In this episode of Faith for Normal People, our beloved co-host Jared Byas bestows upon us the rare gift of vulnerability as he shares his own story of shifting faith through childhood and young adulthood, leading to the birth of The Bible for Normal People. Join him as he gets uncomfortable and reflects on the following questions:
- How did Jared’s life of faith begin?
- How would young Jared have described God? How did that perception of God play into what God provided for Jared?
- What kind of churches formed him spiritually?
- How did his personality get shaped by, or shape, his beliefs?
- How did Jared’s faith shift from childhood into his teenage years and then college years?
- Why was being valued for intellect over emotional responsiveness so attractive?
- What kind of disillusionment about religion did he first encounter?
- What strengths and weaknesses did he have when it came to a relationship with God?
- How was the evangelical belief system working or not working for Jared at different points in his life?
- How did Jared become a pastor? What were his experiences like while being a pastor for different churches?
- Did Jared have a conscious deconstruction experience and when did it begin?
- After leaving his job as a pastor for a megachurch, where did Jared go?
- How did the Bible for Normal People begin?
Pithy, shareable, sometimes-less-than-280-character statements from the episode you can share.
- At a young age, I would have thought about God as someone who provided structure. Safety came in the form of structure, things that were predictable, things that I could count on to be the same. — @jbyas
- Being smart about the Bible. That was the mark of a mature Christian, was how much did I know about the Bible. — @jbyas
- God, in some ways, probably was created in my own image, or at least what I needed God to be. Which was on some level this very predictable thing I could count on, but then on the other hand, this wild thing that seemed very mysterious and big, and was doing things that I completely didn’t understand. — @jbyas
- If I want to feel safe, what’s the thing I can know most about? You can’t get any bigger or more all encompassing than knowing everything about God. And that’s why I dove headfirst into theology. — @jbyas
- For me, it was, “I can protect myself if I know the most about God and the Bible and how reality functions.” Knowing how the world works was synonymous with knowing the Bible and knowing how God worked, because in my worldview, those were the same thing. — @jbyas
- These people who study the ancient texts and Genesis were telling me things that I didn’t particularly want to hear about, like two different creation stories…and yet their lives were rich, and seemed to be truly dedicated to following after this Jesus ethic. And so that changed my whole trajectory. — @jbyas
- I didn’t first deconstruct or go after the biblical text. I went after what I saw as grave injustices in how the church practiced their faith. The starting place was why do we not focus on social justice at all? — @jbyas
Mentioned in This Episode
- Books: Psalms for Normal People by Josh James available April 17th
- Join: The Society of Normal People community
- Support: www.thebiblefornormalpeople.com/give
You’re listening to Faith for Normal People, the only other God-ordained podcast on the internet.
I’m Pete Enns.
And I’m Jared Byas.[Intro music begins]
Hey folks, before we get started on our episode today we wanted to remind you that our Psalms for Normal People commentary, which is the newest book in our commentary series, is coming out in just a few days on April 17th.
Yep! And Psalms for Normal People was written by Josh James, friend of the podcast.
Friend of the podcast.
And friend in real life.
Really brings this ancient collection of poems to life by looking at the biblical scholarship surrounding the book, unpacking the historical, political, cultural context underneath the prose.
And you can grab your copy of Psalms for Normal People wherever you like to buy your books. And don’t forget to leave a review to let us know what you think![Music plays]
Welcome everyone, to this episode of Faith for Normal People. As you all know, sometimes we do solo episodes, just me or Pete, sometimes we have guests on, sometimes it’s me and Pete. And here it is with Faith for Normal People, we will have some solo episodes and this is a slot for a solo episode. Faith for Normal People was meant to be a place for Pete and I to really stretch our muscles to be more personal, to be more vulnerable, and to talk about our life of faith and how complicated it can be, the ups and downs, and just the messiness of faith and life and being human. And it’s not something that Pete or I are very good at. But I really want to give it a shot.
