The Theologist / Paul Louis Metzger / Musings on the Muses: Living and Writing in Liminal Spaces

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 installment, we interview Paul Louis Metzger, author and editor of twelve books, including Evangelical Zen, Second Edition: A Christian’s Spiritual Travels with a Buddhist Friend (Cascade, forthcoming, 2024), Setting the Spiritual Clock: Sacred Time Breaking Through the Secular Eclipse (Cascade, 2020), Beatitudes, Not Platitudes: Jesus’ Invitation to the Good Life (Cascade, 2018), and The Word of Christ and the World of Culture: Sacred and Secular through the Theology of Karl Barth (Wipf & Stock, 2005).

Are there any stimuli that you tend towards when you write? Any beverages, snacks, music, etc., that you find helpful for the headspace conducive to writing? What are these for you?

Much of the time I experience over-stimulation. So, I often have to quiet myself. My morning devotions and time of prayer along with a fresh cup of coffee or two really help to quiet and center me before beginning to write.

A good book of philosophy or novel can certainly provide inspiration and direction for my “little grey cells” to get to work, to quote Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot. Last but not least, the music of such virtuosos like Bob Dylan, Kurt Cobain, and Thomas Tallis, along with others, put me in touch with the muses and get me into the fitting mood for writing.

Do any of your family members or non-academic friends read your work? And how much do you tend to talk to these folks about your writing projects?

Yes, my wife Mariko, members of the New Wine, New Wineskins community, some students, and people who follow our family journey involving my son’s TBI read my work. I talk to my wife most of all. She provides phenomenal perspective and asks penetrating questions. My non-academic friends hold me accountable to the importance of being grounded and finding ways to express theoretical notions in ordinary language with practical import for daily life.

Who are the three or four thinkers on your intellectual Mt. Rushmore, those figures who have most influenced your own work? Why those three or four in particular?

There are many figures who have shaped me intellectually. Four of them are Karl Barth, Colin Gunton, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Lyman Potter. I did my doctoral research on Karl Barth and theology of culture at King’s College London under the supervision of Colin Gunton. The doctoral project was later published with Eerdmans. Gunton was a theological trailblazer and has shaped my thinking in a Trinitarian direction, especially his later works. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a great public theologian whose prophetic personalist paradigm has made an indelible impression on me and my writing on public theological and ethical issues. Robert Potter is a retired medical doctor, professor of medicine, and medical ethicist. He has become a close friend and personal mentor who helps me integrate my faith with scientific explorations and applying them to important ethical themes, especially in view of my adult son Christopher’s traumatic brain injury and our advocacy for him.

What is your writing schedule like when you are working on a book manuscript?

I rise early and begin writing after devotions, prayer, and that fresh cup of coffee. I return at different points in the day to my writing projects, researching, crafting, chiseling, reconstructing. I intersperse it with conversations with whoever will put up with my questions and musings on what I am researching and return to my literary dialogue partners in articles and books. Instead of doing all my research in advance, I synthesize writing with reading and conversations in an ever-evolving stream until I come upon a final draft. I think of the Rolling Stones’ music studio on wheels. Rather than working from 9 to 5 in a shirt and tie and scheduling appointments to record at a studio, I take everything with me to record whenever inspiration hits, whether three in the morning or three in the afternoon.

What part of the book process do you tend to find most difficult? What about that part is difficult for you?

I find the reshaping and editing of a manuscript once it is written along with working with copy editors to be the most difficult part of the process. The initial writing comes quite easily in comparison. My late mother prayed daily for me that I would experience great energy and creativity in my work. The impact of her prayers remains. In fact, she may be praying even now. If only she had prayed that my initial drafts would be final products! I have had to significantly edit entire drafts of three of my books, which was quite challenging, but in the end well worth the effort. I recall one of my professors saying that whatever subject one sets out to write about for their doctoral dissertation had better be captivating. Fortunately, whatever subject I have chosen to write about invigorates me and moves me to keep pressing on no matter the challenges. Researching and writing for a book project can be a very lonely and painstaking process at times. I am thankful that when I write and edit, I feel a passion for the subject as well as God’s pleasure. Writing puts wind in my sails, even as so much of my life experience the past several years has put wind in my face.

What have you found to be the most fun part of writing and publishing books? What parts of the process bring you the most joy, and why?

I already addressed this question above. However, I can expand on it by sharing that I find great delight in crafting books that navigate liminal spaces and cut against the grain of set categories. All too often, I find that the publishing world limits itself to certain algorithms of what will sell. While marketability and feasibility are certainly important, it proves challenging when publishers and the guild of scholars operate within straightjacketed constraints and lose sight of opportunities to opening their literary markets’ minds to new disclosures. I have also witnessed on at least a few occasions the scholarly community being threatened by works that don’t follow set, well-worn patterns. I do not look to defy genre categories, but I do find great delight in drawing outside well-worn lines when I think the departures are warranted in pursuit of new discoveries. To quote my teenage idol Jim Morrison, I like to break on through to the other side! The book Evangelical Zen is a case in point. That said, I have been learning over the years that in this process, I need to make clearer when I am making methodological and disciplinary lane changes so as not to cause too many disturbances in the scholarly force and traffic flow on my intellectual and spiritual travels.

What is your goal in your writing? What would you say you are trying to accomplish when you write, and when you publish?

