And I’m getting sidetracked by stories.
So there is an actress out there who tells, she told the story at a graduation. She was struggling for many years, doing small parts, getting getting co-star roles, but never the big breakout role. She finally got the breakout role in a show called Frazier. She got the role of Roz playing the playing the the manager. They did the pilot. The network loved the pilot. They said, ‘the pilot’s going to go’, except the network only had one note. ‘You have to fire that actress that you’ve got to play, Roz. She’s completely wrong for it. You have to hire somebody else.’
So they fired her, hired Gilpin, I believe her name is. Perry, who is fantastic, right? Roz was fantastic. And this actress suddenly went from having a lead role in what was destined to be a hit series as a spin off of another hit series. She was devastated from it. Of course, who wouldn’t be?
There was another show coming up that she was gonna audition for, that she yanked the audition because she she had her part. Called the agent and said, ‘hey, can I get that other audition back?’ And the agent said, ‘well, sure, we’ll try to get you in.’
She got into the audition, she got the part. She’s playing Phoebe on the TV series Friends. Lisa Kudrow.
And she tells that story to point out that what you think is a failure or what you think is a success is irrelevant. There is a bigger picture going on there. And she’s not saying it’s God. I’m saying it’s God. But there is a bigger picture. And sometimes you need to fail. She’s like, ‘I would not have been available for that audition if if I wasn’t fired at the time I was fired.’ So so the timing of it was perfect to line her up for this thing that became career defining.
And I find that in my life over and over again, the that the things that I’ve gotten fired from are lessons that helped me for the next thing. Me wanting to be a lawyer is what helped me be a producer. Me wanting to to be a stage manager and not getting hired is what led to me being at Columbia. Being a lawyer there is what made that good. Being at Columbia is what trained to me to be a writer. That I would not have had the training for. And and it’s what gave me the role models, the many, many role models I have to become a teacher.
So every step of the way, I can look back and see nothing was wasted. All the things that I thought were wrong directions, was just God training me for what he knew I would end up as. All the way back to Doc Coleman, my professor at Drake, my junior, going into my senior year saying, ‘well, what do you mean you’re not going to grad school? You’re gonna be a professor.’
Even the irony of it. I do have to say this by myself, because I’m an idiot in many, many ways, hopefully delightfully so. When I was getting my degree at Columbia, I didn’t care about the degree at all. I wanted that training. I saw the training they were getting, the people they were training with. You know, Rory Bailey, Howard Rogan with the Schubert organization. I just wanted to sit in on these classes. I wanted to train with these people. I didn’t care what the degree was. And I was getting a MFA master of Fine Arts. And years later, when I’m in L.A., after I have left all that, I’m trying to get an adjunct teaching position at Biola in Southern California. And they ask me, they’re like, ‘well, do you have a terminal degree?’ And I said, ‘well, no, I don’t.’ So and they said, ‘well, it’s too bad, because if you had a doctorate or an MFA, you could teach here.’ And I said, ‘wait, wait, wait. I’ve just done an MFA. Is that what you guys call a terminal degree?’ I didn’t know what that meant. I had no idea I had a terminal degree.. Because I wasn’t interested in that degree. I was only interested in the teaching.
So even silly things like that. It’s like, oh, no. God knew that I was going to need an MFA someday.
Yeah. I was saying to Moz last night how good it is to be a Christian. Because when things happen, you can look at it and say, ‘well, God’s got a plan. I’m not in a comfortable place right now, but I know God has a plan.’ So, you know, you can trust him. And as you say, things like these happen to people who aren’t Christians, but they don’t have that luxury of looking at it and saying, ‘Well, God’s got a plan’.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. Absolutely. Because God is designing for everybody. That’s the thing, is that God loves everybody. So it’s not just Christians who have these designed lives, but we get the joy of occasions getting to see it in action. That’s a real gift because not everybody does.
Can you briefly talk to us about, you mentioned Harry Potter, which is not a Christian book.
