Rob: Hi, everyone. This is Bishop Rob Wright and this is For People.
Today, we’ve got just a wonderful treat, we’re on with Diana Butler Bass. Welcome, Diana.
Diana: It is just so exciting for me to be with you.
Rob: Well, I’m delighted to have you here. I was recently with you in New York. And for those of you who don’t know, she is an award-winning author, speaker, inspiring preacher. She’s been called spontaneous and always surprising by Marcus Borg. She’s a wife. She’s a mother. She’s a pet owner. She bops around and talks to all kinds of folks behind the limits of denomination. And I just thought she’d be a fantastic conversation partner for us today. And she’s got a new book out called Freeing Jesus. Now, Diana, tell us why Jesus needs to be free?
Diana: Well, Freeing Jesus, I think that you’ll like this. It actually beings with an episode that happened to me in the Washington National Cathedral in 2013. I was working on a completely different project. I was having trouble with it. I live in the suburbs of DC. Sometimes when I’m kind of spiritually all jammed up, I would love going into the Cathedral and praying in there. It’s just such a great space. This one day I went to the Cathedral, I was praying in the chapel of the Holy Spirit, which has this gorgeous turn of the century mosaic/painting above the altar of Jesus. It is by N.C. Wyeth.
I was there and I was struggling. “God, why can’t I get this project done? Where are you God? I can’t hear my own voice.” And all of a sudden, I heard a voice that said, “Get me out of here.” It was so clear. I looked around and there was no one in the chapel, except for me. So, I went, “Okay. I’ll just keeping praying.” So, I went back to my struggling pray and a second time I heard the voice say, “Get me out of here.” At that point, I looked up at the painting and I said, “Jesus? Is that you?” And the voice responded a third time, “Get me out of here.” And at that point, I was so freaked out, I literally had no idea why Jesus was asking me to get him out of the Washington national Cathedral.
There was a Priest right then who was coming down the aisle. And I was just like, “I don’t want to deal with this with anyone who is ordained. Maybe they will hear the voice too. Who knows what is going to happen?” I literally bolted out of the Cathedral. I only told my husband about that episode for a couple of years. But when I got home and shared it with him, he laughed. And he said, “Gosh, it’s not everybody who Jesus asks to spring him from the slammer.”
Rob: Right. You’re right. What an important calling you got.
Diana: Yeah. I really have taken that episode and unrolled it. I wondered for years, what in the world was that all about? Was that some deep anxiety of my own about the Church or what have you? But I really think that it was certainly predictive of what was going to happen. A lot of people are leaving Church and having to meet Jesus in other places. So, in effect, the Church is needing to free Jesus back out of our buildings onto the streets. I think that’s definitely something that has happened.
I learned through writing this book, that there are certain things that had really bottled up my own relationship with Jesus, I needed to be freed from in order to meet with Jesus again. It winds up being a book that works on sort of two levels. One a cultural level, about the state of Christianity in particular and how people are still interested in Jesus but how so many people are angry at the Church. And then it also winds up being an invitation for people to explore the terrain of their own Jesus stories.
Rob: Yeah. You know that story sort of connects to the most recent survey that people are talking about all over the Church. Of people polled, who live beyond the Church doors, more than 80% of people still think Jesus is way cool. He’s enigmatic. He’s inspirational. He’s a moral and ethical teacher. He’s someone to know. When those same people are asked, how many of you go to Church? The number was below 40%. There is a gap there.
Just like Jesus wondering around in Galilee in his own time, he lived beyond sort of the narrow confines of the Synagogue. Real people received him, thought he was someone to have dinner with, thought he was someone to listen to, and the Church/Synagogue at that time, really struggled to fully embrace those ideas. I think you are on to something.
I have thought for many years now that we have sort of moderated the relationship. We might need to figure out another place to stand. This has a little bit more humility and more curiosity than we have a lot of times.
When I write, when I get an idea like that, not sort of a full-blown revelation, when I have the beginnings of something and I sit down and write, it begins to work it out. It begins to get clearer about what I was thinking about or what was sort of coming at me. What did you learn as you wrote? What was new? What was discovery for you?
