The Art of Faith: an Interview with J. Brent Bill
At the time of this interview, Brent was the executive vice president of the Indianapolis Center for Congregations. In 2012, Brent joined FGC as coordinator of the New Meetings Project. In 2015 he became FGC's associate secretary for communications, publications, and outreach. Brent is retiring from this position at the end of October 2017.
by Joe Paluck
We received J. Brent Bill’s newest publication, Awaken Your Senses, at QuakerBooks a few months ago and were impressed by the engaging yet simple sensory-oriented exercises within. As the book goes into a second printing to meet continuing reader demand, we jumped at the chance to interview Brent about the process behind creating this spiritual guide with co-author Beth Booram and about his own personal methods for keeping in touch with the Divine.
Brent, a recorded minister in the Religious Society of Friends, lives in Mooresville, Indiana, where he is the executive vice president of the Indianapolis Center for Congregations in Indiana. He has been a local church pastor in Indiana and Ohio, as well as an adjunct professor at Earlham School of Religion in Indiana. He has written numerous books, short stories, and magazine articles. You can check out some of our other favorite publications by J. Brent Bill here: Sacred Compass, A Modest Proposal, and Holy Silence.
JP: So first of all, Brent, I’d just like to ask how you met [your co-author] Beth Booram and, after that, how did this project begin?
JBB: I met Beth about three years ago. Her husband Dave and I were Facebook friends before Beth and I met. We happened to connect at an event and started chatting. She wanted to interview me about spiritual practices because I had written some about Quakerism and Quaker disciplines for a book for a project she was working on. We began just chatting about our mutual interest in art and faith. She’s a musician and I’m a photographer so we started chatting about fine arts, musical art, photography, literature, and found we had a lot in common. We got to talking about how our senses often get left behind when it comes to faith. Especially how folks in Protestant denominations really seem to be almost distrustful, at times, of our bodies whereas orthodox and Catholics tend to at least recognize that sensory experiences are an important part of faith; using the liturgy, or the Holy Smoke as I call it. So we thought it would be fun to do something with that, so we put together a workshop called “The Art of Faith.” Since, to us, faith wasn’t a science, it was an art. There’s no formula to follow to make it perfect. So we wanted to invite people to evolve their senses in a daylong event, trying to experience god. So that’s sort of how we got started.
JP: So when this gestated it started as a workshop kind of thing. Now, whose idea was it to start the 30 day experiments where you would blog for a month about a particular sense? I read that this was a technique you used during the writing process.
JBB: Since the idea went well I would really like to claim it, but no, that was Beth’s [laughs]
JBB: Yeah, um, we both blogged and I blogged about some sensory-type things. We eventually decided to keep our journals on our separate blogs and invite our readers to participate by sending in their experiences as well. It was real interesting to see which of our writings the folks responded to, and then other folks began to blog about it as well who weren’t necessarily connected to the project or anything.
JP: In this book I noticed you start a lot of chapters with very personal situations. This was a very effective approach. I found it easy to place myself in your shoes from chapter to chapter.
So, for how long have you been leading retreats and serving as a minister?
JBB: Well I’ve been leading retreats for a long time and a lot of my writing is more personal in nature, I think. It’s not quite memoir but it’s a little more than an essay and just talking about ideas and so forth. You know, I find that the people that I like to read are those who don’t necessarily take the standpoint of an expert but that of a traveler along the pilgrim path and so that’s how I try to write. I try to write as somebody who’s saying “This is my experience; I’d like to hear about yours.” But in a book it’s hard to do that, so let’s talk informally and conversationally and then if I need experts to speak deep truths I use folks like Thomas Kelly or Rufus Jones or other folks who are deep spiritual guides and introduce the reader to them.
JP: Interesting. So you and Beth use a lot of Bible quotes in your book. Sometimes you’ll start an entry or a chapter with a particularly poignant quote, or a quote that reflects your message. How important is the Bible to you? Do you feel that the Bible reinforces your message or justifies your point of view?
JBB: Yeah, I’m not sure that I’d put it “Justify our point of view” or “my point of view” in the book. You see, I take the Bible seriously as a document of faith; it’s influenced particularly Christianity, the New Testament at any rate, and Jewish life for thousands of years. So, as a person of faith, it behooves me to pay attention to what’s said, and as I look through it and read it, I see lots of references that I’ve never heard discussed in worship or Sunday school or whatever, about our bodies and all the different senses that we get to experience, what we see what we taste and so forth. If you look at the Old Testament, for example, and you think about all the offerings that were made—for example, to make “a sweet smelling sacrifice to the Lord.”
We don’t often think about even God’s sensory responses, and I’m sure we can argue that that’s metaphoric, but still it’s evolving, and you think about the whole incarnation of Jesus Christ and, those of us who are Christian, you know here was God come in bodily form walking around and experiencing the same things as we do. Not just pure spirit. It’s almost like Christian faith today has sort of a Gnostic approach you know: “The spirit is good and the body is bad.” Scripture doesn’t portray it that way, though. Certainly, misuse of the body, it certainly covers that. Giving in to every desire, whether it is sexual or gluttony is a misuse. I mean I love a good glass of wine and good food but that doesn’t meant I overindulge everything. We’re given these bodies as carriers not just for our spirit, but as a ways to make our way through the world and experience the goodness that God’s given us. And that’s completely consistent, I think, with the Bible.
JP: Now, you said you were a photographer. Which parts of the sensory experience do you feel, for you, is most closely tied to your individual spirituality. Is it sight? Capturing beauty in the world?
JBB: I would think that sight is probably one of the strongest of mine. Belden Lane, who’s a theologian, says that we need to pay attention in love. And for me sight is really important for doing that. I try to tell stories through photographs, beauty in the world, whether it’s nature or what have you. The latest series that I’ve been working on is old barns. I’ve been taking photos out in a lot of rural places like farm dumps. There’s this beautiful reclamation of the earth by nature. Like the foliage growing in and around the old farm buildings and equipment, and you know, it’s like God is not going to let ugliness exist. God is always going to work for beauty at a level that perhaps we don’t really pay attention to or expect. I do a thing called “Praying with my Camera.” It’s a way to help me focus and to slow down and be still. Somebody asked me the other day if I’m a Quaker because I’m naturally drawn to silence and quiet contemplation. I told them, no, I’m a Quaker because I’m not naturally drawn to those things and I need to be. Photography is another tool that helps me slow down, be contemplative, and to try to see what the story is going on around me and then to frame it and capture it in a way that shows, hopefully, some beauty.
JP: That’s interesting. You kind of lead into my next question. There are a lot of exercises in this book for relaxation, meditation, oneness, and just overall appreciation for the world. When life gets hectic, to which exercises do you find yourself clinging?
JBB: Photography is certainly one. I always have two things with me in my car: my laptop [chuckles] to stay connected with work at times, but my briefcase is a combination camera bag and laptop carrier so I have a camera and at least one extra lens in there so if I see something interesting in my travels I’ll stop. There were some interesting sheep out the other day walking through the early morning fog and mist and I pulled to the side of the road and spent some time thanking God for the beauty of that moment by trying to capture it (so I can remember it).
Walking in the woods is another big one for me, even without a camera. I’m fortunate enough to live on fifty acres of land that’s mostly comprised of woods and tall grass prairie that we planted. So to just get out and feel the ground under my feet, literally, instead of under my tires which I do most of the time while driving, but to actually walk contemplatively and to feel the pebbles through the soles of my shoes or to focus on what it feels like to step barefoot on the sand. Walking is very important to me.
JP: I’m glad you said that. You know, I grew up in rural Pennsylvania. The mountains were home for me. Nature has always been very important to me: nature trails, mountain biking, etc. To this day it still brings me peace to be among the trees in the forest. . .
I was raised Roman Catholic but I have since been become interested in Quakerism. My question for you is, have you been a Quaker since you were young or was this something you fell into later in life? How did Quakerism affect your journey?
JBB: I did grow up a Quaker in the Evangelical tradition. As a matter of fact in the extreme Evangelical tradition in Ohio that was more about emphasis on personal holiness and relationship with Jesus. . . not quite as much emphasis on, say, the peace testimony or any of the other classic testimonies. When I went to college I went to a Quaker college [Wilmington College of Ohio] where I had a terrific mentor named T. Canby Jones, who was a religion professor, and through his classes I was introduced as a young adult into the Quaker practice and life. I found especially the peace testimony and the equality testimony resonating with me at the time. Also around this time I was preparing for seminary and I was serving as a youth minister at a Methodist church because they paid more than the Quakers did and they actually had benefits at the time and I had a young family. When it came time to decide where I’d serve and where I’d want to be, I decided I should be a Quaker. It’s just who I am. So I went to Earlham School of Religion for my seminary degree, and I’ve been a convinced Friend and a birthright Friend ever since. Kind of a long winded explanation to a simple yes or no question [laughs]. Quakerism is my spiritual home and it’s where I’ve spent all my life. It feels right to me.
JP: I like that you said that. You know, you can be raised with something like, say, I was raised Roman Catholic, but once you’re old enough to think for yourself and really accept it into your heart, I think that’s when it becomes the most important. Absolutely. . . This is one of my last questions for you. Do you and Beth feel that this book might be more important now than ever in terms of today’s society from a general standpoint? I think it’s a very important message to spread to the world and to a society that doesn’t so much take the time nowadays to stop and smell the roses.
JBB: Yes, I definitely think it is. Beth and I just got back from the Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College that’s held every two years. And to look through the titles of books folks are publishing and to see what is interesting to the community right now, there are a lot of books on Christian thought or religious thought, but there’s still this need for what we would call “embodied faith,” which is how our faith impacts our bodies. Some folks are writing more about that. The poet Scott Cairns is. Leslie Leyland Fields has just come out with a wonderful book on food and spirituality. Folks are beginning to notice that connection more than ever—the connection between our bodies and our spirits and how we need to live an integrated, embodied faith. It involves our whole person: body, mind and soul. And perhaps Beth and I are in the good place of being on the forefront of reintroducing that to people of faith, the whole idea of, you know, “let’s connect.” We wrote the book to be very practical, not just a book of ideas, but actually to describe the different experiences with different senses, have people read through it, and then to invite others to have their own experiences and to experience God through developing their own practices.
JP: You’ve been writing for quite some time, and you co-authored this work with Beth. What was it like to co-author? Did either of you ever have differing opinions about the central message of the book? You each wrote certain alternating parts of the book and I’m sure you each had different points of view on spirituality going into the project.
JBB: I think the central premise is that our bodies carry spiritual wisdom. Beth has this wonderful line: “Helping you experience more of God.” That goes with the idea that it’s not just head knowledge; we want to experience more of God using our whole bodies. So we had a lot of agreement on that. We certainly approach our subjects much differently. Beth continues in a more Evangelical tradition. She is very open spiritually, but that’s who she is. And she’s a woman and she’s a few years younger than I am. So she has her unique view and we wanted her voice to be heard and to be distinct from mine; a man who grew up in an Evangelical tradition and is now a fairly broad minded Quaker. We didn’t want to construct a unified voice, that’s why we switched writing the various chapters. And I hope the reader doesn’t sense a jarring disconnect, I think they’re connected. But the voices are different and our experiences are different and we think it makes the book stronger that way, to have two distinct voices from two traditions sharing on this one theme.
JP: I agree. I think that style was one of the book’s major strengths. