By Gordon Nary
Gordon: You have an extraordinary background in youth ministry, biblical studies. musical composition and performance, writing, teaching and communications. So I hope that all if our readers will check out your website to review just a sample some of your diverse talents and also features links to your Twitter, Facebook. YouTube. and email address.
But let's start the discussion of what prompted you to pursue your PhD in the history and theology of the early Christian church from Northwestern University.
Jim: Although I was baptized in the Catholic Church, I was raised in a protestant denomination, and through my own exploration of the faith and by the witness of some strong evangelical Christians, I ended up going to seminary. I went to a very good protestant seminary called Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena California. I believe I got a great theological education there, even though it was somewhat limited in scope. It was there that I fell in love with Church history, in part because of a great professor, James Bradley. But he’s more of a Reformation scholar, so I came away from seminary with a hunger to know more about the early Church. After seminary I got ordained as a United Methodist deacon, and I actually did four years in full time parish ministry. But during that time I discerned that pastoral ministry was not my calling. I realized that my calling was to a ministry of teaching (and, as I would later discover, writing). So I decided to go back to school and work on a PhD in early Christianity to pursue a career in teaching.
Gordon: Could you comment on your current studies in Pre-Nicene Christology and Trinitarian theology and some of the issues that fascinate you the most and why?
Jim: This is one of those things where I didn’t really know what I was getting into, or even why, when I started down this road. But now I see that it was during the early decades and centuries of the Church that Scripture was interpreted in an authoritative way, Church Tradition was established, and the doctrines that define the faith were clarified. IN other words, the Church fathers had the task of defining Christianity itself, and the Church. The importance of this fact cannot be overestimated. And the doctrine of the Trinity is our most important doctrine, in fact it’s so important that anyone who does not accept it cannot legitimately call themselves Christian.
So part of my passion for the early Church is to study the doctrine of the Trinity and Christology so that I could understand it as much as humanly possible (it is still a mystery after all), but also so that I could help others understand it. So whatever I write, I try to make it accessible to non-scholars so that everyone has access to the important doctrines of the faith.
Gordon: You previously served as a protestant minister before converting to Catholicism. Could you provide us with an overview of some of the key factors in your studies and life experiences that led to your conversion?
Jim: I always had a fascination with the Catholic Church because my father’s family is Italian, and my Catholic grandfather was a big influence on my faith. He was a very faithful man who never missed Sunday Mass. So I was never anti-Catholic. But I had bought into the myth that the Catholic Church had added unnecessary or even superstitious traditions along the way, and that the protestant reformation had somehow gotten back to a more original version of Christianity.
However, when I studied the early Church, I soon realized that there is no such thing as a “pre-Catholic” Christianity. The things I had been told were added on later are actually there from the beginning – things like the intercession of the saints and devotion to Mary. And that’s actually the point of my book, Handed Down. It turns out it’s not the case that Catholicism added unnecessary things to Christianity – the actual truth is that early Christianity was Catholicism.
Another major factor was the discovery that the early Christians had a Catholic understanding of the Eucharist. The truth is, I was very ready to accept the Catholic doctrine of the Eucharist. My last stumbling blocks were the intercession of the saints and Mary, but once I understood these practices from a historical perspective, my conversion (back) to the Church was a no-brainer.
Gordon: We have seen a growing exodus of people leaving the Catholic Church as well as from other Christian religions. According to the Pew Research Center, in 2014, 22.8% of the American population does not identify with a religion, including atheists (3.1%) and agnostics (4%). In your experience, what are some of the factors that contribute to this exodus and what, in your opinion, should parishes and our fellow Catholics do to reduce this exodus?
Jim: I think a big part of it can be blamed on a lack of catechesis, or on bad catechesis. For example, when we got the new translation of the Creed, how many pastors actually explained to their parish what the word “consubstantial” means? Sadly, not many. People are not taught the beauty of our faith, and so they think it’s being “forced” on them, as if they are meant to accept everything blindly.
Then it becomes easy for many people to believe all the Hollywood lies about how the Vatican is hiding something from you, or the protestant myths about some pristine version of Christianity that existed before Catholicism came along. And I may be a bit cynical on this point, but I think human nature being what it is, a lot of people are just looking for an excuse to abandon the faith because real faith has expectations, and belonging to the Church requires accountability, and all that inconvenient stuff that makes it just so attractive to pretend you’re fine without it. Now, to answer your question about what we can do to fix the problem, I think we need to teach our people more about the faith, and do it in ways that make them excited about it. We need to offer good adult formation.
But since it’s hard to get people to come to a class, that means the number one time when people can learn is during the homily. I think we have a homiletical crisis in the Church, and we should be looking at training our priests and deacons how to teach theology in engaging ways without talking over people’s heads or going on too long.
Gordon: Because of your extensive experience in youth ministry, what are some of the primary educational and social programs that you recommend parishes offer to develop or strengthen their youth ministry.
Jim: That’s a great question, and I wish I had a great answer. But the truth is, when I was in youth ministry, I ran my youth ministry on the same models of youth ministry that were being used when I was a youth. That worked for a while, but the youth of today live in a totally different world than I did when I was a youth. Back then, you could strum a guitar, sing “It Only Takes a Spark,” and then sit in a circle and talk about God, and that was cool. I honestly don’t know how I would do youth ministry now. My hat’s off to those who do it, but I’ve been out of the game too long.