Diana: This was one of the books that I’ve written where every single chapter had a discovery for me. I can’t say that is always the case. I have a PhD in Religious Studies. I have written about Church history, which is my field of expertise. I’ve written about congregational development, which is something that I’ve spent an enormous amount of time studying academically and personally. There are books that I have written that my job is to surprise my readers with some new information or hope or what have you.
But there are a couple of books that I have written, a book called Grounded. Really my last three books, Grounded, Grateful, Freeing Jesus, all three record my surprise in encountering something that was either deep within my own experience and I’m uncovering it for the readers as I’m uncovering it for myself. It really becomes a shared journey of surprise.
In Freeing Jesus, the more professional part fits in with what you were just saying about the Church statistics. I mean, I love Churches. I work with Churches all the time. I’m an Episcopalian. I have been since 1980, which means my very first experience in the Episcopal Church people kept talking about the new prayer book. And I kept wondering when it was going to show it. What? We are getting a new prayer book?
Rob: There is a commentary right there, right?
Diana: I was like one of the very first people that was brought into the Church under the new prayer book. I just thought it was the prayer book. I am a Church girl. I wrote a book that started with the line, “I am a Churchgoer.” I’m not one of those people who is like, “Yeah, leave Church. It stinks.” I am sad about those statistics. And I would love to see them turn around. But I’m also kind of a realist. I understand the ebb and flow of religion and different cultural settings. We are in a real ebb period right now. We can sit around hoping that people will come back to Church. And we can try things to get them to come back to Church, which I always encourage people to do. But the reality of the moment is that people aren’t.
If the stories of Jesus are to thrive in this culture, we have to move on.
Rob: That is what made me want to invite you to the Podcast. You were sort of embodying a way forward I think for the Church. When we were in New York together you were giving a lecture, a General Theological Seminary, The Paddock Lectures. You were telling your own story.
I was just talking to Cynthia Kittridge, who is the Dean of the Seminary of the Southwest. I went down to Austin, Texas a little while ago and did a little module. There were just these little real world snippets from my own life. Appropriate sharing but nevertheless sharing out of my own life how I had rediscovered new reliance on God, how I rediscovered wonder in God. And she was commenting on that. I was saying to her, “As far as I can tell, that’s the only way forward. And that is for you and I to give up a little bit of ourselves, about our real life with God, and to share the messiness of that with people so it can connect with the messiness of their stories. And maybe they can do some discovery.”
You did all of that in the lecture. You talked about your family. You talked about some examples of real girl power in your family, some of the women in your family. You talked about some other difficult intersections that your family stood at and had to make choices. Some we celebrate. Some we wish they would have chosen differently.
How did you get there?
Diana: It is interesting because the New York lectures, if anyone is interested in them, were the Paddock Lectures. Those are available online. I talked about the history of the Episcopal Church through this set of characters that no one knew existed, just regular people on the Eastern shore of Maryland in the 1680s and 1690s.
As you know, since you were there, I told the story about slavery, racism, quakers, and the Anglicans in that really important piece of real estate, what would eventually become the United States. It was about how one family started out so idealistically and then ended up owning slaves. And people loved the story. But as you already sort of gave away the store, at the end of the first lecture, I revealed that I was telling the story of my own family. And that’s how I found this little story about people that nobody had ever heard of. These are people that are not famous. They are just regular farmers.
The power of hidden stories was something that I really wanted to share there. And I also wanted to share why it’s so important for a denomination to recover those kinds of stories. Our stories that we tell about ourselves, shouldn’t just be about institutional development and, you know, don’t take this personally of course, it shouldn’t just be about people who hold high sorts of offices, like bishops, or when we built certain buildings, or when we passed certain kinds of resolutions. Because the texture of any community is really about the people who inhabit it. And how those folks shape it over generations.
