A short while ago I opened up the #TransitLounge cue for questions. I wanted you to have an opportunity to engage a bit more with Jonathan Martin, author of Prototype. After some reflection, Jonathan has responded. With grace, candor and insight he shares thoughts on miracles, the wilderness, the books he’s reading and his own writing process.
Caris asks: Do you think there’s a danger in valuing the wilderness so highly? Kind of like old soldiers swapping war stories, can people turn their wilderness stories into the same kind of one-upmanship? Or do you think the wilderness is depressing enough that no matter how much we know it’s good for us, we don’t want to go through it? I just wonder, when you say that being in the wilderness is because you’re so desperately loved, if the number of wilderness experiences can become another trap of validation that we seek. And if so, how do you avoid that?
Jonathan responds: Wow Caris—an unsurprisingly great question from you J It makes a lot of sense, but ultimately your second question really anticipated my response—that the wilderness is hard enough that no mater how much we know its good for us, we don’t really want to go through it. It is absolutely true that we are endlessly creative in turning any and every conceivable experience into another trap of validation. But I tend to think if we do begin to romanticize the wilderness, the actual experience of it will take care of that quickly enough.
These days I’m thinking that, in the same way the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness in Luke 4.1, that is part and parcel of what the Spirit does—to keep drawing us back into the wilderness for its peculiar clarity, whether we embrace it or not. A friend asked me recently if I thought we needed people in our communities to encourage us to go out into the wilderness. And I think there could be a place for that, but not so much—I tend to think that drawing into the wilderness can be left to the Spirit….she will handle that; while we need a community to miss while we are in the wilderness, people we know will be waiting for us when we get back. Henri Nouwen says anybody can endure anything so long as we have at least one person waiting for us (or something like that). So I don’t spend too much time trying to impart the restlessness that leads us to the wilderness in the lives of the people I love. I tend to let the Spirit do that, and want to be the one who is going to be there waiting when they return.
Idelette asks: Hey Jonathan, I’d love to know what the hardest part was about writing this book. How did you push through?
Jonathan responds: I think the book was toughest for me when I was trying to over write it. It started off being, I don’t know, some sort of theological/sociological Frankenstein’s monster. It felt a little too self-conscious, a little too pretentious. It didn’t feel like a textbook exactly, but definitely a bit more detached—I could feel myself straining to say something clever.
I ditched 80% at least of the first four chapters and started over. I didn’t have anybody looking over my shoulder telling me the book had to be more accessible or to popularize it or whatever, but I did feel like I had the ghost of Henri Nouwen looking over my shoulder. The genius of his books was that they are so deceitfully simple—he was such a sophisticated thinker, who wrote in such a elemental human way that nobody on earth could resist him. I felt driven to find that—every time I’d start to get too caught up in jargon, get too technical, “show off,” I consulted my mental WWHD bracelet—“What would Henri do?”
Here was the hardest part though: when the book works (and I have no delusions that it always does), it does so I think because it has a kind of fragility too it. And that is a very hard place to write from. It takes a certain amount of confidence to write with your heart on your sleeve, to think the things in the depths of you are worth sharing with the world. So if you don’t write with the confidence that something in the dredges is worth pulling up, you’ve got problems. On the other hand, the very moment the writing gets too confident, too self-assured, its not fragile enough anymore. It is very delicate to stay in that place and sustain it for a whole book.
The Resurrection chapter is far and away my favorite chapter in the book simply because it is the most honest to me. But it didn’t start off that way. After all these false starts, by the time I had finished the wounds chapter I felt like the book was really going somewhere I liked. And so I wrote chapter six with many of the right ideas in more or less the right places, but it felt hollow to me somehow—the soul was not right. I wrote a version of it basically in one long day, about 6,500 words or so. I went to bed that night, and I had the dream I share in the beginning of that chapter about trying to carry my goddaughter up the hill to get to my grandparents’ house, but not finding a way to get there. And it sounds so simple to tell, but so much about the ways I struggle to put these parts of my new life together with the life I have now was just under the surface, and I woke up the next morning with more heartache than I would know how to describe to you now.
And I knew what I had to do: write from THAT place. I had not been writing from my ache, and that is the place where the magic happens if it happens at all.
I basically deleted the chapter I wrote the day before, and still under the spell of the dream I started to write it all over again. And there was so much heartache, such longing, such pain in that chapter, it was practically bathed in tears. That’s the place I’m talking about—the really fragile place where you write from your soul. I kept having to find a way to get back there, and it was not always an easy task. You just can’t go there without taking your pain with you.
Emily asks: Jonathan, one thing I appreciate about your sermons and book is that your voice is so clear and present. You take risks and it feels like you’re saying what you actually think at that moment! I know that sort of attention takes a lot of work. What helps you balance listening to others and receiving feedback well without losing that ability to speak your mind and heart?
Jonathan responds: That is awfully kind of you, Emily. It is interesting that it translates that way, because I feel like I’m taking a lot of risks when I’m preaching, like its always a high-wire act! It is a balance indeed to listen to feedback without losing the ability to speak your own mind and heart. But for me speaking is a very dynamic, conversational thing. It’s an extension of conversations I am having all week, and most of the time it’s a conversation in the preaching itself even if it sounds like monologue. I try to be attentive to both what I sense the Spirit doing in the moment as well as what the congregation is saying to me—I hear there questions and objections and their encouragement even when they aren’t speaking it aloud while I preach. I trust them, and I trust the Spirit; I try not to ever talk down to them. I have a real reverence for the people I preach to. When you take seriously both the people and the Spirit that gives you something to say to begin with, you know you have to always hold them in tension and be responsive to each. I think the only thing that balances that in my mind is that I’m always feeling my acute need for both. There is a kind of desperation in me to stay in sync with the Spirit, but there is also a way I feel driven to not go into that territory alone.