Ruth, I can’t briefly talk about anything.
I want to ask the question anyway, because, you know, Harry Potter is not a Christian book.
And a lot of Christians were like, ‘whoa’, you know? But God spoke to you through that book. So, you know, in all your writing and what you do, you don’t necessarily have to beat people over the head with the gospel or, you know, tied it in a neat bow at the end.
Yeah. And that’s the thing. Because I will list Harry Potter is one of the top Christian books of the day. But I define Christian in a very different way because I don’t I don’t like to spend too much time in the subculture or the subculture mentality of, ‘Well, this is a Christian song and this is a secular song’. Yeah, Walking on Water: Madeleine L’Engle says that one of one of the greatest lessons of the incarnation is there is no separation between secular and sacred. Jesus did everything that you can consider to be the most secular of activities. Eating, getting rid of what you ate. God did that. And it’s kind of crass to think in those terms, but how revolutionary? At the same time that God had an upset stomach, God cried as a baby. God was desperate for milk. All of these things that we would consider to be non-religious, they’re religious.
Everything is sacred and everything is secular. In a way. That’s the big lesson. So, yeah, I think I’ve worked a lot of my career in, I worked in both secular and in religious institutions. Right now, I’m at a Christian school. I didn’t go to any, all of my schooling was secular, growing up, being trained, being formed.
But now I’m in a Christian environment. Some of my writing, I write for Veggie Tales. I write for CBN. I write for Super Book. I’m working with the people with Action Bible right now, trying to convert that into a Web series.
So I’m doing a lot of Christian projects, but I’ve also written a lot of of things that aren’t explicitly Christian or just Christo-friendly.
I think it comes down to a fundamental belief. Do you believe that God is everywhere? And if you believe that God is everywhere … Harry Potter’s easy because J.K. Rowling intended to Christian symbolism and it’s easy, you know, you’re hearing Dumbledore rephrase verses from the Bible and call it wisdom. That’s by design. So for me, Harry Potter is like that. That’s easy to do.
So, but but move away from that to secular artists who are definitely not trying to evoke a God. You know, you look at the writings of Dr. Who? I started a blog on it. At one point I wanted to write a book on it. I did a chapter for a book on it of just the the deep theology in Christianity, Christology of Doctor Who. It’s so it’s so intense. It’s almost on the nose. If you didn’t know that it was being driven by an atheist, you would you would roll your eyes at how obvious some of it is.
Because they’re wrestling with the same questions: Who are we? Where do we come from? Where are we going to? And I believe for any art, because I do believe in inspiration. I call it the Holy Spirit. I have a name for it. Not everybody does, but I do. Inspiration and inspiration is available to all of God’s children. We’re all created in the image of a creator. We all have this creative spark. And the best writing for any writer is when you get out of the way of the work. The less it’s me getting in the way to form it the way I think it’s clever is the best writing I can do. And I think that’s true of everybody, whether whether you call it God, whether you know that it’s God or not.
If you get out of the way, if you honestly ask those questions, if you’re not trying to put your agenda on it, and that’s where I think the big artistic sin of Christians who are who are doing making Christian film or writing Christian novels or writing Christian music, whatever it is that we’re putting the word Christian in front of. The big sin is we come in with an agenda and we’re like, ‘no, Holy Spirit, don’t worry about it. I’ve got it. I don’t need you. I’ve got this under control. I know what lesson we need to teach the world. I know what they need to hear. And so I’m going to lead with that.’
That’s no different than being an atheist saying I’m going to write the Da Vinci Code to prove the Christianity is wrong. If you’ve got your own agenda in the way and you’re not willing to be honest enough to let truth be truth. Whether you agree with it or not. You’re gonna get in the way.
And that’s the hard part, you know this, the hard part about writing is not being Ruth when you write. You know, not being Sean when I write, it’s not being … it’s getting out of the way.
And yeah. Do you know The Selfish Giant?
So there are a bunch of fairy tales written by Oscar Wilde.
