Jason Byassee: Writing, Tradition, and Pluralism

Jason Byassee: Writing, Tradition, and Pluralism
Photo of Rev. Dr. Jason Byassee

Thanks to my colleague Rev. Dr. Jason Byassee for agreeing to this interview! Jason works with me at the Vancouver School of Theology. Officially his title is Butler Chair in Homiletics and Biblical Hermeneutics.

Jason is a busy person! He teaches preaching, organizes summer school, runs our Ph.D program, lectures in the community, walks in the woods with his wife Jaylyn, their teenage boys, and their dog.

Jason and I teach a course together, bringing Jews and Christians into dialogue. Some of Jason’s reflections from the course show up in his 2019 book Surprised by Jesus Again.

Jason is also well-known for his work as a blogger at Christian Century magazine. So let’s start there!

Blog something beautiful: be a blessing

Laura: You worked as a blog curator for the Call and Response blog, and an editor at the online Christian Century. Could you share something you learned from that work that would be helpful to aspiring bloggers?

Jason: I was the youngest employee at two publications, and so got stuck with blogging. I found glory in it—publish a book and wait years for a review to come out; but publish a blog and you hear back this afternoon. But there was also misery in it. If you want eyeballs, just burn somebody. Cause controversy, however contrived. That’s what’s wrong with our media ecosystem and so our politics in America.

That experience aside, I’m still a little bit of a romantic when it comes to writing. I believe good writing will find good readers. The right response to Rupert Murdoch’s remarkably successful work poisoning our media ecosystem is to do a “small, good thing.” Produce something beautiful that people you respect will admire and learn from. It doesn’t make anybody famous or draw much by way of advertising dollars, but it’s worth doing, a seed planted, a blessing turned loose in the world.

Write all the time: be ready for the muse

Laura: I sit with you in meetings and I see you writing in your notebook all the time. How does your regular writing practice help you write books? Does it help you, for example, think, discover, remember, or…?

Jason: Busted! I just get bored easily, so the journal lets me retreat into thinking about something that interests me instead of letting whoever is presently wasting my time get away with it. Harsh of me, right?

But I do keep the journal for better reasons: the muses strike at weird times. If you’re ready to scribble notes down, when they strike, you’re ready. 99% of what goes in there dies a quiet death. (And I often say if the house is on fire I’m going to run back in . . . to make sure the journals burn up!). But sometimes there’s glory in there.

Let tradition shape your spirituality

Laura: We’ve discussed the words “spiritual” and “religious” many times. You clearly write in the Christian tradition. What kind of spirituality does your work express? 

Jason: I was first taught to pray by evangelicals. My home wasn’t religious. I was converted at a Baptist camp, and for a decade was involved in pan-evangelical churches and parachurch ministries. In all of them, prayer was a “quiet time,” just you and the bible and God.

When that stopped working for me, I discovered the Christian tradition, liturgy in general, and monasticism in particular. I learned to pray “weathered” prayers that had aged well, with fellow Christians around the world now and long-dead, set around the year’s feasts and fasts. Prayer is too important to leave to mere individuals. So, for me, faith is always mediated: through the flesh of Jesus for us Christians, by the sacraments, through the neighbour, the enemy.

Learn from differently religious neighbours

Laura: When you write about faith, you speak a very particular evangelical language about Jesus. Yet you are also a staunch pluralist, opposed to antisemitism and discrimination. How do you hold both the particular and the general?

Jason: It’s long seemed odd to me that one should have to give up one’s particularity in order to be of general service. But that’s the strange bargain Enlightenment-based modernity seems to offer: give up your particularity and join the rest of us. The problem, of course, is having given up that uniqueness, what exactly do you have to offer to others?

I’ve discovered such great grace in learning from Jewish friends (along with great grit and humour and wisdom). I’ve come to hope for what I call a Jewish shape to Christian institutions: they serve the neighbour well precisely by guarding their specific origins. God always seems to work through the particular (Abraham and Sarah, say) to bless the general (the whole world).

To give a small example, Berea College in Kentucky was founded by evangelical zealots, crazy enough about Jesus to enroll black students before the Civil War. Their revivalist faith summoned all people to Jesus, and so built something beautiful in our political life together. I hope they never lose that commitment.

Now that the church has been rightfully stripped of the wrong sort of power, we’re trying to learn to meet interlocutors in their otherness, hear how they’re different, and go about mutually blessing a world in tatters rather than blendering us into a false lowest common denominator. That’s good news!

Follow Jason Byassee on twitter: @jasonbyassee. Christian readers might be especially interested in Jason’s newest book, Northern Lights.

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