Emily asks: I also want to know how you started on Twitter, what you think of it now, if it’s weird that you have a “Twitter Congregation” of sorts (or if you even realize that!) and what you’re currently reading/excited about reading!
Jonathan responds: You know its funny—I hardly remember how I started on twitter. I know I felt terrible at using it, and in fact am terrible…I am an LP man living in an EP world J I over communicate, I’m always straining at 140 characters. But I tell you, I’ts been remarkable how much people on twitter have become part of my very real network of friends and family. I have not thought of it as a twitter congregation-that is very humbling to me. But also rings true, because I do love my followers in those ways that a pastor loves, and I carry them on my heart somehow.
I think I started on twitter largely because Facebook was killing me. I want to try to be attentive to everybody, respond to everybody, be sensitive to everybody—and do that in a format with no character limits at all was too much for me. I kept getting paralyzed by my own need to over respond to everybody. I thought I could manage the short form of Twitter a little better, even though it felt much less natural to me at first.
I am currently reading Stephen King’s Joyland for fun. I just finished Rene Girard’s I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, which ruined me. I’ve been spending a lot of time in Jacques Ellul’s highly provocative and highly interesting Subversion of Christianity. I finished Maria Doria Russell’s The Sparrow a few months ago, and thought it was quite magical—very rarely have I read fiction that moved me that deeply in theological terms. I’m on to her follow-up Children of God right now, and am equally compelled.
Danielle asks: Hey Jonathan! I would love to hear your thoughts on miracles . . . And especially what you might say to someone who is skeptical/has been wounded in the past. Thanks!
Jonathan responds: It is very tempting to write a treatise on this, and yet somehow I feel like I might could say more with less words. I’d just want to say I have been/am skeptical about miracles, and wounded in the past with regards to them. Over and over again.
And I’d also say, I’m trying very hard to keep myself open to the surprise of God in whatever form it might take. I would not try to talk anybody out of being skeptical about miracles—I think that is often healthy. I’d just say, don’t let the skepticism harden into a cynicism that allows for no surprises, but don’t try to engineer the surprises either. Just stay open, even though staying open is kind of terrible much of the time, and keep in mind most of the miracles sneak up on you.
I’d also just want to say that I’m sorry. And I understand, more than you know.
Claire asks: Great book Jonathan – I loved that I felt like I was chatting with a friend rather than being preached to, and the personal stories were all great. What would you say to someone who hasn’t ever had that boy on the bike (or girl on the trampoline experience) – how do you go back to that place that may not exist? Does it matter?
Jonathan responds: I get this question all the time, and it makes me think I could have written chapter one better. Because here is the thing: I know that especially given my own story of rediscovering the bike rooted in my friend Jim’s “prophetic” prayer, there is a kind of mystical quality to it. But I did not mean to play that up too much. I think the boy on the bike or girl on the trampoline thing is mostly about places where you are free to be as you were created to be, unencumbered by the expectations of others. I think people often miss that when they over think it, or more likely when they think they need to find a place that was sort of mystical for them. I don’t think it needs to be especially mystical at all.
I’d reframe the question to ask, where do you feel free and alive? Where do you go? What do you do? And encourage folks to recognize that it is the Spirit that brings that kind of freedom, whether the place or activity is overtly “spiritual” in nature or not. I think the weakness here may well be in the book to not communicate that more clearly.
Matthew asks: Hi Jonathan, I am really enjoying the book. I have a question about dissent/protest and how to articulate that with Grace. Is that possible? Jesus at times challenges but largely seemed to do it peacefully. How can we dissent/protest with grace but not lose the passion that (arguably rightly) inspires dissent?
Jonathan responds: What a fantastic question! Here is my short answer: One, never forget the humanity of the folks that oppose you. I can get real self-righteous real quick when I forget that my “enemies” are driven by the same insecurities that I am, that they are fellow travelers too—that even when I think I see in them a kind of violence, “they know not what they do” even when they are crucifying someone.
Two, I think we can dissent with grace when we don’t allow ourselves to be personally offended—which is much easier said than done of course. But if I don’t allow my posture to get defensive either on behalf of Jesus (who is already risen from the dead, and therefore does not need my defense in the least), or myself (I’ve got nothing that ultimately needs to be defended), then I am better able to ensure that the protest really is about the people God cares about most deeply as opposed to my own axe to grind. And that makes all the difference. When we are standing up with Jesus alongside the wounded, marginalized and hurting, it is a very different sprit than when we are standing up for a Jesus we think needs our defending or standing up for ourselves. From there we speak with the authority that comes from compassion, and people can feel the difference I think.
Micah asks: I love your story about the U2 song and the “Holy Ghost iPod Shuffle Effect”. Do you have any other stories of that effect?
Jonathan responds: So glad you enjoyed it! I can tell you where it happens a lot to me these days—in our worship services. I am terribly unorganized in my approach to preaching—absolutely everything is up for negotiation until the sermon is done. So there are so many times that I change things radically at the last minute, the night before, the morning of, what have you. But the strangest thing is, no matter where I ultimately land—it seems like week after week the set lists we do at our church fit the message as if it was all designed. And yet I never realize how perfect it all fits together until the service is almost over. There is a real mystery to me in that—how does it always seem that the songs sync so perfectly to where we are ultimately going, when at the time we planned them I had no idea where I was going? Small thing to be sure, but that’s the beauty of the Holy Ghost ipod shuffle—it’s all about finding God in the little things!
Thank you, Jonathan, for responding to all our questions! Thank you for writing Prototype!
Now it’s your turn to offer your responses to Prototype and to engage in conversation as you both contribute your post (via the link-up below) and comment on what others are posting, too!
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