Interview with Jason Boyett about doubt...and pantaloons

Jason Boyett is one of my favorite bloggers. Author of the Pocket Guide series, he has a disarming sense of humor and fluid, easy style.  So you can imagine my delight when I learned that Jason has written a book about his experience with religious doubt, which will be published by Zondervan in the summer of 2010. (Sound familiar?)

Entitled O Me of Little Faith, the book opens with this:

I am a Christian. I have been a Christian for most of my life. But there are times--a growing number of times, to be honest--when I’m not entirely sure I believe in God.

There. I said it.

So now you know, and we can both relax and talk about it.

I love it! Seeing as we have so much in common, I thought I’d interview Jason as a way of introducing him to you.  Enjoy!

R: So the shirtless kid on the cover of O Me of Little Faith is by far the cutest character to grace the cover of any of your books. (I’d put the haloed fellow from Pocket Guide to Sainthood at a very distant second.) In what ways do you identify with this little boy? How is he a good representation of your own faith journey? Or is this just your way of telling the world that you too wear bandages over your nipples?

J: What about the scampering skeleton from Pocket Guide to the Apocalypse? He's not traditionally "cute," but he really grows on you. Regarding the little boy on the cover, I can't speak on behalf of the nipple bandages. That's one of those deep metaphors we'll all still be trying to unpack years from now. But here's how I identify with him right now: the kid is skinny. He has no muscular tone. He is as unripped as they come. But look at him pose! Look at the confidence! This kid is scrawny but shirtless and flexing. He's not worried about what anyone thinks of his lack of muscle.

In O Me of Little Faith, I tell a story from my junior high days that highlights my own physical scrawniness. I was a skinny, wimpy kid. The rest of the book fills in how that physical weakness also had a spiritual counterpart -- I was spiritually weak, too. Unmuscular when it comes to faith (I'm still that way). But the book is about how I'm learning to be OK with my lack of faith, and how I've begun to embrace doubt as an intrinsic part of my spirituality. Like the scrawny kid on the cover, this book is me taking off my shirt and showing my scrawniness to the world. Without fear or worry or pretension. Without hiding my doubt. The apostle Paul wrote about the value of boasting about his weaknesses in order to magnify God's grace. This book is my way of doing that.

How is O Me of Little Faith different from any other book you have written?

It's way, way, way more personal than anything I've written. Up to this point, the books I've written have been advicey books (Guy's Guide to Life) or snarky history/theology books (the Pocket Guides). In them, I could adopt a voice or persona and write from behind that mask. The Pocket Guide persona, especially, is an artificial one. He's sarcastic, supremely confident, and unafraid of stepping on toes. That's not really me. (Not that I'm not claiming responsibility for those books. Of course they're mine. They have my name on them! It's just that I sort of adopt a different writing voice for them in order to keep them entertaining and funny. It's...complicated.)

Anyway, my previous books have been about various subjects. The afterlife. The apocalypse. But the subject of OMOLF is...me. There's no hiding behind any persona. So in many ways it was refreshing to write because I could just spill myself out onto the page. But in other ways it was a little painful. I wanted to be transparent and honest as I wrote about my spiritual doubt, which meant taking risks and removing filters. That's kinda scary.

Why do you think it is important for Christians to talk openly about their doubts?

The first reason is because doubt is a necessary part of faith. We tend to think that faith and doubt are opposites, but they're not. The opposite of faith isn't doubt. The opposite of faith is certainty. If we are certain of something, we don't need faith. Faith and doubt, then, exist side by side -- and that plays itself out all over the Bible ("Lord I believe! Help me overcome my unbelief.").

But -- reason #2 -- doubt is about as taboo a subject as you can bring up in church. When was the last time anyone in a small group or church service admitted to not knowing if he or she believed in God? Or wondering if God was really present at all, or good? I've honestly had readers tell me that they'd love to read my book, but worry about what their friends or family might think when they see them reading a book about doubt. It sounds flippant, but maybe they should hide my book behind a Playboy. It's more acceptable to be a Christian with a porn problem than a Christian with a doubt problem. That's horrible. I want doubters to know that they're not alone in the journey, and that it's OK. That they don't have to pretend to have it all together. That they don't have to fake it. I hope this book gives them the freedom to be honest, and the encouragement to continue pursuing God, however that might look.

As you’ve opened up about your own doubts, have you found yourself meeting other folks who are eager to talk about theirs? What have you learned from them? Have you picked up on any common themes?

I've learned that being open about your doubts makes you a magnet for other doubters, which is wonderful. I've had a lot of people, whether in person or via email, tell me that they, too, are doubters -- because suddenly you're a safe person to confide in. And yes, people are eager to talk about it. Doubt is one of those things we bottle up. When you do that for years and years, the pressure gets too intense. It's good to let that pressure out, and talking to someone who 1) can identify with you and 2) won't judge you for it provides an excellent release valve. We need that. I need that.

One theme I've discovered is that, despite the wealth of Christian apologetics resources and Lee Strobel books and how-to-convince-atheists-to-love-Jesus videos, the usual answers don't always cut it. "You should read your Bible more. You need to pray more. You need to look at this cross-shaped diagram of a laminin protein and then you'll no longer doubt God." Seriously, we've heard the answers and not only are they often intellectually insufficient, but they're patronizing. Those who don't struggle with doubt tend to blame our uncertainty on pride or arrogance before God or some kind of sinfulness. As if we are looking for reasons to doubt because we want license to sin or escape the restrictions of Christianity. That's rarely the case. I don't WANT to be a doubter, but I am. Just like you can't unring a bell, you can't will yourself to believe something. Faith is a process, it's not a switch. The super-certain super-faithful seem not to understand that.

