Andrew Root, God Turns Death Into Life

Andrew RootAndrew Root, Chair of Youth and Family Ministry at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, received a Ph.D. from Princeton Theological Seminary in 2005.

We do not need to be afraid of doubt. When we fear that “God is not here,” that is when God is likely to be found.

Edited transcript

JMF: I wanted to begin with something from the back of your book Relationships Unfiltered: “For more than 50 years relational or incarnational ministry has been a major focus in youth ministry, but for too long those relationships have been used as tools, as means to an end, where adults try to influence students to accept, know, trust, believe or participate in something. Andrew Root challenges us to reconsider our motives and begin to consider simply being with and doing life alongside teenagers with no agenda other than to love them right where they are, by place-sharing.” How does that kind of relationship with teenagers play out?

AR: The objective of it, and the desire, is that we would start with living authentically with young people and living authentically from our own places of rawness and brokenness and sharing each other’s lives from that location. That’s been one of the main problems with the church in the last few decades, something that it’s been striving for, is to say something authentic and meaningful — something that is located in the messiness of our lives.

There’s a great scene from the movie Walk the Line where Joaquin Phoenix plays Johnny Cash… it’s a movie about Johnny Cash’s life…and there’s this powerful scene that I think relates to this, where Johnny Cash is going to have his first audition with his band, and he confronts the owner of this recording studio and asks for an audition, and he gets one, reluctantly, by the owner. He gets there with his band and they’re wearing black shirts because that’s the only color they all have of the same shirt, and he starts to play a gospel tune.

You can tell in the first few notes that the record company guy is unhappy with this, as he doesn’t find it very interesting. After a while he stops him and says, “Are you really going to do this? Are you really going to just sing this same song we’ve heard over and over again? This Jesus By and By? Is this what you’re going to tell me again?” Joaquin Phoenix playing Johnny Cash says, “What are you saying? That I don’t believe in Jesus?” He said, “No, I’m not saying you don’t believe in Jesus, I’m saying that this doesn’t mean anything. There’s nothing here.”

“Well, what do you mean?” Johnny Cash asks him, and he says, “What I mean…is this the song you would sing if this is the last song you had, you were lying in the gutter and you were going to die and you had one last song to sing to God before you were dirt — this is the song you’d sing? By and By Jesus is with me?” He says, “It doesn’t mean anything unless you sing it from your heart,” unless it comes from your own broken experience, is essentially what he’s saying.

Johnny Cash says, “Well, you got a problem with the Air Force?” And he says, “No.” Johnny says, “Well, I do.” Then he sings this song that he had written (I think it’s the Folsom Prison song), but then it has this incredible human pathos to it, this incredible significance that’s born from Johnny Cash’s own broken experience and his own yearning.

Often I will show that clip in classes and say, “How come our sermons aren’t like that?” Replace “song” with “sermon.” Many people in our congregations hear a sermon or another Sunday School lesson and they’re thinking, “Really? You’re going to give me this same ‘Jesus is with me by and by’?” Why don’t you say something that means something, that comes from this place of loneliness and this place of deep yearning? The objective of being a place-sharer is to do ministry from our broken humanity that yearns for God and seeks to confess and worship a God who meets us from the gutter of the cross and seeks for God to find us taking on death for the sake of life.

JMF: Don’t we, as youth ministers and as pastors and associate pastors and otherwise, gospel workers, feel like we have to give an image of strength, some kind of façade of righteousness and faithfulness and all that? And in doing that, we think that somehow we’re setting an example or conveying a proper image, and yet there really is no such beast as a person who is the façade we’re trying to put forward.

AR: Exactly. I think the objective is to be and to do ministry from the location of our own barrenness or our own broken situation. There’s a great story about my kids. My son is almost five now and my daughter is two. But when my daughter was younger, she was probably eight months, we made the terrible parenting mistake of having her sleeping upstairs in our house and having the baby monitor switched to the wrong channel so we couldn’t hear her. After an hour or so we thought, “Wow, this is a really long nap for her.”

I walked by the stairs and she was howling, she was crying, she was very upset. So I yelled for my wife and we raced up the stairs, and our three-year-old at the time followed us up the stairs as we went to her. We picked her up and she was as mad as heck. She was angry. We don’t know how long she had been crying, but it had been a while. We picked her up and we tried to comfort her, and as we did that, my son climbed up on our bed and we were saying, “Oh Maisy, it’s okay, it’s okay,” and he, in his great three-year-old way, crawled up next to her, patted her head, and said, “Maisy, it’s okay. You just had hotus.”

