Interview with Dr Travis McMaken

Here’s a blast from the past: my intervew with Dr Travis McMaken from October, 2014

Richard: Good evening, Dr McMaken, and welcome to Karl Barth for Dummies.

Travis: Glad to be here! You can call me Travis – takes less typing. 🙂

Richard:  Thanks, Travis. Tell us a bit about yourself, your family, your current home and work?

Travis: Let’s see. I live with my wife (of nearly 11 years now) and 2 boys in St. Charles, MO where I currently hold the position of assistant professor of religion at Lindenwood University.

Richard: Help us to get to know you a little bit. What is your favourite book, your favourite movie, your favourite song, and your favourite holiday destination? I apologise for Australian spelling. 🙂

Travis: That’s funny about your “Australian spelling.” I spent the afternoon doing tedious article revisions on punctuation and such just to make a British journal happy. How do Aussies generally feel about your old imperial overlords these days?

Anyway, to your questions. I read a lot. So far this year I’ve read ~35 academic texts cover to cover, plus reading more selectively in other books and journals. But I also read a lot of “candy” fiction. It would be impossible for me to pick favorites, so I’ll just say that lately (and in the “candy” fiction department) I’ve been devouring Dewey Lambdin and Simon Scarrow.

My musical taste is eclectic, which comes from being born into a musical family and being classically trained on the piano for the better part of a decade. But here I’ll at least make the forced choice: U2’s “One.”

Let’s see…oh yes, movie. I’m not a connoisseur of film despite the popularity of that affectation among young theologians these days (this isn’t an affectation for some people – my friend David Congdon for instance does theological film criticism quite well). I like your typical movies for their distraction value: Braveheart, Star Wars, the Godfather, old John Wayne movies. But my heart belongs to James Bond.

Vacation destination? Anywhere with trees, sand, and water I can’t see the other side of. And north of Missouri. Definitely north of Missouri.

Richard: Our Overlords? We have a popular taunt over here for the British: “You sent us to a tropical paradise.”

But enough about me. Did you grow in a faith you always had or did you have a conversion experience?

Travis: Something of a mixed bag. I was born into a conservative evangelical family of the free church and baptist (GARBC) persuasion. I attended AWANA clubs and achieved pretty much every award they had at the time. So I was very much raised to it. But that process was also punctuated by particular experiences at different points. Of course, my interpretation of those experiences has changed drastically over the years.

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

Travis: If you can count seasonal employment as a groundskeeper at a golf course during my high school years as such a thing, then yes. 🙂

Richard: Speaking of Imperial overlords, I do notice that the United States is one of four countries still using the imperial measurements.

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

Travis: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Let’s see. I originally intended to be a pastor. I did my undergrad atWheaton College, majoring in Biblical and Theological Studies with a concentration in theology. I will say, however, that the thing I value most about my Wheaton education is that they taught me to do exegesis – both of the Bible but also of theological texts.

After the BA I needed to go to seminary. I very nearly went to TEDS, and I have Kevin Vanhoozer assigned as an adviser, but then my admission letter came from Princeton Theological Seminary and that was the end of that.

At Wheaton my adviser was Mark Husbands, who now teaches at Hope College. At the risk of oversimplifying Mark and doing him a disservice, the role he played for me was to be an Anglican Barthian. He taught me how to read Barth and set my trajectory.

At Princeton I had to do some field education things as part of my pastoral training, and I realized that I had bad reasons for wanting to be a pastor. I had always toyed with the idea of a PhD, so I did that instead.

Richard: Your book “Sign of the Gospel” describes itself as your doctoral dissertation. How did you get interested in Barth’s teaching on baptism?

Travis: Like I said, my adviser at Wheaton was one of those rare and mysterious creatures – an Anglican Barthian. Mark drew my attention to ecclesiology (which is or should be a serious concern for anyone coming out of a conservative evangelical background – there’s just a huge hole there) and sacramentology. I wrote an honors thesis for Mark at Wheaton on the Lord’s Super, and sort of felt as though I had the basic contours down. But baptism always struck me as a trickier nut to crack. And from Mark I imbibed the idea that there might be something to this infant baptism thing.

