This interview is by David Opderbeck … and is the first part of an interview with John Van Sloten, author of The Day Metallica Came to Church. In this book, Pastor Van Sloten talks about finding God in culture — from the “high” culture of Van Gogh’s paintings to the pop culture of the heavy metal band Metallica. This is no manual of seeker techniques. Rather, it’s a delightful and enlightening riff on culture and common grace. If you preach or teach or just are interested in the relation between faith and culture, this book is a great resource.
Dave: You mention in the book’s Preface that you’ve preached sermons on movies such asCrash, the paintings of Van Gogh, video games, sports, and other cultural pursuits. It might be tempting to think, “Great — more ‘relevant’ sermons with a hip video clip before the same old three expository points…” But you’re up to more than that. Tell us a bit about how you got into this more extensive mode of cultural exegesis.
John: Yeah, we’re up to way more than mere relevance here. And looking back, I’d say it happened to us. Eight years ago I was researching a sermon series on The Lord of the Rings with a group of local pastors. At one of our meetings someone said, “Tolkien’s story is just so epic, it would be a shame to break it down in order to ‘hang’ it onto the biblical narrative. What if we did it the other way around and kept Tolkien’s tale intact, let it lead and hung the Bible story onto it instead?” And that’s what we did. We let God’s truth in a fictional myth lead us to God’s truth in the Bible. A mere halfling pointed us to God’s humble, servant-like, upside-down plan for salvation.
Dave: In the book you offer some of your own experiences of what C.S. Lewis called the “numinous” — such as entering the “holy place” that houses Van Gogh’s painting The Church in Auvers. Later in the book you mention some similar experiences friends of yours had with architecture. If I had to pick one such experience from my own life, it would be hiking in the Irish hills of Connemara, with no one else in sight, and no sounds but the wind and the sheep. Since we’ve had a chance to talk a bit in person, I know that you weren’t always so sensitive to God’s voice in the everyday. Tell us a bit about how you realized that you were missing it and how things began to change.
John: I underwent a two part conversion. First, a totally unplanned, spontaneous confession to a pastor/friend of mine. I had no plans to make it. It just spewed out of me, like it had to come out (a very Reformed conversion experience from my perspective, no free will on my part at all!). Second, my third child Edward was born with Down syndrome. Again a total surprise. My confession experience introduced me to Christ – the mediator of salvation. Grace discovered me. Edward’s birth introduced me to Christ – the mediator of creation (John 1:1). Here I met the God who reveals himself through all things; including the circumstances of my life story. Chapter two of the book tells that story, but in short, a few months after Edward’s birth, I had an experience so illumining, so eye-opening in terms of seeing God’s providential hand on the created order, so demonstrative of his sovereignty over all things, that I really had no choice but to spend the rest of my life unpacking what I’d learned. To be honest it took me years to process it all. But now, in retrospect, I can see God’s providential intent in calling me the way he did. He planted the idea of this book (and now my life) into that very painful calling moment. I didn’t fully realize this until just a few years ago. About the same time our church stopped using creational texts for their relevanceand started to read them as revelation.
Dave: In your Calgary Herald article that you reproduce in the book, you note that “Most of the air we breathe is fresh. Most of the streets we walk on are safe. Most of our lives are filled with un-cited goodness and grace.” You don’t minimize the reality of suffering, but you’re trying to highlight the common grace that surrounds us. Why do you think we as human beings, and as Christians, so often seem to be more attracted to despair than to hope? Is there an “already-not-yet” tension here? We might need to acknowledge, after all, that the “we” who might read this blog or your book are mostly relatively wealthy people in the relatively stable global North.
John: I wrote that Calgary Herald editorial because I was sick of the unyielding, 24/7 drone of bad news that was inundating our lives in the ‘relatively stable global north.’ I think our media saturated world thrives on fomenting despair. If it bleeds it leads. So part of me just wanted to set the record straight. Most of life is good most of the time. Grace is more common that we think. Another reason I wrote that article is that it helped me process the ‘rose colored glasses’ concern I was feeling. Early on in this journey of naming God’s goodness, truth and beauty in creation and through cultural texts, I worried that we were just ‘cherry picking’ the good bits while not paying attention to the very real problem of brokenness and sin. The last thing I wanted to do was go all ‘power of positive thinking’ on our church. Yet I keep seeing more and more of what was right in life. So this is why I started to measure and count things the way I did in that editorial; 200,000 killed in a tsunami, 3 billion safe on the rest of the world’s shorelines; 32 killed at Virginia Tech, 19 million post-secondary students safely went to school; 14 plane fatalities in 2006, 99.99999375 percent of air passengers arrived safely to their destinations, etc… I don’t do this math to diminish suffering. It’s real and we ought to suffer with others. But evil is not supreme in our world. This fact makes a lot more room for seeing and experiencing God in all things. As for those in less developed countries, of course, some suffer more than we ever will. But I keep thinking of those global national happiness surveys that come out every couple of years. Aren’t we always surprised when an African nation leads the pack?