Dr. D. Larry Gregg Sr. is a retired Christian minister and university and divinity school professor. In retirement he has pursued a third career as an author of both fiction and nonfiction. A native of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, Gregg is married to the former Peggy Franks of Birmingham, Alabama. They have two adult sons and three grandchildren. The Greggs currently live near Rutherfordton, North Carolina, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
How did you come to write Bowl Ecclesiology?
Back in the early 2000’s I was invited by the owner of a local radio station to host a Sunday morning radio program. I explained to the owner that I had no interest in becoming another radio preacher. Unless we could do something different, I wasn’t interested. His immediate response was, “Please do something different!” I decided to create reflective essays around issues of Christian living in the contemporary world by taking images from ordinary life and avoiding the use of the “language of Zion” as much as possible. There was significant positive response from the local community and many urged me to publish collections of the reflections. In response I published Believing Thinkers and Thinking Believers and If You Ain’t Somewhere Doin’ Somethin’ both in 2005. The lead essay in the first book was entitled Believing Thinkers and Thinking Believers: One is Not an Ox and the Other is Not a Moron. The lead article in the second was called If You Ain’t Somewhere Doin’ Somethin’ You Ain’t Nowhere Doin’ Nothin’.
As I moved to retirement from the academic classroom and local church ministry, I wanted to speak to the larger community through the use of electronic media. The end result was the development of a large email list and the monthly online publication of my Thinking Believer essays/reflections. Again, many persons urged me to consider publishing a larger collection of reflective essays than the two previous books. In late 2019 I wrote an essay, drawing upon my hobby as woodworker and bowl turner, entitled Bowl Ecclesiology, again taking an image from day to day life and applying it analogically to the life of the Christian community. This led to the compilation of a collection of essays which I submitted to Smyth & Helwys for consideration and that, to my delight, Smyth & Helwys agreed to publish.
What is your hope for how your new book might impact readers? What part of this Bowl Ecclesiology excited you most?
As a Christian I have always taken to heart the assertion of I Peter 3:15 that believers should “be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you . . . .” Too often we begin with theological language and draw our images/illustrations from the biblical text. Unfortunately, in our contemporary world millions and millions of people know little or nothing about the content of the Bible. A careful reading of the words of Jesus and the letters of Paul will reveal that both Jesus and the Apostle regularly drew images from the everyday life of the culture within which they lived, and used those commonly understood images to as the “jumping off place” for reflection upon life with God and with others. In my reflective essays I attempt to follow their model. I want readers to be drawn in by commonly experienced images, lead them to think reflectively about their spiritual lives and relationships, and come to places where they say, “Oh. I get it. This is what it means for me to experience life as a Christian.”
I am particularly excited by the truth, as illustrated in Bowl Ecclesiology, that while God speaks to us through scripture, scripture is not God’s only medium of revelation. It is just as relevant to begin with ordinary life and move to scripture as it is to begin with scripture and seek to apply it to ordinary life.
As a book of essays, can you talk a little about the structure of your book? Why did
you put it together the way you did?
This is an excellent question. The answer has to do with the contemporary busyness of life and its consequences for the average person’s attention span. Unlike a theological treatise or even a novel which demands a lengthy focus of attention to be appreciated fully, each of the essays in Bowl Ecclesiology is a free-standing reflection averaging six pages in length. Because they are essays in “critical thinking” the reader is given the opportunity to read each brief essay in a relatively short time and, then, is able to reflect thoughtfully upon its content. Bowl Ecclesiology is not meant to be read through hastily; rather, I would hope the reader would permit herself/himself to peruse the essays over a period of weeks or even months, allowing time for thoughtful reflection upon the implications of each essay for his/her Christian living. Also, because of the free-standing nature of each essay, the reader has the opportunity to read them more than once.