Now, anyone who knows Barth knows that Barth chucked infant baptism. But here I had an adviser who was a Barthian and yet supported infant baptism. Now, that was interesting! So when I got to Princeton I wanted to sort that all out. It took me about 8 years, including a master’s thesis and a dissertation, but I think I’ve finally got a handle on it. 😉

Richard: By the way, that’s a great story to open your book, about Jonathan wrestling with the issue of re-baptism in the baptistery. Did that really happen?

Travis: It did. Names have been changed to protect the innocent.

Richard: Barth’s rejection of infant baptism in the last volume of the Dogmatics, published after his death, not only represented a change of mind in his thinking, but was also very controversial among his readers. Can you explain in a nutshell what drew him to this conclusion?

Travis: Barth rejected Calvin’s arguments for infant baptism already in the 1930s. He rejected sacramental baptism in the early 1940s, and at that time indicated that infant baptism was in certain ways a defective or improper form of baptism even if he did not reject it entirely. The difference between that point and his final position depends in no small part on his son Marcus, who wrote a book questioning whether baptism should be a sacrament. Barth built on Marcus’ exegesis, which interpreted the NT texts on baptism in an ethical direction. So Barth set up baptism as the response than an individual believer makes after awakening to faith / Spirit baptism. There is simply no room for infant baptism on this model.

Richard: In “Sign of the Gospel” you rethink the issue of baptism within Barth’s own theological framework. Was that important to you?

Travis: Yes it was. I accept Barth’s basic theological framework as my own, but at the same time I am in favor of infant baptism. For the sake of coherence (and I’m big on that, being trained as a systematic theologian and all) I had to work out that tension.

Richard: Without giving away your final conclusion, can you give us a rough outline of the way you approached the issue of infant baptism?

Travis: You’ll have to read the conclusion of my book (and it’s pretty long) to get the details. But basically it comes down to suggesting that Barth should have been a little more creative, and that it is possible on NT grounds to think of baptism as a response to God’s action made not by the individual but by the community of faith. It is a mode of the church’s missionary proclamation and, when performed as such, it is done as a prayer (in confident and expectant hope) that this act of the church’s witness will be taken up into Jesus Christ’s own self witness in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Richard: How did the reviews for the book go? Do you think you got a fair hearing?

Travis: Well, the book has only been out for a little more than a year. Obviously an author always wishes for more engagement, and it certainly isn’t like my book has been flying off the shelves. But it has had some modest sales given its genre, and there have been a few reviews. Generally reception has been positive, and I suspect that there may yet be a few reviews working their way through the pipeline. Of course, everyone reading this who does not yet own a copy should buy one immediately.

Richard: Yes, they should. How did your other book, “Karl Barth in Conversation”, come to life?

Travis: That’s something of a long story, and I tell it in the book’s foreword. It is the revised and expanded proceedings of the 2010 Karl Barth Blog Conference, which I founded on my blog Die Evangelischen Theologen. The blog conferences started as a way for a bunch of us from PTS and around the interwebs to talk together about Barth, but it grew very quickly to something much bigger. I did the book – with the vital help of my good friend, colleague, and theologically-conjoined twin (David Congdon) – as a monument to the place that those conversations had in my (and others’) intellectual development.

More than my baptism book, I wish this book would receive more attention than it has so far. There are some real gems in it, far from the usual beaten path of Barth studies. It also carries a much more accessible price-point. Hopefully folks will take more notice soon.

Richard: I’m not on commission. But I bought the book and it is terrific. I like the first article on Barth and Wesley, and that’s a great appendix on the shape of the Church Dogmatics. I’ve put a few posts on this page. All duly cited to the book, of course.

How was the work of editing a book different from writing one?

Travis: Wonderful! Hopefully they will help to prick folk’s curiosity.

In many ways the editing was harder than just straight up writing. I really appreciate my authors, but managing that many of them can feel like herding cats. And then there’s the problem of trying to standardize things like punctuation, abbreviations, capitalizations, etc. It will be a long time before I tackle another edited volume (*knocks on wood).

Richard: What classes do you teach at Lindenwood University?

Travis: All kinds of things!

Most of my teaching is taken up by REL 15000 and REL 20100 – World Religions and History of Christianity, respectively. I teach multiple sections of those each year.

Then I get to do upper-level stuff. Religious Upheaval in 16th Century Europe (i.e., Reformation), The Christian Faith (i.e., systematics), Faith and Reason (i.e., Western intellectual history vis-a-vis religion), and Asian Myth and Religion (focusing on China).