And so, I sat down to write an episode that talked more about my faith and my faith practices and my faith journey and I was coming up empty. I was just stuck. I’m literally, like, typing things and I’m like, “I don’t know how to do this.” I always joke, one of my closest friends, he has a PhD in psychology and so, we’d go get drinks and we’d say, “We have to go get drinks so we could think about our feelings.” Like, that’s what we wanted to do. We wanted to think about and talk about our feelings. We don’t want to feel our feelings. And so, I realized that is a weakness of mine. So, I called upon Savannah, who is our marketing person at the Bible for Normal People, but also a good friend. And I thought she’d be a perfect person to ask, if she could just help me on my way to ask questions, to kind of goad me into talking more personally and more vulnerably about my faith journey. Even doing this podcast Faith for Normal People is sort of a spiritual practice for me. I just need help, a little bit, to get that thing going. Because I’m realizing it does not come naturally to me and it’s uncomfortable. And she did a fantastic job and I hope this is helpful for you. I hope it is as helpful as it was uncomfortable to me.[Intro music continues]
Jared[Teaser clip of Jared speaking plays over music] “The biggest pain for me in my deconstruction came from people who accused me of all of these wayward ways, or these beliefs that they were accusing me of holding them because I didn’t take my faith seriously. And nothing hurt my feelings more than that, because I’m like, I’ve dedicated my whole life to this, like, nothing was more important to me than this. And it’s precisely my sincerity and my intentionality and my passion that’s led me to these conclusions.” [Music continues]
I think at a young age, I would have thought about God as someone who provided structure. That’s kind of how I thought about it, was Christianity and God and the Bible—and maybe this is projecting back. Maybe, this was later when I was like, 10, or 11, or, you know, a young teenager, but definitely as a kid—I think the first thing I thought was safety, it felt safe. But I think for me, most of my life, especially as a young kid, safety came in the form of structure, things that were predictable, things that I could count on to be the same. And so, you know, that’s where, for me, like, my daily life had a lot of routine in it and it had a lot of—I liked doing the same things. I didn’t like to spend the night at friends’ houses. I wanted to be in my bed, do the same thing every night and get up knowing exactly, you know, where my cereal was, and where my clothes were, and all of that. And I think, for me, God was a product that fit into that world for me. And it was just more on the like, ethical bigger picture of like, the world is big and scary and I’m not sure how it works, but this seems to be like a path to predictability and safety and comfort. Not comfort in the- Not like in a lovey-dovey way but comfort through structure and through predictability and order.
Church was always disconnected from that. It’s interesting. Because I went back and forth between a Southern Baptist church—which would have been a lot more of that. Very predictable, very the same thing. You know what to expect, the sermon’s very similar. Every week there’s a 30 minute sermon almost to the tee. If it was 32 you started having like people riot, it was like 30 minutes to the tee. It had three points, they all started with the same letter and the end was an altar call where you could—”Every eye closed and every head bowed. If you’d like to accept Lord Jesus Christ into your heart, you know, raise your hand or come down.” And, you know, “for those of you who don’t, take that time to confess your sins” or whatever. So, that was very predictable.
But then on the other hand, my church life was charismatic and so those services were very unpredictable, those were “we may not get to a sermon because the Spirit’s moving and the band is just going to play for an hour” and that’s just going to be the service for the day, or indefinitely during those periods before the sermon of, like, the worship songs and all that that’s very, you know. You never know what to expect, you have people running down the aisles with banners, or you have someone falling down in front, or there’s a group of people up front now dancing around or falling down.
And so that was very unpredictable. But it’s interesting, now, I’ve never really reflected on this. I feel like it fits my—I don’t know which comes first, the chicken or the egg—but it does fit my personality, because I feel like I have both of those sides to me. The very predictable, ordered, I need that. But I can’t feel caged into that. I can’t feel put upon in that way that I would feel real trapped, real easily. Because I also have this kind of spontaneous, unpredictable, charismatic side. So it’s interesting, I don’t know which came first, maybe that shaped me. Or maybe it was a perfect environment for who I was.
But either way, that’s kind of both my experiences of church, at least.
I do crave that predictability and order. But I don’t think my childhood was all that chaotic, at least not insofar as I could remember. Maybe, when I was a toddler or something. Because, definitely, I come from a very chaotic—there’s some chaos in my family of origin story, for sure. But by the time I came around—and maybe it’s like a generational, like a family trauma kind of thing, where I’m like inheriting a little bit of the craziness that went on before I was born, or right when I was born. So, that may be the case. But, I think, for me, I’m kind of at a loss for where that came from.
