O Me of Little Faith

For a relatively young pastor, Danielle Shroyer already has a pretty impressive résumé. She graduated from Princeton Divinity School. She has served as a youth minister, campus minister, and chaplain for a retirement community. She’s currently the pastor of Journey Community Church in Dallas and facilitates the Dallas Emergent Cohort.

And she’s a first-time author, having recently released a refreshing and creative book about God. It’s called The Boundary-Breaking God, and Danielle was gracious enough to let me interview her about the hopefulness of the biblical story, the promise of Advent, and why she’d like to road-trip with James Taylor:

Jason: The subtitle of The Boundary-Breaking God is “An Unfolding Story of Hope and Promise.” You mention at the beginning that hope and promise are a recurring theme in the Bible (and I agree). But its easy for Christians to lose sight of these. Why is this? Why is “hope” not at the forefront of our minds when we read the Bible?

Danielle: I think the Grinch may have stolen it. Seriously, though, I think it’s because as western American Christians we have tended to opt for themes of sin and human depravity instead. That has a lot to do with our Puritan roots, but it has very little to do with the way this story was told for the majority of the time prior to that. I’ve had countless conversations with people who worry that to speak of hope and promise is to somehow downplay or minimize the very real brokenness of the world. This is simply a false dichotomy. Why would you hope in something if you thought what you already had was so perfect?! If you pick up the Bible and read it through the lens of sin, you are going to miss out on a small country’s worth of important details. If you read it through the lens of hope and promise, you bring all the details of the story along for the ride–and, I would argue, you are able to see them in their proper context.

Hope and promise are clearly themes that get attention–or, at least, should get attention–during the season of Advent. From your perspective, how would a better understanding of hope make Christmas more meaningful to us? What are we missing out on? What can/should we do better?

I think American Christianity has settled for a very limited definition of salvation (mainly pertaining to the above themes of sin and human depravity), and in doing so has removed the idea of salvation from its proper place in the narrative of Scripture. The story of salvation begins all the way back with the promise given to Abraham and Sarah (“I will make you a great nation through whom all the families on earth will be blessed”). It includes the prophets, and the experiences of wilderness and exile, and the creation and destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. It includes kings and judges. If you leave all those parts out of the story, it’s not going to be half as exciting when you get to the part where Jesus arrives on the scene and passages of Isaiah begin reappearing.

The story of Jesus is beautiful because he is the unique and surprising fulfillment of a promise after years of hoping beyond hope for that promise to come to fruition. Advent ought to feel like that part in a novel where you realize this is where it’s been leading you the whole time, and you can hardly turn the pages fast enough to see what is going to happen next. Those lectionary readings from the prophets should feel jam-packed with hope and promise, and that should make us giddy with excitement about how it’s all being played out, fulfilled and even subverted in the ongoing story of Jesus. To jump right over all that to go straight to the manger is to do a great disservice to the whole reason people cared about the manger to begin with. If we want Christmas to be meaningful, let’s celebrate the whole story so that our hope can be full!

Something else that makes its way into TBBG is God’s tradition of favoring the outside over the insider. It occurs to me that, given your family and work history–being of Lebanese descent, having worked as a chaplain for a retirement community, being a female pastor in a very conservative religious city like Dallas–you might be more familiar with the “outsider” than others. Do you agree? What is the connection between God’s embrace of the marginal and the theology of hope?

I don’t know if I tend toward the margins or if the margins tend toward me, but I can say I’ve always felt a great deal of kinship with outsiders. And the story of God, of course, is chock full of them from beginning to end. Who would have thought that a barren couple would be the start of such a big and wonderful promise? Who could have imagined that pagan astrologers would be the ones to best declare the Kingship of Jesus? God does seem to enjoy frolicking along the fringes and pulling in a strange cast of people for starring roles when you would have assumed they’d have little more than a cameo. I think that gives all of us a good deal of hope, because it’s not any longer a far-fetched idea to think that God might have a spot for our own quirky selves in this story, too.

Speaking of…I was struck by the fact that you admit to having been heavily influenced by theologian Jurgen Moltmann, whose is well-known for his 1964 book Theology of Hope. Then Moltmann endorsed your book. On a personal level, how great was that?

I am an unabashedly adoring fan of Jurgen Moltmann, so I cannot put into words how great it was. We were working on bringing him to Chicago for the Emergent Village Theological Conversation and Tony Jones convinced me to send him the manuscript so that he could see how practitioners like me are applying his work in an emerging faith context. When Doug Pagitt called to read me the fax letter with the endorsement, I nearly passed out on the floor of my study.

