I'm just back from a long trip to St. Louis, Missouri, which conveniently explains my long absence from blogging. I went to St. Louis for the triennial InterVarsity Christian Fellowship staff conference; as an editor for InterVarsity Press, I get to go to such things even though while I'm counting commas and slashing soliduses (nice alliteration, eh?) the overwhelming majority of my fellow IVCF staff are counseling college students and nurturing student souls.
But I digress. This was a pretty significant conference me, and not simply because I fulfilled a life's goal and went up the Gateway Arch that distinguishes the St. Louis skyline and haunted my youth. This was the first event of the new year, and while our first evening at the conference was marked by a look backward--a retrospective of the Fellowship's history on American campuses and a celebration of the Press's sixtieth birthday--the next morning was a prolonged reflection on what is essentially the topic of my forthcoming book.
Dan Chun, pastor of a Presbyterian megachurch in Hawaii, addressed the crowd of 1200+ campus ministers and comma-chasers on the topic of humility, specifically its application to leadership. Immediately after Pastor Chun's talk I ran into the unbelievably cool and unmistakably profound Scott Bessenecker, who leads InterVarsity's global treks and whose profiles of contemporary justice ministry in his book The New Friars I had the pleasure to edit. Between the sermon and the conversation emerged the three themes that swirled around in my head for the remainder of the conference: leadership, humility and submission.
I have a love-hate thing going with leadership. I like to fancy myself a leader even though I don't often lead any great number of people in anything of great substance. I am a survivor of several churches that, in my estimation, were flirting with an unrealistic idolization of (and unhealthy addiction to) the idea of leadership. I resist appeals to my sense of leadership, and I resist efforts by others to lead me.
Meanwhile, I'm writing a book about the cultural phenomenon of narcissism and the countercultural gospel of the messiahship and lordship of Jesus Christ. To write a book is to aspire to lead, no matter how you slice it. And to contest a culture of narcissism, to confess our inherent inability to look after ourselves, and to profess that Jesus reveals the good news that an omnipotent God looks after us, is to assert a kind of gospel of humility. And to put that on paper and slap your name on it and craft for yourself some sort of compelling brief biography is to characterize yourself as an expert on humility, which sounds empirically oxymoronic.
And then there's submission--a common term in the editorial profession but an unsavory term in almost every other context. I look at manuscript submissions all the time--in fact my book was at one time a submission--and I pass judgment on them regularly without any sense of gravity or wonder. But submission in other contexts, in a marriage or in a job or in a church or really in any relationship, is a dubious proposition. Why should I submit to him or her? What will become of me if I do? What if he or she proves to be unworthy of my submission? If I submit, do I give up my identity as a leader? If I submit, do I get credit for being humble?
Uggh. I need help.
I need help in all sorts of ways, but on the immediate horizon I'm thinking about this book. I've already gotten a fair bit of it from some helpful, gracious friends of mine, both in and out of the publishing business, all of whom are on balance in the humility business. I've also recently resigned myself to the fact that this one book will not be the final word on humility, nor should it be. I'll inevitably have more to say on the subject, and I daresay I'll have plenty more to learn on the subject.
A month or so ago I received, as a gift from my publisher David C. Cook's publisher Don Pape (it makes sense, but it'd take too long to explain), a "mock-up" of Deliver Us from Me-Ville. A printed cover had been glued onto a bound book of blank pages. It's a prop, really: my publisher used it to show the sales force what the book will look like on the shelf, what it will feel like in the reader's hands. In another sense it's a foil: it reminds me when I look at it that it's entirely possible to have a book with your name on it with essentially nothing of substance inside it.
But what I think I'd like it to become is a living acknowledgments page, an archive of the people who lead me as I enter into this audacious publishing project, who help me grow in my understanding of humility and the goodness of a God who recognizes that we tend to think a bit too highly of ourselves and yet willingly lays down his life for us and opens up paradise to us. So I'm going to start carrying the book around with me, and when a casual conversation turns to talk of humility and pride, submission and narcissism, leadership and service, grace and mercy, I'll ask them to sign this book as a record that they are on the journey with me somewhere between Me-Ville and Thee-Ville (cute, huh?)--somewhere between a creation that thinks a bit too highly of itself and a paradise that waits to house us forever.
So the next time we see each other, please sign my book.