An Interview with Stephen D Morrison: Bottom Up Theologian and Author of the Best Introduction to Karl Barth
An Interview with Stephen D Morrison:
Bottom Up Theologian and Author of the
Best Introduction to Karl Barth
I discovered author and theologian Stephen D. Morrison completely by accident. I somehow got the bright idea that I should check out Karl Barth after coming to my own conclusions researching the topic of universalism (Yikes!). Barth is one of those characters that is constantly mentioned in theological literature, and also warned about because of his challenging and long winded writing style. I bit the bullet and was completely overwhelmed with all the primary and secondary sources, and had no clue where to begin. And that’s when I bought Stephen’s book Karl Barth in Plain English on a whim and it blew me away.
I found out that Stephen was just like me! Just a regular guy interested in digesting Barth, and had an interest in explaining Barth to other regular folks (no offense to any professional academics who might be reading this, but y’all are a breed unto yourselves, and you know it).
What follows is an interview with someone I admire who is providing amazing resources for the church at a rapid rate. I encourage everyone to read him for yourselves, and be inspired by the theologians he brings to the table. In addition, his own theological reflections on their ideas help the reader engage with the primary source material he presents. He is a theologian of the people that should be commended for his work ethic and his service to the church.
Hi Stephen, thanks for taking the time to chat with me today. I really love your work and what you are doing to equip the church.
Tell us a little more about you and your walk. Were you raised in the church?
Yes, I grew up Methodist, though my Church was more towards the charismatic side of things. I am grateful for my upbringing. Both of my parents instilled a strong love for God as well as a passion for learning. An emphasis on worship and the gifts of the Spirit was a major part of my upbringing, too. This naturally resulted in an interest in Bethel Church in Redding, Ca, lead by Bill Johnson. After graduating high school, I attended their ministry school (Bethel School of Supernatural Ministry) for two years.
I learned a lot at Bethel, and even though I have moved more into the theological side of things, I am still indebted to the time I spent there. (Most of all, I met my wife—we've been married for five years now—at BSSM.) For me, Bethel was a season of self-discovery. If anything, it was there that I was given permission to pursue my passions and to be myself unreservedly. BSSM was a liberating place for me. It was there that I discovered my passion for theology and, as they say, the rest is history.
I currently live in Ohio, where I grew up. The last five years I've lived, off and on, in Europe. My wife is from Estonia, so we lived there for a time while she got her Bachelors. Then we were in Sweden for her Masters, which she just graduated from earlier this month. Living in Europe gave me a broader perspective on the world, but it also gave me the opportunity to write.
How were you initially informed theologically? How did you first come into contact with 20th century theology?
The first serious theologian I read was T. F. Torrance. He was kind of my "gateway drug" into the world of Karl Barth and 20th-century theology. I learned about Torrance by reading C. Baxter Kruger, who was a student of Torrance's brother, James B. Torrance. Kruger led me to Torrance who in turn led me to Barth. Most of my engagement with 20th-century theology centers around Barth, either those who came after him or before him, and even those whom he opposed (such as Schleiermacher) also interest me.
Tell us about what you are trying to do in your Plain English series.
My goal for the Plain English Series is pretty simple. In each book, I celebrate what I believe is so great about these theologians, who are often seen as too difficult for the average Christian to read, in the hopes that others might take up the task of reading them for themselves. I want to be a guide and introduce some of their significant contributions in a clear and accessible way. It is in that twofold spirit of celebration and introduction that the books are written.
How do you go about trying to attack understanding a particular theologian? What are your initial steps?
T. F. Torrance talks about learning through a kind of immersion process, in which we dive into the inner logic of something and discover its inherent structure. This produces a sort of intuitive knowledge about the reality we seek to know. It is something he applied to theology, that reconciliation and revelation go hand and hand. He borrowed the overall concept from natural science (notably Einstein).
I think this method is an apt way of describing my process when studying theology, particularly my process for writing the Plain English Series. I read everything I can get my hands on from and about an individual, and I try to read nothing else but their works for an extended period. It's something I can afford to do since I am not a student with a set reading list to follow. So, for example, at the moment I am working on the fourth book in my series, Schleiermacher in Plain English, and I have read nothing but Schleiermacher texts for the past two or three months now. I still have a few more months to go still—Schleiermacher is very dense—but I feel like I am beginning to recognize patterns in his logic. The goal of this method is not merely to have a list of facts about Schleiermacher but to understand the logic of his conclusions. It is not enough to know how he structures his dogmatics or what arguments he makes in On Religion, but I want to know why he does these things. That's the core question in my process; that's what I want to discover, above all else. I am always after the inner logic of these thinkers, and from there I structure my books around what I think is there most important ideas.
How do you approach your reading schedule? Do you work in blocks of time, or just try to get as much done in a day as you can?
Reading is a significant part of my process. I've read an average of 100 books a year for the past three years. I think if you prioritize reading, then you'll find the time. I read somewhere that the average American spends five hours looking at their smartphone. Five hours! You could read a 200-page book every single day if you spent those five hours reading. People often say they don't have time to read—and for some, that may genuinely be true—but if reading is a priority for you, you'll find the time to do it.
When you’re reading, how do you stay on task to gather material for your projects? Aren’t you tempted to go down a rabbit trail on an individual theological topic?