We looked at him and said “hotus?” This made-up three-year-old word. We said, “Hotus? Owen, what is hotus?” He looked kind of matter of fact-ly, like everyone should know this, and he said, “Hotus is when you’re all alone and crying and no one is there to be with you.”

It was this beautiful, beautiful assertion, but I think that is the human condition. In many ways, if we’re not now, we know of times when we’ve been all alone and crying and need someone to be near to us. Too often we do ministry out of “I have the answer” or “I can get you somewhere” instead of this mutuality of trying to dwell in God’s word and contemplate who God is amidst and alongside our shared hotus. At some point in our life, we’re all alone and crying.

I think the beauty of the gospel is that we have a God who encounters us not outside, around, but within our moments of hotus, of being all alone and needing someone to be with us. God desires to be with us, and with us to such an extent that God goes to death. Not only death but, as our creeds say, all the way to hell, so that we’ll never again be alone or without God, even when we still feel overwhelmed by our experiences of hotus, as my three-year-old, now moving toward five-year-old, son would say.

JMF: We usually present the gospel as being a way to become moral and righteous and to solve our problems. But that’s not what it’s about, is it?

AR: I always worry because we’ve tried to frame things for my son not about what’s right or wrong, but what serves death or what serves life. I fear that we’ve warped him, because he’ll always package things in death. Once we were on a walk and he fell and he skinned his knee, and so we raced over to him and said, “Owen, are you okay?” He said, “Yeah, I’m fine,” and he pointed to his knee, which was a little bloody, and he said, “But death made me bleed.”

He has this concept of life and death, which I think biblically there is something about right and wrong that’s there, but there’s also another foundation which that rests on, which is, do you serve life, or do you serve death? The God of Israel is a God that is about life. We have all these odd biblical texts about “the right thing to do is to hide spies in your house and to tell a lie when someone comes to your door,” because it’s not really about what’s right or wrong, but what serves life or what serves death. What serves the God of life or death?

Too often we fall into moralism with young people. We tend to judge how well we’re doing in our ministries with “our kid’s getting better.” And how many conversions and how many virgins do you have? That seems to determine if you’re a good youth worker, instead of trying to live with young people next to their death, so that they might be people who seek for God and death for the sake of life…. It gives us an ethic, but it’s a much more robust theological perspective that leads us into contemplating our own broken humanity and a God who encounters us within it. It’s grander in the sense of, in the way it encompasses us and claims us. That is much more beautiful, at least to me.

JMF: You have a couple of new books that came out in 2010. The Promise of Despair: The Way of the Cross as the Way of the Church, from Abingdon, and The Children of Divorce: The Loss of Family as the Loss of Being, from Brazos Press. Can you give us a little preview of those two books?

AR: The Promise of Despair is my attempt to write at least a little bit of a theology for the church …in the church’s location in our context now. I fear it’s not an upbeat Hallmark kind of piece. The basic assertion is that [we need] many of the new kind of paradigms for church that have been around from emerging church folks, to others talking about the church needing to take new form and think differently about its theology and its very life in our cultural context. I affirm that very strongly in this book, but also add to the conversation that I don’t know that in those conversations we’ve dealt enough with the reality of death.

So I try to articulate that and tell some of my own experiences with that. It hinges around this argument that comes from Luther in his Heidelberg Disputation, where Luther is writing his, really a major document of his theological breakthrough that would bring forth the Reformation, and Luther has this very interesting comment in there where he says “a theologian of the cross.” If there’s anywhere forward for a theologian of the cross to escape all the legalism of the Christendom of his day, that person, that theologian must despair — that you have to despair.

I’ve tried to look into that and to ask, what would it mean — is there a promise in despair, and what do we believe about this God who brings life out of death from the location of the cross? It’s a theology of the cross for our contemporary church in our context. In the second half of the book I try to develop a Trinitarian theology, drawing from Eberhard Jungel as well as the early Moltmann, trying to make an argument using some of their sources that God takes death into the Trinity itself.