One of the central aims in my writing is the pursuit of truth through open-ended dialogue that is dialectical and welcomes complexity. I like to cross boundaries, operating in liminal spaces in pursuit of reconciliation. Again, the book Evangelical Zen is reflective of this orientation. At every turn, I seek to account for the three ortho’s of the faith: orthodoxy, orthopraxy, and orthopathy (sound doctrine, sound practice, and sound passion). The quest for honest and transparent explorations in a spirit of humility and graciousness and longing for integrity challenges me at every turn.

What helps you to get your mind off your writing and publishing projects?

Why would I want to get my mind off what I find fascinating and that fills my mind with a sense of wonder? I connect my writing to all of life’s experiences, so I never stop making connections, searching for new syntheses between everyday encounters and experiences with what I am researching.

How many books have you written, and which one would you say holds the dearest place in your heart? What about that book holds your affection?

I have written twelve books to date (ten authored, two edited). My most recent publication, More Than Things: A Personalist Ethics for a Throwaway Culture holds the dearest place in my heart. It sums up and synthesizes so much of my scholarly endeavors over the years and brings them to a head. It also went through the refiner’s fire. My family and I have been dunked or immersed in a baptism of fire since my adult son Christopher’s catastrophic brain injury in January 2021. That life-altering tragedy for my family and me brought increasing focus and gravity to my writing on Trinitarian personalist ethics and its import for an age which so readily thingifies human persons and diminishes creaturely value.

How would you describe the relationship between your life and your writing? Do you prefer to keep these somewhat separate, or do they feed each other?

They feed off one another, as is seen in my book Evangelical Zen. While there are lines of distinction between my life and writing, there are no bold lines of separation. The borders are rather porous. I like how John Steinbeck crafted East of Eden. He weaves his family and his town of Salinas, California, into his classic tale, which contextualizes the cosmic story of Cain and Abel to contemporary society. It reflected his conviction that a story must not be “strange or “foreign,” but connect with everybody as “deeply personal and familiar.” I do not think this is simply true of literary works of fiction, but even great works in the social sciences, like Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. There is a vital sense in which Taylor conveys the intuitions and sentiments of people from various walks of life who try and find meaning within our current cultural malaise. I want my work to reflect my personal journey and make an intuitive connection with people from various walks of life, not simply those who agree with me. This quest feeds my spirit.

What advice would you give to a younger scholar who has finished their first book and is thinking about future projects?

Write to write—pursuing a sense of wonder. We need to guard against the publish or perish mindset whereby we reduce ourselves to our list of publications. Write to write, not for success, prestige, or comfort. Be true to yourself. Account for criticisms no matter how painful in the effort to become the best writer that you—not someone who isn’t you—can be. Irving Stone’s Van Gogh in Lust for Life should serve as an inspiration to all of us. May your lust for life fuel your writing and may your writing fuel your lust for life. The process is definitely as important as the finished product. And if you do find some measure of success, do not allow it to keep you from breaking out of a mold of others’ making. Check out this interview with Robbie Robertson of The Band reflecting on what it was like playing and touring with Bob Dylan. Life-giving, refreshing! I also think about Eminem’s song “Lose Yourself” in the movie 8 Mile. If you only had one opportunity to write, don’t waste your opportunity. Seize it, come what may. Lastly, I often think of the scene in Walk the Line where Johnny Cash gets a shot to audition before the great Sam Phillips in hopes of being signed up to record with his studio. Cash is forced to put it all on the line and move beyond depending on what has been deemed successful in the effort to make it as a musician. He must come clean and be brutally honest through his music if he is to be believable. While vulnerable and painful, it is real and life-giving. Like a student said of Cash in one of my theology classes, his music conveys that he was “smoking what he was selling.” Are you “selling” what you are “smoking,” or do you “sell” a “brand of cigarettes” in your writing that you don’t “smoke” yourself? If so, stop writing until you do.

What book(s) are you currently reading?

I have recently been working through various works on Hinduism (a few translations of the Bhagavad Gita, Mahabharata, a few translations of the Upanishads, The Difficulty of Being Good: On the Subtle Art of Dharma by Gurcharan Das), and reading and reflecting at length on Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. They are part of my reading regimen for a book I am crafting on “world religions.”

What project(s) are you working on next?

A book contracted with Cascade on trauma and resilience in the life of the church with special consideration of the Epistle to the Hebrews. It has been accepted for the Worship & Witness series, which also includes my book, Setting the Spiritual Clock.

A book contracted with IVP Academic that is rethinking the concept of world religions and applying it to interfaith or multifaith discourse, accounting for such pivotal texts as Peter Harrison’s The Territories of Science and Religion, Jason Ananda Josephson’s The Invention of Religion in Japan, Tomoko Masazawa’s The Invention of World Religions, William Cavanaugh’s The Myth of Religious Violence, and Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age.

Lastly, the past three years, I have been writing on the journey of faith, hope, and love with my minimally conscious son Christopher following his traumatic brain injury. At a fitting time, I will seek to publish the reflections.

Paul Louis Metzger is Professor of Theology & Culture, Multnomah University/Seminary, Director of The Institute for Cultural Engagement: New Wine, New Wineskins, and author and editor of numerous works, including A World for All? Global Civil Society in Political Theory and Trinitarian Theology (co-editor, 2011), Connecting Christ: How to Discuss Jesus in a World of Diverse Paths (2012), and More Than Things: A Personalist Ethics for a Throwaway Culture (2023).


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