In my last years of youth ministry, I ran up against a lot of opposition from the parents of youth who just didn’t want to be there. They kept wanting me to organize more events (pizza parties, ski trips) in the hope that I would motivate their kids to want to show up. Instead I had small groups, and I actually taught the youth, and I got them excited about music and worship. So that meant I had a youth group of 20 kids in a (protestant) parish where they thought I should have a hundred kids showing up. The only thing I can say is don’t sell the youth short – they are capable of so much more than social events.
They should be taught. But that means that many of them won’t be interested in what you’re offering. So yeah, you have to do the pizza parties and the ski trips, but just don’t let that be it – don’t let the whole group sink to the lowest common denominator. Make sure that there is something deeper for those who want it.
Gordon: There appears to be a growing interest in zombie and vampire films and TV shows by teens and young adults somewhat parallel to their decline in membership in organized religions. In your opinion, does this interest reflect an unmet spiritual need, and if so, could you comment on how parents should discuss these topics with their children?
Jim: I’m not sure whether the trend reflects unmet spiritual needs. I think a big part of what’s attractive about those genres is the same thing that’s attractive about any of the “survival” genres (think of all the movies coming out recently with teenage heroes where they have to survive life or death situations). The point is that everyone wants an escape from everyday life. I really think the attraction of a lot of these is that the protagonists are in situations where all they have to do is survive, and even though their lives are in danger, it’s exciting. There is no homework to do when you’re running from zombies. There are no taxes to file when you’ve got to chase vampires. We all want to fantasize about not having to go to work or school tomorrow. The part of all this that I do find disturbing is when the vampires are the good guys.
There does seem to be a trend of subverting concepts of good and evil, almost as if to suggest that such concepts are subjective. I’m not saying that the authors of these shows are doing this intentionally, but it may be a symptom of a lack of spiritual formation. So maybe we shouldn’t be looking at the people who watch these shows for unmet spiritual needs – maybe we should be looking at the people who create them. In any case, I think it’s great if families (or parishes) were to have discussions based on these shows.
They could talk about good and evil, right and wrong, and the possibility of redemption. In the movie version of Dracula (the one where Dracula is played by Gary Oldman) the film ends with the redemption of Dracula. That’s not in the book. So that was a choice made by the filmmakers. And there are clear Eucharistic symbols in this scene in the film. So what do we think of that? Is a vampire unredeemable? Or what would it take for a vampire to receive salvation? The questions are completely hypothetical, but if it leads to discussion about human nature, salvation, and how we treat other people, that’s a good thing.
Gordon: Switching back to your studies in history and theology of the early Christian church, are there any lessons from the early evolution of the church that could be applied to some of the contemporary challenges that we face?
Jim: Yes, in fact I wrote a whole book about that. Actually, my friend Mike Aquilina and I co-wrote a book called Seven Revolutions: How Christianity Changed the World and Can Change it Again. The early Christians lived in an anti-Christian empire, and in many ways, our culture is coming full circle to resemble the Roman Empire in ways that lead to the persecution or marginalization of faithful Christians. Our book is about the lessons we can learn from the early Christians about how to live in that kind of world.
Gordon: It's unfortunate that our website doesn't include a section for music reviews. I am a big fan of your music and especially love your Ave Marie
Christian music is a growing industry in the United States. In your opinion, would it be helpful for more Catholic churches to consider on the role of music in one’s faith tradition to attract more converts?
Jim: Absolutely. It is really unfortunate that with all the Catholic radio out there, very few stations play music by Catholic artists. The kind of music I do is what I call “Catholic Concert Music” – I don’t do much liturgical music, but rather I write songs based on my Catholic faith. Something like John Michael Talbot – in fact you may not know this but there is a whole community of Catholic musicians and we used to meet every year at John Michael’s Talbot’s retreat center. I still keep in touch with them, but sadly there aren’t many venues for us – we all just have to try to do our best getting parishes to put on a concert or play at other events. If parishes used music more, they would find that it would help bring people in, and they would also find that there is a lot of great Catholic music out there that never gets played on the Christian radio stations.
Gordon: You are a popular lecturer at many churches in the Chicago area. What are some of the topics that you have been asked to address in some of your recent presentations?
Jim: In the last few years I usually end up talking about whatever my latest book is. So I’ve done a lot of talks based on Seven Revolutions and Handed Down. But since I have also written a lot on the doctrine of the Trinity, and I also have a book on the Book of Revelation, I get asked to speak on those topics as well. And people see me as an expert on early Christianity, so sometimes I get asked to come and talk about what the early Church was like. These are all things I’m passionate about, and so it’s actually fun for me to talk about them. In fact, more and more I’m getting asked to travel to other states to speak at large parishes or diocesan events, so I’m always happy to do that, too.
Gordon: I recommend that our readers check our your Amazon author page for this and the many other books you have authored. Thank you for a great interview that I know will inspire many of our readers, especially those in RCIA programs.