162: Conversation with Ken Wilson, Reclaiming Jesus Brand Spirituality

    This is why our coverage is so exciting! Today, we get to hear from a true, modern Reformation pilgrim.
    We’ve often compared our turbulent era to the age of Reformation 500 years ago. Just as in our era, the Reformation was a time when the world expanded at an exponential rate as news spread of the European discovery of the Americas’ existence. People were moving everywhere in new ways. Americans had never seen a horse, until they arrived on ships from Europe. Europeans had never seen a potato.
    All across Europe, early printing presses churned out pamphlets. This was the rough equivalent of the birth of modern blogs.
    Meanwhile, the shape of faith was changing dramatically with the rise of folks like Erasmus, Luther, Zwingli, Calvin and eventually more folks like Henry VIII and Elizabeth I.

    Now, we’re watching changes of similar magnitude sweep the planet. Many are calling it either a new Reformation, or the completion of a 500-year cycle of Reformation.
    Today, our Conversation is with a modern-day Reformation pilgrim, the Rev. Ken Wilson. Of course, you won’t find that full version of his name many places — not even on the cover of his book. He’s just “Ken” to everyone he meets. He’s proud to say that he was reared in the grassroots Jesus Movement of the late ’60s and early ’70s — and, after riding the amazing ups and downs of evangelical revivals over the past 30 years — he’s on the Reformation road once again.

    Don’t misunderstand. He’s not homeless. On the contrary, Ken is comfortably settled in Ann Arbor, Michigan, not far from the Home Office of ReadTheSpirit. He runs a nationally influential Vineyard church. When top scientists, including Yale University’s James Gustave Speth, organized a historic retreat with top evangelical leaders — Wilson was in that inner circle. When Phyllis Tickle, the popular observer of religious trends, was looking for colleagues in her nationwide effort to promote a rebirth of fixed-hour prayer, Wilson became an important companion on that pilgrimage, as well.
    In fact, Phyllis wrote the Foreword to Ken’s new book. (Click on the cover of Ken’s book to read our review of it and pick up a copy, if you wish.)

    Today, we’ve also got a couple of video clips so you can meet Ken a little more intimately.
    CLICK on the video screen, below, and Ken will introduce himself to you. If your version of this story does not display a video screen, then — Visit YouTube directly to watch Ken Wilson introduce himself and his new book, “Jesus Brand Spirituality.”
    (There’s also a video clip at the end of today’s story in which Ken talks about what he hoped to achieve in writing this new book.)

    KEN: I’m interested that there are so many books coming out right now all looking at the future of evangelicalism. You’ve mentioned the Christine Wicker book that talks about the fall of evangelicalism. I’m interested to know how she makes that argument. There’s research out there about the thriving nature of evangelicalism.
    DAVID: Christine is a smart journalist and it’s an interesting book, although I think all of the books coming out right now are part of a debate, or a conversation, trying to sort out what is happening.
    Think about this: One person’s claim of “death” or “fall” is another person’s vision of transformation that’s taking place, right?
    KEN: Yeah. Yeah.
    DAVID: The title of her book “The Fall of the Evangelical Nation” is quite a strong title. But you know it’s possible, I think, for people to pick up your book and read you as saying something that sounds similar, as if you’re saying: Our movement is dying and needs to be rescued from death.
    KEN: Sure.
    DAVID: If you read her book, I think it actually winds up saying something a little different than the claim that her book’s title makes — or perhaps a better way to say this is that her book will surprise you with where it takes you as a reader.

    KEN: So, which of all those books you wrote about, looking at evangelicalism, would you recommend? You know, if someone can just read one of the books. Which one?
    DAVID: I’d read Kimball’s book about faith turning evil. That book provides us with the most helpful — I guess the word is “toolbox.” Over time, I think that book will help readers sort out the good and the bad in emerging religious movements.
    Of course, hey! I should have answered your question: I’d read your book, Ken. Right? That’s why I’m here talking to you. I’m impressed with your book.
    KEN: (chuckling) Right. Right. That question wasn’t a trap. There’s so much out there to read right now. So much is happening. And there’s only so much time to read.
    DAVID: (chuckling too) OK. I mean, what can I say talking to the author of the book — I’ve read your book and marked it up all over, turned down corners of so many pages.
    You know, it’s like being out in the front lines of a religious revolution, writing dispatches to readers who want to know what’s happening. Does that make sense?
    KEN: Yeah. Right. Yeah, it does.

