Author Ted Kluck on spoofing Left Behind, evangelical kitsch, Christ-figures, growth as writers, Christian publishing and how most “young restless Reformed” readers aren’t (yet?) into fiction.
E. Stephen Burnett: Today brings us Ted Kluck, author in multiple genres: sports and sports biography, doctrine and theology, cultural-Christianity parody, and now also end-times-thriller parody. With Kevin DeYoung, his pastor, he coauthored the two books that first brought him to my attention (more on that below): Why We’re Not Emergent and Why We Love the Church.
I have to ask first about these: what led to these books, especially for a sportswriter who (I’m guessing) could have thought, Can I write about this?
Ted Kluck: Back five or six years ago when the emergent church™ was having its fifteen minutes of fame, I think people in our church assumed I was a lot cooler than I actually was/am, and started giving me Rob Bell, Don Miller and Brian McLaren books to read. Those books, in addition to being semi-interesting to read at times (Miller), were full of theological red-flags that were apparent even to me, a non-seminaried sports guy. So I approached Kevin, who is now a bona-fide A-List Reformed™ Superstar, and we launched the alternating-chapters idea for Why We’re Not Emergent. The rest, as they say, is about two-years worth of publishing history.
ESB: I mentioned it was Why We’re Not Emergent that brought your and DeYoung’s names to my attention. It’s a bit cliché by now — it was a “Young, Restless, Reformed” (YRR)-style Conference, in 2008, which also happened to offer all kinds of Deep-Doctrine Solid Books. So now you’re more well-known for those, yet you’ve expanded your repertoire with your own publisher, Gut Check Press, and more, including a book on adoptive fatherhood, and The Reason for Sports: A Christian Fanifesto. How’s that working out?
Ted: Actually, we have that YRR-style conference to thank for whatever sales those books accomplished. Nothing sells books like Reformed bloggers. As to how it’s working out…(awkward chuckle)…it’s up and down. The books that didn’t get (for whatever reason) the wholesale Reformed Seal of Approval definitely haven’t sold as well. The take-home here is that I need to get either D.A. Carson or J.I. Packer to write the forewords for each of my books, regardless of subject matter. Gut Check Press has been the silver lining in a year or so of writing that has been kind of dark-cloudish. Gut Check has been nothing but pure fun and we’ve made…wait for it…HUNDREDS of dollars.
ESB: Are the YRR sorts of Christians following your efforts into other genres? (Very possibly a leading question here. …) If not, what books do the Gospel-driven, Puritan-quoting, affectionate-parody-worthy Christians like best to read?
Ted: Let me pause here to appreciate your questions. Okay. The short answer is no, they haven’t followed my efforts into other genres. However, that’s not to paint YRRers with a narrow brush in terms of their reading tendencies, which tend toward the following:
1.) Each other.
2.) John Piper.
3.) People who are old and dead.
4.) C.S. Lewis (but only in the sense that they love Lewis because he is old and dead and also because it gives them a chance to talk about the theological reservations they have vis-à-vis Lewis…we YRRers LOVE having theological reservations about things/people).
5.) John Piper.
ESB: Tell us about Beauty and the Mark of the Beast. It’s “a dispensational thriller,” “written by committee,” first online, but later to be published by Gut Check Press. Sure, it’s a bit late after the fad, the site says in the FAQ — but it’s not the first time Christians were late to imitate something years after its peak. In fact, if there’s anything evangelical Christians are original with, it’s end-times thrillers — even if they are “tacky, embarrassing, and mockable.” Want to expand your thoughts on the genre and its hangers-on?
Ted: Let me answer this question by telling a quick story. When I first visited the offices of the publisher responsible for Why We’re Not Emergent, Why We Love the Church, The Reason for Sports, and Hello, I Love You, I was housed in a building called “Jerry B. Jenkins Hall” which was also home to a giant, muralish portrait of Jerry B. Jenkins who as you’ll recall was one half of the juggernaut that produced all 186 volumes of the Left Behind series. It was at that moment that the seed was planted for this project, which I’m sure will be every bit as successful, financially. Gut Check, as a company, realizes that there’s a good buck in the end times racket.
ESB: Do you have or have you read the whole Left Behind series? (I do, and I may be the only YRR bloke who not only possesses all the books, mostly first-prints, but still feels some fondness for them).
Ted: I was introduced to these books in 1999 while I was living in Lithuania and waiting for the world to end in 2000, so they were timely both in the sense that they were in English, which was a huge plus in Lithuania, and they were about the end of the world. I think I read the first two or three of them and learned that if you have the right kind of tricked-out Jeep, you too can survive the rapture. It was a really formative time for me. And man, I hate to say it but I think you just lost your YRR card with that admission…expect some “confrontations in love” real soon.