He wrote a series of fairy tales. He also wrote The Importance of Being Earnest. We know Oscar, who was imprisoned for buggery. Oscar, who was known for his flamboyant parties. Oscar, who is known for his disdain for religion.
Oh I do know, The Selfish Giant. That’s the one with the wall and the tree.
Written by Oscar Wilde. It’s the story. It’s one of my favorites from childhood. It’s a giant who has his place and he builds a wall around it. He goes off on a trip. And when he’s on this trip, these schoolchildren find a hole in the wall and they crawl in, and they turn his yard into a playground and a safe playground. In the original book, they talk about the street being, you know, the wagons in the street. And so the kids need a safe place to play.
The giant comes home. The giant doesn’t want to share. He plugs up the hole. He refuses to let any kids in there. The laughter of children leaves. And Winter realizes, oh, here’s a place where it can be winter all year long, because this place, the trees don’t want to blossom in this place, because they don’t blossom in a place where there’s no laughter of children.
And so the giant is miserable.
And then one day he wakes up and it’s spring outside. For the first time in years it’s spring outside. And he looks and he sees the children are playing in his yard and he runs down the stairs to go out and embrace these children. He’s so happy and he rushes out.
And of course, it’s a giant rushing out of the house, the children get afraid and they all run and Winter takes over as they leave. And he’s left in Winter Garden again.
Except he realizes there’s one tree that’s still in bloom and he looks and he sees that there’s a child stuck in the tree. (I’m gonna cry, by the way.) It’s stuck in the tree. And so he goes to the child. The child says, ‘I’m sorry. I just want to play.’ He says, ‘no, no, no, no. You are welcome here.’ And gently takes the child out of the tree and sets him down.
And the kids see this and they all come back and it becomes a children’s playground. And it still has winter, but its winter is always followed by spring, summer. It becomes a beautiful thing. And the giant plays with the kids. He grows old.
And when he’s an old old man, he looks out, it’s the middle of winter and he sees the tree is in blossom. And he goes down and he approaches the tree. And against all odds, the little boy is still in the tree and he’s still a little boy.
And all the other kids are grown up. Their kids and their grandkids play his garden. But the little boy is still there. And the giant goes up and says, ‘I don’t understand what is going on’. And the boy says, ‘it’s your time’. And he says, ‘When I was a child, you let me play in your garden.’ And he spread his hands out and you see there are holes in his hands. And the giant is angry. And he says, ‘who did that? Who did that?’ He says, ‘no, no, no. That had to be done, because now I can bring you into my garden.’
And the next morning, the kids come and find his body covered in snow.
It’s is just beautiful story. It makes me cry every time. It takes me back to my childhood. When I first saw an animated version of it. Gorgeous story, with Jesus in it. Saying, ‘I had to die so I could invite you to my garden.’ Written by Oscar Wilde. Right? It’s just amazing. But he was willing to explore these bigger issues, these bigger things. And this was the story that came out of him. And had the courage to let that story, that story be how it came out of him.
And there are so many other Oscar Wilde stories that are that are very similar. He has a play about John the Baptist and King Herod that’s just chilling. It’s just chilling because you know that it’s an autobiography. I have entrapped I have encased in my brain a prophet who is yelling at me all the time saying ‘repent’.
Can we as Christians have the same courage to let the story that comes out be the story we give?
Even if it doesn’t align with maybe what the church is telling us to believe or what our childhood was telling us to believe or even what we asked the moment as we’re writing it to believe. Can we tell truth about God? Can we tell stories that that are tragedies? Can we tell stories where people pray and they don’t get what they thought they wanted? Can we even more on prayer. Can we tell stories where God gets to decide what’s good for us and we don’t get to dictate to him what we want? Do we have the courage to do that.
Do we have the courage to tell stories that say that if you become a Christian, your life in the world still gonna be hard? It’s still gonna be uncomfortable. Becoming a Christian is not a cure all. It’s never been. Can we tell stories that agree with that?
