Interview with Brian Zahnd

This interview with Brian Zahnd, founder and lead pastor of Word of Life Church and author of A Farewell to Mars, was first posted on our Facebook page on 25 March 2015. I’m proud to post it again here.

Karl Barth for Dummies: Brian, tell us a bit about yourself, your family, your current home and ministry?

Brian Zahnd: I’m 56 years old; my wife and I have three adult sons and five grandchildren. I’m the founder and lead pastor of Word of Life Church in St. Joseph, Missouri. I’ve led this congregation for 33 years. I also write books and speak regularly at conferences.

KBfD: What is your favorite book, your favorite movie, your favorite song, and your favorite holiday destination?

BZ: Easily, my favorite book is “The Brother’s Karamazov’ by Fyodor Dostoevsky. It’s a tremendous work of theology disguised as the world’s greatest novel. Lately I’ve become a fan of the great Portuguese writer António Lobo Atunes. My favorite theological work is probably “Jesus and the Victory of God’ by N.T. Wright. But the The Brother’s Karamazov is what I’m taking to the desert island…along with a Bible and the Book of Common Prayer.

For very similar reasons my favorite movie is The Tree of Life, written and directed by Terrence Malick. Artistically and theologically The Tree of Life is a cinematic treasure.

Coming up with one favorite song is an impossible task. I’m a huge music fan! Bob Dylan is my favorite artist (I’m something of a fanatic) and I think Dylan’s best album is Blood On The Tracks.

Estes Park, Colorado. It’s a little resort town at the entrance of Rocky Mountain National Park. We’ve been going there several times a year for a couple of decades. It’s our home away from home. It’s not so much the town that we love, but the mountains. We’re mountain lovers!

KBfD: Did you grow in a faith you always had or did you have a conversion experience?

BZ: Yes and yes. I was raised in a Christian home (Baptist), but I had a very dramatic encounter with Christ when I was 15. Over night I became the high school Jesus freak. This was during the Jesus Movement of the 1970’s. The Jesus Movement is where my true spiritual roots lie.

KBfD: Did you have a job or career before starting theological studies?

BZ: My story is a bit unique. I’ve been a pastor longer than I’ve been an adult. Seriously. By the age of 17 I was leading a coffeehouse ministry called the Catacombs. It was a kind of concert venue and quasi-church. By the time I was 22 the Catacombs had turned into Word of Life Church. I’ve basically been preaching and teaching full-time for almost 40 years.

KBfD: What made you start your theological training and where did you study?

BZ: I’ve had no formal training in theology. A fact I’m somewhat insecure about. Which may partly explain why as a pastor I’ve studied theology so intensely. The thinkers and theologians who have most shaped my theology would be N.T. Wright, Walter Brueggemann, Stanley Hauerwas, René Girard, Eugene Peterson, John Howard Yoder, Hans Urs von Balthasar, David Bentley Hart, Miroslav Volf, and Scot McKnight…to name ten.

KBfD: Wow! That is a powerful testimony. My own experience seems like “ministry by numbers” in comparison. Do you think that that is the mistake that the established and institutional churches often make, that they are so afraid of losing what they have, they think they have to control ministry? That they are always planning for future ministry with a “one size fits nobody” approach that they never take any risks? Never think about just “doing” ministry, just setting a young man or woman free to follow their passion? Is it an approach to ministry that you have tried to encourage yourself at Word of Life?

BZ: It’s always tricky finding the delicate balance between institutional structure and entrepreneurial spirit. My risky entrepreneurial approach to ministry worked for me, but more often than not it doesn’t work. For that matter, I never made a decision to be entrepreneurial and not institutional, it just happened that way. I don’t recommend that young people interested in ministry try to do what I did. I point them toward formal education and existing church structures. But… We still have to be open to the Spirit doing something new and outside of accredited institutions. The Spirit is free to blow where the Spirit wants, and we need to recognize this.

KBfD: By all accounts your ministry has been an incredible success, if success is the right word. But do you have any regrets? Anything you would do different, if you had your time again?