I take reading more seriously now than I did a few years ago, especially since I have a set reading schedule related to my writing. So I tend to be fairly disciplined with my reading habits. But that's by pure determination. I don't have time to explore other ideas or theologians when I know there's a stack of 20 or 30 books I need to get through before I can begin writing. That's always very motivating for me. I do love reading, but I adore writing. It's who I am. The creativity of it gives me energy. So I know if I go off and read something else it will only delay the writing. I used to read more sporadically, and I will eventually return to a less structured reading schedule. But for the moment I am actually enjoying being as single-minded as I am. It kind of feels like hiding away in a small, reclusive corner of the intellectual world for a while. And I do read fiction from time to time to give myself a mental break. I love James Joyce and Samuel Beckett, so I often pick up something from them for a change.
How about the writing process. How in the world do you distill something like the theology of Karl Barth into a nice digestible little book? Are you a magical wizard?
Hah! Thanks for that. I'd like to think I've succeeded in making Barth accessible, but the thing to remember is my book is only introductory. It barely scratches the surface of all there is to explore with Barth. And that's true for Torrance and Moltmann as well.
As far as writing goes, my process is connected with my reading process. I tend to write very quickly. I think I wrote this last book on Moltmann in about 6 or 7 days. That's around 10,000 words a day. I loved it. I like to flow with the ideas I've been meditating on for months (with all that reading) and then go for full-blown stream-of-consciousness until the pages are full. I like to get the first draft as quickly as possible. But after that, I spend a lot more time editing. But you have to have something down to edit. Most of the sections will end up re-written, but it is beneficial for me to get it all out there and then step back and analyze it all and see whats missing. I also never edit until I am done writing. That's important. The two processes can't mix. Creativity is killed by trying to get it right. It's a lesson I learned from a book on writing I read a while back, and I have found it's probably the best writing advice I've received. It works for me, anyway, because it's different for everyone. My process is to vomit on the page and keep going until I've gotten it all out of my system, then I do the heavy work of making it accurate and pretty. But never both at once.
How have each Barth, Moltmann, and T.F. Torrance changed how you see the world and your Christian experience in it?
In so many ways! But I think the books I've written about them articulate my answer to that question well enough.
Why do you think 20th century theology has gotten a bad rap in evangelical circles?
We like security and comfort and we are afraid of change. I think it's sometimes as simple as that. We like our perception. We like our interpretation of the Bible. We don't want those things to be threatened with new ideas. But that's also why I love that era of theology. 20th-century theology is a destabilizing theology. That's one of the major tenets of the "dialectical" theology movement of Barth, Bultmann, and Tillich. God cannot become an object of human control. But we love to put God in our little boxes. Fundamentalism is essentially fear and control. Dialectical theology refuses to resign its thinking about God to a systematic box.
But I also think there's not enough information out there about 20th-century theology, for the more lay-level individuals. There is plenty of information on the academic level, but not on the pastoral and every-day Christian level. This is a gap that I hoped to fill with my Plain English Series. Calvin, for example, is widely discussed among lay-theologians, and so is Luther. But Barth has not yet reached the level of popular Christian consciousness—though I think he is starting to get there. But I think in time, the great insights of 20th-century theology will become more commonly discussed in the Church. For the moment, there is undoubtedly some catching up to do. But I suspect this is always how it has been.
If someone said to you, “I love theology but I couldn’t possibly be a theologian. I have no formal education,” how would you respond?
Everyone is a theologian. Not everyone will be academically inclined, nor should everyone be. But everyone has ideas about God that they should examine critically. How we perceive God and what we imagine God is like is such a massive influence on how we relate to God, to ourselves, to others, and to the world. Theology is directly related to our life. It is not an abstract science. There is a clear connection between our thoughts about God and how we live our lives with God. If we leave these questions unexamined, we will only fall into error. If we are told we cannot question God or doctrines, then that is just as bad. The Church should be a place where questions are encouraged and sometimes left unanswered. Especially in America, I feel like we love quick, easy answers. But life—and indeed God—is more complicated than that.
I particularly think that studying the history of Christian doctrines should be stressed more. Even a basic knowledge of some of the developments of Christian thought from the earliest centuries until today should be the duty of every believer. We are part of a broader tradition—as the body of Christ—and we are not the first, nor shall we be the last, to struggle with challenging questions about our faith. That's why studying history is so important. We do not have to tread new pathways every time we hit a fork in the road; others have gone before us. So find a period of Christian history that interests you and study it. For me, I find modern theology thrilling. But I also love reading the Church Fathers. There is nothing quite like learning from a dead writer who lived hundreds of years ago. It's the closest thing we have to time travel.
What’s your next project? And how’s it going so far?
I'm working on Schleiermacher at the moment. He's tough to read, sometimes dry, but he's also incredibly brilliant. I am finding him more and more compelling the more I study his work. I am also beginning to see just how accurate it is to call him the "father of modern theology." It's startling just how much he contributed, not only to theology but to philosophy, hermeneutics (a field of study he practically invented), and ethics. No modern theologian can afford to ignore Schleiermacher. Traces of his thought can be seen in every major development after him—in one way or another, positively or negatively. He's really important, and it is a shame he has suffered from such a bad reputation (partially due to Brunner and Barth's poor reading of him as a subjectivist). He's not someone I wholly endorse, but he is undeniably brilliant and well worth taking the time to study carefully. So the book is going well. I expect to have it out sometime this fall.
Thanks for inviting me to do this interview!