Toward the end of last month a “video reporter” for the Wall Street Journal wrote me out of nowhere to say that, having looked at my Xtranormal videos and “read up” on ThruWay Christians, she wanted to explore doing a story on me and my work. I thought about it for .00002 seconds and said sure. We then spent two hours doing a live e-interview—and then, via Skype, did about a half-hour’s worth of taped interview. The idea was they were going to run the story and the video on the front of WSJ.com.
All that happened on a Thursday. The following day the story was supposed to appear on the front page of WSJ.com.
That Friday came and went. Nothing. Same with Monday.
Tuesday afternoon I got the word: for some reason I never learned, someone upstairs at the WSJ had decided to kill the story.
Bummer. But it happens. You start talking about Christianity and homosexuality–or any real problem or controversy with Christianity–and generally media flees. Too many hot buttons; too many chances to alienate and anger too many readers.
So, seriously, no worries. I was amazed they even thought about doing the story. The WSJ, after all, is owned by Robert Murdoch, the dink who founded Fox News.
Anyway, for them what’s interested, here’s the unedited, written-on-the-fly transcript of the axed WSJ interview. It’s long. Sorry. Two hours! (And I was fried like a Colonel’s chicken; I had barely been to bed the night before. But whatever.)
What the reporter decided to do the story on was The Smith Family Chronicles. So that’s mostly what we talked about.
WSJ 2/24/11 1:19 PM:
i think it’s interesting how the robotic voices take away from the tension of those kinds of conversations. but let you focus on … i guess the content?
John Shore 2/24/11 1:20 PM
Yeah, it’s really got its own sort of aesthetic imperative, basically, which I’ve found pretty fascinating to identify and play with. It took me awhile to figure out that you have to create a kind of language that’s in keeping with the strictures of the form itself. So I came up with a kind of use of the language that’s this weird hybrid between normal and … purely allegorical, really. If that makes sense.
WSJ 2/24/11 1:21 PM
who do hope your audience will be for the series and what do you think it’ll accomplish?
John Shore 2/24/11 1:24 PM
It’s natural audience is … well, frankly, everyone who reads me on HuffPo, Crosswalk.com, and on my blog. This is THE conversation about Christianity going on right now everywhere in the country, and world. And I like this way of presenting some of the really core dynamics that this issue naturally encompasses. It’ll start conversations, basically. That’s what I want.
WSJ 2/24/11 1:30 PM
Why did you decide to tackle this issue in this format?
John Shore 2/24/11 1:32 PM
I thought it was a terrific, low-techy kind of way to at once universalize and individualize this awfully delicate, yet intensely powerful issue.The issue itself is at once so personal, and yet so basically doctrinal–which of course renders it universal. I thought the form offered by xtranormal did a nice job of addressing both those aspects.
WSJ 2/24/11 1:35 PM
Why “The Smith Family Chronicles: Jane Comes Out to Her Conservative Christian Father”? Why this topic?
John Shore 2/24/11 1:41 PM
It was inspired by a letter I got from a young Christian woman (“Help: I Want to Come Out to My Loving Evangelical Father“) who was just agonizing over how to finally tell her parents that she’s gay. I get letters like that all the time, from Christian youth caught between who they are, and who their parents believe, want or need them to be. This letter particularly caught my heart: the girl was so earnest, and so clearly respectful of her parents’ religious sensibilities, most all of which she shared. So I began to think of how, exactly, I might best help this girl. The day I received the letter, I had the second xtranormal clip I’d ever made (I’ve now made three) become one of the most popular pieces on Huffington Post. So I had both these two rather dramatic things in my head at the same time. Presto.
WSJ 2/24/11 1:44 PM
How do you hope the series will help answer those questions?
John Shore 2/24/11 1:50 PM
By providing a context in which to continue having the conversations that will hopefully, in any individual cases or lives, result in satisfying answers. What I like about the Smith Family series is the way the form itself forces you to boil down to its bare essence whatever emotional or intellectual issues are at hand between the two characters. I think that’s the primary contribution these videos will make to people’s talking about this whole dynamic: this distillation of concerns, of needs, of language. In this format there is no room for frills: it’s just the raw emotions and exchange. And I think that’s helpful, because in real life, of course, we naturally load such conversations with a whole lot of stuff that xtranormal forces you to cut right out. This is the main meal, served with zero condiments.