ESB: (If Mark Driscoll can dress “grunge” and enjoy beer, I can enjoy my Left Behind memories because this is Missional.) If you follow modern evangelical Christian fiction offerings, what’s your take on them? I’m thinking here of two areas in particular: your views on how Christian novels are doing in showing Christ’s truth and the Gospel in fiction, and how authors are doing in terms of creativity/originality/non-tackiness.
Ted: I actually have no idea here. I don’t really follow modern evangelical Christian fiction. However (endorsement alert), Gut Check published a novel called 42 Months Dry: A Tale of Gods and Gunplay by a promising young novelist named Zachary Bartels, that will blow your mind all over your face. It’s a modern day retelling of Elijah and the prophets of Baal, and reading it is like watching the best kind of action movie.
ESB: What’s your familiarity level with “speculative” fiction — Christ-exalting fantasy, sci-fi, etc.?
Ted: I actually have more familiarity with crochet and cooking (thanks to my wife, Kristin) than I have with this genre.
ESB: What about other “YRR” readers or writers you may know — do they enjoy Christian fiction, criticize what’s there, and/or hope to do better? With all the Gospel-driven emphasis on taking back art, and writing more-Biblical and more-creative music (and not simply ripping off what the world does and instead making it all clean, saying “Jesus,” etc.), I’m curious whether YRR types are also considering fiction.
Ted: I don’t think YRRers have “reclaimed” (things we love: reclaiming things like art, fiction, the city, adoption, sex, etc.) fiction as of yet. And actually I don’t see them/us doing so. We’ve (YRRers) have done a better job with rap music so far (see: Lecrae, Trip Lee, The Voice), than we have with fiction, which is either encouraging or discouraging depending on how you look at it.
ESB: Here’s also one of the main reasons I had hoped to host you here: a single footnote in Why We Love the Church. It’s on page 70: “I’m typing this at roughly the same time as the latest Batman movie, The Dark Knight, hits theaters. Just as in the Star Wars saga, expect Christian reviewers to find spiritual significance in the film so as to sort of allow themselves to like it with a clean conscience (see also: U2, and books like The Gospel According to Tony Soprano) when they should probably just go ahead and like it anyway.”
(I also saw The Dark Knight’s substitution/scapegoat motif, but didn’t feel I needed to find it to enjoy the film.) And I think I know what you mean there; but of course I’d rather hear more thoughts from you on that. (Of course, that may be a whole separate column someday — a prospect we’d not oppose).
Ted: Yeah, I think I was just explaining that it would have been okay for Christians to like The Dark Knight even without finding the substitution motif or whatever. I really never “got” our (Christians) wholesale embracing of Lord of the Rings or The Matrix either. Personally, I find a lot of theological/socio-political imagery in Sly Stallone’s seminal work, Rocky IV, in which he singlehandedly ends the Cold War. So much so (the imagery) that Zach Bartels and I co-wrote an academic white paper about it over at the Gut Check Press website. Spoiler alert: Apollo Creed = Christ Figure.
ESB: What might be some ways Christian fiction readers and writers, especially in “speculative” genres, can seek God’s truth and the Biblical Gospel, but also find ways to more creatively present these truths and glorify Him in stories, and not be all kitschy and embarrassing?
Ted: Honestly I think the best thing Christian writers can do for fiction (or nonfiction) is to grow in personal holiness and sanctification, pray for our writing to glorify God, be in God’s word consistently, and just plain old get better at the craft. When we’re reading great novelists, we’ll be much less likely to get all kitschy and embarrassing in our own work, unless, of course, we’re trying to be kitschy and embarrassing (see: Gut Check’s end times thriller).
ESB: Bonus question: I must ask you about the male (and homeschooled) wrestler who turned down a chance to win a state championship, because it would have involved wrestling a girl.
Ted: I actually agree with the kid refusing to wrestle, but it bums me out that they (the state) put the kid in that position in the first place. I can sympathize with him not feeling entirely comfortable with that, for a variety of reasons. For what it’s worth, I’m fine with girls wrestling, but they should have a different division, and have their own state tournament, etc.
ESB: Now I’m out of questions, unless you want to make one up and answer it for yourself. Also, your next book’s or books’ release(s) dates and details?
Ted: Working on a book on discipleship and car restoration (seriously) that I’m really pumped about. Writing it with a guy who kicked cocaine addiction and has been in and out of jail several times. We’re fixing up an old Triumph Spitfire together…that one is called Dallas and the Spitfire and is being published by Bethany House Nonfiction sometime next year. Also doing a book with former Buffalo Bills quarterback Jim Kelly that Faith Words is publishing.
ESB: Thanks much for your time, Ted. Godspeed to you and yours!