An accidental blog

"If God is sovereign, then his lordship must extend over all of life, and it cannot be restricted to the walls of the church or within the Christian orbit." Abraham Kuyper Common Grace 1.1.

Saturday, 15 April 2017

An interview with John Van Sloten

John Van Sloten's new book Every Job a Parable will be published in June. My review is here. I caught up with him and he kindly agreed to answer a few questions about the book.

Could you say a little about yourself, where you are from and where you are coming from and what you do?

I am a 55 year old Canadian who grew up near Toronto, studied architecture, became a land developer, had a spiritual awakening at 29, had a son with Down syndrome, went to seminary, planted a church in Calgary, was given a big new idea, (which was really a big old idea), and who has, ever since, been passionately unpacking that idea via my preaching, teaching and writing.

Which thinkers or resources have you found most helpful in your Christian walk?

15 years ago I sat in a Fuller Theological Seminary boardroom and spoke with Dr. Richard Mouw and Dr. Neal Plantinga about the idea of engaging general revelation as text; whether one even could do that and about how authoritative God’s word via creation really was. I’ve read everything these two have written and have been deeply formed by the worldview they espouse. Sitting in behind them (historically) were theologians John Calvin, Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck. I continue to be shaped by these reformed thinkers (and others who have been shaped by them). Comment Magazine and Books and Culture have also been big influences over the years.

How did the book Every Job a Parable come about? What was the catalyst for it?

As I was finishing up my first book, The Day Metallica Came to Church; Searching for the Everywhere God in Everything (Square Inch, 2010), my publisher Mark Rice planted the seed; suggesting I write a different kind of book on the topic of work, one that builds on the big view of revelation I’d been leaning into. At that same time the concept of jobs being parables was starting to break through in my preaching. While researching a sermon I planned to preach on a newly ‘discovered’ stress reducing mechanism in the brain, I noticed the passions and aptitudes of the neuroscientist I was interviewing; how she uniquely imaged God’s empirical mind. It felt like I could see a bit of God through her. 

Then, one Easter, I was contemplating the nature of resurrection and trying to imagine what it might have been like for the Father to raise his Son. This brought to mind the life resuscitating work of emergency department physicians. I then interviewed four ER doctors and asked them what it was like to bring someone back to life. Through their responses saw God’s urgent heart to save. This vocational awareness continued to grow for years. It dawned on me that our image bearing is very much borne out through the work we do. We are made in the image of a working God. God speaks our working lives. Our jobs are parables, spoken in, through and for Jesus.

In recent years a number of books on a Christian approach to work and vocation have been published, which is an encouraging trend. How does your book differ from others? 

I’d say the revelatory angle would be the big difference; that our jobs really are parables within which and through which God is speaking. They are vocational stories that we’re a part of; that we’re protagonists in. The parable of a person’s job has meaning because God is speaking it. And because God is speaking it, God can be known through it, in moments of flow, satisfaction, achievement, pushing though, or enduring. I think God made work to be a means by which we can experience him. In the book of Genesis God gave us a cultural mandate to fill the earth. Part of that filling included the tending of a garden… as Dr. Rich Mouw would say, somebody started raking. And that work was good. Even now, post-fall, work is good. And I firmly believe that we’ll have a lot of good work to do on the new heaven-on-earth when that time comes. And we’ll then know God through our work perfectly. The premise of Every Job a Parable is that our present day experiences of work can offer a foretaste of that one-day perfectly working world.

In the book, you mention icons - particularly the work of Andrei Rublev. Some Christians may be a little suspicious of icons. Could you say something about how you understand the use of icons and how they can provide insight?

Icons, for me, are things through which God speaks; like how God speaks through the bible, the lilies of the field, the nature of a supernova, or the corrective words of a parent. In a very real sense I believe that all that is can be iconic; can be something through which we see, hear or sense something of the nature of God. If the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins was right in asserting that “Christ plays in ten thousand places”, then I think it is reasonable to assume that Christ speaks ten thousand languages. Jesus speaks particle physics, impressionist brush stroke, shrewd management methods, good agricultural practice, knee surgeon and WalMart greeter. I know this is a bit mystical for some, but think about what Calvin said, that “All truth is inspired by the Holy Spirit”, and what Kuyper affirmed, that “The whole creation is nothing but the visible curtain behind which radiates the exalted working of [God’s] divine thinking.” (italics mine), and what Bavinck wrote, that “Revelation, while having its centre in the Person of Jesus Christ, in its periphery extends to the uttermost ends of creation. It does not stand isolated in nature and history, does not resemble an island in the ocean, nor a drop of oil upon water. With the whole of nature, with the whole of history, with the whole of humanity, with the family and society, with science and art it is intimately connected. The world itself rests on revelation; revelation is the presupposition, the foundation, the secret of all that exists in all its forms. The deeper science pushes its investigations, the more clearly it will discover that revelation underlies all created being. In every moment of time beats the pulse of eternity; every point in space is filled with the omnipresence of God; the finite is supported by the infinite, all becoming is rooted in being.” If these three had it right, then surely everything has iconic potential. I believe that those parts of the church that have specialized in icons have a lot to teach us reformed theological types. How can we hold such a high view of creation, revelation, and the Holy Spirit and not believe that God speaks in iconic ways through the things he’s made? Until I read Fr. Gabriel Bunge’s book on Rublev’s Holy Trinity, I had no idea how icons worked. In my book I took some of the concepts he outlined in relation to a painting and applied them to creation.

Could you say something about the term lectio vocatio which is one you use in the book. 

It’s kind of a play on the more common term lectio divina (a Benedictine practice of scriptural reading that aims to enhance communion with God). At the end of each chapter of EJAP are questions, exercises or stories that are designed to help the reader better orient themselves to God’s on the job presence. God is already there - in the stories of the bible and at everybody’s work. What might it look like to pay more attention, to have a better theology of God’s vocational presence, to listen for God’s work words like you listen for God’s scriptural words?  

You didn’t mention anything about undertakers or the unemployed in your book. How do those speak of God?

Ha! My editor at Navpress, David Zimmerman, made a similar observation in relation to those with disabilities. He asked me, “What about a person with Down syndrome?” (not knowing I had a 25 year old son with DS!). Big omission on my part! So I added a story about my son Edward to the book. And while unemployment is not dealt with in the book (nor is retirement) I did preach on the topic last year. And as for an undertaker… I haven't gotten to that vocation yet. Which is why I’m hoping this book will inspire ten thousand preachers to take up the exegesis of ten thousand jobs, so that the whole counsel of God’s vocational revelation can be proclaimed.

Are there any other projects in the pipeline?

Yes. I’m currently building a preaching course for Ambrose Seminary here in Calgary - ‘Preaching Science, Film, Sport, Music, Work, Art and Nature as Text’ - which will probably run next year (Spring 2018). I’m also working on a second Templeton Foundation grant - looking at the intersection of a scientist as parable and their field of study as icon. I’ve started a third book on the human body as text. To date I’ve preached sermons on the kidney, knee, neurons, hearing, epigenetics, wound healing, biological interdependence and more. You can view these sermons here. All of the vocation-based sermons that led to the writing of EJAP can also be watched here.  

What do you do for fun?
I love macro photography (seeing unseen worlds), recreating Rembrandt etchings (currently working on Christ at Emmaus), and going on long walkabouts and getting lost.

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