We had Jonathan Jong on the podcast to talk about death anxiety and it really sparked a lot of thoughts for me from when I was a kid, for how much I thought about death when I was a kid. My second oldest son—who’s the most like me—I would go into his room and he’d be crying and I’d ask him, you know, “What?” And he’s thinking about death. You know, he’s like, seven or eight. And I was the same way. Like, I was thinking about death a lot. But for me, again, it was this aspect of control, of like… I was baffled. I didn’t get emotional about—I mean, sometimes I’d cry thinking about my family dying or whatever. But for me, it was this baffling wall that I could not climb over because in my life, like, I was obsessive about problem solving. Like nothing was gonna get in my way, I was going to overcome, I was going to accomplish, I was going to do what I wanted to do.
But then, at a young age, I mean, I think, probably eight or nine, I just would be swirling in my brain of like, trying to wrap my head around this thing that’s coming for me inevitably, that I cannot control. I cannot not die. Like the thing that seems to be the scariest thing, in terms of control and loss of control, I don’t have any control over? Like, that is rough. And so, I spent, I don’t know, weeks, months, I don’t know how long, just contemplating my own death. And like it really was problem solving, like how do I escape this?
And then as a teenager, probably one of my main objectives was to sort of embrace my own death. And that’s where you know, even into college, reading the existentialist philosophers and these thinkers who think a lot about death were really important to me, because it really did shape how I think about life now. Because for someone like me, who’s squirrely, and tries to manipulate circumstances so I don’t have to feel uncomfortable and so I can be in control, it was important that I, you know, the spiritual practice—I wouldn’t have called it that, obviously—of just contemplating my own death at such a young age, it was really important that I had that because a lot of people, it’s like, you have heaven. Heaven, like, is the way out, you’re just like, “Well, I’ll go to heaven, at least I get that.” But for whatever reason—I don’t know why—for me, that didn’t cut it. I was like, “I don’t know, Heaven sounds terrible. Like, I’m just gonna be singing all the time? With these hymns that I don’t even like?” Like, Heaven didn’t actually seem like a great option for me, so, I’m like, “I want to be here. I like being alive. My life is great.”
So, to think that that would end, I think, was really important for me, and it did a couple of things for me. It helped me, you know, I was always so anxious about what people thought of me and I didn’t want to disappoint anyone and to embrace my own death also gave me that out. It was incredibly liberating as a 14-year-old and as a 15-year-old because what it meant is that people aren’t gonna remember my mistakes. That’s what it meant. And so that was like my mantra. I would like imagine my kids and it’s like, “Okay, my kids are going to know 20% about my life, and then my grandkids are going only to remember the good stuff. And then after that, probably no one’s gonna remember anything. My name, maybe.”
And so, it was just this helpful spiritual practice to really think through the implications of my death. And it did give me also this—I know this is cliche—but it really did help me with this kind of “Carpe Diem” attitude of like, “Well, there’s this thing at the end of this that I can’t control and so, I gotta make the most of what I got now.” So, that was also like a really important practice for me, that in a lot of ways is theological, but almost upside down.
Because, again, my tradition would have been like, “No, let’s not think about it,” it’s like this spiritual bypassing, like, let’s not think about death, like, it’s a celebration of life, and oh, you’re just graduated into heaven and so, you just have life forever.” And that, just for whatever reason, didn’t take to me. And I’m so, so glad that it didn’t, because that was a spiritual practice as a teenager that really shaped me, it was like this great leveler for me, it really did lead to a lot of my perspective on like, being non-judgmental, and because like, I would be like, “Well, in the end, we’re all gonna die.” Like, it just, it was just this important, important frame of reference for me.
