Friday Five: Dave Zimmerman

November 4, 2011


Today I’m privileged to feature my friend, Dave Zimmerman. Dave is longtime editor for Intervarsity Press and a columnist at Burnside Writers Collective. His books include Deliver Us from Me-Ville and the devotional compilation My Heart–Christ’s Home Through the Year.

You’ve worked as an editor for a Christian publisher for some time. What do you see for the future of Christian publishing?

I’m actually quite hopeful for the future of Christian publishing, all industry and economic turbulence notwithstanding. Christians are (or should be) uniquely “people of the Book” among what’s increasingly a post/nonliterate culture. I don’t say that to elevate Christians or Christian publishing–and honestly, much of what passes for Christian publishing (especially factoring in self-publishing) either isn’t (it’s more folk than orthodox) or aspires to too little.

People of the Book are people moved by and subject to the Scriptures, and Christian publishing should be responsive to those realities in real, rigorous ways. When we who write or publish Christian books are those things, and when we remind Christians of who we are and what we’re about according to the Scriptures, then Christian publishing becomes a key aspect of our discipleship, and Christians become all the more peculiar people in the best sense of the phrase.

Having said that, there’s a wide and growing gap between mass Christian publishing and contextual Christian publishing, and contextual is, I think, both more realistic and truer to the industry’s central task. Authors increasingly need to be “on the ground” (in ministry and in direct conversation with their intended audience), as opposed to in a writer’s closet somewhere or in the celebrity ether, if they want their books to have lasting impact. Publishers, as well, need to know who they are and what they’re about, and publish authors and books that align substantively with their identity and mission.

What is the key, in your view, to telling a good story, whether it’s a nonfiction narrative or a novel? What kinds of literature do you, as an editor, look for?

Having just tried my hand in fictional storytelling (I’ve written a wee little booklet called The Parable of the Unexpected Guest) after decades of reading nonfiction almost exclusively, and having been schooled lately by a number of authors about taking the whole story of Scripture into account as we are grafted into the body of Christ, I’m feeling a fresh
appreciation for the art of a good story. I’m also an armchair humorist, by which I mean I sit around a lot and make myself laugh, and in the process I’ve come to believe that the best humor either comes out of story or assumes a backstory.

Stepping back a little, I think we’re in an era when we’ve by and large grown tired of theory and the “violence” of imposing a message on people. They say people don’t care what you know till they know you care, right? But more to the point, I think people don’t care what you know till they’ve seen it rolled around in the dirt a little. They don’t care, for example, that God is love until they’ve seen God (and those who claim to speak for God) loving the loveless or enduring the pain that love sometimes elicits.

So story isn’t just entertaining, it’s also authenticating of a message in a way that didactic or coldly clinical writing simply can’t be. There’s a risk in good storytelling that the story itself will disprove the thesis–that the Israelites are now cornered at the banks of the Nile or that this so-called God is now dead or that the beast has martyred all the devout and enslaved all the rest and that hope has died. A chart or an assertion can’t risk; it also can’t demonstrate the resurrection of hope and the vindication of the hopeful.

That’s the worst armchair humor ever. In any case, we’ve seen a natural spike in writing, across the board (from academic treatises to short devotional essays), that tells a lot of true stories not just to illustrate an idea but to test and enflesh an idea. This is appropriate, for Christianity is an incarnational faith–it alone among the world’s religions proposes a God who made people from the dust of the earth and then took on flesh and dwelt among us, a God
who died because people die and rose from the dead because people were made to enjoy
God forever.

As for the craft of storytelling, there are all sorts of books that deal with structure and whatnot, but I think the crux of it for me has been a combination of delayed gratification—keep people yearning for the punchline or the redemptive climax–and little payoffs along the way–something to laugh at, something to weep at, something to hold on to, something to take to heart.

Let’s talk about your latest work, Deliver us from Me-Ville. Where did this idea spring from?

There’s an untranslated Latin word tucked away in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together– “superbia”–that when I first read I circled and noted to myself that I’d eventually play around with. I like it because it looks like suburbia, and so it sounds like a place. There’s actually a book called Superbia that talks about how to make the suburbs more awesome, but I’ve never bothered to read it. Anyway, superbia is a Latin term referring to one of the seven deadly sins–pride–that is often thought to be the parent of all sin. It was pride, some would argue, that led Adam and Eve to defy God and eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and it’s pride that hides behind the more petty and mundane sins that we commit against God and one another every day.

Then I happened upon some sociological research that claimed a deeply entrenched “culture of narcissism” that’s overtaken American society. One of the main researchers making this claim, Jean Twenge, offers 1970 as roughly the point of origin when, in reaction to a perceived crisis of low self esteem among schoolchildren, public education and other social enterprises made a point of boosting the self-image of young people. That happens to be the year I was born, so it slowly dawned on me that I’d never known a society not organized around the elevation of the self.

So we have this pernicious, pervasive sin, “superbia,” and we have a culture that’s accidentally made it a priority to nurture and propagate that sin. And we have me. Taken together, those seemed to me something worth writing about. I like to joke that when it comes to a culture of narcissism, I am chief of sinners–but at least I’m chief of something.

Is the church complicit in promoting a culture of narcissism? If so, how?

I feel pretty strongly that this current challenge of a narcissistic culture was the result of good intentions gone bad; that there was a shortage of spiritual discernment at key moments when social policy and (more pervasively) the cultural currents leaned hard into the elevation of the self and lost sight of what keeps us rightly connected to God, each other and even ourselves. So the church is complicit to the extent that it missed a moment when it could slow down a
cultural conversation and reassert (and defend) the proper location of God at the center of the community and the center of the person. But the church is also complicit in that subsequent trends with origins in this self-esteem movement have been adopted somewhat reflexively and unreflectively by the church. I think it’s fair to say that the church is more consumer-oriented today than it was fifty years ago, and while I do think the church needs to think missionally about reaching its neighbors and inviting people into the family of God, there’s a fine line between what John Stott characterizes as “catering” and “pandering”—we cater to non-Christians and the culture they inhabit when we make our message decipherable and relatable to them; but we pander to them when we offer cheap grace and make Jesus more palatable to those who would merely consume him, rather than follow him.

I would hasten to add, however, that pride is a besetting sin that is identified as early as our histories go, and so the church has always needed to be vigilant in the face of it, and the church has always been vulnerable to it. I know plenty of people born before 1970 who have their own struggles with self-centeredness, and plenty of people born after 1970 who are fighting valiantly against the gravitational pull of it.
How can Christians escape “Me-Ville?”

Well, we can’t do it for long on our own. “Hey, look–I’m humble!” Fortunately, Jesus invites us on a journey from “Me-Ville”–the kingdom of self–to the kingdom of God, a universe rightly organized with Christ at the center and us in synchronous orbit with one another, with Christ as head and us as members of his body, with Christ as king and us as his citizens and subjects. Jesus is our Savior, doing the work of redemption and justifying us through his blood, but he’s also our sage, sanctifying us and rightly ordering us through penetrating questions, countercultural (and counterintuitive) teachings and conduct, and the still small voice of the Spirit leading us on the path from Me to Thee, whispering as we go, “This is the way; walk in it.”