WSJ 2/24/11 1:53 PM
Just from the first episode, it doesn’t seem as if you’re giving tips on how to actually broach the subject. Jane just comes out and tells her dad that’s she’s gay. So if it’s not how to do say it, then what are you telling people who struggle with coming out? What are you trying to say to parents who receive the news?
John Shore 2/24/11 2:02 PM
I’ve done massive amounts of writing directly intended to basically break through so much of what keeps so many Christians what I believe is too blind to the reality of the damage their doctrinal beliefs do to so many. For this series, I wanted to more deeply personalize the intensely difficult relationship between homosexuality and Christianity; I wanted to explore that issue (and others) by chronicling one family: one daughter; one mother and father; one son; one pastor and his wife. Sometimes through fiction–through the kind of storytelling that keeps us all so enamored of novels, movies, and TV shows—you can say much more about the truth than you can by doing what I usually do, which is tackling the truth head-on. I love the personal essay form, for sure. But this gives me a chance to stretch my fiction wings, which is a fun flight to be on. I’ve missed this kind of writing. It’s great to be back at it.
WSJ 2/24/11 2:05 PM
Can you identify some of the issues you plan to address in [The Smith Family Chronicles]?
John Shore 2/24/11 2:12 PM
Well, with xtranormal you’re pretty limited to characters. You have to choose from the ones they have available in any given set of characters. From the characters available in the Most Normal Looking People set I’ve chosen, I’ve identified figures I will be using for Jane Smith (the girl who comes out to her father in episode 1); her father; her mother; her mother’s best friend; her brother; her long-time straight friend; her girlfriend; her pastor; and her pastor’s wife. That’s a good set of characters. I don’t want to give away too much, but … well, for instance, there’s a particular reason for which Jane’s father is as adamant as he is about remaining morally upright that has nothing whatsoever to do with his religion. This is a serious series. And I certainly mean to in every episode address and deal with difficult issues. But that doesn’t mean I won’t also be channeling my inner soap opera writer.
Where are you drawing your inspiration from? Do you have personal experience dealing with this?
John Shore 2/24/11 2:25 PM
I do, insofar as I’ve had good gay friends who in one way or another basically got beaten up by the church. I had a friend, for instance, who for twelve years very loyally served a church as its associate pastor. One day he came out to his congregants. The following Sunday, the pastor of the church, during their morning service, with my friend standing right next to him, announced that from that moment on, any member of that church who in any way at all communicated with my friend would automatically be doomed to hell. Twelve years of bonds and loving relationships, obliterated. And the people in that church loved my friend; he’s an amazing pastor. It was a terrible thing for everyone. As a result of it, my friend walked away from Christianity for twelve years. That’s too long for the church to be missing out on the gifts and talents of such a man. And I’ve got a lot of stories like that. Anyone who’s paying any attention to life does–or certainly to the Christian life. So I naturally felt compelled, out of affection for my friends (and certainly from those who for the four years I’ve been writing my blog have written to me their heart-rending stories), to at least begin, as productively as I know how, to thoughtfully and carefully explore the issue of the relationship between gays and Christianity.
WSJ 2/24/11 2:29 PM
You addressed specific passages in the Bible with your “Christian vs. Non-Christian: Who Gets Into Heaven?” video, do you plan to do the same in the SFC series?
John Shore 2/24/11 2:33 PM
That’s not something I generally find conducive to a productive conversation. I rarely do it in my writings; the only reason I did in that little clip is because that is the single passage upon which so many evangelizing Christians so heavily rely. But in the main I don’t find arguing Scripture useful; anyone can use any passage from the Bible to justify just about anything they want. With this series, I’m more interested in what happens because of what people believe than I am in trying to parse apart the validity of what they believe. People believe what they believe. For this, I want to see the kinds of places those beliefs take them, or force them into.
Also, I want to be clear: I don’t see good guys and bad guys, either in this series or in life generally. We’re all just trying to do the best we can. We’ve all got our beliefs; we all try to live up to them; we all try to be honorable people. I’ve done a lot of writing about what’s wrong and right with both sides of the Christian spectrum. You’ve seen the opening tenet of the ThruWay Christians document. No one is safe. For instance: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnshore/2010/01/26/conservative-vs-liberal-christianity-which-is-better/ This is pretty typical of what I do.
WSJ 2/24/11 2:40 PM
I’m guessing your viewers will inevitably argue scripture — whether the series does or not — and probably label some characters “good” or “bad”. Any words for people who might fall into that?
