Monday, August 10, 2009

Michael Wittmer Interview: Don't Stop Believing!

Michael Wittmer (MW) is professor of systematic and historical theology at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary. Click here to read a review of his most recent book, Don't Stop Believing: Why Living Like Jesus is Not Enough.

CPYU: Before talking about your new book, Don’t Stop Believing: Why Living Like Jesus is Not Enough, our readers would also be interested in your previous book Heaven is a Place on Earth: Why Everything You Do Matters to God. Briefly tell us what you hoped to accomplish with that book.

MW: This book teases out the implications of the Christian worldview to explain the meaning of life. Many evangelicals think that this world is not their home, that matter doesn’t matter (or worse, that it is the matter), and so they mistakenly conclude that only their spiritual activities matter to God. Heaven Is a Place on Earth calls us back to a biblical understanding of creation and culture and to the cosmic scope of our redemption. It explains why everything we do—even the ordinary routines of life—drips with spiritual significance.

In this way it supplies a nice companion book to N. T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope and Dave Naugle’s new book, Reordered Love, Reordered Lives. Dave, who you interviewed below, is one of our premier Christian professors. I am blessed to count him as a friend and encourage everyone—especially college students—to profit from his wisdom in this book.

CPYU: What motivated you to write Don’t Stop Believing?

MW: I first heard of postmodernism in the early 1990’s, but it was always something that existed out there in the culture at large. In the last five years I’ve noticed that its perspectives have entered many of our churches and schools. My students are asking fundamental questions about things that we used to take for granted. It’s an exciting time to be a professor—because we are discussing big issues that really matter—but it’s also a bit scary, for the same reason.

I wanted to help students find their way through this new world by affirming where the new thinking is correct but also to warn about the dangers of going too far in this direction. In sum, I heartily affirm this generation’s emphasis on social ethics (they are much more socially conscious than I was at their age) but want them to remember that following Jesus also includes believing some foundational doctrines about who Jesus is and what he came to do.

CPYU: I find your book to be a very helpful bridge-builder between conservative and “emerging” churches. What do you think is the biggest misunderstanding that conservative churches have about “emerging” churches? And what do you think is a major misunderstanding among “emerging” churches toward conservative churches?

MW: A major thesis of Don't Stop Believing is that emergent churches emphasize loving our neighbor while conservative churches focus on right belief. While this is generally true, I think that many conservative churches are doing more social good than emergents give them credit for and many emerging churches do a good job of keeping the faith (I am less optimistic about emergent churches—which is a more liberal subset of emerging—for the leaders of this movement, such as Tony Jones, Doug Pagitt, and Brian McLaren, have displayed a willingness to dismiss some of the church’s foundational doctrines, such as original sin and penal substitution).

CPYU: Tell us a good story (or more) about a response you have gotten to Don’t Stop Believing. Anything surprise you or stick out about the way people have responded?

MW: A few months ago I was a respondent on an emergent church panel at an evangelical college. My job was to ask the three emergent panelists any question I wished so long as I was prepared to answer it myself. Midway through the morning, I said that I affirmed all the social good that had been discussed that morning, but my question was whether a person also had to believe in Jesus in order to be saved, or was being a good person who did good things and asked good question sufficient. The panelists (from England, Ireland, and the host college) took five minutes each but did not answer my question. They merely restated the preface to my question, where I made the point that beliefs cannot be divorced from practice.

I didn’t respond to their non-answers then, but later in the day an older gentleman from the floor asked if I was happy with their response. I said that I wasn’t, for they hadn’t answered my question but had merely restated it back to me. They took another run, and this time 2 out of the 3 affirmed that beliefs are unnecessary to follow Jesus. One said that even to ask my question is to needlessly divide faith from practice. Another, the professor at this Christian college, espoused an inclusivism where “Christians, Jews, and Muslims all pray to the same God.” He said that beliefs are not essential, for “God does not make himself available only to Christians.”

When I explained from John 3 and Romans 10 why believing that we are sinners and Jesus saves us from our sin is essential for salvation, one panelist declared that I held a “Baptist, conversionist” view which treated people as heads rather than whole persons. I’m sure that they thought I was too modern and fundamentalist for asking my question, but the experience reinforced for me the need for a book like Don’t Stop Believing.

One funny story. I was on another panel recently where the emergent moderator kept agreeing with everything I said. Every time I would bring up the need to believe, she would say something like “I feel your passion, your heart beats with the love of Christ,” etc. I wanted to scream “Stop hugging me! It’s hard to have a conversation if you won’t acknowledge our differences.”

Finally, one of the other panelists had enough, and he declared that he didn’t know whether doctrine would make it through the worm hole into the future but he was sure that Jesus would. I responded that if doctrine did not make it, then neither would Jesus. He replied that the church has always permitted diversity of opinion. I agreed, but said that the church also declared that some thought was out of bounds, and one should pause before following a heretical strain. Many in the audience applauded and the emergent moderator announced “Oooo, he used the ‘H’ word.” Apparently the only heresy in some circles is to declare that there is such a thing as heresy!

CPYU: What’s next? Working on another book?

MW: I think many people today, both conservative and more liberal Christians, are confused about faith, its relation to doubt, and what it means to believe. I’ve got a catchy title, which I don’t want to give away but I promise that, like my first two books, it can be sung to a 1980s rock song (everyone needs a shtick, mine just happens to be dumber than most!). I am just beginning the research and haven’t pursued a publisher yet, so it probably won’t be out for a couple of years. In the meantime, anyone who is interested can follow my occasional musings at

Other Bookshelf Author Interviews:
Tim Clydesdale, The First Year Out: Understanding American Teens After High School
David Lovelace, Scattershot
William Mattison, Introducing Moral Theology
J. Mark Bertrand, Rethinking Worldview: Learning to Think, Live, and Speak in This World
Amy Black, Beyond Left and Right: Helping Christians Make Sense of American Politics
Matthew Bonzo, Wendell Berry and the Cultivation of Life
David Wells, The Courage to be Protestant
Kary Oberbrunner, The Fine Line: Re-envisioning the Gap Between Christ and Culture
David Naugle, Reordered Love, Reordered Lives
Mary Poplin, Finding Calcutta: What Mother Teresa Taught Me About Meaningful Work and Service
Mindy Meier, Sex and Dating
David Dark, The Sacredness of Questioning Everything
Benson Hines, Reaching the Campus Tribes (part 1 & part 2)

1 comment:

Todd Perkins said...

Thanks for the interview. I look forward to reading the book.