How would you describe your new book, Of Mice and Ministers? What were you hoping to accomplish when you sat down to write this book?
(Laughing) I guess “more of the same … but different.” Like the first two books, it’s a collection of reflections and columns written for various different online sites; it covers the same basic stuff – life, death, epiphanies, and rock and roll. It is a little different though, in that it includes a few pieces that directly involve others: conversations with a Baptist legend, a deceased monk, and some musicians I admire. For me, just finishing anything is an accomplishment, so in some ways I was simply hoping to find enough relevant pieces to mold together into another book.
I’ve always loved the titles of your pieces. Can you list two or three of your favorite titles from Of Mice and Ministers, talk about their pop culture connections, and describe how they came about?
Well, obviously, sometimes I steal the title directly from a song that is the foundation of the musing. “Burden of Belief” and “Everybody Hurts” and “If You Wanna Get to Heaven” are all actual song titles from Daniel Bailey, R.E.M., and the Ozark Mountain Daredevils, respectively. “We’re Gonna Need a Bigger Boat” is a famous line from the movie Jaws.
But sometimes I just want to to come up with a play on words, or a slightly altered version of a famous phrase. An unpleasant encounter with a rather large mouse in my hotel room led to a personal epiphany about the birth of Jesus – and a sermon the following Sunday during Advent. That sermon was whittled down and altered a little bit, and with a nod to John Steinback, became “Of Mice & Ministers.” Like most readers, Brother to a Dragonfly was the very first book by Will Campbell I ever read; so my musing about Brother Will following his death played with that title and combined it with something he and I had in common – colon surgery; thus, “Brother With a Semi-Colon” was born. I really like the double-meaning of “Listening to the Dead” – which may not excite others, but it’s one of my favorite titles. It refers to our dearly departed, of course, but at the same time, it refers to the Dead (as in the Grateful Dead).
Where does your connection to music come from?
I don’t really know. I can’t remember NOT being connected with music, so I guess the “Sunday school” answer is appropriate here – it comes from God. And I do believe that. Listening to, enjoying, and learning about all kinds of music and the artists has always been a part of my life. My dad was a huge influence – he played harmonica a little bit around the house, and he sang in the church choir; but more than that he collected records (you know, vinyl albums, the way music should still be appreciated – visually and audibly). From Broadway musicals to classical to big band to 40s and 50s pop, and especially the country legends like Hank Williams and Jimmy Rodgers, Roy Acuff and Earnest Tubb, Dad had a lot of records, and he played them a lot. Plus, he always had a radio turned on and would share a story about either the song or the artist that was playing. More than that, he would notice something being said or something happening around him, and he would immediately make a joke or some kind of reference to a song or artist. So, again, I have to say first that there’s just something innate in the core of my being – planted by my Creator; but it was certainly nurtured and tended to very well by my father when I was growing up.
Why is pop culture so central to the way you talk about your faith?
Pop culture is where I’ve always lived. Growing up in the Bible Belt and within the evangelical Christian subculture – which is always at odds with, while at the same time mirroring, popular culture – I often felt like I was two different people. I often felt as though I being pulled this way and that way and about to be ripped in two between the “holy” and “secular.” Between the “godly” and “worldly.” My earliest writings – beginning in my late 30s – were my own way of “working out my salvation with fear and trembling” (that’s Paul – the Apostle, not the Beatle). They were attempts to acknowledge the imperfections and faults and sins within the “Christian” or “holy” world – whatever that is – and acknowledge the grace and the beauty and the very Presence of Christ right there in the “secular” or “worldly” things we were “supposed” to condemn. The walls between “holy” and “secular” and “godly” and “wordly” came crashing down with an understanding of the deep, rich meaning of the Incarnation. And, for me, pop culture was (or, still is) the epicenter of that radical, world-shaking epiphany.
It seems to me that your identity as writer, minister, and fan has opened you up to some interesting encounters and experiences over the last few years. Is there an encounter you can point to as particularly meaningful?
Oh, having my first two books placed in the archives at the Big House Allman Brothers Museum in Macon, Georgia – that was really cool. Once I was invited to speak in Memphis, and a poster for the event was posted in the window at the legendary Sun Studio! I’ve been able to travel and speak at various churches and events, and have met many great people, and “worked” with fellow authors and musician friends, and that’s been wonderful.
What surprised you most as you wrote Of Mice and Ministers?
How many different ways I can find to say basically the same simple thing over and over again … (laughing). God loves us. Love others as God loves us. Everything else is a noisy distraction. End of story.