Moore: What motivated you to write Thinking Christian?
Spencer: I approached Thinking Christian with a couple of motivations. The first came from teaching “Developing a Christian Mind” for Right On Mission. Students struggled to understand the examples and context of Harry Blamires’s 1963 work titled The Christian Mind. I wanted to offer an updated treatment of Christian thought that wrestled with matters of contemporary concern.
The second motivation was more personal. My last two years in higher education were physically and emotionally draining. In addition to dealing with major budgetary and enrollment issues that would result in staff and faculty layoffs, we were also dealing with a public relations crisis due to a variety of accusations.
Thinking Christian was my way of reflecting theologically on some of the dynamics I experienced during those last two years. Writing the book became my way of coming to terms with that tumultuous period of life. Looking back on the process of writing Thinking Christian, I would say that each essay is the fruit of a deep period of prayer and study. My goal was to contribute to the church’s thinking and to rediscover my own sense of contentment in Christ.
Moore: Over the years, I have read many books with titles like The Christian Mind by Harry Blamires, John Stott’s Your Mind Matters, and Love Your God with all Your Mind by J.P. Moreland. How does your book make a fresh contribution?
Spencer: Thinking Christian makes a couple of unique contributions. First, I’ve attempted to highlight the need for a church capable of training Christians to think Christian. The church needs to counter the world’s logics so Christians learn to approach the world as a people who look and listen with theological eyes and ears. For instance, James urges us to be slow to speak, slow to anger, and quick to listen. While Christians would likely affirm James’s command, it isn’t always clear that we have embraced James 1:19-20 on social media platforms that increasingly encourage us to be quick to speak, quick to anger, and slow to listen. Counter-acting that latter logic seems to me to require a community that trains us to use a biblically rooted theo-logic. I hope Thinking Christian makes a contribution in that respect.
The second contribution is related to Thinking Christian’s evaluation of Christian thought in the digital age. The church has not adequately considered the implications of new technologies and technology practices. Thinking Christian offers some direction for thinking about issues like Christian testimony and accountability by reckoning with the new media and technology environment in which the church seeks to offer a faithful witness.
Moore: What are some of the best practices you have seen for getting out of our self-imposed echo chambers where everyone agrees with one another?
Spencer: First, just as Israel’s king was to write a copy of the law every year, we need to keep God’s word close. The goal is, in part, to ensure that we do not come to believe that our incomplete understand of the world is complete. God’s word has a way of disabusing us of such notions by constantly reminding us that we only know in part.
Second, we have to create quieter spaces in our lives. We have to turn down the volume so we can think more deeply about our decisions and the positions we hold.
Finally, we have to set aside our “us versus them” mentality which creates unnecessary conflict that keeps us from understanding the perspectives of others. That mentality conditions us to react to “opposing views” by doubling down on our own arguments. If we can learn to approach others as people seeking to make a contribution, we can maintain our convictions while evaluating the ways information sources help and/or hinder our ability to see more faithfully what God is doing. This orientation requires the humility to recognize the incompleteness of our own views. That humility will help us resist the echo chamber.
Moore: What are some tangible things that pastors can do to equip Christians to be ready to give a loving and thoughtful engagement with non-Christians?
Spencer: I think pastors would do well to remind congregants that everyone feels the brokenness of the world in different ways. As Christians, part of loving our neighbors involves learning how they feel the world’s brokenness and how they seek to address it. Once we understand our neighbors, we can proclaim Christ as the only and final solution to the brokenness they see. There is a place to address specific individual sins and to be proactive in sharing the gospel, but I’ve found that non-Christians are more willing to consider the gospel when I listen to them first.
Of course, in today’s world who we are in our one-on-one interactions with non-Christians will likely need to match who we are in our digital interactions. As such, pastors also need to encourage congregants to consider their witness comprehensively. So often we fool ourselves into thinking that liking, posting, sharing, and commenting are effective ways of changing the world when they may actually be distractions pointing the world away from Christ.
Moore: In your book, you mentioned James Clear’s comment that “we don’t rise to our goals, but rather fall to our systems.” For those not familiar with Clear’s work, would you describe first what he means, and secondly what bearing that sage observation means for Christian learning?
Spencer: I’m always quick to say that earning a PhD isn’t simply about being disciplined or intelligent. It requires a support system. My wife, for instance, supported me financially and emotionally while I completed by coursework. My goal was to earn a PhD, but without the support systems of my wife and others, I’m not sure I would have achieved that goal.