John Shore 2/24/11 2:47 PM
I’ve been amazed by a lot of things I’ve discovered since starting my blog four years ago. And chief amongst them is that it’s pretty rare for someone to be so stridently aggressive about a particular point of view that to make their big point they bust out Scripture. I kind of have this thing where I say that I have the best readers and commenters in the Christian blogosphere (or any other blogosphere, basically: at least half of what I write has nothing whatsoever to do with religion), and this is largely why. My readers rarely if ever engage in the Dueling Scripture game; they almost always stay thoughtfully above that sort of fray. It’s really impressive. People are smarter than that. People CARE more than that. People understand that there’s a truth beneath scripture that scripture is meant to enhance and enforce, and that that is where the action is. This is not to say, at all, that scripture doesn’t matter, or is in even the slightest way irrelevant. Hardly. But all scripture exists within a very dense and multifaceted context. Sorting through all that context is a job for theologians and religious philosophers. In everyday life, though, most people are just trying to get to the truth.
WSJ 2/24/11 2:50 PM
You mention you want to explore the issue of the relationship between gays and Christianity — what would you say those issues are?
John Shore 2/24/11 2:52 PM
Well, it’s very singular issue, isn’t it? There’s really only one: Are all unrepentant homosexuals necessarily destined for hell upon their dying? Is being gay an abomination against God? Can a person be a “true” Christian, and also happily gay? These, of course, are all the same issue, which is: Is homosexuality a sin?
WSJ 2/24/11 2:55 PM
Sorry if I’m being repetitive here, but I’m still wondering how you plan to address this issue without looking at the biblical passages Christians use to argue that point?
John Shore 2/24/11 3:00 PM
I’m sorry; I didn’t mean to indicate I’d never at all deal with parsing scripture. Yes, at some point of course the characters will discuss some of the Biblical proscriptions against homosexuality. If the character is a conservative–if it’s Jane’s dad, for instance, or the family pastor—he’ll give the typical conservative view. If the character we’re listening to on the matter is Jane or Jane’s girlfriend, the audience will then hear the reasoning most often used by liberal Christians to refute the idea that Paul ever said anything against homosexuality at all. That sort of conversation would of course be natural in The Smith Family Chronicles.
WSJ 2/24/11 3:02 PM
I see. Seems like the series will be a huge undertaking. Many people have tried to answer the question of homosexuality and Christianity, how will the webisodes be different — besides the format that is?
John Shore 2/24/11 3:04 PM
Because I won’t be trying to answer any questions at all. I’ll just be presenting their personal ramifications in the lives of these particular characters. (And I’ll certainly be exploring other issues as well. It’s basically going to be an extended comic-tragic morality play.)
WSJ 2/24/11 3:06 PM
What do you hope the takeaway will be?
John Shore 2/24/11 3:12 PM
That John Shore is a ridiculously talented genius. Har! No, but seriously. That’s it. That I’m phenomenal. Okay, what I REALLY hope the takeaway will be is that what we say and do matters. That words have weight, and heft, and should be used with some care. And that we are MORAL creatures. We care, deeply and passionately, pretty much every moment of our lives, about what’s right and wrong. Humans are basically obsessed with moral exactitude. That driver shouldn’t have cut me off. They didn’t put enough cheese on my sandwich. Someone needs to tell that guy his toupee looks like a sleeping cat. These are all, at essence, MORAL considerations. Issues of morality are hardly just for the “religious.” They’re virtually for everyone, all the time. The Smith Family Chronicles will play with and explore that fact.
WSJ 2/24/11 3:13 PM
Backtracking a bit, but do you think people get too bogged down by scripture and don’t focus enough on relationships?
John Shore 2/24/11 3:16 PM
Yes, I do think exactly that. My personal philosophy is that if when engaging with someone you’re thinking about anything but what’s emotionally going on with that person, you’re not serving well yourself, them, or whatever might have transpired between you if you’d stopped worrying about anything but their well-being. When religion interferes with love, something’s gone seriously wrong.
WSJ 2/24/11 3:19 PM
Okay one last question about the theology bears. That video went viral over four days, why do you think it was such a talking point for viewers?
John Shore 2/24/11 3:24 PM
Because who doesn’t like cuddly-looking, gargantuan-headed, giant-eyed bear-like creatures in a Japanese garden arguing about religion? It was just a good combo of things: good topic, good dialogue, cool look. Funny voices. Plus a new way of looking at a passage of Scripture that, for far too long, everyone’s been taking to mean the same old thing.
WSJ 2/24/11 3:29 PM
My editor says it’s a go