Interview with Dan Gibson, John Pattison and Jordan Green

Books, Burnside Sells Out, Featured — By on December 2, 2010 at 8:00 am

We warned you we’d be pimping this book thing pretty hard.  If you didn’t get the memo, the three of us wrote a book called Besides the Bible – 100 Books That Have, Should, or Will Change Christian Culture.  It’s being heralded the greatest book about books ever written, or at least we assume so.  It features essays from the three of us, and a bunch of guest essays from people who are more famous, like Donald Miller and Steve Taylor and Phyllis Tickle and William P. Young.  You can find out more here, and you can buy it here.

Anyway, this seemed as good a time as ever to revisit one of our favorite columns, Burnside Sells Out, wherein we shamelessly pitch the products of our writers.

Jordan Green: It’s been a while since we turned in our manuscript…what books are you most ashamed we left off?

John Pattison: I sweat through my bed sheets every night agonizing about what might have been. I am a little ashamed – and, Jordan, I think you talk about this in the introduction – that our table of contents doesn’t include more authors from the global south. But the root of that shame is that I really don’t know about very many authors from the global south. And there were some notable gaps in our books from the United States. I’m thinking about books like The Autobiography of Malcolm X or Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.

Dan Gibson: I think right off the bat I resigned myself to the arbitrary nature of it. After all, I’ve submitted dozens of year end “top ten albums” lists to one place or another and no one ever gives me a hard time about what I said was the best album of 2006. We did start with a huge list of books and I suppose there are some books I was surprised didn’t make it and there are some I’d still like to write about that didn’t exactly fit (The Purpose Driven Life, George Marsden’s biography of Jonathan Edwards, and The Poisonwood Bible come to mind), but in the end, I hope that people recognize that the framework of the project leads to books falling through the cracks. This sounds comically people-pleasing, but I’d love for people to tell me what we missed and I’d love to read those books to see if we were wrong.

My question: What was the first book you thought when we came up with this idea?  Did it make the final list?

Jordan: First off, Dan, Poisonwood Bible DID make the list, but feel free to write another essay on it.  And John, I don’t know if I’ve ever met anyone as riddled with white guilt as you.
For the record, I’m most embarrassed we left The Brothers Karamazov off.  We had reason, what with Richard Dahlstrom’s essay on The Brothers K by David James Duncan, but to omit one of the most famous Christians in literary history seems grievous.  I’m way more nervous about that than explaining why Mere Christianity didn’t make the cut.

As for the first book I thought of, I just wanted criminally-overlooked WWII-era theologian Jacques Ellul somewhere on here. I wish he’d been on twice, but as-is I’ll have to settle for spreading the word about Anarchy and Christianity, which is a great primer for his earlier work.

John: The two books that immediately came to mind when you guys invited me to participate were Jayber Crow and The Sayings of the Desert Fathers. Both made the list. I think I wrote the Desert Fathers essay first. I definitely wrote the Jayber Crow essay last. It was in some ways the hardest essay to write because it was the book I loved most. Did you guys experience anything like that?

Dan: Apparently, I was just subconsciously upset that you wrote that essay and I didn’t. The truth comes out when we least expect it.

Personally, I assumed one of the guest essayists would have chosen Mere Christianity, but it didn’t work out that way. I mention this in my Knowing God essay, but I like Mere Christianity enough and I wouldn’t complain if someone chose to read it, but I think there are better books to introduce someone to the faith and better C.S. Lewis books.  I love Sarah Thebarge’s piece on A Grief Observed, so if losing Mere… is the cost to have her essay included, so be it.

Speaking of the guest essays, do you two have a favorite?  Mine are probably the aforementioned one by Ms. Thebarge and Vito Aiuto’s on Calvin’s Institutes.  I tried to be occasionally witty, but Vito beat me handily.

Jordan: Like a father loves his children, I love each of our essays equally.

But if there’s one I love more equally, it’s probably Phyllis Tickle’s essay on The Norton Anthology of Poetry, just because I liked how personal it was, and she was one of the few contributors who also has a book on our list.  I’m also always partial to Penny Carothers’ writing.