And again, maybe that is also reflective of my understanding of God from a young age too, because God, in some ways, probably was created in my own image, or at least what I needed God to be, which was on some level this very predictable thing I could count on. But then on the other hand, this like, wild thing that seemed very mysterious and big, and was doing things that I completely didn’t understand.[Ad break]
I just know, early on, I felt the need to have structure and I felt like I didn’t get enough of it—and again, that’s not a slight on my parents at all, I think I needed a lot of it. And so, I learned early on to kind of create it for myself to the point that you know, when summer would come and I didn’t have the structure of school, I’m like creating my hour-by-hour schedule Monday through Friday and it’s a chart and I’m saying, “Okay, I’m going to play the piano from this time to this time, and then I’m going to play basketball from this time.” And then from 12-12:30 was Jeopardy, every single day. And I kept a pad by the couch so that I could keep my own score in Jeopardy when I was like this, I don’t know, probably 12 or 13 or something. So, yeah, real nerdy, but I created my own structure for that. But then, again, that sounds really nerdy, but then I would spend my nights partying like… I had to, like, have that like, “Okay, this is for this time. But you can only do that for so long.” And then it’s like time to explode out of that box and then I want that box back. And I like being in control of it because it feels unpredictable, even to me, of when I want that structure in when I want to break out of it. And so, that was kind of that structure playing out as I got a little older, I think.
But it started to manifest in unhelpful ways. And what I mean by that is, when I’m seven or eight, and I’m feeling this need for safety, or security, or predictability, there’s an innocence to that, because I don’t have yet—I mean, I probably don’t have some of the wounding but also I don’t have some of the tools at my disposal for what I’m going to do with that. And when I became a teenager, and in my 20s, the tools I got to feel safe, to feel that sense of predictability and control was to be smart. Like, that’s how I got that, is like I know I’ll feel safe if I’m one of the smarter people in the room because I don’t want to be surprised and I don’t want to feel taken advantage of and I don’t want to feel…unsafe, and I don’t want to feel out of control.
And so the way I know to do that is to know what’s going on at all times, to be very self aware, to be aware of my surroundings, and also just to be aware of what’s being talked about. And so within Christianity, what that meant was I had to study harder than anybody, I had to know all the Bible verses when we did the SWORD drills, I had to be first place. You know, I taught my first adult Sunday School class, adult Bible study, when I was 15. It was on the book of James and I still have the book that I used to lead the study, and it was adults and me. And I was like, 15—I might have been 16, because I think I’d just gotten my driver’s license—and then from then on, I had to be in charge of what I was doing. I wouldn’t say it that way. I didn’t have to be in charge. I was in a system of Christianity that valued that above all else and so I kept being put into places of responsibility well beyond where it was probably appropriate for me to be.
Being smart about the Bible, that was the mark of a mature Christian, was how much did I know about the Bible. Now, within like a charismatic circle, the knowledge about the Bible will look different than, say, my reformed Presbyterian connection, because by the time I went to high school, I stopped going to the Southern Baptist Church and had started going to a Presbyterian Church by myself. But, my family is still connected to this charismatic—so I would go to a charismatic church on Sundays and go to Presbyterian Church on Wednesday night with the youth group. And then was connected more and more to the Presbyterian church over the years. But it looked different, what we knew about the Bible or what it looked like to be smart.
Within the charismatic tradition, I had to know a lot about the Spirit of God, and how is the Spirit of God used throughout the Bible? You know, Shekinah, glory, how do we understand the work of the Spirit? So, I’m very attuned to how the Bible uses Spirit language. And then in the Presbyterian circles, I had to know about my systematic theology, and I ordered Wayne Grudem’s “Systematic Theology.” He had a college version, I said, “Forget this,” I got the seminary version, it’s this big blue book, it’s like 1400 pages, when I was like, probably 16 or 17. And I’m spending my nights just, like, reading through it, and like, learning the vocabulary and figuring out what all this means—and I liked it. I liked being smart and I liked working on that.
But the older I get, the more I realize it was a function of control, it was that same impulse. The idea whenever I was seven was maybe that God is going to provide the structure for me, and provide this safety and security, and by high school—again, maybe it’s just me being a controlling person—I was like, “Well, I’m gonna have to do this on my own.” Like, it’s not a relational trust, it is an intellectual way to control… And it’s like, if I want to feel safe, what’s the thing I can know most about? Like, I can know about God? Like, what’s more… You can’t get any bigger or more all encompassing, than knowing everything I can know about God. And so, that’s why I like dove headfirst into theology.