Clear is making a similar point. Our systems can hinder our ability to achieve our goals because they create environments. All environments afford us certain opportunities while withholding others. If we try to reach goals within a system that does not afford us the opportunities necessary to achieve those goals, it will be far more difficult, though not impossible, to achieve them.
When we apply this understanding to Christian learning, we will likely recognize that we exist within systems that have no interest in seeing us be and make disciples for Jesus. As such, the goal of faithfully witnessing to Christ is made more difficult by the systems in which we exist. We need a system that fosters and supports discipleship. The church is to offer such a “system.” If it’s not, we all need to address it.
Moore: Your wide and eclectic reading, especially writers outside your own Christian tradition, models an intentional desire to not be stuck in your own echo chamber. What are some things that first motivated you to delve into writers with very different worldviews than your own?
Spencer: My interdisciplinary focus developed out of my rather odd career path. I’d pursued a PhD in theological studies with the intention of becoming a faculty member. I wanted to write and teach. As it turned out, I started my career as an assistant dean of an online department before transitioning into a role as academic dean and now as president of a Christian non-profit.
While I was learning the ropes as an administrator, evaluating pedagogical strategies, guiding education finance, and overseeing marketing and recruitment, I made an effort to think theologically about systems, process, policies, and curricula. Doing so required me to interact with business, educational, psychological, and sociological literature.
I came to appreciate the way that interdisciplinary engagement challenged me to think theologically. The novelty of other fields made me explore the scriptures and do theology in ways I would not have otherwise. It has kept me open to new ideas and insights, as well as helping me to clarify my own biblical and theological convictions.
Moore: What are a few things you hope your readers take from your book?
Spencer: Ultimately, I want readers to recognize that Christians have a unique capacity to proclaim Christ in a fallen world. We need to say and do what only we can. We can’t allow political, socio-cultural, or economic crises to overshadow God and the gospel. We can participate in these realms, yet fixing political, cultural, and economic problems has to proceed from an unwavering commitment to be and make disciples. Only Christians can proclaim the gospel in deed and in truth.
I would also like readers to recognize our need to conform our speech and behavior to a theo-logic that is less concerned with solving society’s problems than pointing to God’s solution for the world’s brokenness. That doesn’t mean we ignore the world’s brokenness. As James notes, practicing pure and undefiled religion involves engaging that brokenness. It does mean that we aren’t called to fix the world, but to live faithfully within it.
I hope readers walk away from Thinking Christian with a renewed desire to build the body of Christ, to outdo one another in showing honor, and to observe God’s teachings, however inconvenient or ineffective it may seem to do so, so that the world may seek Christ in us.
My latest interview:
My interview with Marvin Olasky on his difficult relationship with his dad:
Winn Collier is director of The Eugene Peterson Center for Christian Imagination at Western Theological Seminary.
The following interview revolves around Collier’s highly anticipated book, A Burning in My Bones: The Authorized Biography of Eugene H. Peterson.
Moore: Give us a bit of the backstory of how you came to be the person to write this biography of Eugene Peterson.
Collier: Well, I began reading Eugene over 20 years ago, when a generous church elder, who apparently knew I needed help, handed me a copy of Working the Angles. I was only paragraphs in when this pastoral vision Eugene described detonated in my soul. Eugene described what my soul ached for—but didn’t have any language to describe. I began to write Eugene letters, and remarkably, he wrote back. He became my pastor. In January 2017, after a trip to Montana that I assumed would be my last time to see him, I wrote Eugene and asked him about writing his biography. He hated the idea. But we kept talking, and eventually he warmed to it.
Moore: I have read several books by Peterson. All were terrific. I also read his 2012 book simply called, The Pastor: A Memoir. How is your book different than The Pastor?
Collier: The Pastor is a beautiful memoir (though he also resisted this and only wrote it after years of cajoling), but Eugene really didn’t enjoy talking about himself. So, there were lots of interior places he shied away from and numerous rabbit trails that he never considered interesting enough to follow (“why would anybody be interested in my life,” he’d often say to me). But like a bloodhound, I couldn’t help but follow the scent, sniffing my way to fascinating revelations and numerous insightful dimensions to his life. Also, he wrote his memoir through the lens of being a pastor, but I was far more curious about the fulness of Eugene as a person. And of course, Eugene’s memoir ventured little into the years after he left his church in Bel Air, MD—and Eugene had so many remarkable years after this, some of his best stuff really.
