The Theologist is your guide to all things writing, from finding inspiration for your work to reading the best literature on writing, from overcoming writing obstacles to finding writing mentors, and more. In this second installation of The Theologist, we at Wipf and Stock have the privilege of interviewing Jason Byassee, who is the senior pastor of Timothy Eaton Memorial Church in Toronto. Byassee is also the author and editor of many Cascade volumes, including his most recent, Better Than Burnch: Missional Churches in Cascadia (co-authored with Ross Lockhart, 2020).
What is your writing schedule like?
I think the monks and nuns are right: we work best absurdly early in the morning. When I’m
really writing I’m getting up before the rest of the house, before emails are flying in and stuff is
coming at me, when I can focus.
I also think Julia Cameron is right—writing should be like a fling. If you have five minutes here, two minutes there, you’re writing. It’s a cheat of sorts, you’re rewarding yourself with writing. It’s great fun after all.
Do you have food items or beverages you tend to enjoy while writing? Any music you like to listen to? If so, what?
I find ice water works better than coffee when I’m really writing. I don’t listen to music while
writing, but I do listen during walking breaks in between writing sessions. Anything poetic works,
but I’m partial to the Avett Brothers from my home state of North Carolina.
What is the most difficult part of your writing process?
Being edited. I like writing, but taking writing from “good enough” to “good enough to make
someone stop what they’re doing and read” is really difficult. Editing is essential—lawyers have
lawyers, the pope has a confessor, all that. I just don’t enjoy it.
What compels you to write?
Trying to figure out what I think on something. I’m compelled when I read someone else whose
writing is beautiful. I’m also compelled by the chance to ask nosy questions of interesting
people. I’ve seen writing change things materially, so I believe in it as social justice, evangelism,
art, beauty. Once you see it like that it’s hard to stop doing it.
Are there spiritual or therapeutic practices that help you get into the right headspace for writing?
I appreciate the panic induced by a looming deadline. That gets me moving. I also love making
procrastination work for me. I told David Heim at The Christian Century I’d get a lot of writing
done for him while avoiding my dissertation. Once I got the dissertation done I’d be less prolific.
You have to sort of trick yourself into writing I think, and I find these sorts of games work on me.
How long does it typically take you to write a book, all the way from idea to publication?
Years. That’s why I like journalism so much, is the years get reduced to months. But it’s not a
fast process, by design, and for some good reasons. Some.
What have been your biggest breakthroughs in writing throughout your training and career?
I learned sports journalism in high school. Then in graduate school I learned theology. And on a
lark I met the above-mentioned David Heim at a conference. He lamented he couldn’t find
anyone to review movies for him, since people who knew about movies didn’t know anything
about God, and vice-versa. I volunteered immediately, figuring I watched too many movies, we
might as well make this profitable. That led to my first writing assignment for publication, where
the skills of writing in journalism combined with the academic training of PhD work. Don’t think I could have planned any of that.
Have you ever had a writing mentor in your career? What did you learn from them?
Lauren Winner read my early books on the desert fathers and on the small church and made
them so much better. Rick Lischer did the same with the small church book. Peter Ochs made
the sections on Judaism in my Augustine and the Psalms book vastly better than they would
have been. Editing is basically giving a damn enough about a subject to not stand for work
that’s not good enough yet.
How has writing and publishing books changed the way you see yourself, either for the positive or negative (or anything in between)?
I realize how vulnerable writing is. Say something in print and it’s “out there” forever, mistakes in
full view. I’ve seen my writing do actual harm to people that I never anticipated and for which I
have tried to repent. When you set something loose in the world it goes on to have a life
strikingly independent of you, doing things you may not have intended it to do. That’s
frightening, but also sort of magical.
Who has been the biggest supporter of your writing? What have they done to support your
writing, and what has that meant to you?
Anyone who pays to read my work is a supporter!
I’d have to say the church has been the biggest supporter: educating me, encouraging me,
giving me voice and an opportunity, erudition on which to draw, with which to disagree. My wife
Jaylynn has been very patient with my writing. I remember when she was pregnant with our first,
having contractions in the next room, yelling for me to come, I actually said, “Hold on honey, I
need to get this sentence about Robert Jenson down on paper.” That’s remembered in our
household . . .
Which theologians/biblical scholars, dead or alive, do you think are the best writers, and why?
I do love Hemingway’s way of “omitting needless words,” as Strunk & White once put it. I love
Flannery O’Connor’s sense of the absurdity and earthiness of grace. Rowan Williams has a way
of plumbing the mysteries that none of the rest of us have begun to catch up with. Willie
Jennings brings together critical discourse on race with Christian orthodoxy and his own life in
ways that we’re desperate for just now. Ellen Davis is like someone who stepped out of the
pages of the Bible herself, magnetized by the presence of God.
Any writing projects in the works? Tell us about them.
A book called Christianity: An Asian Religion in Vancouver, based on interviews with folks who
pursue their work with passion because of God, and who show the coming face of faith in North
America. A project with Lexham on the interrelationship of church planting with strong,
established congregations (like the one I serve in Toronto). After that, who knows?!
Jason Byassee is senior pastor of Timothy Eaton Memorial Church in Toronto, Ontario. He previously taught preaching and held the Butler Chair in Homiletics at the Vancouver School of Theology. He is author or editor of twenty books on Christian faith, biblical interpretation, thriving congregations, leadership, and church history. Learn more at www.jasonbyassee.com.