I was loving it because it was fulfilling these emotional and psychological needs that I had, that maybe I wasn’t aware of. You know, so, it felt very good to me, because it was all making sense. All the pieces were in there. You know, my social life was good. My family life was good. The faith piece was good. Like, it was all working out as the Bible had promised it would if I just, you know—at least in the way I translated what the Bible said—if I knew the most, and studied hard, and was a decent human being, my whole life would work out and everything would be great.
The problem is—is that if something bad doesn’t happen, if you don’t get thrown into that, you start to grow this fear that I have to maintain it. Like, it’s almost superstition. Like, if I don’t do those things, though, then bad things will happen to me. So, I better like, keep it up.
I don’t think it was actually conscious. It wasn’t superstitious in that way. Like, I think a lot of people on the podcast we talk to, it’s like, they had this authoritarian understanding, like literally God’s gonna punish you. For me, it was, I can protect myself if I know the most about God and the Bible and how reality functions. For me, knowing how the world works was synonymous with knowing the Bible and knowing how God worked, because in my worldview, those were the same thing.
Like, well, the world does work according to God and what God wants and how we know that is through the Bible. So for me to feel safe, I need to know how the world works, which means I need to know how the Bible works and I need to know how God works. So, it was still this function of control—and none of that’s conscious. That’s me, you know, psychologizing 20 years later. In the moment, my relationship with God was…I had figured out when I was a teenager that I could connect with God through my intellect, which was something that was not really prioritized—and I’m saying two different things. The strand of Christianity I came up with did prize the intellect, but there’s a difference between knowing stuff and the intellect.
And so all of the traditions I grew up with, it doesn’t matter, Southern Baptist, charismatic, Presbyterian, valued knowing stuff. But for those of you who kind of know different Christian traditions, the Presbyterian Church is sort of like known for its emphasis on systematic theology, not emotion. And so, part of me thought I was like, broken, because I didn’t have these like, charismatic, mystical experiences that other people in my family or the people in my church had. And so, I’m like searching for that hard. The first book I think I ever really read on my own that wasn’t for school was “Good Morning, Holy Spirit” by Benny Henn.
And I’m searching for this connection to this spiritual tradition. I’m heavily involved in it, I’m seeing—like, I have the confidence to kind of be a part of things. You know, I’m playing drums and stuff at a young age, 12-13. But I haven’t had the experience that sort of like makes you belong to this tradition or to this community. And so, then to find Presbyterians, who kind of scoff at emotional experiences, and are like, “Oh, that has nothing to do with Christianity.” I’m like, “Oh! I found my people.” And so, that was, that was a big moment for me, too. And so, part of it is that being fueled, if you’re in a tradition that values theological smarts, then in the same way that I was, like, hunting for this emotional experience to belong as a young kid, I was hunting for this like, affirmation of my intellect in the reformed tradition.
The first pastoral job I held was while I was still in college. I was 19 and I was the associate pastor of a church. There was a senior pastor, and then I was in charge of everything else. I did youth, I did music.
So that first church, that was just a product of just pragmatism, like, I loved it. I was passionate about it. I loved teaching. I loved, like, teaching the Bible. I loved playing music. And to think that I could help, you know, I was newly married. And so, we were 19 and we got to live in the parsonage for free. So, it was just a very practical like—and they came to me and asked if I wanted to do it. I didn’t apply really, or anything. And so, I was like, “Heck, yeah,” like it was just very practical. And then the next pastoral position I had was actually after seminary and that was because I went to seminary to get a PhD in Apologetics—which is arguing with people about Christianity—and you know that, my lifelong goal was to go to Westminster seminary and get a PhD in Presuppositional Apologetics. If you’d asked me when I was 16, like, what do I want to do with my life? That would have been what I would have said.
And then, so, I still remember the moment I stepped foot on Westminster’s campus and that’s probably what other people feel like when their dream is to like, join the NBA and they like, first step foot on the court for the first time. I was like, “I have made it. My lifelong dream. I’ve done it.”
