091: Conversation With Phyllis Tickle on “Words of Jesus”

This week’s Conversation With the hugely popular Christian writer and book-publishing expert Phyllis Tickle is a special pleasure, because (to fully disclose our professional relationship) Phyllis has been a good friend to ReadTheSpirit, occasionally giving us sage advice over the past year.
    I have known Phyllis for decades. Our paths initially crossed in my many years as Religion Writer for The Detroit Free Press, when we would bump into each other as journalists on the road at conferences or in pursuit of major stories. For many years, she was the Religion Editor for Publishers Weekly magazine, which made her literally The Expert on trends in religious publishing.
    But, she is as passionate about the spiritual movements that animate this journalistic profession as we are at ReadTheSpirit. She is becoming more outspoken about this with each passing year. So, Phyllis and I are, in a sense, meeting again in sharing the message of the importance of faith in our lives and our communities.
    Phyllis is taking a big step closer to our ReadTheSpirit model herself with her new book, “The Words of Jesus: A Gospel of the Sayings of Our Lord,” due out this week from Jossey-Bass. In addition to the book itself, she is helping to launch a Web site with daily articles and an invitation for readers to add their own comments.
    This is what we’ve been doing with the book-and-online-experience in Interfaith Heroes Month — and soon with Our Lent: Things We Carry. Phyllis’ new site related to her new book is expected to go “live” in  February, so Click Here to see what’s currently up on that site.


    DAVID: We’ve been on similar journeys, Phyllis. I just finished writing a book, “Our Lent,” in which I immersed myself in all the events and teachings that unfolded toward the end of Jesus’ life. And you’ve immersed yourself in all the words that Jesus spoke throughout his recorded life to produce your new book.
    I think what’s most fascinating about this kind of process is that we’re saying to readers: Jump into the biblical texts along with us. You can take this journey, too. It’s been right there in the texts all the time. They’re very powerful.
    PHYLLIS: Absolutely! I even wanted to go further in my book. The publisher and I battled over whether I would write this long reflection part that opens this book — whether I would give readers my own reflections on the words of Jesus, first. Initially, I didn’t want to do that. I wanted the words of Jesus to stand on their own in the book — and to simply invite people to experience those words by themselves.
    But the publisher insisted that there should be some lead-in to the book. In essence, the fear was that the shock of just finding the words of Jesus, alone in the book, would be unsettling and disorienting.
    So, in writing the long personal reflection at the front of the book, I really wrestled with those 60 pages. Those 60 pages cost me more to produce, I think, than any other 60 pages I’ve ever written or that I’ll ever write.

    DAVID: It’s part of the Christian calling for each of us to delve into the words and teachings of Jesus, isn’t it?
    PHYLLIS: Indeed it is. Every one of us has the need and the obligation and, as Christians, the vocation to enter into the words of Jesus for what they are. Then, we may come back to the intellectual overlay we place over our faith. That’s the process I followed here in writing my own reflections for the book.
    But there’s more to the experience of entering into the scriptures than all of the intellectual deconstruction that we’ve been taught to do these days in Bible study. The mind is important, but ultimately I’ve come to believe that the heart is the seat of the soul.
    In faith, it’s the function of the mind to inform the heart and to give the heart pieces to work with –- but it’s not the function of the mind to take over the whole role of the heart.
    You know, David — two years ago, I would have told you that what I just said was a bunch of hooey, but it’s true. We’ve got to get back biblically to what we’ve been taught all along: It is the heart that believes in our salvation. We’ve become overly heady Christians trying to follow a guru rather than people of faith.

    DAVID: You stress this point eloquently in your book. I recall a line you wrote, early in your reflections at the opening of the book. I marked it in my copy. You wrote: “We have become lost in a wilderness of scholarship that forgot to bring faith and humility along for the trek.”
    It’s fascinating that you’re pointing readers to this kind of deep spiritual experience with these words from scriptures.
    PHYLLIS: That’s what we need to do -– invite people to jump into the experience. That’s why we are opening up this Web site called www.allthewordsofjesus.com. And we’re giving people a reader’s guide to the book. Jossey-Bass commissioned a long process to write this guide that included setting up a kind of laboratory group of readers who have been meeting every Wednesday night since last September going over the book, sharing their reactions and questions. They’ve been finding out what emotional territory just plain folks will encounter in a process like this.
    The laboratory group met at the Episcopal cathedral in Memphis, Tennessee. And, after the guide was done, they decided to keep on with the group.