Can we tell stories that talk about what do you do when you’re a Christian and your child dies? Or do we have to whitewash that? Do we have to do that? Do we have to? Do we have to tell stories that say ‘no – reality doesn’t get to define what reality is. God doesn’t get to define who God is. I get to define what I think the Christian life should be.’
And when we have that courage, the way that Dumbledore puts it … And I use this in every writing class, he says, ‘Harry, the time has come where we need to choose between what is right and what is easy.’
Because the choice isn’t between what is right and wrong. That’s rarely ever the choice. People don’t say, ‘oh, today I’m going to be evil.’ They say, ‘you know, it’s easier if if I take that money than it would beto give it back.’ ‘It’s easier if I lie and say, it wasn’t me that did that.’ ‘It’s easy if I go after the girl who is exciting me right now, than continue on with the girl I made the promise and the vow to.’ It’s easy, right?
It’s easier to say, ‘hey, become a Christian. Your life will be great.’ It’s great marketing as opposed to ‘if you become a Christian, you will have the tools that will help you survive in tremendous amounts of pain that you’re gonna go through. Now you get to take up your cross. But I’ll be there to carry it with you.’ Right?
That’s the short version. That’s me being brief.
I adore J.K. Rowling because I think she has the courage, even in her other writings under other names, I think she has the courage to talk about what she’s supposed to be talking about.
Sure. Yes, absolutely. When do you feel close to God?
There’s two situations that kind of that are a little bit more obvious to me.
I’m, as I said, it was when I talked about how I became a Christian. I started out with an intellectual question. And I am more bent towards the intellectual in general than the than the feeling, than the emotional.
Says the man who’s cried all the way through the interview.
So, yeah. So when do I feel close to God. Because I’ve been listening to, I can’t name them, but thinking on some of the other podcasts that you’ve had who talk about you know, reading scripture, in the church worship service, and those are not my times really. But the two clear times I feel close to God. One of them you and I just experienced together. The other one is in creation.
When I’m creating when I’m writing. Those glorious moments. And I’m not a good enough writer, that it’s that it’s often enough, those glorious moments where I do step out of the way. Where I feel the Holy Spirit taking over, where my characters become themselves and not me. There are moments in that are just they’re transcendent by being incendant by going, if that makes any sense. And I feel alongside in those moments.
And then the other the other time is in moments of beauty. And for me too, my wife Catherine is she’s she’s the sunshine girl, she says have the blinds open. I have to have the blinds closed. I want to be in a cave, kind of guy. She’s she’s more in tune with nature than I am. I couldn’t tell you two different kinds of trees. Like I didn’t even notice they were different – one’s green, the other one’s purple. Same thing to me. Every once in a while I can look back on my life and I can think of moments where nature has done that for me. But usually the moments of beauty have been man-made.
And it’s it’s when I am broken by beauty that I most feel close to God. So it isn’t even just, ‘oh, wow, that was moving’. But ‘did that break me?’ For example, in telling the story of The Selfish Giant this breaks me and I find in my brokenness is is when I most feel God. I think maybe it’s when I’m less confident.
My wife and I recently watched the musical Come From Away, which tells the story of the airport in Newfoundland, who took all of the airplanes that were not allowed to go into the United States after 9/11. And of course, I’m a New Yorker, so any 9/11 story is is gonna get me. But there were moments in that play that were just so beautiful within that tragedy that it would break me.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this, knowing that I was gonna have to answer this question because they’re not religious. They’re not religious moments in a common sense. These are secular things that break me. Some of them are pure beauty. So the movie Gravity. In the movie Gravity, when Sandra Bullock’s character finally makes it into the space station and is able to remove the outer suit, and able to breathe and she just curls into a fetal position, I start bawling in the movie theater. I can’t tell you what it means. I can’t put an intellectual stamp on it. I just know it was so gol-darn beautiful that that it was just a transcendent moment.
