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Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The Miracle of Juggling Work and Writing: An Author Interview with Aaron Simms

I know some people think that the only day a pastor works is Sunday, but that’s hardly the case. With all the responsibilities that go with leading a church how do you find the time to write more than just sermons?
Writing a sermon each week does take a lot of time. During the seasons of Advent and Lent I also preach a mid-week sermon, which means that I have two sermons per week for a good part of the year. In addition to that, since I serve at a small mission congregation I must work full-time at another job during the week.

So, I am a second career pastor, but am still working in my first career while also serving in the ministry. Juggling all this can be challenging sometimes, especially when I have a wedding or funeral, or a congregational member who is sick or needs help.

What made you decide to go into the ministry?
I didn’t follow the usual path to Seminary. I had felt a calling to go into the ministry ever since high school, but never acted on it. In college, I was an Army ROTC cadet and enjoyed it greatly, but ultimately felt that this wasn’t the vocation God had in store for me. I had wanted to be an infantry officer, but still felt a tug towards the ministry. It wasn’t until much later, after I went to graduate school, that I went to Seminary at the suggestion of my own pastor, who asked me if I had ever considered going into the ministry. He had no idea that the thought had been on my mind for many years!

How do you block off time to write?
I’ve established a rhythm for writing. In the mornings, I work on my blog posts while I’m drinking my morning coffee before work. I also try to work on my sermon in the mornings and during lunch. In the evenings, I write other things such as texts for my books while my daughter is doing her reading for school (we sit together while she reads and I write).

To me, writing is a discipline. Some days I feel more inspired and write quite a lot. Other days I’m not really feeling creative, so that’s when I’ll focus more on editing. Between the “inspired” days and the “un-inspired” days I’m able to get it all done. I think that’s the key, doing what you can when you can. I’ve written on notepads while I’ve been in traffic, on my laptop during lunch, and on my laptop during plane flights.

When did you actually decide to write your books?
My first book was “On this Rock: What People Really Believed about Jesus Christ in the Early Church... and Why it Matters.” I started writing this book in 2005, somewhat in response to Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code.” I thought Dan Brown’s book was exciting and a good read, but totally incorrect in its history of the early Church. I enjoy history, particularly classical history and early Church history, and knew that Dan Brown’s statements about the early Church were incorrect. I needed an outlet to get the truth out there, which is what prompted me to start writing the book.

It took me 7 years to complete, partly because I went back to the original sources, such as the writings of the early Church fathers, but also because in the intervening time I also went to graduate school and seminary.

Who encouraged you to write?
My wife and children have encouraged me in my writing. My congregation is supportive as well. My father-in-law has read “On This Rock” and made the comment that there were things in there that he’s never heard before, which made me happy to know that I’ve been able to contribute something to the Church.

How do you write? Did you start with a concept or did you do an outline?
With my first book, I had a general concept that I wanted to write about what the people of the early New Testament Church said about Jesus. I also wanted to cover what non-Christians said about Jesus, such as the Romans and the Jews. From this concept, I developed a small outline and began searching out primary and secondary sources. I spent many evenings sitting on my bed with a notebook, with books scattered around me, taking notes as I read. Once I had a notebook filled with notes, I began writing the book on my laptop. This went through a number of revisions, and I actually rewrote the entire book twice. Finally, I got to the point where I thought I was “done,” in the sense that I was just polishing things and wasn’t really adding anything new.

How did you go from one book to five?
I wrote my second book much faster. I had a concept of wanting to explore what the Bible says about various topics that impact us today, like the concept of creation, work, government, and similar topics. With this concept, I created a small outline, basically a table of contents of what I thought the topics should be. I then started writing, redoing my outline as I discovered what worked and didn’t work.

My second book deals with the Christian life and is written for adults. I wanted to cover similar ground for children, which led me to write the following three books. I wanted a kids book, a toddler book, and an infant book. My daughter is 8 and my son is 5, so I wanted to have books for their level. I also thought back to what I wished I had available to read to them when they were infants and toddlers, so I decided to write something that I could have used if it were available at the time.

With everything you do, why do you still feel the need to write?
I enjoy writing, as it gives me an outlet for my thoughts. It also helps me feel that I’m putting all the reading and studying I’ve done to some use. Even though I’m a pastor and I preach every Sunday, I actually prefer to put my thoughts in writing, rather than speaking. I have other concepts I want to turn into books. I’ve had one in particular for many years, even since the time I started working on “On This Rock” in 2005. At the time, I decided to focus on “On This Rock,” planning to return to the other concept later. I still haven’t returned to it yet, since I’ve begun work on a different concept recently. I hope to have this turned into a book sometime soon; I’m still in the early stages, though.

Not only do you write books, but you also started a blog a couple of months ago. What made you decide to start one? I wanted to have something with a shorter turn-around time than a book where I could express my thoughts and views. I also wanted to approach a blog from a different angle than I’ve seen in other Christian or Lutheran blogs. Often, Lutheran blogs tend to focus on internal Lutheran politics or some arcane facet of the Lutheran confession of the Christian faith. So, I wanted to do something a little different. I wanted to try to write in such a way that shows people that Christians, and Lutheran pastors, are real people whose faith impacts the way they view the world. That’s why I have posts that range from a discussion of the early Church, to my vegetable garden, to places I’ve traveled, to why Batman is the best super hero.

Will you do it on a regular basis or more of when you have a burning desire to say something?
 I plan to update my blog on a regular basis; this takes some discipline on my part, though, since the blog is what tends to get dropped when I run out of time during the week.

Was one book easier to write than another?
The hardest book to write was “On This Rock,” since it required so much research and I struggled with how best to organize the material. “To the End of the Age” was much easier to write, since each chapter is focused on its own topic and the discussion around the topic is basically in the style of a sermon. The children’s books were fun to write. They were somewhat difficult, though, due to the need to try to simplify the writing while still doing justice to the main points. So, my daughter helped me proof read them. I sat with her and read through them.She told me which words were too hard to understand and suggested changes. Some words I couldn’t change, so in the “Christianity for Kids” book I created a glossary at the end to explain the harder words.

How did you find your illustrator?
I married her! My wife is an artist and does paintings, photographs, graphic arts on the computer, and web design. The illustrations in my children’s books are her paintings and photographs. Many of them are actually her paintings that we have hanging in our house.

I read through your review on Zealot by Reza Aslan, one of the latest books published to debunk Christianity. He is no more a Christian scholar than was Dan Brown who wrote the DaVinci code. Yet they both have sold lots of books. Why do you think these books are so popular?
I think that people are often more willing to read books about the Bible than the Bible itself, especially when those books purport to get to the “truth.” Dan Brown and Reza Aslan both write in an engaging dramatic style. They also write as if the things they say are true. It seems that boldness and self-confidence can convince people of just about anything. It pains me, though, that people read these books and think that what they say is the result of well-researched scholarship, because they aren’t.

G.K. Chesterton, in his book, Orthodoxy, said that he noticed that Christianity “was attacked on all sides and for all contradictory reasons.” His point is that the truth encounters enemies who will attack it from many different angles, each of which contradicts the others. For example, some people say that the Gospel writers copied from each other, and that they unnecessarily repeat each other; on the other hand, other people say that the Gospel writers contradict each other. Even within Aslan’s book you see these two contradictory attacks being made against the New Testament.

Why is Christianity  so easily mocked yet other faiths such as Islam are considered off limits?
I think that Christianity is so easily mocked because the truth encounters opposition. Indeed, Jesus told us as much. In addition, many people don’t even know what Christianity really is, they just know the false caricatures they’ve heard from others. So, they pick up these books and tend to assume that what they say are true.

Your books review the historical facts of Christianity to counter the erroneous claims that are so prevalent today. What do you think is the biggest myth about Christianity today?
I think that the biggest myth about Christianity is that there were many variants of Christianity in the few few centuries and that a group of powerful bishops got together, with the support of the Roman emperor, in the late fourth century and basically “decreed” what Christianity is. The premise is that the “version” of Christianity that we have today is false and that it only won out due to political power.

This is the type of view advanced by people like Dan Brown. Reza Aslan seems to discount this view, actually, in favor of another. Aslan contends that James the Just, the brother of Jesus, was in opposition to Paul. When James died, Paul’s view was allowed to take over.

Both of these views, as exemplified by Dan Brown and Reza Aslan, do not withstand historical scrutiny. The truth is that the early New Testament Church decided early on, through consensus among the various congregations, which books were considered authoritative and which were considered as non-authoritative.

Most people don’t know the actiual history, and I think it’s a shame. It’s a greater a shame that the Church as a whole is not adequately educating people and is instead ceding the conversation to people who are claiming a false, alternative history.

Do you believe that more churches have lost their relevance to society as a reason for their diminishing rolls?
I think that a large part of the diminishing role of the Church is that it is so often not any different than any other group in society. That is, if it positions itself as just a place where people go to hang out and have a good time, then it is competing with many other possible contenders for people’s time and attention.

If, however, the Church positions itself as the place where God is dwelling with His people and where He has promised to be found, then things are different. Then, the Church is something special, it is sinners who have been freely forgiven by God through Jesus Christ and gathered together as His people. God has promised to dwell with us and does so through His Word and His Sacraments (which are really His Word in visible, tangible form). I think that the more we speak of God as working incarnationally, the better we can reach people. God isn’t an idea or a power or a far-off spirit; He’s here in our midst, working among us through the means of His grace.

Why do you think some people don't like Christianity?
I believe that many people who don’t like Christianity don’t actually know what Christians believe, teach, and confess. They have heard caricatures of Christianity, maybe even from other Christians. I’d love for people to give the Church a chance to explain Christianity (and pray that the Church would do so effectively). I would encourage people to look for a church that has a high respect for God’s Word, possesses the Sacraments (Baptism and the Lord’s Supper), and proclaims the whole Gospel of Jesus Christ.

The Gospel is the fact that God in the flesh came to save us sinners by dying and rising and that he is restoring not only us, but all creation to the perfection in which He originally created it. The Christian hope is not to die and go to heaven; it is to be raised up when Christ returns and to inherit the restored creation and to live, body and soul, with him and each other forever. Christ is reconciling the world to himself and restoring it; we have this in part now within the Church. However, when Christ returns we will have it in full; all the pain, sorrow, decay, death, and evil that we experience in this life will be cast out, and Christ and his bride (the Church) will live together in peace forever.

There's a lot to ponder here. If you have more questions or want to know more about Pastor Aaron here are your options...

Aaron's blog                      Goodreads                      Amazon

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