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Last Wednesday, I traveled to the beautiful campus of Colgate University to speak to the students of Colgate Christian Fellowship about faith and doubt and religious tension — the stuff I discuss in O Me of Little Faith. Colgate is in Hamilton, New York, a few miles southeast of Syracuse and a thousand miles northeast of my home in Texas.
The next day, during a layover at the Dallas/Fort Worth airport, I found myself waiting to board my flight back to Amarillo next to a guy who used to go to my church in the 1990s. I’m not sure we’d spoken for ten years. We exchanged the usual niceties and talked about where we’d each been. He knew I’d become a writer — my books have been featured a time or two in the local newspaper — but he seemed surprised that I’d traveled all the way to New York to speak to college kids. It turned into a pretty funny conversation, at least from my end, because I could totally read into his subtext.
“So, they flew you all the way up there?” he asked.
“Yes.” I explained to him how speaking gigs work. In most cases, the event organizers pay the travel expenses and I receive an honorarium for my time there.
“But…” he was fumbling for the right words, and then (I guess) decided to come right out and say it. “Why?”
I laughed. “Because I wrote a book. And I guess the people who put the event together liked my book, and wanted me to come talk about it.”
He still seemed surprised by this. Ten years ago, I was just this young guy from church. He asked, “So have you been to seminary?”
No. I haven’t been to seminary. I’m not a trained historian or theologian or even a licensed minister. But I’ve been reading and studying theology and history and religion for 15 years. I told him as much.
“Then what –” (Again, more stumbling for words.) “Why do they care what you have to say?”
I promise: that’s what he asked. I love how direct that is. It was so brazenly impolite I almost laughed. What gives you the right to get in a plane and get paid to talk to impressionable college students about faith? Who cares what YOU think?
And, to be honest, that’s a very good question.
My wife asked the same thing of me when I was writing Pocket Guide to the Apocalypse, which was my first foray into “real” theological/biblical stuff. She wondered why anyone would care what I had to say about the end of the world. (But, being my wife, she asked it in a much kinder way.)
My answer to her back then — and to the guy at the airport last week — was that all I’m able to offer is my perspective. I hope it’s a fresh perspective and a helpful perspective and an entertaining perspective. And if I’m a good writer and communicator, others will be able to identify with that perspective and it will have meaning for them.
As for O Me of Little Faith, what gives me the right to talk to college students or anyone else about important matters of faith? Only that I have lived the things I talk and write about. I have experienced them, I have struggled with them, I can be honest about them, and in sharing my story I can (hopefully) offer something of value to my readers and listeners. The only justification I have is a willingness to communicate my story and invite others to reflect upon it with me.
What gives me the right to tell my story? The same thing that gives anyone the right to tell a story: humanity. Stories — whether they are fiction or real-life, whether they are religious or not — are the glue of our culture. People who tell stories are glue-spreaders. If you are good at telling stories, and if those stories are worth telling, then there’s no need to justify the fact that people might want to listen to them.
As a writer and a speaker, I have to earn the right to gain a hearing. In most cases, having written a book justifies my speaking career (though it also helps if you’re a decent public speaker). And having lived a life and being able to communicate it — with a distinct voice and perspective — helps justify my writing career. Also helpful? Having a publisher.
Anyway, why spend a whole blog post on self-justification? Because I thought it was a hilariously passive-aggressive conversation and I wanted to share the story. And because I suspect a lot of people have the same question of writers and speakers like me: Why should I care what you think?
The truth is: You shouldn’t care. Not until I’ve earned the right. Sharing my story as a writer and blogger is how I go about earning that right. Doing so with a unique perspective and an entertaining voice are how I go about earning that right. Telling the truth is how I go about earning that right.
But I do have to earn it.