The ramifications of that, which are quite beautiful, is that now anyone who experiences any element of death — whether that’s legitimate death being put in a grave, or severe depression, or just experiences of death, that we can be confident that now we exist within the life of God — that because death has been placed within the inner life of God, that death destroys the Trinity, and then the Trinity is put back together after resurrection, and that now, anytime we experience death, we can be confident and confess that we find ourselves taken up and swept up into the life of God in the Trinitarian relationship between Father and Son that the Spirit ushers us into.

That’s a mouthful for that book, but it gives a cultural analysis and then takes a turn on the theology of the cross and looks at how we might do church next to death, and a lot like the Johnny Cash story — how might we actually practice our faith in a way that honors the realness and messiness of our existence.

The second book, The Children of Divorce, touches on some of these themes, but in a much more specific way. It argues that we haven’t quite culturally grasped the significance of divorce as it relates to young people. One of the issues that we haven’t necessarily dealt with is that divorce may be… (before it’s an epistemological issue [a question of what we know], in the sense that we usually think as long as kids know that the divorce wasn’t their fault, and if we can get some structures in place, like after-school programs and grandparents to be invested, then it’s not a big deal, it’s a minor disturbance).

My argument is that maybe some of that stuff helps, but that primarily divorce is an ontological issue [a question of being]. What I mean by that is: that what’s thrust upon a young person when their parents divorce is the very question if they can exist at all, after the fact that they realize that this relationship of mother and father is responsible for them existing at all. What does it mean for them, that this relationship that is the very elements of their being in the world, is taken apart?

From my own experience of my parents divorcing, as well as the young people I’ve worked with, I try to make an argument that we need to look at the experience of young people in divorce differently — that it may be an issue of questioning “do I exist at all?” or “How can I be, now that these people who are responsible for my being are no longer in the world?” That’s the point of that book — two kind of heavy topics. But ones that would be interesting reads for people.

JMF: You’ve written an article that I read and found very interesting. I don’t watch the TV show Lost because I watched it a couple of times and I haven’t gotten into it because I found it so abysmally difficult to understand and know what’s going on. I know a couple people who are great fans of it, a couple of relatives who never miss it. I ask them, “Well, give me a little… so I can at least have enough to go on to watch it.” They look at me for a second thinking, and then they say, “You really have to watch it from the beginning. I wouldn’t know where to start. There’s too much to just say easily.” So I don’t watch it. But then I read your article and I thought it gave some good insight into what was going on in the show, and you brought in some theological perspective that the show triggered for you. I thought it would be interesting for everyone to hear that.

AR: The first thing I’ll say is, for real Lost fans out there, I fear saying anything, because you don’t want to make avid Lost fans angry at you. So I will just say this for myself. I’ll say two things before getting into the theological dialogue that I do with the show. The real interesting thing to me is that it is an incredibly dense, and I don’t want to say intellectual, necessarily, but there’s so much rich mystery and theory that’s embedded with it…so much with philosophy and mythology, and it’s fascinating to me…

A question the church has to confront is, why does J.J. Abrams, the producer of this show as well as other movies, why does he get all the best stories? What I mean is, how come we have this incredible story of a crucified God, of… this incredibly beautiful story, and we can so easily make the story of the gospel benign or uninteresting or just plain lame. A show like Lost, I think, reminds us that the public is yearning for good narrative. Not narrative that is clean and easily finished after 22 minutes in a laugh track, but is really wanting to dwell in a difficult narrative. At least there’s a number of people who are fans of that show who don’t want it to be neat and tidy but want to really focus on a very mystical, very transcendent, very raw narrative. I would say that first.

My argument in that article, which was written several seasons ago, so things have changed. But one of the things that was true that I was pointing to in that article that I hadn’t verified yet was that the life on the island and the life in the regular world, that they were existing on two timelines — that time was unfolding at a different pace on the island than it was in the regular world.

What was interesting to me about that reality is that essentially, Jurgen Moltmann, in The Theology of Hope and in some of his other works, his whole eschatology is built on that perception — that God is encountering us not from the past but from the future. That God’s bringing forth God’s future. In a sense, God exists on another timeline. That timeline overlaps with ours, but God is ushering all of time and all of creation into God’s very future.

