The Theologist is your guide to all things writing and publishing in the fields of theology and biblical studies, 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 latest installation of The Theologist, we interviewed Lewis Brogdon, author of many books, including The Bible in the Ashes of Social Chaos: An Introduction to Problematic Texts (Cascade, 2023), A Companion to Philemon (Cascade, 2018), and Hope on the Brink: The Emergence of Nihilism in Black America (Cascade, 2013).
What are the typical writing environments you work in? What is your favorite, and why?
I write in two places.
I do most of my writing from coffee shops. I love getting a medium coffee with room for cream and sugar. I sit down and get out my laptop and notes and put in the work. I admit it is not the quietest place to write, but the hustle and bustle around doesn’t distract me. Writing a book is a long and lonely process. I spend countless hours in books and in my head “thinking myself clear.” So, further isolating myself from people does not work for me. The energy of coffee shops and looking across the room and seeing people talking or laughing or doing work themselves reminds me of the good that surrounds me, something that is important to remember when dealing with issues such slavery, racism, clergy suicide, nihilism, and the work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. There is something about coffee shops that reminds me why I do what I do. Coffee shops also work because it allows me to pace myself and work a little at a time on book projects. Most days I barely get a page written. Sometimes it is clarifying a few sentences or getting thoughts out of my head and onto the screen. Because I know I’ll be back tomorrow, I don’t feel pressured to get a certain amount done. I am very disciplined and a creature of habit, so I plug away a little at a time.
I also write at the beach. I go to the beach at least three times a year and sometimes will spend a week alone at the beach reading and writing. Seeing the ocean reminds me of the glory of God and beauty of creation. Its vastness and power are humble reminders of the small yet pivotal role we play in the “bigness” of God’s work. The quiet roar of the ocean fills me with a deep sense of peace. I have gotten a lot of good writing done and had many moments of clarity and insight. For me, being around the ocean makes writing a form of worship to God.
There is something about coffee shops and the ocean that resonates with my soul, feeds my mind, and fuels my writing.
What’s your favorite writing snack or drink?
Coffee. Coffee. Did I say coffee? Yes, coffee. I try not to snack while I write. A brutha has to watch the calories since I spend so much time sitting in coffeeshops. Being a good steward of my health is important so I can keep writing and speaking for years to come.
When did you write your first book and how old were you? What was the experience like of writing and publishing this first book?
The Bible says, “do not despise the days of small beginnings” (Zech 4:10). My career as a writer started from very humble beginnings. My first book was unpublished. Back in 2005 I wrote a small booklet as a pastor and used it in workshops or shared it with churches that invited me to preach. It was only forty-six pages and I had a local printer put it together for me. Then, I wrote a prayer journal using quotes from old sermons and thoughts from the journals I had accumulated over the years. God used these small projects that only a few people ever read to build the confidence to write in more formal ways.
I am thankful to see that God has blessed me to publish four books with Wipf and Stock. The first one was Hope on the Brink: Understanding the Emergence of Nihilism in Black America (2013). I will never forget the feeling of seeing that book in print. It was the culmination of a journey started years ago, a journey that continues to this day.
Have you ever had a writing mentor in your career? What did you learn from them?
Interestingly, I have had mentors in teaching and ministry, but not writing. I had professors and colleagues encourage me to write but I cannot say that I had someone mentor me. This is why I encourage others in their writing and mentor them in whatever way I can. It is important to have seasoned writers who guide, nurture, and encourage gifts for writing as they evolve and respond to the challenges of life.
Who have been the biggest supporters of your writing?
My four kids—Sarah, Charity, Micah, and Daniel. I also have some incredible friends and people in churches all across the country who read my books. It means so much to me.
What’s your favorite and least favorite part of publishing?
My favorite part is getting the author’s copy in the mail. It is humbling to hold a book that you wrote in your hands. It probably means so much to me because I grew up in a small town that socialized so many of the black kids to think we were not as intelligent as everyone else. They would give us some “standardized” test that concluded we were deficient. So, I found myself assigned to special classes to work on my reading and writing. I don’t remember being taught anything that improved my reading and writing skills in those special classes. But the sting of the stigma endured.
Years later, I came to realize that God had gifted me with an incredible mind and gifts to teach and write. Each time I see a book it reminds me of what I had to overcome and God’s faithfulness through it all.
My least favorite part is definitely promoting my books. I love writing books. After it is published, I am working on another one. That is a growing edge for me professionally.
What are the main sources of inspiration for your writing?
