A. J. Swoboda (PhD, University of Birmingham) teaches theology, biblical studies, and Christian history at George Fox Evangelical Seminary in Portland, Oregon. A. J. started and serves Theophilus Church in urban Portland. He is the author of Messy and is the coauthor of Introducing Evangelical Ecotheology and the recently released A Glorious Dark — a book that embraces the tension between what we believe and what we experience, showing that it is in the very tension we seek to eliminate that God meets us.
KW: What personally drew you to write on this theme?
AS: A two-year struggle with alcohol.
Interestingly, “darkness,” is a rather important image a serious reader can’t overlook in the overarching story of Scripture. As we delve into it, we discover that the Hebrew word for darkness (arafel) is mentioned some fifteen times throughout the Old Testament Scriptures. And, paradoxically, over half of these references are directly related to God’s immediate presence. To draw out an example, we find an interesting interplay in Exodus 20:21 between God and darkness when Moses enters into the arafel, the darkness, and within, has an encounter with God. Oftentimes darkness is indicative of God’s presence—God is in the arafel.
Still, the image of darkness rolls out even more through the New Testamnent. Of course, Jesus lay in a tomb of darkness on Holy Saturday. Yet within that penetrating darkness, a glorious resurrection would soon take place. It is true: “in God there is no darkness at all.” (Jn. 1:5) But, the opposite isn’t true; God can enter the darkness and break through its hollow trappings. In anyone’s life, there are so many aspects to my existence that seem so hard, challenging, and “dark.” But the good news is it is there, in the darkness, that resurrection can happen.
Over the course of a short two-year period I wrestled with a struggle with alcohol. It was anything but easy. But, in the midst of the struggle, I met God.
I write on this because I think God can be found in the darkness.
KW: Why did you choose to frame the ideas in the last three days of Holy Week?
AS: What has historically been called the Triduum serves, in my mind, as a perfect way to imagine the full-bodied life of following Jesus. On Friday, Jesus dies in a horrific, painful, unjust execution. On Sunday, Jesus raises from the grave in the triumph of resurrection and joy. And on what I call “awkward Saturday,” Jesus sits in the tomb in the mystery, ambiguity, and uncertainty of the day in-between.
I don’t believe we have the right to pick and choose the days we selectively wish to live into. The follower of Jesus is invited to walk through all three days.
This is, of course, hard to do. We love to embrace the parts of God that we like and reject the rest. So, in effect, we choose to love God on our own terms. “God, I’ll love you if I get x, y, and z.” But in the end, the Triduum does not allow such prejudice. For to love God on the basis we get what we want it to effectively give God a prenuptual agreement.
That isn’t love. Love is falling head first into who the person is, not who we want them to be. The Triduum forces us to deal with all the difficult and joyous things of God.
KW: What do you think we miss if we only focus on one of these days? How does that affect our faith and daily life?
AS: Ask the person who gets everything they want.
One of the paradoxes of the human existence is that the people who actually get everything in life they want—the cars, the success, the homes, the 401(k)—can often be the least satisfied. How could this be?
It is really hard to convince a people who, as consumers, have everything they want at their fingerprints that they need to pick up a cross and follow daily. Consumers make really lousy disciples. Why? Because they are constantly unwilling to give up the very thing Christ is asking them to. When we focus on the one day we want (for instance Sunday), we will eschew all forms of pain and suffering. And, in the end, we will end up looking down on those who do suffer and have pain as though they don’t believe or have faith that is misaligned.
Jesus was the most faithful person in history and died with nothing. Everyone had left him. He had no possessions. Even his clothes were taken. And yet he was the most satisfied.
The last thing we need is a God who gives us everything we want and is rather willing to give us exactly what we need.
KW: What would you say to those currently sitting in the awkwardness of Saturday?
That Saturday is as important as Sunday and Friday.
Sit there. It is an important day. In my experience, those drawn to Saturday tend to be the smart, critical folks who believe in the mind as a faculty given by God. I agree. A Saturday person asks questions, they relish ambiguity, the love the mystery of it all and are cool sitting in it.
But, and this is my challenge, we aren’t meant to live in Saturday forever. One of my favorite philosophers once said that deconstruction is a good place to visit, but it makes for a diabolical home. I agree. It is good to sit in Saturday—ask questions, ponder, wonder, enjoy the uncertainty—but don’t stay there forever.
We are created by God to find. Everyone in our culture seems to embrace wholeheartedly this idea that being a spiritual seeker is good. Fine, seek, they would say. But, the minute someone claims to have been a spiritual finder, they are arrogant, closed-minded, and bigoted.
I believe that the gospel invites us to actually seek for the purpose of finding. Seeking to seek isn’t true seeking.
KW: What practices or disciplines have you used to help navigate the glorious dark that is faith?
AS: Read authors you normally wouldn’t read.
Develop friends you normally wouldn’t befriend.
Ingest parts of the Bible you normally wouldn’t chew on.
And, mostly, entertain the idea that Jesus is always going be bigger and more mysterious than you ever imagined.
It is helpful to recognize that following Jesus is hard mostly for the fact that Jesus is wild, not caged. Jesus, one finds, isn’t tame. He isn’t docile. God is feral. This wildness of truth can’t be trapped into words or phrases or idioms; truth is the very wild God in Jesus. Yes, words can convey and convince people of the truth. But words are not a zoo where we cage the wildness God. I like the words of Richard Baxter, the famed Puritan father. Baxter had a way of describing the beauty and wonder and wildness of Jesus. He once wrote: if it fits in a spoon, it can’t be the ocean. Did you hear that? It’s a beautiful idea—Baxter’s point was that God can’t, God won’t, and God shan’t fit into our perfectly crafted spoons. God can’t be contained by the boxes of our words, our ideas, or our theologies. Truth goes beyond all that stuff. God’s bigness is always bigger than our spoons.
Truth is like a shark. In the words of Norm from the movie Jaws, truth always “needs a bigger boat.”
KW: Why did you write this book?
AS: Two reasons.
First, I wrote this book so that my three-year-old son will someday know that God invites him–all of him—into his life. Not just the parts that he thinks God will like. God wants all of him. The dirty parts too. I want him to read this book someday and know God is wildly in love with him; all of him.
Second, I suspect there is a whole group of Christians in the world who have been dupped into believing that Christianity exists for them to hide the reality of their broken lives. I think we we will use Christianity either to: 1) put on make-up so that we look like nothing is wrong, or, 2) take off our make-up to enter the presence of the Almighty as we are. Christianity is not a way to photo-shop the pain out of our life.
I want my reader to take off their make-up and come.
He wants to dine with us all over again.