BZ: “Success” is a word I would have resonated with until about eleven years ago. Now I tend to think there is no more seductive word in the Western church world than “success.” Jesus doesn’t call us to “success” — Jesus calls us to the cross. Today I’m not near as interested in “success” as I am in faithful presence. And as far as regrets, I have some, and I could have a lot more if I chose to dwell on them. Word of Life Church has gone through a lot changes since 2004. We’ve become far less associated with American “success in life” church growth ideology and far more associated with substantive theology, far more sacramental, and far more liturgical. I could regret that we didn’t choose some of these things earlier, but in all honesty, we probably had to travel the road we traveled to arrive at the place we are today. Sometimes there are no shortcuts; even if you regret some of the road you had to walk. I’ve told this story in a new book that will be released sometime this fall. I’ve call it Water To Wine, but I’m not sure that my publisher (David C. Cook) is going to go with that title.

KBfD: Does the 56 year old Brian Zahnd ever dream of starting from scratch again, or is that a role you are quite happy for others to follow now?

BZ: No. Starting from scratch is a lot of work and I can’t imagine trying to do that again. On the other hand, there is sense in which a willingness to stay on the journey and make profound course corrections in midlife is as demanding and risky as starting from scratch.

KBfD: When I checked the Word of Life Church website I was surprised to find that your “What We Believe” link was a simple testimony to the ancient creeds. Other churches would have 79 points with illustrated charts. Is that part of a “keep it simple” approach or is it important to you to maintain that connection with the past?

BZ: This is part of our commitment to the Great Tradition. As far as I’m concerned, Christian orthodoxy is defined by the great Christian Creeds. This is their purpose and they have served the church well for seventeen centuries. It’s not my role to try to improve upon them. Of course, confessing the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds does not tell you much about the ethos or emphasis of a local church…but it does tell you that the church is orthodox. And that’s enough for a “Statement of Faith” on a website.

KBfD: You’ve written a number of books. I can even buy a Spanish version of “What to do on the worst day of your life” on Amazon. What was the genesis of your latest book “A Farewell to Mars”? Who did you write it for?

BZ: A Farewell To Mars was the book I thought I would write later in life, when I had less to lose. Critiquing war and militarism among American evangelicals is a risky move for a pastor. But then my grandchildren were born and I could no longer put it off. I dedicated Mars to my grandchildren. In that book I am primarily speaking to American evangelicals — this is my tribe and I know it well. I believe the tone of the book is gentle — it’s a plea, not a reprimand. I understand why and how easy it is to be caught up in a superstitious reverence for war — I understand because that was my experience for most of my life. I wrote Mars because I couldn’t do otherwise. And I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how well it has been received — even by people who don’t agree with all of my conclusions. The only angry backlash I’ve received is from those who haven’t actually read it.

KBfD: In “A Farewell to Mars” you describe the cross at the front of the Air Force Academy chapel. I’ve only seen the picture on Wikipedia. What did that experience mean to you?

BZ: I have to stress that it is not a cross which hangs above the altar at the Air Force Academy Chapel in Colorado Springs, Colorado, it is a sword! It is a giant metal sword with an airplane propeller for a hilt, a central ridge on the blade with a tapered point. It is only half-hardheartedly masquerading as a cross because it’s where a cross should be. It was an unconscious confession to an ugly reality: The cross has been eclipsed by the sword in civil religion. It is the perfect metaphor for Constantinianism. This experience gave me the title for the book. The manuscript was nearly complete and I had been using a more generic working title — The Prince of Peace. As we left the Air Force Chapel with its fighter jet themed architecture and its cross-turned-sword blasphemy, I said to my wife, “That’s no Christian chapel, that’s a chapel of Mars.” A few minutes late I came up with the title A Farewell To Mars (an obvious riff on Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms.)

KBfD: I served as an Australian Naval Reserve chaplain myself, so I am no pacifist under any and all circumstances. But why do we think violence will solve our domestic and international political problems? And why is the Christian church so attracted to the warrior cult? Is it because we have a natural urge to fight and then need to rationalise and justify it in religious terms?