I know it sounds cliché but there are stories in the Bible that are a deep sense of inspiration, guidance, and struggle. I spend a lot of time in writings such as the Book of Job, the Gospel of Luke, the Letter to Philemon, and the Book of Revelation. In some way or another, my writing is a response to truths in Scripture. In Exod 3, God told Moses “I have surely seen the affliction of my people . . . and have heard their cry.” God sends Moses to work for the liberation of his people. This story is a powerful reminder of the God who still sees affliction and hears cries of people suffering unimaginable things. Like Moses, I find myself at my own “burning bush” listening to the God who challenges me not only to see and hear but to do something about it. Writing is one way to do something and is a unique part of my call to ministry. Like Moses, my writing is a call to speak and act in ways that bring challenge and liberation. This is one example of a story that inspires and fuels my writing.
In addition to Scripture, I spend a lot of time listening and trying to make “theological” sense of the messiness of history and human experience. It is a deep well of inspiration and struggle. Over the past decade and a half, my faith and theology have deepened. It started when I began reading slave narratives. Africans were enslaved in America for over 240 years. Many generations only knew the life of an enslaved person with little to no prospects of freedom. Reading their stories was one of the hardest experiences of my life. It changed me. As I listened to and sat with their experiences, it began to change some of the questions I asked about God and faith. Now I began with enslaved Africans but eventually had to grapple with the experiences of other enslaved persons in history, Native Americans, and the poor today. Grappling with their quest for meaning in life has been one of the most difficult and important challenges to my faith.
Grappling with the kind of faith enslaved Africans had when there was no prospect of freedom, or the nature of hope and meaning for billions of lives mired in abject poverty played a pivotal role in the deepening of my faith and ultimately, my writing. Questions like “what is my religion doing to alleviate and prevent mass human suffering today?” and “how are we using our moral influence, financial resources, and religious imagination to curb widespread suffering and death?” will occupy my imagination, heart, and writing for years to come.
Are there perspectives or beliefs you challenge in your writing? If so, what are those?
In the Black Church, preachers often use the phrase “stepping on toes” to describe the moments in a sermon that confront, correct, and challenge the people. I have been stepping on toes in my sermons for over thirty years and now I do it in my writing. I challenge my readers!
In my Philemon book, I challenge the slave-flight hypothesis used to give meaning to Paul’s Letter to Philemon. It is a highly problematic and inappropriate way to interpret this letter. In fact, it is a pro-slavery interpretation.
In a book titled Dying to Lead, I challenge the theology that claims pastors who committed suicide went to hell, a belief that further complicates the tragedy churches face when a pastor dies this way. Such a claim is based on a distorted soteriology and is not pastoral in any way.
In a 2019 article, I challenge my white sisters and brothers who read Luke’s Gospel to follow the example of Zacchaeus in relinquishing the privileges centuries of slavery and racism have afforded them. Then and only then will salvation come to America. I remind them that Luke’s Jesus warns about the impossibility for “the privileged” to enter the kingdom of heaven and that “those of you who do not give up everything you have you cannot be my disciples.”
Talk about stepping on toes . . .
What book (or books) are you currently reading?
Copeland, M. Shawn. Enfleshing Freedom: Body, Race, & Being. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2010. (Read it five times. Still going back to the well . . .)
Douglas, Kelly Brown. Resurrection Hope: A Future Where Black Lives Matter. New York: Orbis, 2021.
Cosby, Kevin W. Getting to the Promised Land: Black America and the Unfinished Work of the Civil Rights Movement. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2021.
Dr. Brogdon serves as the Associate Professor of Preaching and Black Church Studies and Executive Director of the Institute for Black Church Studies at the Baptist Seminary of Kentucky. He has served in numerous positions in undergraduate and graduate institutions like Simmons College of Kentucky, Claflin University, Bluefield University, and Louisville Seminary as a professor and administrator. Brogdon is an accomplished writer. He is the author of several books such as The Bible in the Ashes of Social Chaos: An Introduction to Problematic Texts (Cascade, 2023), A Companion to Philemon (Cascade, 2018), The Spirituality of Black Preaching (2016), The New Pentecostal Message?: An Introduction to the Prosperity Movement (Cascade, 2015), Dying to Lead: The Disturbing Trend of Clergy Suicide (2015), and Hope on the Brink: The Emergence of Nihilism in Black America (Cascade, 2013). As a regular contributor to Christian Ethics Today, Virginia Capital Connections Quarterly, Black Politics Today, and The Courier Journal, Brogdon authors articles and op eds for both academic and non-academic audiences.