    DAVID: We’ve been talking on an almost mystical plain here, but there are practical reasons, I think, that people don’t encounter the full sweep of the gospels. Think about the way people — in whatever denomination they find themselves — experience the Bible in weekly worship.
    We just hear bits and pieces of it in the readings. If people don’t immerse themselves in a kind of regular reading of the larger scriptures, then we get this sort of atomized Jesus — just bits and pieces of the gospel stories. Perhaps a comparison might be reducing the whole of Mark Twain’s masterpiece, “Huckleberry Finn,” to just the Cliff’s Notes.

    PHYLLIS: That’s a wonderful way to put it! Yes, that’s the problem. That’s the way we experience the scriptures — just scattered lines, usually.
    It blows you out of the water when you read and encounter the whole thing.
    In this new book, I’m asking people to encounter all of the words of Jesus that we have from the Bible — with all the rest of the narrative stripped away. This is one way that people can see that whole scope.
    When you read all of it and encounter all of it — you actually have to deal with Jesus growing and maturing as he moves through the gospels.
    DAVID: Having just gone through a year-long process of studying all the later texts in the gospels — the whole sweep of them in all four gospels — I was struck by this same thing. Jesus reaches an intensity later in his ministry, according to the gospel accounts, in which he becomes more strident in what he says.
    He warns his followers in stark terms about the dangers of the world. His stories take on a much sharper edge toward the end of his life.

     PHYLLIS: I found the same thing and you can see it when you read just Jesus’ words, alone. Some of the things he says toward the end are so striking that they really undercut this idea of a “gentle Jesus, meek and mild.”
    In this laboratory group that discussed the book at the cathedral, I got calls and emails from people in the group who complained that I was killing some of their idealized images of Jesus. At one point, someone said to me: I don’t like some of the things he’s saying here.
    One night, the study group was so sure that I had made up words or distorted the words that they spent the whole night together chasing back through references to the canonical sources to prove that the words were actually there in the Bible. They came to the session furious and sure that I had distorted the record. And then they apparently just became weary as they found that all the words really were there. They couldn’t deal with it all.
    Really, what I was hearing was a cry for help as these readers confronted some of these very challenging passages.

    DAVID: Readers who only know what we’re talking about from reading our conversation here may be scratching their heads, but what we’re talking about is a deep immersion in the whole record of the gospel stories of Jesus.
    I’m really intrigued to hear you say that your book sparked such strong reactions from people in the group — because it speaks to the enduring power of these scriptures after 2,000 years. These scriptures aren’t only about hope and reassurance. They’re immensely challenging, too, and troubling. And, in fact, part of their ability to impart hope to us — through the millennia — lies in the fact that Jesus’ did seem to understand the whole scope of the world — the terrible as well as the beautiful.
    At one point in your own reflections in the book, you write about wrestling with one particular passage yourself, and you write: “That question haunted me for days.”
    PHYLLIS: Yes, there’s power in these words, but they can haunt you, too.
    DAVID: But, beyond Jesus’ words, which you pull out and let stand alone in the main portion of your book — beyond those words, you also write in your reflection portion of the book about the other parts of the gospel narratives. You write about the great silences of Jesus and you refer to all that Jesus did, as well.
    I really think you should follow up this volume with a second volume. Instead of stripping away all the actions and the narration from the scriptures to distill the words of Jesus, as you did in this book — in the second volume, you should strip away all the words and pull together only Jesus’ actions so we could reflect on them in a fresh way.
    This is “The Words of Jesus.” The next would be “The Acts of Jesus.”

    PHYLLIS: So, in that kind of book, you’d strip away the words and leave just the actions, just what Jesus did, for people to focus on that? The words; then the actions. You know, I love what you’re talking about. That’s a stunning idea. My gosh, put that idea out there on the record, David. Let’s let people think about that and start talking about what that would look like.
    We’re opening up our new Web site and you’ve got your Web site. We need people to think about these things along with us — and get involved talking about these things with us and with each other.
    I may go ahead and do that second book. You’re right, David. That’s a stellar idea, if it would work. I would need about six weeks of intense work, looking into what would result if I prepared that kind of a manuscript — but there’s something there that I should pursue. There is.
    See, that’s what we need to do — find these new ways to immerse ourselves, and invite others to immerse themselves, in this. We’re talking about the vital power of these gospels to re-energize us after 2,000 years. And, that’s amazing.

(CLICK on this image to visit Phyllis Tickle’s personal Web site.)

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