It got me thinking about certain things, and Lost was doing this — it was living between these timelines. In many ways I think that the vocation of the Christian is to live between times, in the sense that we’re stuck in this time. Our lives unfold from life to death, but a future is breaking in where death, from death comes life, where the complete opposite happens. There’s a certain way of even reading some of the gospel texts to see it as this reality of a new timeline coming in. For instance, after the crucifixion, people from the graves come out and start walking around Jerusalem. It’s a sense where the time has been split open.

Then when Jesus returns after the resurrection, some of the disciples and some of his followers don’t even recognize him — not because he isn’t human anymore, but because he is the person of the future, he’s the man of the future. As many theologians, particularly Karl Barth has argued, that Jesus Christ’s resurrection is our promise. The only one that has been resurrected is Jesus Christ, and because of Jesus’ own resurrection, we’re promised a resurrection as well. Jesus Christ now exists in God’s future.

So I tried with the show, in these multiple timelines going on in the show, to make this argument that the church awaits, yearns, desires for God’s future to come while we live in this time. It’s interesting to think, for instance, about prayer and healing in that situation. There are times in our congregations and in our lives where we pray for somebody to be healed, and they are. In the church, we rejoice in that and see in it a gift. But it’s not the norm. It’s abnormal. It’s God’s future breaking in for some reason into our now. But the unfolding of the timeline we exist in, is that if you get cancer, you die. Or if you get hit in a head-on collision, you probably die. There are times when God’s future breaks in and we’re healed, or we taste God’s future, but that’s more abnormal than normal. I tried to develop that element of timelines and eschatology through the TV show Lost.

JMF: It makes me want to watch it, but I don’t know if I would invest the time it takes to get caught up to speed.

AR: It will make you a fanatic, too. You have to have the time for that.

JMF: I’m glad that some of the shows that I was having to never miss have finally come to an end. It gives me a break in having to be addicted to a certain TV show.

As we conclude, I wanted to ask you something we often ask, we try to ask everyone at some point, and that is, if there’s one thing that you would really like people to know about God, what would that be?

AR: The one thing that I would want people to know about God is that God comes near to us in those moments where we don’t know what to do or when we feel lost. There are certain moments in our life that are utterly God-forsaken and are irredeemable. But often in those moments, someone else will share in our lives with us. I think, in those moments, God becomes concretely present.

The one thing that I would want us to know about God is that God comes near to us, in our yearning simply to be human, and that the Christian life is a basic life of trying to grab hold of what it means to be human in the midst of a lot of questions and doubt, and doubt is a way of faith in many ways — that if we’ll yearn to know God up against our deepest questions, we’ll encounter God, and in a beautiful way encounter God in a community of people who are believing while they’re doubting, who are yearning for God in the midst of broken and thin places in their life. I think that’s the thing that captivates me the most lately, is how to think about our encounter with God in those places of deep yearning and brokenness.

JMF: Interesting you bring up doubt, because typically we’re afraid to admit our doubt. There’s no Christian who doesn’t doubt, and yet we don’t want to admit it to anyone else, and we don’t even like to admit it to ourselves. Yet this is where Jesus meets us, in the midst of our doubt.

AR: One of the ways potentially forward as we think about passing on our faith to young people (whether that happens through confirmation or some other form of catechesis or Sunday School or some other educational form) … I wonder often if we wouldn’t do well to build those conversations around our doubt, and how powerful it would be to get a handful of high school students and a couple of adults and to say, “In this hour and a half, we’re going to talk, and we’re going to doubt our faith together.”

I don’t mean doubt it, in this kind of nihilistic tone that we’re just going to wipe it all off the table and find it’s all meaningless. But to enter into the kind of doubt that says, “We’re going to wrestle with this” is to take faith and to take the Christian tradition with utmost seriousness — that we’re going to really delve into this, but we’re going to do it not through our place of power, of having it together, but from our place of wondering, what does this mean?

Young people are searching for a church that will doubt with them, and we continue to give them a church that has certainty. Certainty is the demonic element. Certainty doesn’t need to see neighbors. Certainty doesn’t need to listen. But doubt listens intently. So I think there’s a way that we doubt our faith while confessing Christ. We hold those things together. I doubt while I yearn for God. There’s something really beautiful about that.

