A Conversation with Ed Gungor, Author of One Small Barking Dog
1. What inspired you to write this book?
I have always believed everyday people matter more than most acknowledge. In God’s economy, the members of the “[church] that seem to be weaker are indispensible,” and they are those whom we should “treat with special honor” (1 Cor. 12:22-23). In a hero-culture we forget to do that. My aim was to focus on that in writing One Small Barking Dog.
2. How did watching your dog Frank lead to you write an entire book about empowerment?
I noticed how Frank can’t be ignored. He’s too in the way. He’s not particularly brilliant or handsome as dogs go, but he’s there and he doesn’t let us forget he matters. Seemed an apt metaphor for us regular folk who want to live in a way that matters in a world dominated by the brilliant and the beautiful.
3. Animals, especially dogs, have always been popular characters in nonfiction literature. Why do you think that is?
Perhaps it’s because we all run into dogs a lot. Or maybe it’s because they seem to think they’re one of us. On the other hand, we call them man’s best friend, so, maybe we think we’re one of them. At any rate, it seems like dogs “get” people in a way that cats, gerbils and fish don’t.
4. You book encompasses a lot of quotes from different leaders and scriptures from the Bible. What type of research did you do to put this together?
This is a life message for me. I served as a pastor in a small church for nearly twenty years in a tiny rural town in Central Wisconsin. Prevailing thoughts like: this doesn’t matter; you are a loser; you will never impact the world from here, would torment me. Then, Bible verses and the writings of others about the value of everyday life started popping out at me. I actually began to believe one could be small and still make an impact on the world. Perhaps this writing was cathartic =).
5. What drew you to a career focused on faith and religion? What values do you find yourself most drawn to within your faith?
I love God. And I love God’s people. I’m not saying I don’t have my moments when faith seems like it has grown pale in my soul. Nor am I saying that I find loving God’s people all that easy (they are often much easier to hate). But I’m “in” on this deal. I feel a “woe unto me if I don’t preach the gospel” sort of thing going on in me. It’s not that I feel trapped…quite the contrary. I feel captured and delighted by God’s invisible kingdom that will one day be seen clearly by all. That’s the why behind my career focus.
As far as values…I love the unconditionality of God’s love. I love Jesus’ call for the church to focus on those who are poor, disenfranchised and who live on the underside of power. I love how God redeems things and people. There is always hope in Christ…he’s the God who loves to bring hope and new direction into what we would consider a disastrous, game-ending event.
6. In today’s world, do you think the Gospel is properly understood, or do you think most people are lacking appreciation for it?
I agree with those who say America is pretty much a post-Christian culture—which is to say that most people think they know the message of Jesus and really don’t. Consequently they reject Christianity out of hand without really investigating and understanding Jesus. It is evident that we are walking into a dark night of deep cultural displacement as the church. Our old hegemonies—the ways we influenced the world—are passing away. The old symbols of safety (big church buildings, political power, a Leave It To Beaver culture, etc.) are becoming more and more a thing of the past. What is needed in these coming days is a prophetic people, tethered to the vision of the kingdom of God through a lively confession and a prophetic praxis—like the one espoused in One Small Barking Dog.
7. You’ve talked about how you think full-time ministers are doing a disservice to the faith. Can you explain that further? What advice can you give a person who is interested in following that path? I think that ministers have glorified full-time ministry because to do so is self-serving. I don’t think we all do that, and I don’t think those who do it do it all the time. But it has been done at the expense of empowering the laity. That being said, God still calls men and women into full time service for him. I would suggest that if one is so inclined, he or she should balance their passion to enter ministry with a great education. Education can mess with simple piety to be sure, but it gives us the gift of equanimity that I believe is essential for ministry in the 21st century.
8. Blogs and YouTube have become popular tools, and you’ve used them to get your message across. Do you find modern technology to be helpful in your ministry, or do you see it as something that prevents people from really connecting?
Technology is both helpful and hurtful—a double-edged sword. God wants his voice heard in every generation. Many believe this, but want God to speak to new generations the exact same way he spoke to previous ones. The past is a funny thing. It always seems better. But if we are not careful we ultimately present the message of Christ in anachronistic, outdated ways—we end up trying to reach a VH1 world in Lawrence Welk fashion. By trying to influence present culture with strategies of the past, we essentially see the future as a “no-go” zone and we lose our voice. I think God wants to use technologies and media—from FaceBook and Twitter to television and movies—as tools to foster spiritual change in the 21st century. At any moment in time the gospel of Christ can be “heard” through the technologies of television, radio, and the Internet. Faith is made accessible to the world. Yet, there are problems.
Problem number one is that the Great Commission involves more than just heralding the message through preaching. It demands more than faith in Jesus Christ; it calls for discipleship. Jesus didn’t just say, “preach the good news to all creation,” he said, “go and make disciples of all nations…teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” Discipleship demands more than just hearing someone preach about Christ. Salvation is more than a prayer event—though it certainly involves one. But reducing salvation to an “event” that occurs after a prayer is to make it too shallow and too narrow. Paul talks about the need for devotion in texts like: “And I want you to stress these things, so that those who have trusted in God may be careful to devote themselves to doing what is good.” The word “devote” literally means “to vow” or to make promises to live in particular ways. Christianity is referred to as “the Way” in scripture. Living a devoted life is done best within the context of community. It turns out that faith is as corporate as it is personal. This is where we must acknowledge the limitations of television and other electronic media. These technologies give the sense that you are part of a large community because you are watching the media with many others, yet, you are actually sitting in front of the screen in isolation—it is a kind of contradiction, if not a complete irony. Hence, there is often a content deficiency when the screen becomes the primary communication device for discipleship.
9. You’ve written a number of books about faith and spirituality. How do you continue to find new areas to write about while keeping the topic fresh?
I think the greatest challenge for me is to stay “innocent,” versus trying to be the great teacher. Innocence is purity without corruption. It’s jammed with trust and curiosity, without ever considering the possible positive or negative outcomes of its position. A toddler running out into the street, chasing a butterfly is an example of innocence at work. There is a raw, wonderful quality about being willing to chase butterflies without thought as to where you will end up. I get that innocence can get you into trouble…chasing butterflies into the street can ruin a perfectly good day. But that being said, being overly cautious and viewing faith through the lenses of doctrine, legalism and trying to be the know it all will cause you to never even notice the butterflies. Then every day turns out to be a bad one. Somehow, when I run at innocence in my faith, I keep getting fresh ideas. Whenever I think I have figured things out and stop hungering and yearning to grow, I feel stale. It’s like the manna the Israelites got in the desert…it was fresh every day and if they tried to keep it overnight, it rotted. I fight for “fresh bread” from heaven. Consequently, I don’t define myself as a master teacher or leader, but as a fellow-learner. When I keep that moniker, I seem to bump into the Divine Bakery more often.
10. What projects are you working on now?
I’m working on a project called A Great Ending: Facing Life’s Final Chapter. It’s a book filled with hope as we discuss death and dying and how one should walk through that process when facing a terminal illness. Mortality is still at 100%, but those of us in the West all but dismiss talking about it (much less thinking about it) until it is at our doorstep. There’s a better way. I explore that in A Great Ending.