And within one semester, I was disillusioned with the whole systematic theology enterprise. I was disappointed in the character and the approach of my professors in the theology department. And it just so happened that I had this other group of folks who were teaching the Bible in the Biblical Studies Department. Folks that I had been warned against when I was at Liberty. So I was at Liberty and I was talking to my professors about where I should go and of course, “I was like, I’m going to Westminster because of this,” but they were like, “Ah, I don’t know, the Old Testament department, the Bible folks at Westminster, they’re getting a little progressive.” And it was those people that felt to me in my faith, like the real deal. They were in their community. They were taking to heart this Jesus-shaped life in a way that these theology professors who dealt with Jesus more closely on a day to day basis in the text, didn’t seem to care about.
And yet these people who study the ancient texts and Genesis and were telling me things that I didn’t particularly want to hear about, like two different creation stories and how these sources are put together, and maybe it’s not what you thought it was. And yet their lives were rich, and seemed to be truly dedicated to following after this Jesus ethic. And so that changed my whole trajectory. And at that point, I said, “Well, what am I going to do with my life?” Like I was going to get a PhD and teach apologetics? I don’t want to do that anymore. And that’s when I became a pastor.[Ad break]
Here’s the thing with my personality—and it’s hard to parse out what’s my personality and what’s happenstance—but I’ve always kind of found myself like, I always want to belong, but I don’t ever want to truly—Like, I want to belong with one foot, but I don’t want to belong with the other foot. And so, I never quite settled in being a Southern Baptist because I had this charismatic part of me. I never really settled in being charismatic because I had this Presbyterian, part of me. Then I went to a Southern Baptist University as a Presbyterian and I was in philosophy, which was housed in the Biblical studies. So, there was always this tension of like, “Yeah, I’m in the school of religion. But don’t put me with the Bible study people. Like I’m not going here to be a pastor. I’m in the philosophy department.” They were only five of us in the whole school in like a very—I mean, this is a school founded by Jerry Falwell, so the school of religion is like the heartbeat of the school—and for some reason, they put philosophy in the school—and there’s only five of us and four of them are pre-Law. Like, they’re philosophy majors because they want to be lawyers. And I’m like, the only one there just to be like, “Oh, no, I just loved philosophy so… and it’s going to serve me in my apologetics PhD.”
So I’ve always been a little bit of an outsider, I think. And so, then, I think I was primed and then the nature of philosophy is to like, question everything. And so, I think there was this ticking time bomb that was being created at Liberty that I didn’t yet understand. So, I was learning things—I don’t know if anybody else has done this—where you, like, learn something, but you don’t have the categories to really understand the implications of what you’re learning. So I can say like, “Oh, you know,” I would say things like, I was reading Jacques Derrida at age, you know, 18-19, in philosophy at Liberty, which I can’t believe we were reading Derrida at a place like Liberty, but there we were. And it was just like, because it was a conservative Christian university, I just didn’t put the pieces together, like we’re reading Derrida, but like, the implications of the professor’s are to like tame it down, and not like show how this might have other implications.
And then I get to seminary and it’s like, all those conclusions start finally like sinking in about some of the philosophical challenges with the faith that I had inherited. And then, of course, I mean, it’s a little cliche, but just studying the Bible. I mean, I was in like, the Ph. D. ThM program, where we would just translate Genesis word-by-word and talk about it in like a seminar style. I don’t know how you come away from that without like, seeing things that you’re like, “Oh… Oh, okay. Yeah.” And that was when I fell in love with Jon Levensen, who was sort of my—I think Jon Levenson would probably be the person, I would say deconstructed my view of the Bible the most. Just because he was clearly so brilliant and then he would just say these things that’s—for him, I guess, in his Jewish tradition, or something—is like no big deal. And I’m like, “Whoa, you can’t just like run over that, like, what the heck?” And then, he’s so meticulous about it, that he was laying out the arguments in the text and he was pulling all these other texts. And I was like, “Oh, this guy is masterful.” And so, in one of my classes, I read everything that Jon Levenson had wrote and did a presentation on him and that was, yeah, those moments in seminary were for me. So, it’s kind of cliche of just being in seminary and being in the Biblical Studies department and studying text very closely. And questions emerge.