[Here’s Moltmann’s endorsement, by the way: “I am more than grateful for this book by Danielle Shroyer. It is not only true, it is also beautiful to live with God’s promise in the heart and God’s enlarging horizon before your eyes. The Boundary-Breaking God is full of memorable stories and quotable sentences, going with us as faithful companions.”]

All writers write to an ideal reader (at least, we’re supposed to). Who is your ideal reader? Who needs to read TBBG?

I actually had two ideal readers. The first is a
person who has no knowledge of the biblical story but is considering whether God/Jesus/faith might be worth exploring. The second is a person who has grown up in the church but might be struggling with some of the ways the story has been told. For both of them, the questions that might be most important are things like: Does this story have room for me? What does this story of God have to offer the complex world in which I live? Can the story of God do something more than draw lines and construct fences? Is there a way to follow Jesus that will encompass every part of my life rather than demand that I parcel it out into inauthentic and forced subfolders?

My prayer is that people who read the book will feel empowered to push back on the constricting story of religion they may have heard and make room for the Spirit to speak instead.

One question I always like to ask new writers is: How did you get here? What was your road to getting published?

One of my friends has nagged me to write a book for years, but during most of that time I was rather preoccupied giving birth to my two children and doing all those things that naturally follow afterward. One day (when they were slightly older and not quite the rogue toddlers they had previously been) it just dawned on me that I wanted to write this book about God’s story being one of continual expansion. I sketched it out within ten minutes and the more I thought about it, the more excited I became. I was speaking at the National Pastors Convention not long after that and happened to be having lunch with the woman who is now my editor, and I pitched the idea to her. She told me to write up the proposal and send it to her, and we were off to the races.

Tell me about Journey Church. How has being part of that community influenced your theology and faith? What role has it played on your own journey?

I connected with Journey about six weeks after it began in 1999. I was working as an assistant chaplain at SMU at the time as part of my seminary field education, but after meeting with Scott, the founding pastor, I was able to write Journey into my internship. That year was incredibly formative for me. When I returned to seminary the next fall, all my classes took on an entirely different slant. I felt like I knew for the first time what kind of church I might be preparing myself for. Of course, at the time I had no idea that I’d actually become their pastor a few years later.

Journey is like this experimental lab where we try to figure out ways to make our theology truly communal, practical and missional. As much as I love theology, it’s a stretching exercise to translate those lofty words and ideas into something that really matters for people in their daily lives. We have hope- so what? We think everyone who follows Jesus is part of the “priesthood”- how can we do that? We think we’re called to be a gift of life and grace to our community- what kinds of practices help us live into that? We don’t mind experimenting, and when an experiment doesn’t go swimmingly, we chalk it up to a learning experience and move right along. It’s a wonderfully creative and freeing place to be. I feel I’ve grown so much in my faith with these people, and I hope they feel the same.

Now for some less serious questions: What do you want for Christmas?

A stainless steel skillet and the new ONE t-shirt. And, of course, an endless number of books.

What do you love best about Dallas?

I love being near so many people I love- family, friends, and of course my Journey peeps.

What do you like least about Dallas?

Dallas can be a shallow and pretentious place sometimes. Also, it could use some nature- more trees, a mountain, a non-man-made lake…

What kind of car do you drive?

Usually I’m driving our ’94 Toyota Highlander. Sometimes I’m driving my husband’s Honda Civic hybrid.

What was the last book you read?

I just finished a book of short stories a friend gave me called Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri. (I almost never read modern fiction, so that’s strange.) Next I’m starting a book by my childhood friend Sarah Baker who is a silent film historian. It’s called Lucky Stars and tells the story of the long-standing romance between silent film stars Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell. Then it’s likely back to theology and philosophy.

You are going on a cross-country drive with three other people whom you get to select. One is a contemporary musician. One is a historical figure. One is a fictional character. Who are your three people and why?

Hmm…I will choose James Taylor, who I adore and whose voice never, never grows old. He will be fantastic company on a cross-country drive, especially when we go to Carolina or see a walking man. Not surprisingly, I’ll bring Jurgen Moltmann along. He totally counts as an historical figure, since he changed Christian theology forever. He can tell us the secret of life (James will of course offer up his own thoughts on the matter) and explain every last morsel of his nine major works of theology. I will have James drive so that I can take notes. And, of course, what is a good road trip without Mr. Darcy?


Disclaimer: Danielle and I share a publisher in Jossey-Bass, and the team at J-B sent me a review copy of The Boundary-Breaking God. But I heartily recommend it anyway, because seriously: If it’s good enough for Jurgen Moltmann? It’s good enough for me. And for you, too.

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