that many who read this book will be encouraged to extend themselves as never before, especially to people who make them uncomfortable. In fact, you have challenged me to think about the people I need to love even though I’d rather avoid them.
But, having said that, I want to ask you about something in your book that made me uncomfortable. (Sorry. Bad pun.) It was your interpretation of the parable of the Good Samaritan and the implications you draw from that story. You rightly point out that the Samaritans were hated by Jews of Jesus’ day as half-bloods and religious heretics. So, indeed, Jesus’ hearers would have been upset because “the hero of the story is a person they despised” (74). Jesus is defining one’s neighbor in a most unsettling way here, as you rightly observe. You conclude:

The second most important commandment is all about loving people we don’t understand, whom maybe even the community we live in doesn’t like, maybe even hates, or at the least disregards or writes off. People who are misfits. People who are marginalized. People who are outsiders. Loving my neighbor is not about likenesses at all. It’s not about people who happen to share my skin color or ethnicity, or about people who talk like me and think like me, people who like the same food as me and like the same things I do. Instead, it’s about people I would not normally choose to befriend, people who might make me feel uncomfortable to be around. (74)

On this basis, you offer a solid critique of the homogenous principle, the idea that a church will grow best if it reaches out to people who are like the church’s members. If we want to see our churches grow in the way of Jesus, you counter, “we must focus our strategic initiatives of love on people who make us feel uncomfortable, who don’t fit into our thinking and our conventions, who are marginalized and even considered misfits and outsiders” (79). Thus you say things like:

Anyone can love people who are like themselves. The Father’s love is best reflected – and is most irresistible and potent – when we love those who are unattractive to us. (79)
We are to be the living extension of Jesus’ hands and heart to the world. And with what’s happening in the world today, if we live out a theology of discomfort and embrace a biblical definition of who our neighbors are in our churches, both in America and abroad, then we are loving the neighbor Jesus defined two thousand years ago. A neighbor totally unlike us. (86)

I think much of what you say here is true, and it surely needs to be heard by the church today. I need to hear it myself. But let me now explain my discomfort and then ask a few questions.
I don’t think the main point of the parable of the Good Samaritan is that we should love people who are “totally unlike us.” For one thing, Samaritans and Jews were not completely different. In fact, their rivalry was so strong because they had so much in common: a common history, a common basic theology, many common customs and values. If Jesus had wanted to tell a story about loving someone very different from ourselves, surely he could have chosen someone other than a Samaritan, perhaps a Roman female slave or aristocratic matron. So, I agree with you that “loving my neighbor is not about likenesses at all.” But I’m not sure it’s as much about “unlikenesses” as you seem to think. It seems to be more about loving anyone in need, even and especially my enemy, and doing so in tangible, costly, sacrificial ways.
Dave: Yes, in fact, I’m trying to explain this more in my presentations. When I say “people unlike you,” I also refer to those who are our enemies and people you may not want to forgive. The cultural component however, still seems to resonate with me as I wrestle with the distinction in races and culture in this passage. I see that while the main idea may be to love an enemy or someone you hate, it’s hard for me to ignore the cultural nuances of this text.
[MDR: You’re right, Dave, about these “cultural nuances.” And when people read your book, as I hope they do, they’ll see more of where you’re coming from in your observations. One of the things I found most helpful was your willingness to share (and critique) your own Christian background. Especially in America, we have tended to neglect the cultural issues. This is no longer acceptable, or even possible. Part of what makes your book so powerful is the fact that you have lived so much of what you’re talking about. Your personal stories are compelling. They also make for great reading!]
INTERMISSION: I’ll complete my conversation with Dave tomorrow. In the meanwhile, you might want to check out some of the other stops on Dave’s blog tour. Better yet, you can buy The Monkey and the Fish.

FYI: As a Amazon Associate, I get around 6% of anything that is purchased when somebody links to Amazon from my website. So if you buy The Monkey and the Fish by clicking the link above, I’ll get around 70 cents. But to avoid the appearance of self-interest in my recommendation of Dave’s book, I will give anything I make from this blog tour to charity.

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