Moore: The physicality or materiality of spirituality captivated Peterson, though I know he did not like the word “spirituality.” Would you describe why physical spaces and material realities so captivated Peterson?
Collier: If we separate the material and physical from our encounter with God, then we’ve amputated a massive part of the gospel. Eugene insisted you could never separate geography from theology. The entire story of Scripture reveals God acting in particular moments, with particular people, in particular places. Jesus was born a Jew, to one mother named Mary and spent his childhood tucked away in one dusty village, surrounded by the troubled history of the tribe of Judah. If we ignore any of this, we misunderstand Jesus. The same way, Eugene was born under the shadow of the Swan Mountain Range, for years inhaling the scent of blood and wax paper in his dad’s butcher shop, feeling his mind and heart swell as he spent Saturdays alone in the rugged vastness of that Big Sky country. To miss any of this would be to miss part of Eugene…and to miss the particular ways that God’s grace surrounded and shaped Eugene. The whole earth—every osprey and sunrise and Appalachian hollow, every painting and carpenter’s angle and every loving kiss—declares the glory of God.
Moore: What do you think are Peterson’s best three books, or at least the ones that have spoken most powerfully to you?
Collier: Let me just stick with the ones that have meant the most to me. Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity names the poison in the pastoral stew better than anything I’ve read, and with precision that is both simple and daring, offers us the cure. Then either Leap Over a Wall or A Long Obedience in the Same Direction (sorry, two here) both offer artful guidance into life with God. As a third, I’d say Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, where Eugene sketches a panoramic, breathtaking vision of God’s presence in the world and with us—I don’t think this work has fully detonated in our imagination yet. There’s three (or 4). Ask me on another day, though, and I might give a different answer.
Moore: I think your book strikes a wise balance in not getting into prurient details about personal matters while still describing important details like the hurt Peterson experienced in his relationship with his dad. How did you decide what was appropriate to include and what was not?
Collier: That was tricky. I didn’t want to play into sensationalism or voyeurism. However, nothing would be more dishonoring to Eugene’s way that to stick him on a pedestal. He was human, flawed. For me, this is what makes his story so compelling. To encounter a person so fleshy and human, yet someone being transformed by holy love—that’s beautiful, that’s important for us to encounter. I wanted to include everything necessary to make it true and a well-crafted story but nothing that would merely serve as bait—that would only cheapen the story.
Moore: One disappointment I (and others) have had with Peterson is how he steered clear of what is called “polemics.” I certainly appreciate Peterson’s penchant for being irenic and avoiding nasty fights where pedantic points dominate the debate. It seems that Peterson’s desire to avoid the fleshly fray may have caused him to overreact. What do you think?
Collier: Perhaps due to my own disposition (or maybe overreaction), I tend to get more where Eugene was coming from—and operate mostly the same way myself. For Eugene, it was more about ways and means. It wasn’t at all that Eugene didn’t want to say hard things (he could light some fires, if you were paying attention), but rather Eugene felt that the way we go about polemics typically undermines whatever truth we were trying to get at. Also, he often simply distrusted the framing of the debate, the binaries, the assumptions. It wasn’t so much that Eugene refused to answer the question that was being asked—it was simply that Eugene was asking different questions. A friend once got frustrated with Eugene and accused him of being “coy.” Eugene winced at that criticism, and thought it was to some degree unfair. However, he took it to heart, and in his following book tried to be more direct in a few areas where he had something direct to say (the Christian misuse of power and the church’s idolatrous political alignment). However, I think his friend still found him coy.
Maybe we should handle this now. What nasty fight should we wade into?
Moore: Your well-crafted words honor your subject. You did a terrific job conveying a wide range of emotions from the humorous to the poignant. What are a few things that you hope your readers will take from your book?
Collier: I hope they will encounter Eugene, what it was like to sit with him (both in laughter and silence), to watch for the osprey to swoop into the bay, to hear his raspy voice, to sit at the table after dinner and share a bowl of butter pecan ice cream, to linger with a friend whose life has become a prayer. I hope a few readers will find hope again, just knowing that there are people like Eugene and Jan who’ve lived good lives, faithful lives, artful lives—people who are far from perfect, but people who are true and trustworthy. I hope a few readers will become more curious: what could my life, lived with such receptivity to God’s love and presence, be like? or maybe: what good story is God writing with my own ordinary days and years?