It would be an incredible witness to the world if the church was this group of people, maybe a little weird people, but these people who deeply searched for God through their doubt and through their brokenness — never claimed to have it all together, but simply yearned for God as they articulated to the world their own shortcomings and their own doubt. We would have a generation of young people that would know their faith better, that would live their faith, and we would have a witness to the world that would be much richer. There would be a community in the world that calls a thing what it is. We have a culture that desires for the church to call a thing what it is.

JMF: Often when somebody approaches us (young person or otherwise) with doubts and has the courage to express those, we respond with defensiveness and with authoritarianism, with “You better not doubt your faith,” “You’re in danger of something,” of losing your faith, or whatever. So we don’t listen, and we ourselves become fearful and defensive, perhaps because we have the same doubts and don’t know what to do with them. A dialog where there’s freedom to live with and express out doubts, share them, deal with them, confront them, look at them, consider them, would be a nice healthy environment.

AR: Yeah. We often are afraid of doubt because, well, because we’re afraid. Our fear really is fear of death. It will feel like death if our kids aren’t good kids or if they deny their faith. But what’s so interesting and paradoxical and maybe disobedient about such a stance is that the Christian commitment is a God who meets us in death…and there’s a freedom in that. There’s a freedom, that we need not be afraid of death, because God has overcome death with life. So we don’t have to fear our children doubting our faith. Their doubt of our faith is an invitation to share deeply in their lives and to share deeply in the activity of God in a certain way — to yearn for God, to seek God. But we fear death, and because we fear death, we fear them doubting, instead of recognizing that God has overcome death.

There’s great freedom in discipleship to not fear death. There’s a great line in The Cost of Discipleship when Bonhoeffer opens it up in the first few pages when he says, “When Jesus Christ calls a person, he calls a person to come and die.” We usually think of that like a football coach on the Friday night high school football game, where the football coach says, “We’re going to go out there and we’re going to kill those guys this week.” The players know that the coach doesn’t mean that they’re literally going to go out and kill them. They don’t take guns out onto the field. It’s rhetoric that’s supposed to motivate certain action.

We think that when Bonhoeffer says that or when Jesus says, “Take up your cross and follow me,” that it’s a pep rally, that’s just to get us motivated to live the Christian life. But in a real way that that’s the call — that if you are going to follow Jesus, that you have to come and die, that you have to come and face the death inside you, the death inside the world, and seek for God in that death.

We often want to keep our young people from doubting because we’re scared to death that they will start smelling like death instead of saying, if I can hold them and if we can together look at and face death, whatever that might be — either doubting of their faith, or their certain struggles, or their depression — that we can in faith and hope trust in God in the midst of this, for our God is a God who brings life out of death. Our God is a God who enters deeply into death. There will be a great way forward if we would choose to doubt our faith together. Again, not as a nihilistic way, but as a way of actual obedience of following God to the cross.

JMF: I can’t help but think of a passage, Colossians 3, verse 3, “For you have died, and your life is now hidden in Christ with God.” We’re dead and alive at the same time, yet the life is hidden and yet the death is real. It also reminds me of the doubt you mentioned [in an earlier interview], the story with your son saying, “Jesus isn’t here. There’s a nightmare in the closet, and Jesus isn’t here.”

AR: The objective of the church is to say, “You’re right — Jesus isn’t here. So together let’s search for God…” and this is the paradox — “let’s search for God in the utter feeling of God-forsakenness, of God not being here,” which is this Christological element that opens up, that Moltmann beautifully does, to the Trinity — that God knows death, that God knows what it’s like. Jesus essentially says “God is not here” on the cross. The Father knows what it’s like to lose the Son to the abyss of separation and death. There’s something very Trinitarian about being willing to say “God is not here,” but not as a nihilistic assertion but as a confession of faith.

“God is not here” as a confession of faith that says “I will now search for God in this place where God cannot be found” because this God who cannot be found, this God who I can’t find now, is a God who is often not found, in certain places like in the barren womb of Sarah or in a people under years and years of oppression in Egypt, in the virgin womb of a 15-year-old girl in a God-forsaken place called Galilee…that in those places where “God is not here” is the place where God becomes found.

It would be really interesting for the church to be this place that is willing to say “you’re right, God is not here, and we will serve this God and worship this God,” because when we say God is not here, God becomes here, in our shared community of suffering.

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Last modified: Saturday, February 16, 2019, 2:50 PM