Are there certain situations/questions/theological positions/ people on TBN that trigger your doubts? Do you find that it is best to avoid such situations/questions/theological positions/people on TBN or to confront and explore the doubts that they trigger?

Yes. My triggers are science and history. Definitely not people on TBN. 

Let me chase a rabbit when it comes to basing your belief or unbelief on people: Not believing in God because of hypocrites or weird Christians is, to be blunt, a stupid reason to become an atheist. You might as well dismiss the idea of democracy because you know some ugly Americans. But choosing atheism because science or biology or rational thought leads you in that direction? That makes perfect sense to me. I'm not there, of course, but I can understand it. The more we're able to explain human behavior in terms of molecular genetics or brain activity or biological function -- absent a Creator -- then the more questions I have about what I believe, and why. The same goes for biblical criticism. A historical-critical reading of the Bible shows the fingerprints of man on it, and that makes it difficult to trust what I'm reading. That's how my brain works. I can't just automatically ignore science or scholarship because it doesn't line up with my Christian worldview. That's intellectually dishonest.

Along the same lines, I don't think it's healthy for me to avoid outside criticism because it seems to conflict with my faith. Christianity is supposed to be a religion committed to truth -- Jesus described himself as Truth -- so it needs to be able to stand up to honest questioning. I can't stick my head in the sand and pretend those questions don't exist. Besides, I love science. I love history. I love learning about the Bible. To steer away from those because they might conflict with what I'm struggling to believe isn't just a bad way to practice Christianity. It's a bad way to be a human.

One reason I find myself returning to your blog so often is I like how you don’t take yourself too seriously. How can a healthy sense of humor help in times of doubt?

Good question. I've never thought about that. I guess if I can keep laughing, then it distracts me from the weeping? (Kidding.) Humor is definitely a coping mechanism, but I'm also a big believer that it's a way to get at truth. Anything worth taking seriously is worth laughing about, and faith is the same way. But as a sometime humorist, I've learned that the least confrontational and most humble way to ask hard questions -- especially about religion -- is to ask them of yourself. I have a lot of trouble requiring others to keep to do certain things or hold to certain standards that I'm not willing to hold myself, so in the places where I don't measure up, I don't have any trouble admitting it. And there's the whole honesty and transparency aspect of it, too, which I'm big on. 

How does humor help? It would be so easy, as a Christian, to fall into despair when the doubts take hold. But it's not like becoming depressed about it helps that much. Moping just compounds the problem. And since it's impossible to hide it from God and unhealthy to hide it from others, why not talk about it? Why not laugh about it? If you can't be certain, at least you can try to be joyful. It's better to go through life with more joy than sorrow. I'm sure about that.

And now, (because I feel a bit like James Lipton), a few short questions from the Pivot Questionnaire:

What is your favorite word?

"Slake." It is an awesome word, and I've loved it my whole life, but I can't put my finger on exactly why. In 2nd place is the word "pantaloon," for obvious reasons.
 
What is your least favorite word?

Phlegm.
 
What turns you on creatively, spiritually, or emotionally?

The future. Thinking where I want to be, who I want to be, who I want my kids to be. Those things drive me forward in my career, in my creative life, in my imagination, and in my faith.
 
What turns you off?

Arrogance and ignorance. Combine those two and I become inwardly violent. (Outwardly, though, I will become exceedingly polite to you in an attempt to hide my desire to punch you in the mouth.)
 
What is your favorite curse word?

Honestly, I rarely curse. As a very clean-cut kid, I just never got into the habit growing up. Occasionally, for unknown reasons, I have found myself saying "Yamaguchi!" when I hit my thumb with a hammer or burn a finger. Yes, Yamaguchi. As in the last name of the Japanese-American figure skater, Kristi Yamaguchi. It's a good stress-relieving word that can be said through clenched teeth. My apologies to Ms. Yamaguchi for using her last name in vain. I have just outed myself as a total weirdo, haven't I?

I also think "dagnabbit" is a hilarious pseudo-curse word, especially coming from someone not wearing an oversized cowboy hat.

What sound or noise do you love?

The quiet crunch of walking on snow in the woods. There is no better sound than the muffled silence of footsteps right after a snowfall.

What sound or noise do you hate?

The sound of clicking jaw when a person chews. Gives me the heebie-jeebies.
 
What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?

I have always said that if I won the lottery and had millions of dollars I would still want a job doing something every day, even if it involved being a custodian. I could sweep floors and empty the trash and stack chairs all day. I seriously could. That said, I'd love to try my hand at being a flyfishing guide, a professional adventure racer, a backpacking gear tester, or a television/film actor. (I think acting would be fun, but who wants to live in Los Angeles? Not me.)
 
What profession would you not like to do?

There is no way on earth I could be a surgeon. Not because of the ickiness, but because of the pressure. Having someone's life (or liver) in your hands? Not for me, thanks.

If heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?

I think it's wonderful, first of all, that you start the question "If heaven exists," because lots of people will think you can hardly be a Christian at all just for including that clause. I love it. To answer the question: I'm of the opinion that, if heaven exists, there probably aren't literal gates. And there's no "arriving" there as if you have to be let in. And if St. Peter really is the bouncer, then I will eat his halo.

But, if that's what happens, then I'd love to arrive and hear God say, "Jason, you sure did have a lot of questions...and a lot of dissatisfaction with the answers. But that's how I made you, so no worries. You have been faithful with a few things, and I took care of the rest. It's on me. Now, please enjoy these chocolate-chip cookies. They're just as heavenly as your wife's, but so much healthier here!" 

Jason blogs at http://blog.jasonboyett.com. You can read more about O Me of Little Faith at the Zondervan website, or you can pre-order it right this very moment at Amazon.

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What do you think? Will doubt become a less taboo subject among Christians as more and more writers confront it?

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