The hidden stories are really the heart of who we are. And I think that is part of the problem that we are having right now communicating is that contemporary people aren’t very interested in institutional histories. They don’t want to sit down and study the development of all the different kinds of laws that Congress passes over the last decade and what that says about the American future. They are interested in is stories about how people struggle who are in government, what gets people to government. I think that Barack Obama becoming President on the back of writing of a memoir of his struggle to find his own father. What takes Barack Obama into the political arena was that the whole memoir he wrote, Dreams of My Father. He discovered something new about who he was. And in discovering who he was, he discovered what his story could mean for America. That whole vision of being a man who was biracial, a man who came from a family with a story of slavery, and a man with all of these different trends of world history in his blood, that he knew it was somehow kind of a microcosm of the American moment in which he was elected to Senate and then becomes President. That kind of story is compelling.
What I’ve been trying to do in telling history, in the way that I did at General, about slavery and race is not simply tell a story about why race is terrible. Racism is terrible. We all know that racism is terrible, you know, except for people who are supporting it and they just have to be convinced differently. But most of us, “I don’t want to be racist. Racism is a bad thing. I want to love everybody because God loves everybody.” I think people have really good intentions.
And so, some of the ways that we introduce these issues, like white supremacy, et cetera, sound more condemning. But when we enter through our own stories. You know, my story became a story that I was both proud of and there were parts of it that were shameful to me. And that gave me something to wrestle with that was personal and real. And I saw the sudden why these stories matter, to share them as honestly as possible. So, Memoir opens doors for us that normally wouldn’t be opened. Doors that sometimes we close by virtue of our own intellect. We open via the path of our hearts. And so, that’s why Memoir is so significant.
Rob: I was listening to you against the backdrop of our national conversation which is, we are trying to blunt any storytelling about our shared American journey. We are trying to stop it, trying to plug the holes, we don’t want to hear about it. We don’t want to hear about the journey we’ve been on to make this a more perfect union. We are shutting off a whole opportunity to understand the complexity of what it means to make a nation state. What we have gotten wrong and what we have gotten right.
I’m having that conversation in my head. You come to the room and telling your story and all the checkered nature of it. I was thinking to myself, maybe less of these big abstract ideas and certainly none of these acronyms that we’re sort of batting around now in the public conversation. But more about the stories. More about the stories. Maybe that is one way to free Jesus is to have a little more confidence in the stories. I’m aware when Jesus talks to the woman at the well, he knows her difficult story when it comes to marriage and relationships. He doesn’t count that against her. That is not counted against her either as a conversation partner and certainly doesn’t inhibit her as she goes forward to say, “Hey, I met a guy. You guys got to come meet this guy.” In many ways this guy sat with my whole story and still saw me through the lens of dignity.
We have to figure out how to do that more in the Church rather than be these sort of co-opted by the red or the blue and various talking points. Our message of good news and the messiness of human existence. We can’t persuade God to stop coming at us. God is just going to keep coming at us. That is the good news of Easter. No matter the mess, it is really the greatness of the gospel. When we round off the edges of that, I think we do ourselves a real dis-service. And I think it’s going to take personal courage.
Diana: Yeah. It’s really funny that we would be talking about both New York and freeing Jesus in the same conversation. Because they are demonstrations of something that I have become incredibly passionate about. You know, you hate to say this about yourself, but I think that my distinctive voice as a Christian thinker, as a person who stands in theological shoes, and as a personal who is looked too in the public arena as a voice for Christianity is that this whole idea of what I call memoir theology.
I write about it in Freeing Jesus. That is in the very end of Freeing Jesus. I tell the story, and then at the end, I did in New York as well, I sort of reveal what I’ve been about the whole time. What I argue toward in Freeing Jesus, it is my memoir, but it’s not my memoir told with sort of theological embellishments. What I’m really doing is I’m writing a story of Jesus, which is theology, it’s a real Christology about Jesus as a friend, teacher, Savoir, Lord, way, and presence. So, the emphasis is on Jesus. But I use my story as an entry point into this Christology that I’m shaping.
One of the reasons it is so significant is that Protestant Churches in particular, which Anglicanism is in the big family even though we consider ourselves both Catholic and Protestant, I understand that piece. But Protestantism and Liberal Protestantism, which is a deep theological tradition that has impacted the Episcopal Church, has gotten caught up over the last 100-years in this divide about Jesus. And it’s not really red and blue. But it is a really important theological divide. And I know that you are aware of it. It is the divide of Jesus as a figure in history or Jesus as the Christ, the figure that emerges theologically in the creeds and the liturgical life of the Church after third century.
