Diana Butler Bass reflects on her sixth decade on earth, the current state of Christianity, and how writing about Jesus can be laugh-out-loud funny.
The author of 10 books, a celebrated speaker, and a leading independent scholar, Diana Butler Bass is one of the most beloved voices covering American religion and culture.
She tells of an early encounter with Jesus. “I was a tiny thing and next to my bed my mom had put in this glow-in-the-dark plastic manger. You’d plug it in, like a nightlight. I’d roll over in my little toddler bed and look at it, and sometimes I’d hug it. One night I’m screaming, and my mom runs in and I’m saying ‘Jesus teeth! Jesus teeth!’ I had bitten the head off the baby Jesus and the head was stuck between my two front teeth.
So, one of my earliest memories is eating Jesus. I do wonder what I was doing with Jesus, that I loved him so much I wanted to swallow him. The power of Jesus is an extraordinary thing.”
Her first book, Standing Against the Whirlwind, came out in 1995, but it was her second that profoundly changed her. “I wrote Strength for the Journey when I was 40. I spent a year thinking about my life experiences and where I was spiritually. It clarified things that may have otherwise remained a mystery to me until later in life.” That book laid the foundation for the work she would do for the next two decades. Then five years ago came another earthquake in the writing soul: “Grounded made me see my own life and God differently,” Bass says. “I decentered my spirituality, which had been so centered on church.” She still loves churches, and the quirky, life-giving communities that are congregations. “But I wanted to understand how I lived in the world, not just the church. So Grounded was the second step in the process. It set up my next 15 or 20 years of being a writer.”
At 60, she “doesn’t think of faith as a magic pill to happiness, or a ticket to heaven, or even necessarily as an absolute requirement of being a member of a church community. It’s a disposition and a capacity to live and trust in God’s love.”
Her 2004 book, Broken We Kneel, was just reissued. It fits in perfectly with our times. It covers American Christian identity and patriotism, citizenship, and congregational life. Bass doesn’t shy away from politics. “My mother was very political. She took me when I was a little, little kid, to canvass for Kennedy. She says one of my first words was ‘Kennedy.’ For me, Trump being president brought the direction of Christianity to a real crisis point. I decided there is no point in not calling people to a genuine justice. I have no regrets about being more overt. I can’t be coy.”
Bass is working on a book about Jesus, due for release in early 2021. “It’s funny to think that I waited until the big benchmark of my 60th to write a book about him,” she says. “I’m fascinated by people who say, ‘I am not a Christian anymore, but still follow Jesus.’ There are too many people in my Christian writing field who say you can’t follow Jesus except in community. It does no one any good to denigrate someone else’s spiritual journey. I’m trying to develop a framework that honors people’s experience.”
Bass, an Episcopalian with a PhD in religious studies from Duke, gets asked about the future of Christianity all the time.
“People are worried about attendance figures declining,” she observes. “And then everyone has hot takes on what is causing that and how to solve it.” This change is only natural in any religion that spans centuries, she posits. “Christianity now is not the same thing as it was in the 3rd century. It’s a time of change, and that is what the numbers show. There is a disillusionment with what has been and an uncertainty of what will be. As a writer, I can just stand in that. Our lives are always changing. What has been is not what will be in a month or a year. So how do we live? We live thoughtfully and with grace and prayer. And then we move on from there.”