Francis Bacon said, “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested. That is, some books are to be read only in part, some are to be read, but not curiously, and some few are to be read wholly and with diligence and attention.” Bowl Ecclesiology is designed to give the curious and thoughtful reader the opportunity to read “in part” while, at the same time, “chewing and digesting” its content.
As a woodworker and a minister, how does one inform the tasks of the other? What
is the surprise or challenge of both?
Again, an excellent question. As a woodworker, I almost never work with new, pristine materials. Instead, as an environmentally conscious person, I have chosen to concentrate on collecting and recycling previously used materials. Thus, my house contains a Deacon’s Bench, Master Bedroom Headboard, Gas Log Fireplace, and Bookcases constructed from old barn wood. The deck is built out of recycled forklift pallets, and once I converted an old organ console into a computer desk. Instead of buying finished boards, I acquire rough cut planks of various hardwoods and then plane them to the thickness and smoothness I need. I haunt local trash/service centers where people have abandoned old furniture looking for objects that can be restored to usefulness, or their material can be used for the construction of something else. Some of my friends call me a scavenger, others just say I am cheap.
As a minister, my calling is to participate with God in the Divine intention to take that which is fallen, marred, flawed, broken, on the threshold of destruction and, by speaking and relating with grace, help others to discover that while they may never be able to be what they once were, this does not mean that they cannot be redeemed from their present circumstances and transformed by God’s grace made know in Jesus Christ into new creatures whose lives are meaningful, beautiful, and filled with purpose and love. What these two vocations share in common is the necessity of being able to “see” what is, and to “visualize” what can be. And both require a willingness to invest time, energy, gifts, and vulnerability. Anyone who works with wood knows that some risks of being injured must be taken in order to build anything. And anyone who ministers to others knows that some pain will inevitably eventuate from investing one’s self in servanthood in the name of Jesus Christ.
In my reading, one of the most intriguing aspects of Bowl Ecclesiology was the
limitless possibility and power of analogies. Where does this power come from and
what can they teach us about our faith?
As a student of religions, one thing they all have in common is the desire to reach beyond the limitations of ordinary existence in the quest for relationship with the ultimately transcendent and limitless. And it is here that all come up against the limitations of language. The best human words can do is serve as signs pointing in the direction of what we wish to say but lack adequate verbal tools to do so. Thus, we must fall back upon metaphor, simile, analogy, and poetry to express our thoughts about the Divine, the natural order, the meaning of human existence in the present, and the possibility of some form of continued existence after physical death. All religious persons sing about their faith before they express their thoughts in prose. And the poetic nature of song cannot express itself without metaphor, simile, and analogy.
Let me illustrate. Many years ago in a classroom filled with undergraduate religion majors I observed, “The Bible says, ‘God is a rock. What does that mean?’” One of the students immediately replied by beginning to use analogy to express the enduring quality of God, etc. I stopped him abruptly and inquired again, “The Bible says, ‘God is a rock. What does that mean?’”. The young man started again and again found it necessary to use images to communicate his thoughts about the nature of God. A third time I interrupted, “The Bible says, ‘God is a rock. What does that mean?’” The frustrated and exasperated student replied, “Okay Dr. Gregg. I give up. God is a rock.” My point was to help the entire class come to understand the limitations of language, even the language of scripture, to fully express our thoughts about God. The best we can do is to use our commonly shared experiences to point in the direction of what is beyond full comprehension and say, “I think God is like this.” or “Can we compare the redemptive work of God in and through Jesus Christ to the craftsman’s determination to take old, marred, discarded materials and transform them into bowls, furniture, etc.
The power in this process is that it keeps us reminded that relationship to the Divine is the consequence of a double-search, or to use the language of systematic theology, the outworking of both natural revelation and special revelation. God reveals the Divine self to human consciousness, but human consciousness continually quests to fine ultimate meaning in existence. If I may summarize Augustine’s Confessions in a single sentence, that early Christian theologian said, “God I searched for you, and I searched for you, and I searched for you; and then one day you found me.”