This is gonna date me a little bit, but this was during the Emerging Church movement.
When we moved to Pennsylvania for me to go to seminary, we started going to a church, a megachurch in the area patterned after Saddleback, kind of Purpose Driven Life, Rick Warren church. And we started going there because they had this alternative service on Saturdays that was an Emerging Church service. I mean, it was like Emerging, you know, Emerging Church. And so, it was a smaller community within this larger mega church and we had only about maybe, I don’t know, 150-200 people that went, and we loved it. So, we got to go to church on Saturday night, and all the whole thing and they had candles, and you know, it was more broody, a little emo. It was great.
So, we started going there and within a semester, I started playing percussion for the band, I was like, ‘This is, you know-” whatever. Anyway, it was a slippery slope. I played percussion for the band and then I played guitar when they needed me to and then I played guitar regularly. And then they needed like a worship person to like, step in when the main person was gone, so I did that. And then the summer after my first year in seminary, I think, they had a position open for like an administrative assistant to the pastor of this alternative service. And I was like, “Yeah, I’ll help you out with that.” And he became a great friend and a mentor to me, and I owe a lot to him. He was wonderful. And he kind of took me under his wing and he was my biggest advocate, and said, “Hey, you’re really good at this, like, you should teach more, you should do this more, I want to give you more responsibility.”
And then basically, when I was in my last semester of seminary, he went, kind of, went to bat for me and said, “I think Jared would be good on staff here. Do we have any positions?” They did have a position to be the pastor of serve,” which is like the pastor of all the ministry opportunities, and outreach both on campus and off campus, and be one of the teaching pastors. So, one of five teaching pastors on Sunday mornings. And then thirdly, my third role was to take over his job as the primary pastor of this smaller Emerging Church service. So, I was like, the primary pastor of like, 200, you know, 150-200 people. And I was 23 when I started that, so I’d just finished seminary.
In seminary, I was reading the prophets, and I was reading writers on the prophets. And I’m thinking, “This seems to be pretty important. And I’m not part of a theological tradition or church tradition that pays any attention.” And so I was always a gadfly, like, I’m always poking. But I was poking more from that angle of like, why aren’t we doing this? I don’t know if other people experienced this in kind of their deconstruction or their faith transition—for me, I didn’t first deconstruct or go after, say, the biblical text. I went after like, what I saw as, grave injustices in how the church practiced their faith. So, for instance, for me, the starting place was, why do we not focus on social justice at all? Like that seems to be a big miss. So, when I was a pastor, you know, I started a connection with our interfaith hospitality network where we housed the unhoused at the church and like that—I was also the pastor of outreach, you know, like, that was kind of my thing. And so I’m supposed to be kind of the goad I think, in some ways. I feel like I was within the fold enough to have integrity, and to keep moving along.
I remember specifically, I taught a sermon. I was…I’m always a little provocative. I’m an eight on the Enneagram. It’s, like, it’s just a part of who I am. It’s how I am. But one of the sermons I gave was on the differences between the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew and the Sermon on the plain in Luke, and I focused in on this because in Matthew, it says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” And in Luke, it just says, “Blessed are the poor,” and I just had this moment like the sermon revolved around this question. “What if… What if both of those things are true?” Blessed to the poor in spirit and blessed are the poor. And so, then, I, sort of, talked through a theology of Luke that shows how his emphasis is on the poor. Not the poor in spirit, the actual poor. And so, that difference between Matthew and Luke is, actually, incredibly important to the theology of Luke.
And I was really passionate about it but I remember getting a lot of pushback. And it was one of those moments—I think there’s this famous story about Tony Campolo, where he, like, yells a cuss word, and then he’s like, “You guys are more offended that I used a cuss word than the reason I used. It was in this context of social justice.” And I had kind of one of those moments of like, “The point here is, like, we got to start paying attention to the poor, not the poor in spirit. And all you’re gonna do is talk to me about how Matthew and Luke, here’s all the reasons why those those aren’t actual differences, they’re not discrepancies and pulling out archers book of Bible difficulties and showing me all the, you know, reasons why these are not different and all that stuff.” And like, you’re just missing the point.