BZ: This is a difficult and complex question. In one sense, the “world” (kosmos) as we have inherited it is fundamentally arranged by violence — violence is our organizing principle. Cain redefines his brother as enemy, kills him, lies to himself and God about it, and then builds the first city. This is the story the Bible tells of how human civilization came into being. Civilization organized according to violent power is our default assumption. The kingdom of God is the alternative. The kingdom of God is the politics taught by Jesus. The kingdom of God eschews violent power. We persuade by love, witness, Spirit, reason, rhetoric, and if need be, by martyrdom, but never by violent power. At Calvary Jesus re-founds the world. Instead of being arranged around an axis of power enforced by violence, Jesus re-founds the world around an axis of love expressed in forgiveness. But to see the kingdom of God (the politics of Jesus) as a way viable way of arranging the world demands a radical rethinking of almost everything. Unless the church endorses and embodies the peaceable way of Jesus, the lure of violence made sacred by myth, memorial, monument, and anthem will be too much for most Christians to resist. Unfortunately, the post-Constantine church has rarely had the courage to challenge the validity of running the world by Caesar’s sword.

KBfD: Karl Barth is often thought to be a pacifist, but he famously enlisted in the Swiss National Guard during World War II at the age of 54. Is there a time and a place for Christians to fight? Or is there no such thing as a “just” war?

BZ: When we use the term “just war” we are hearkening back to Augustine and his so-called “Just War Theory.” Augustine was a brilliant theologian, but a theologian in the employ of empire. And therein lies the rub. Empires are the result of wars successfully waged, and it’s always easy for imperial theologians to read history in such a way that the empire’s wars are always deemed just. Just War Theory is a funny thing. Just War Theory presumes that in every war at least one side is waging an unjust war. But has Just War Theory ever prevented an eighteen year old Christian citizen from taking up arms on behalf of his nation? I can assure you that German Christians were quite confident they were waging a just war when Germany invaded Poland in order to defend German nationals. After that all the fighting (on every side!) was done in the name of defense of hearth and home. The average German solider fought a “just” war. Just War Theory was unable to prevent the death of nearly a hundred million people in the two World Wars — most at the hands of baptized soldiers! I’m afraid that Just War ends up in practice as just war. We can ask if Karl Barth did the right thing in being willing to defend the Swiss border during WWII. But the more important question we should ask is how Hitler was able to wage his blitzkriegs with baptized soldiers? I think Karl Barth would agree this is the question we should be asking. What had gone so wrong in European Christendom that during the two World Wars millions of baptized Christians were willing to kill one another in the name of nationalism? And with all sides convinced they were waging a just war!

KBfD: You came to Australia (I live in Australia) last year to speak at a conference. What was the event and what did you speak about?

BZ: I was the guest of Jarrod McKenna and West City Church in Perth. I was asked to speak from A Farewell To Mars and related themes.

KBfD: What did you think of our wide brown land and its people?

BZ: This was my third trip down under and I absolutely love Oz. I’ve traveled the world quite widely and without a doubt Aussies are some of the the friendliest people I’ve ever met. After my speaking engagements my wife and spent a few days in the Margaret River region. It was glorious. When the West City leaders invited Peri and I to move to Perth, it was a serious temptation. It’s all so beautiful!

KBfD: What advice would you give to someone considering full-time ministry or theological studies?

BZ: Hold the academy and the church together. Get a good theological education, but stay connected to the church. Stay connected to the church, but get a good theological education. Don’t pit one against the other. Don’t try to replace one with the other. Theological training can be gained in the academy (or even through serious private study), but pastoral training really needs to be learned in the context of a healthy local congregation.

KBfD: Who is Jesus and why is he so important?

BZ: Jesus is how God keeps his promise. God promised to bless the nations through the family of Abraham. Jesus is that promise kept. God sent his Son into the world to save the world (not to save parts of people for another world). It’s through Jesus Christ that God intends to redeem his vision for human flourishing and human society. Jesus Christ is utterly unique. Jesus is simultaneously the perfect revelation of who God is and the perfect revelation of what humanity is to be. Finally (since this is a Karl Barth site), all of God’s purposes in election are summed up in Jesus Christ. Jesus is the Yes and Amen to all of the promises and purposes of God.

KBfD: What is the gospel in 140 character or less?

BZ: Alright, here it is in exactly 140 characters:

Jesus Christ is Lord. The king sent by God to conquer death and mend the world. He was enthroned by crucifixion; vindicated by resurrection.

KBfD: Thank you, Brian, for taking the time to answer my questions.

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