I think I most enjoyed writing about Ayn Rand in my essay for The Fountainhead because it’s just such a ridiculously anti-Christian book, and yet it’s somehow tied with Evangelicalism right now.  It was also fun to write because I genuinely like that book.  Which essays were the most fun for you guys?

Dan: It’s a little strange, because after half a year or so since we finished the book (and a year since some of the essays were written), it’s hard for me to remember which essays were fun to write. I remember ones I struggled with and ones that I’m not entirely sure I’m happy about in retrospect, but on the fun end, I’m blanking a little. Maybe Body Piercing Saved My Life?  I always welcome the opportunity to write about Christian rock, so that one maybe was the easiest. Actually, scratch that…Left Behind was the most fun. That was one of the essays I wrote upfront to try to sell the book, so there was basically zero pressure. Sure, I think the sort of people who are likely to read our book should be aware of the content of the series, in the end, they’re terrible books with a terrible message.  It’s always easier to write a bad review than a good one, and I have few positive things to say about Left Behind.

That was the thing with most of the books we covered, I really felt the weight of wanting to give people a sense of these books that I genuinely care about.  I was incredibly shaken when David Foster Wallace died (Jordan and I have written about this a little before), so I took the opportunity to introduce readers to his work really seriously. Colossians Remixed changed the way I thought of the New Testament, for example, so getting that across in 500 words was a challenge. I like the length of our essays, but I never felt like I had trouble getting to that number, it was always staying succinct and precise that proved difficult.

Jordan: We’re on the same page as far as writing the criticism goes.  I was talking to a conservative Christian the other day about Ayn Rand, and he pointed out that her philosophy was totally awful, but her thoughts on economics were right on, and I can’t see how anyone can possibly separate the two.

And I’m also with you on conveying the importance of some books.  For me, that was Life After God by Douglas Coupland, which Rick McKinley told me I should read, and it changed my life.  A big chunk of my essay is just an excerpt from the last few pages of that book, because it’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever read.

John: I assumed that I would eventually get to a point where I’d look back on the writing and editing process for Besides the Bible, and I’d only remember the really fun, really easy parts of it. Maybe that comes later. Because the euphoria of turning in the final manuscript is gone; my author’s copies have come in the mail. And what stands out to me now, when I look back, is how terrified I was before I started writing each essay. I really liked all of the twenty-plus books I wrote about, but I always experienced a moment of white hot terror as I stared at the blinking cursor on an otherwise empty computer screen. “Where do I start? What if I totally missed the point of this book? What if Paradise Lost isn’t about boundaries? What if Wendell Berry reads my essay on Jayber Crow and he doesn’t like it?” This was usually when I’d write Jordan. He’d tell me to get a move on, and somehow I would: I’d find my entry point, a structure would fall in place in my head, and I almost always liked the final results.

That being said, even in the midst of all my kvetching, even when I felt like it would be easier to open a vein than write a coherent sentence – I loved every minute of it. There was almost nothing else I’d rather be doing. I said in my acknowledgements that the only thing I like better than reading books is talking about books. That’s not totally accurate. I’d most rather be writing them. Besides the Bible was great because it gave me a chance to do all three.

Somehow this all true at the same time.

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  • Dave says:

    Of all the white guys I’d want to collect such a volume, you three are right at the top. Thanks for doing it. I may be dating myself, but I remember the liner notes to an Elton John/Bernie Taupin tribute album: Sinead O’Connor (who sang “Sacrifice”) wrote “I can’t believe no one did ‘Candle in the Wind!’” I always thought that was funny. Maybe you should start a “Books Besides the Book ‘Besides the Bible’” section here for people to complement what you’ve collected.

  • John Dunham says:

    Thanks, guys. This really personalizes the entire process.

    The essay I loved most equally was Jordan’s on East of Eden. I had tears streaming down my cheeks (from laughter, and this did happen on other essays as well). But I must compliment Jordan on his achievement of dedicating the first two-thirds of the essay to nothing about the East of Eden. And yet it still worked.

  • aaron says:

    are you setting the stage for a sequel already?

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