We also have a short term in January, where I can try out other things. I did one class on Augustine’s “Confessions,” another on Barth’s “Evangelical Theology,” and I’ll be teaching through a pair of Ellen Charry’s books in January of 2015.

Richard: What academic projects of your own are you working on?

Travis: I have a few things on the side, but my major project right now is a book on Helmut Gollwitzer. It was really the idea of my editor Michael Gibson at Fortress Press Forum, who say that I was doing some things with HG and thought it would make a good project. My idea is to explore the intersection of politics and theology in HG’s work, and set him up as an example to the North American context of how to be deeply concerned with something like traditional theological questions while also being a social progressive.

Richard: What advice would you give to someone considering an academic theology career?

Travis: Don’t!


There very few positions available to you if you are a professional theologian. I was incredibly lucky / blessed to find somewhere willing to give me a steady paycheck. If you want to study theology, be ready to look seriously at alternative career options at the end of your doctoral work.

That said, the church can always use more pastors with PhDs.

Richard: What is your favourite Karl Barth story?

Travis: Hmm. First, here’s my favorite Barth joke:…/theological-humor-barth

My favorite Barth story is actually a Barth and Gollwitzer story. Gollwitzer came from a fairly conservative background, and only slowly came to what would be famously socialist convictions. Much of this was set in motion during his time as Barth’s student in the early 1930s. One day Barth seeks Gollwitzer and says to him: “Helmut, I heard that you sang the Internationale at a meeting last night. You’ve come a long way!”

Richard: That joke is how I first found your blog. Back then, sadly, I didn’t cite it properly. Nor have I since. But I hope this promotion of your books makes up for it.

Travis: I suppose I can let it slide, this once. 🙂

Richard: Travis, we’ll have to wind it up very soon. So here’s our traditional last question. What is the gospel in 140 characters or less?

Travis: Ok! I’ve had a lot of fun. And I’m happy to stick around a bit longer answering questions. I’ll also be checking in with the other thread of questions from the reader, so folks should feel free to keep posting there. Of course, I’m not hard to find online and I always enjoy getting the chance to interact with new folks who have a theological existence.

As to your question, this may not be 140 characters, but it’s pretty close.

The gospel:

“So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation.”

Richard: Thanks, Travis, for sharing your precious time with us, and I hope the books sell as well as they should.

Travis: You and me both!

Thanks for having me. This has been a lot of fun. I’m looking forward to more reader interaction!


Richard: That’s it for today, folks. Don’t forget you can post a question for Travis on our other thread.

Karl Barth for Dummies: If you have any questions for Travis McMaken, you can post them as a comment to this post. We’ll make sure he gets them.

Travis: The more – questions and questioners – the merrier!

Richard: Royals or Giants?

Travis: I’m a Detroit Tigers fan, so I’m still too deep in mourning.

Scott: Given Barth’s current cache — especially among some folks who hail from conservative evangelical backgrounds (as you mention in the comments) — what do you think we can do to help such readers consider and engage Barth’s radical witness in socio-political issues? I get the sense that a lot of these readers are largely unaware of this aspect of his thought and legacy.

Travis: I agree. My work on Gollwitzer intends to make this connection more explicit. So that’s what I’m doing.

In general, however, we need to help people grapple with Barth’s life and work in their historical context. And that means reading it in light not only of its situated-ness in modern theology, but also its situated-ness in modern socio-political thought. This is hard for those in the US because the whole of our political discourse – at least the discourse that you can access without trying really hard to go deeper – is so reactionary.

Blair: Greatest Detroit Redwing to never win a cup?

Travis: *chuckles

Let’s see…

New guys? Nyquist

Guys who are kind of Wings but really should have a cup? Alfredson

Most “colorful” Wing to not win a cup? Probert

Guy who was unfortunately wasted during the Dead Things era? Larson

Richard: I have no idea what they are talking about.

Karl Barth for Dummies: Me either.

Chase: What advice do you have for aspiring young pastors today?

Travis: The most important thing is for them to develop a theological existence. Lots of folks go to seminary these days because they want to help people and they have always found community in the church, so they figure that they should become pastors and help people in / by means of the church. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that…)

The trick is that the pastoral vocation is about helping people in a very specific way, i.e., through the ministry of Word and sacrament. And if you are not yourself engaged with that vocation intellectually (as well as emotionally and ethically), you’ll burn out in a flash. If it is your job to feed the flock with the gospel and you aren’t feeding yourself through continued study and reflection, it doesn’t take long to run out of food. And then you try to substitute for that lack with other sorts of activities and programs and, before to long, you’re running around like a chicken with its head cut off and your church is focused on something other than the proclamation of the gospel.