And so, that was early on. And then I was like downhill from there. Because I was early on in the bandwagon of being supportive of gay marriage, even—first outside the church, like my reasoning was like, “Okay, maybe we can do in-house stuff. But you can’t tell me that outside the church, we have any say, like, we’re not the police here, we’re not the moral police.” So then I had a queer woman come and take the pulpit one night when I was supposed to preach and just talked about her hurt from the church. That’s it, I just said, “I want you to just share your story of how the church has treated you and how you feel about that.” I got in a lot of trouble for that. And then I had this, just this real rascal come and teach once on Exodus, it was Pete, and I got in trouble for that, too. [Laughs]
I’m just very passionate and I’m very- I’m sincere. I’m a sincere person. It was like, I’m doing all this because I sincerely care about what I’m talking about. And so, the biggest pain for me in my deconstruction came from people who accused me of all of these wayward ways, or these beliefs, that they were accusing me of holding them because I didn’t take my faith seriously. And nothing hurt my feelings more than that, because I’m like, “I’ve dedicated my whole life to this, like nothing was more important to me than this.” And it’s precisely my sincerity and my intentionality and my passion that’s led me to these conclusions. Now, I may not be right, like passion doesn’t equal rightness. But I would just get my feelings hurt when it was like, “Oh, no, you just- you support gay marriage, because you’ve fallen off the wagon, and you’ve decided to give up on your faith.” I’m like, “No, that’s the opposite.”
And this is also the origin story of me and Pete too of just…You know, Pete was getting resigned from Westminster at the same time, I was getting resigned at my church and so we really bonded, many drinks of coffee at, it was called Abyss Coffee, which was very fitting. So we spent a lot of time there, just really practically. I mean, to be honest, it was like, “How do we get paid? We are only trained to do this. And now we don’t have jobs. How do we make a living? Like, we have kids.”
So I called around. I had been doing curriculum development, I had written some courses for Grand Canyon University. I’d written some graduate level courses and some undergrad courses for them. And I said, “Hey, you wouldn’t happen to like, need a, like, a professor?” And they said, “Well, you know, your background’s in Bible, we really need someone for philosophy.” I was like, “Well, guess what, I also have a background in philosophy.” So, within two weeks of me parting ways with the church, I was driving out to Phoenix, and we had just had our third kid, who was two months old. So, driving across the country. And I had like three weeks to prepare all my courses and move my family to Phoenix and so I did.
And it was—my point being, that’s around the time Pete and I wrote “Genesis for Normal People” together. So, the first edition of “Genesis for Normal People” came out in 2012, actually. I would go to Starbucks at like 5:30 every morning before classes and work for a couple hours on the manuscript and then we published “Genesis for Normal People.” So, what that story is—is, at the time, I was teaching classes on Bible, and I didn’t know how Grand Canyon would like, feel about me writing this book. And so, of course me, I’m like, “Well, it doesn’t change that I’m going to write the book, like, you’re not the boss of me. So, it didn’t change that I was gonna write it.” I just wanted to be sensitive to…I went into my dean’s office and was like, “Hey, I wrote this book, it’s gonna come out. I’m happy to not say that I’m associated with you if you need me to.” And she was very gracious and was like, “I don’t know what kind of institution you think we are. But that’s…it’s fine.” And I was like, “Oh, thank goodness.” And here, I’d been like closing my door sometimes, like, when I was teaching something. I don’t know, I don’t know what’s okay to say or not. But luckily, I was teaching philosophy. So, it wasn’t a big deal. I didn’t talk too much Bible. But so that’s kind of where “Genesis for Normal People,” That’s the genesis of “Genesis for Normal People” and Bible for Normal People.[Outro music plays]
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Thanks for listening to Faith for Normal People! Don’t forget, you can also catch the latest episode of our other show, The Bible for Normal People, wherever you get your podcasts. This episode was brought to you by the Bible for Normal People podcast team: Brittany Prescott, Savannah Locke, Stephanie Speight, Natalie Weyand, Steven Henning, Tessa Stultz, Haley Warren, Nick Striegel, and Jessica Shao.
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