In Come From Away there’s a moment where it’s incredibly sad. It’s not one of those hopeful moments. It’s not, you know, hopeful moments that do it for me. There was a moment that was just so sad and it was an off-the-cuff. There is a there’s a lot of moments in that play that talk directly about, you know, there’s a character whose son is a firefighter in Brooklyn and she can’t locate him because she’s trapped up in Newfoundland. So she doesn’t know. Is he okay? There are people who talk about people who they lost. So there’s a lot of that.
But this was a throw-off moment. This this was a moment about a character that they they insidiously only gave us a few points. It was about the loss of a character. I don’t want to spoil it. I’m going to spoil it for anybody who sees it. It was about a monkey. There’s a character who realizes that there are animals on these planes in the cargo holds and everybody has ignored them because they’re only concerned about the people. So the local vet crosses the military line and goes to these planes and pulls out all the animals. Well, it included these monkeys that were being headed for a zoo, these exotic monkeys. So we never see the animals we hear animal noises, but we see the cages and we see her talking to them and trying to convince people, ‘no, no, no, no, we got to feed these animals. We’ve got to do something.’ And she finally gets permission to take them off the planes. And so it’s a minor story. It’s like a you know, if you have your A story, and your B story. This is like a K story.
One of the monkeys is pregnant and they’re saying, ‘We’re breaking history because this is the first time this exotic monkey has ever given birth in Newfoundland.’ One of the jokes they were saying because it was on its way to the zoo. And then as they’re packing up to leave, we come back to this character. And again, we’re just we’re just seeing this character at 30 seconds at a time, this vet character. And she’s saying goodbye to all the animals. And she’s like, to the cat, It’s like, ‘I’ve put your medicine, taped it right here. So the next person to see your cage will know to give it to you.’ You know, ‘hey, you know, little puppy, just so you know, I put in an extra treat in there for you’
And she gets to the monkey cage. And she says, ‘I’m so sorry that you lost your babies. But it’s gonna be OK.’
And then the play moves on. I’m like, ‘no, no, no. You’re what?’ For a character, a monkey I never even saw. For a child that was that was delivered offstage. Just the impact of because your plane was delayed because of this horrific thing. The ripple effect. It was a great moment of sadness.
And it broke me. And when I’m broken like that, that’s when I feel God.
I can’t give a brief answer to anything. I’m a storyteller.
That’s great. It’s so great.
What’s one thing about God and Christianity you wish everyone knew?
I wish that everybody knew in the church, outside of the church. I wish everybody knew that God is not defined by people.
The church does not define God. The church seeks to find out who God is.
I’m in a country that is politically Christian. So no matter who the leader of the free world is, they are Christian by definition. And I wish people knew that that’s not true. The politics doesn’t get to decide who God is, convenience doesn’t get to decide who God is, protecting me from the other does not define who God is.
God defines who God is. Jesus defines who God is.
I wish we all knew that. Because I see it in the church as much as I see it outside the church. People saying, ‘well, I would never believe in a God who would do such and such.’ Well, he didn’t. I see people inside the church saying, ‘well, you have to believe in my God, because he does such and such’. And it’s like, ‘well, the Bible disagrees with you. That’s not who Jesus is.’
I wish that we all knew that, so that we all could meet the real Jesus. The Jesus who who knows that we’re not defined by the way the world defines us and sees past all of that to see who we really are in our brokenness, to see who we really are in our kindness, to see who we really could be if we would only stop believing the lies we tell ourselves and start loving each other with a Jesus kind of love. Yeah, that’s what I wish.
Yeah, that’s so true.
Yes. For me as well. You know, I everyday I need to learn that.
Well, I mean, it’s, he’s so big. There’s so much of God to get to know. So, yeah.
We don’t have boxes big enough no matter how we try.
Consistent redefinition of God all the time over and over. Yeah.
Oh, thank you so much, Sean. It’s been a wonderful interview.
I’m sorry. I know that I go out and on. And it was a joy to speak to you.