And 100-years ago, a German Theologian, named martin Culler, talked about the Jesus of history versus the Christ of Faith. And for the last 100-years, basically Protestants and people shaped by Protestant theology, have been having this big argument about these two Jesus’. On one hand, over the last 20 or 30-years, we’ve had the Jesus Seminar. That is the extension of the Jesus of History School. Lots of my personal friends have been part of the Jesus Seminar. I have spoken at the Jesus Seminar. It’s a really interesting group of people with great work.
And then on the other hand, there is the idea of the Christ of Faith. That’s the Christ that is shaped by doctrine and dogma. One of the things that is fascinating right now in the Episcopal Church is that there is sort of a younger generation of clergy that are deeply committed to the Christ of Faith and actually hate the idea of the Jesus of History. Sort of the new argument is getting loaded over in towards the creedal space to the point where I have actually seen people on social media argue that no one should be even admitted for confirmation as a layperson until they formally confess that they believe in the literal teaching of the creed. So, like Jesus is born literally of a literal historical virgin.
Diana: So, you see the energy shifting there in this dualistic argument. My work suggests is that’s the problem. We have been shaped by a dualistic argument about Jesus. Both of these things are obviously windows to offer into who Jesus was and is. And do we have different language to talk about Jesus? That is where I begin to shape this book as the Jesus of Experience. The Jesus of Experience is of course the only Jesus we really know. Because the Jesus of History lived 2,000-years ago. All we can ever know that Jesus threw is evidence and history books and really smart work by biblical scholars. And really the Christ of the Creeds we can know. I say it in the book, there is a way that the Christ of the Creeds actually remains abstracted for us. When I stand in Church every Sunday and say, “God of God, light of lights, true God from true God,” all that stuff. It’s like, “What?” I mean I know what it means. I have taught it. I know exactly where it comes from. I know the philosophical backgrounds of it. I can give you a dazzling lecture on the origins of the creeds. But at the same time, it’s like, “Really, this is what we are talking about on Sunday morning?” It just feels distant.
Rob: I hope not. Let me just say, you know, that gest my cockles up because as a person who has education, like you and has been grounded and benefited from all of that, I get real nervous about us writing out a whole group of people who don’t have formal education and they don’t need all of that to come to Jesus. I get really worried that we end up setting up another Pharisee and Sadducees kind of situation, leaving so many people behind.
It was always interesting to me, as I read the scriptures, that Jesus was always heralded by the folks as someone who was not in either camp and, therefore accessible. And accessible not only in gentleness and radical teaching, wisdom teaching, but in compassion.
So, maybe this whole freeing Jesus is something that we should be talking about. I mean, we didn’t plan all this when we started talking today. But I think that is exactly it. How can we stop painting all of Jesus’ canvas and allow Jesus to be seen for who he is? I think a lot about that. I think about how we have to figure that going forward. We don’t really want to talk about it. But not everybody who left Egypt made it to the Promise Land. A remnant made it there. And when I think about where we are right now, and this will be controversial to some people, I think we’re moving into sort of a remnant situation with the Church. Not every Church is going to make it.
If we are honest, a lot of Churches are sort of bound up by generational practices and people don’t want to let go of those. I understand them. They are holy and good rituals and practices and they were the stuff that made us Chrisitan and the stuff that kept us Christian. It fed us and nurtured us. But these kids are different. While I realize something is passing away, I’m always trying to pay attention for what is being born. What plant is coming up through the cracked concrete and that excites me. When I talk to young people, I’m a father of 5. I’ve got young kids, some in college, some not quite in college, and some beyond college. What is fascinating to me is that human beings are going to always want to talk about, what is a good life? What is generosity? What is forgiveness? What is love? How do I know? Who cares? All of these sorts of things.
The conversation goes on and I think we’ve just got to stop being so flat footed and so bound up. We need to be able to have some conversations. I mean, I think this is what Jesus literally does in Galilee. He’s just up on the balls of his feet. He’s having conversations with people. He’s walking. He’s talking it. And I think people respond. And when I see people in the Church and beyond the Church doing that, I still see that they are meeting in need.