So, the most important thing is to develop a theological existence.

Chase:  How would you describe Barth’s social ethics, and what can we pull from them that would be of use to us today?

Travis: They didn’t call him the “Red Pastor” of Safenwil for nothing! Barth was a democratic socialist, as position that – in my view – deserves much more traction in our political discussions today.

Henry: How did Barth’s theology influence his views on plans for post war Germany?

Travis: Hey, look everybody, it’s one of Die Evangelischen Theologen’s contributors who should really write more! ;-P

As far as I can tell, Barth stayed out of that game for the most part. Granted, I haven’t look into it carefully, but I’ve never seen any evidence that he was in Bonhoeffer’s position of seriously trying to think through what post-war German society would look like.

Now, his theology certainly lead him to resist atomic warfare, and he was critical of other Western excesses. And much of this must be seen in light of their effect on the Bonn Republic (although not exclusively in this light). But this is why I like Gollwitzer – you get a Barthian who grapples with precisely these issues.

Yehoshua: What is, in resume, Barth’s soteriology ? (subsidiary question : is he talking, in any way, of “universal salvation ?)

Travis: In the most basic terms, Barth thinks that Jesus not only fixes the broken covenant relationship between God and humanity, but that the history of Jesus Christ was (from before the foundation of the world), is, and ever will be (into the ages) the one and only basis for relationship between God and humanity.

It is easy to see how this line of thinking could lead in the direction of universalism. Barth himself saw that. But he resisted it. For myself, I prefer to quote the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Study Catechism on this question: “No one will be lost who can be saved.”

Yehoshua: Thank you very much. So Barth still emphasizes the choice that a person have to make (helped by the grace of God to choose so) in front of Jesus Christ in order to be saved ? (I’m asking it in a simple way, but I hope you know what I mean)

Travis: Perhaps it is better to say that Barth does not want to presume upon God’s grace or turn Jesus Christ into a soteriological principle. Given that, he reserves for God the right to allow persistent human rejection to stand.

But the minute that Barth makes that reservation to allow for God’s freedom (note, he isn’t interested in allowing for human freedom, which is how this usually gets framed), he turns right around and says:

“there is no good reason why we should forbid ourselves, or be forbidden, openness to the possibility that in the reality of God and man in Jesus Christ there is contained . . . the final deliverance of all men. To be more explicit, there is no good reason why we should not be open to this possibility.”

CD 4.3, 477-78

Adam: Are there any current theological movements or trends that you believe are inappropriately using Barth? I imagine there are many, but do any stand out to you as particularly troubling?

Travis: Indeed, there are hoards! But it tends to be bad for your professional help to speak too openly about them outside the context of a very carefully argued academic essay. I will say that I have noticed more conservative evangelicals reading Barth lately. This is good insofar as I hope they take him to heart. But I’ve also noticed a tendency amongst them toward the (utterly impossible, especially after Bruce L. McCormack) neo-orthodox way of reading him. So I’m cautiously optimistic there.

Kayla: If you were only able to read one volume of CD for the rest of your life which one would you choose?

Travis: *chuckles* You know the answer to this. CD 2.2

Mark: What is the best and worst of Barth’s theology?

Travis: Great questions! It is also something that I’ve spent a decent bit of time thinking about. So here’s my answer:

Best – his doctrine of election.

Worst – his treatment of women and gender issues.

Richard: I notice that the name of the blog (Die Evangelische Theologen) is plural in German. How many contributors do you have?

Travis:  I have 8 listed on the site right now. Only a couple of those are truly active, however. If you see the others around the internet, goad them into writing!

Richard: How did your blog start? Where do you get your material?

Travis: It started in 2007 I believe. My material mostly comes from stuff I read. I’ll be reading along and something will resonate with me, so I’ll throw it on the blog with a few comments thinking it might resonate with others as well.

Now, more effort goes into doing series. But those are mostly ways to force myself to work through stuff that I want to work through anyway. My favorite series is the ongoing one, Reading Scripture with John Calvin.


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