As a people of faith, how can we create scraps of wood into something beautiful in
our own lives and in our church communities?
We begin by remembering that God is God and we are not. Scripture teaches that we are created in the selem and dumuth (image and likeness) of the God who caused us to be and who sustains our being. To be created in the image and likeness of God implies that some degree of God’s capacity to create, flawed and out of focus as it may be, is contained in human nature. While we lack the capacity to create ex nihilo (something from nothing), we do have the capacity to facilitate the re-creation of something/someone into something/someone else.
There are several essential elements in the process of cooperating with God in the redemption/renewal of flawed, broken lives that are in danger of being abandoned upon the scrap heap of human sinfulness and neglect. First, it is necessary to see the potential that remains at the core of the broken person despite the weathered corrosion and decay that may be evident upon the surface. Second, a high degree of patience is necessary because it takes time for the transformative process to unfold. When I gather scrap wood for my woodworking projects I must take the time to remove nails and other pieces of metal that may be embedded in the planks, I must excise any dry rot that will weaken the integrity of the new construction, and I must scrape away the dust, grime, mildew, and stains with which it has become encrusted. Only then is the material ready to be transformed into some beautiful and meaningful object. Third, one must carefully apply the woodworker’s tools in order to craft a new object from that which is being redeemed and/or restored. Carelessly handling tools may only do further damage to that which one intends to restore. Likewise, the tools of discernment, grace, a forgiving spirit, and sound judgment must be rightly employed if one wishes to make a positive contribution to God’s transformation of the broken life of another. Otherwise we may do more harm than good. And finally, one must have the humility to understand that one may not always succeed, either in reclaiming scrap wood or in participating with God in reclaiming a person cast aside on the scrap heap of life. Without such humility the woodworker risks failure in the woodworking project and possible injury to one’s self through over confidence and carelessness. And without a corresponding humility one risks plunging the very person one seeks to help into even deeper despair and brokenness.
What nurtures your imagination? What does the writing process mean to you?
Thomas Edison described invention as one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration. I think, analogously, the writing process involves both inspiration and perspiration, though not necessarily quantified in the same percentages. I used to tell students that “If you can’t read reading, you will never be able to write writing.” The first thing that nurtures my imagination is engagement in reading widely and deeply over a variety of topics. For more than two decades I have set for myself a goal of reading at least 10,000 pages per year. Sometimes I meet the goal, others times I don’t; but I continue to immerse myself in that discipline. I also read across a variety of genres including fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. I also read across a wide variety of disciplines including history, political science, philosophy, psychology, the physical sciences, religion, etc. This provides an essential part of the knowledge base which I draw upon when I am writing.
Second, I try to be both a careful watcher of and listener to others. And I make a point of watching and listening to those with whom I disagree as well as those with whom I agree. I learned a long time ago that it is not necessary for me to always agree with another, or even to like another, in order to learn from them. There is simply no substitute for being a keen observer of life in all its beauty, complexity, mayhem, and splendor.
Lastly, I work at the ongoing cultivation of a critical consciousness accompanied by a serendipitous imagination. For what I write it is important to see things clearly; it is also important to see them sideways and sometimes upside down. Many years ago a colleague accused me of being “about half a bubble off of level.” I consider this a compliment rather than a criticism. If everyone looked at everything the same way we would all see the same things. But life is too rich, too colorful, too expansive, and too complex to be confined in only one vision of reality. While I don’t want to push the analogy too far, I am willing to be just schizophrenic enough to see life both as it actually is and as it has the potential to become with the appropriate balance of critical analysis and imaginative, hopeful vision.
What does the writing process mean to me?
It means, if I do it well, that I can contribute meaningfully to the lives of others in the present, and, hopefully, continue to do so long after my physical life has ended. The unknown poet was correct when he/she said,
A word can never be recalled,
It remains forever said,
As long as there is memory,
No word is ever dead.