Around the time I turned fifty I went through an identity crisis. A child of the 1960s, I began my writing career with a youth magazine, Campus Life, known for its edginess. We took seriously the slogan of that era, “Don’t trust anyone over thirty.” Later I wrote books with sassy titles like Disappointment with God and What’s So Amazing About Grace?; another had the subtitle “How my faith survived the church.” Those books accurately reflected my personal journey from skepticism back toward a cautious faith.
After writing for twenty years I woke up to realize the ground had shifted. Whereas I had used college chapels as a time to catch up on magazine reading, now college chaplains were inviting me to speak! Before, as a journalist I had asked the questions; now when a new book came out journalists at press conferences were asking me the questions. Earlier I traveled to places like India, Russia, and Somalia in order to gather material for my writing, making all my own low-budget arrangements; now organizers met me at the airport and checked me into brand-name hotels.
“What happened?” I asked myself. My approach has not changed. Each time I write a book I strive for honesty and transparency. Wary of propagandists, I cling to my identity as a freelancer, turning down offers to serve on boards or accept assignments that would make me beholden to supporters. Yet now people are treating me like, well, like some kind of spokesman or, worse, a guru.
My identity crisis has since mellowed into a low-grade anxiety that lurks in the background and pokes its head into my awareness from time to time. I have grudgingly accepted my new role in large part because of responses from readers. I remember saying to my wife when I mailed off the manuscript to What’s So Amazing About Grace, “This is probably the last book I’ll write for evangelical Christians—I’ll get blackballed.” The book did, after all, contain a chapter about my friendship with the gay rights advocate Mel White and another chapter about President Bill Clinton, not a favorite among evangelicals. I was wrong in my prediction, and the wide reception of that book helped convince me that Christian readers have more openness than the news media might lead one to believe. There is a place, I decided, for the Christian writer who raises as many questions as proposes answers.
I still juggle the identity issues, which center on the tension caused by my dual roles of writing and public speaking. As the calendar rolled over to a new millennium, however, I began to resolve that tension by accepting speaking invitations in other countries. My books are now published in 35 languages, they tell me, and not infrequently I get asked by my publishers and others to make an overseas visit. I’ve found it a stimulating way to collect new material (always important for a writer) as well as a kind of tithe back to the church. I make my living from writing, not speaking, and can afford to take trips on behalf of organizations that at best barely cover travel expenses.
Along the way I have had to learn the style differences between speaking and writing. One of C. S. Lewis’s former students marveled that his books seem so gently persuasive whereas in person Lewis could be bombastic and argumentative. The speaker has many more tools at his or her disposal. I can raise or lower my voice, wave my arms, pace the stage. If all else fails I can show a PowerPoint presentation or a clip from a movie. In contrast, the writer can only manipulate black marks on a page, with no color, no sound, and only the subtlest variation in appearance. The reader remains firmly in control at all times. When I speak to an audience in person, common courtesy usually (not always) deters them from walking out; if I fail to hold a reader’s attention, the book slams shut.
“Most writers don’t make good speakers,” I often hear, and I am grateful for those lowered expectations when I stand before an audience. Although I find writing a much harder task, speaking does present unique challenges. If I hit writer’s block, I open the door and go for a run or a bike ride to clear my head. Onstage I have to keep talking and sweating through to the end, no matter how miserable I feel at the time.
Public speaking also involves the unpredictable. Several times in India the electricity shut off in the middle of a meeting, leaving me standing on a platform in the dark with no microphone. In the Philippines cell phones went off every few minutes; one man said loudly, “Hello, Ma? I’m in a meeting. Just a minute and we can talk,” as he walked out the aisle. At a charity golf tournament in France, a drunken Jewish woman stood up and shouted, “That’s me! He’s talking about me!” as I mentioned the scene in John 8 of Jesus confronting an adulterous woman. I have spoken through an old fashioned bullhorn on a beach in Myanmar, nearly fainting from the heat and an attack of diarrhea. In Australia I spoke to a group that included aborigines, who had the disconcerting habit of giggling throughout my talk and heading out on walkabouts whenever they felt like it.
In addition, the host countries often surprise me with a hidden agenda. I land, only to find that six new events have somehow crept into an already crowded schedule of speaking assignments. Asians, hospitable to a fault, cannot understand that visitors may want a few minutes to themselves each day. I meekly protest. “Yes, yes, but at this breakfast the mayor may appear,” they say. “Very sorry, but they are counting on you.”
It constantly amazes me that my books can connect with someone in another culture since I write so specifically about the legalism, fundamentalism, and racism of the American South. I have learned, though, that churches overseas may magnify the flaws and quirks of the U.S. church. Missionaries, God bless them, may import a legalism that makes Southern Baptists look like liberals and church divisions that make U.S. denominations seem harmonious. Sermons tend to fall into two types, either stiff and formulaic or a rollicking Prosperity Gospel message. Few are addressing questions like Where Is God When It Hurts and Disappointment with God in such places.
I enjoy speaking in “post-Christian” societies such as Europe and Australia, where a minority still believe and even fewer worship regularly and yet symbols of a religious past abound. Consider them as divorcées, not virgins, cautioned C. S. Lewis. They tried the faith and felt disappointed in or betrayed by it—a pattern I know well. Even so, I find that Christians in Europe seem more serious about their faith than their counterparts in the U.S. When only a small percentage of the population attends church, there are no overlays of cultural Christianity and no social advantages to church affiliation. Those who show up for Christian events still hunger for content whereas in America entertainment rules.
On the other hand, nothing beats speaking in a place like Colombia or the Philippines, where the audience hangs on every word. On my visit to the Philippines the owner of a shopping mall made available an undeveloped corner of the mall adjacent to a twelve-screen movie complex. Organizers rented 2,000 chairs and hung some lights in the cavernous concrete area. “Have you advertised this meeting?” I asked. “No, no, we don’t need to. Just start speaking about Jesus, and the shoppers and moviegoers will change their plans and come listen to you.” Yeah, right—I prepared myself for a humiliating disaster. Oh, ye of little faith: sure enough, as I talked row after row of the seats filled with people, and by the end of the evening listeners were standing in the back.
Often I write travel reports on these trips which I send to friends and to my church. I’ve included them in this section of the website in raw form, just as they were written. Publishers of books and magazines say that Americans show little interest in other countries. I think they may be wrong. Despite the difficulties and challenges of international travel, I’ve found it to be as rewarding as anything I do. Perhaps you may find something here of interest as well.