    DAVID: Without some help, these days, what context do people have to approach these new books, to listen to these new voices — and have a sense of where they’re coming from — and have a sense of what’s happening out there that they’re trying to address.
    This book you’ve just written — it’s an important book. But, let’s say, 10 years from now, you’d write a different book, right? This book you’ve written here is addressed to a particular time, a particular set of things you’ve discovered that have happened out there. You want evangelicals to take a dramatic turn with you here, right?
    KEN: Yeah. I didn’t want this book to be a critique of evangelicalism, actually. In fact, that’s the major problem with evangelicalism. It’s turned in on itself. I realize that the subtitle of my book certainly makes a critical point. It’s “Jesus Brand Spirituality” and the subtitle is “He Wants His Religion Back.”
    DAVID: Yes, a strong title. Clearly a critique of where things stand right now.
    KEN: Well, the original idea for a subtitle was “Earthy, Mystical, Curious.”
    DAVID: Interesting. That sounds so much like the book by Tony Campolo and Mary Albert Darling that we keep recommending so strongly to readers. That’s right where they want to take readers, too.
    Hey, you’re right out there with us on the front lines, writing about what you think is happening out here. So, sum it up. What are you seeing?

    KEN: What I see is that religion is about mediating spiritual experience and the really powerful stuff that’s really driving things right now is this long, this almost subterranean spiritual movement that’s been there all the time, even if we haven’t always been able to see it clearly.
    DAVID: OK, so talk a little more about that.
    KEN: Yeah. Well, in the beginning, the evangelical movement mediated the first spiritual experience that was legitimate in the Western world — permitting and shaping these experiences of new birth and feeling that your heart could be strangely warmed. And then Pentecostalism mediated spirit baptism, this evoking of the spirit.
    But those are two very narrow slices of spiritual experience. There’s so much more out there and, finally, we’re just busting out with a much broader understanding of what’s possible.

    DAVID: I feel that we’re privileged to be living in this era in which so much is unfolding. Just this morning before I drove to our interview today, I spent an hour on the telephone with Philip Newell, one of the chief writers in the Celtic Christian movement, who’s got a terrific new book coming out — a really brave kind of book — like the kind of daring you’ve shown in your book. We’re going to write about Newell’s book in the days after we publish this interview with you.
    He’s wrestling and you’re wrestling with the same issues in somewhat different ways — but you’re almost first cousins in a movement. I think of these books as dangerous — books that aren’t bowls of warm chicken soup. These are books that are saying:
    The world you know is changing.
    KEN: Absolutely. This truly is a time when, if you’re in the religion business and this stuff doesn’t float your boat — well, you’re completely in the wrong business. You’re just not seeing what’s happening out here.

    DAVID: You’re no stranger to social, cultural, religious change. Your whole life is a story of change.
    KEN: Yeah. I grew up in Detroit in the 1950s. My Dad was a member of the NAACP. My Mother and Dad were part of the Young Socialist Workers League. I’ve never been socialized to the official evangelical subculture in this country. My grandfather was an alcoholic in a Plymouth Brethren family that didn’t know how to deal with alcoholism. So, he was the black sheep and my father was the son of a black sheep from a powerful fundamentalist movement. The Brethren were behind the theology that gave us the Left Behind stuff.
    So, I never went to an evangelical seminary.** I’m now a national board member of an evangelical denomination, the Vineyard, but I’ve never truly been socialized to the evangelical subculture.

    DAVID: So, that gives you some freedom to sort out what truly matters at the core of the faith, right?
    KEN: Yeah. Right. That means that I’ve got these people in my life who I know and I care about — my sisters and so on. My parents, who are now passed away, were people for whom the evangelical presentation of Christianity in this country wouldn’t reach them. Could not reach them. That’s not because they were closed-hearted or something like that. The evangelical subculture, as it has been presented in many ways in recent years in this country, wouldn’t have reached them because my parents were thoughtful people who ask probing questions that the evangelical presentation of the gospel doesn’t answer.
    And it wouldn’t work for me, if I were coming to faith for the first time in 2008 instead of 1971. So, it’s all very personal for me. I’m writing this book for my kids and my sisters and for people who I grew up with who cannot be reached by the current thing that a lot of evangelical leaders still are trying to push.
    I mean, I came to faith in 1971 in the Jesus Movement before the Jesus Movement had been absorbed by standard-brand evangelicalism. At that point, it was still a free-floating movement, right? It was a completely anti-institutional, hippie, subculture phenomenon. Our origins were back there with the ecological movement — that was cool with us — and the anti-Vietnam War movement, too. Those were the people around us as the Jesus freaks like me came into the movement. I had no impression, back then, that I was expected to enter this whole evangelical organization and all the things people wanted to attach to that.
    I didn’t even know what the word evangelical meant, at that point. I was bonding with Jesus in a very powerful way like the people who were my early teachers. One of my early teachers was teaching a bunch of kids my age in a back yard, sitting in a lawn chair, smoking a cigarette in this kind of FDR-style cigarette holder!
    People were reading Soren Kierkegaard and Dietrich Bonhoeffer and C.S. Lewis. This was my earliest imprint, branding of faith — and I think there are a whole lot of evangelical pastors out there like me who came to faith in their early 20s or their teen years, during that era.
    And, like little ducklings, what we imprinted with was not this thing we came to call evangelicalism in this country. It was something else. And, now, a lot of us are in our 50s and we’re waking up and saying: Hey, we’re the adults now and this thing has become something other than what first drew us in.
    This is a real awakening going on. We’re realizing that what we’re selling in this thing we call evangelicalism, younger people aren’t buying. And we’re beginning to realize — and to say — that a lot of what’s being done today in the name of this movement isn’t true to the way that we came to faith.

    DAVID: I’m hearing this from a lot of voices across the whole landscape. There’s this feeling that it’s time to strip away a whole lot of baggage people sold us as essential parts of these religious brands. I think people are realizing that somebody else sold people a whole bill of goods about religion in this country. Beneath that veneer, though, there’s a powerful spiritual experience. There’s a powerful faith.
    KEN: Absolutely. Yup. Absolutely. And we’re sitting here in Ann Arbor, this very unusual city, this very thoughtful place that — what do people say? Ann Arbor is 15 years ahead of the rest of the culture in a lot of ways.
    Perhaps we’re in an ideal place here where this can be said. We need to strip away and rethink all of this political stuff that was attached to what it means to follow Jesus.

    DAVID: I wish you well in that journey. It’s daring. Our mutual friend Phyllis Tickle wrote the Foreward for your book. She understands the importance of your voice — and what you’re doing.
    The highest praise I can give to your book is to say how much I like where it winds up in the final chapters and to say: This is a dangerous book. Dangerous in an exciting and prophetic way.
    I want to give you a chance to wrap up our interview by directly telling people just a bit about what you hope they’ll take away from “Jesus Brand Spirituality.” We’re going to film another video clip here and give you a chance to close this by speaking directly to people.

    CLICK on the video screen, below, and Ken will explain a little more about what he hopes to accomplish in this book. If your version of this story does not display a video screen,
then Visit YouTube directly to watch Ken Wilson talk about his new book, “Jesus Brand Spirituality.”

    (** What Ken was explaining here is that he didn’t go full-time to an evangelical seminary, so he didn’t have the lengthy, on-campus experience that shapes the careers of thousands of pastors. However, he did some Ashland Seminary course work toward a master’s degree in Detroit.)

    COME BACK TOMORROW, if you’re intrigued by the book by Christine Wicker that we mentioned above in this Conversation. Tomorrow, we talk to Christine Wicker about her take on this changing religious landscape.
    Our whole theme this week is learning to live peacefully in the midst of diversity. We looked at Islam on Monday, songs of diversity on Tuesday and now we’re exploring the diverse voices of change in the evangelical realm. Don’t miss Friday, either. We’ll return to popular culture on Friday and look at diversity — at the movies!

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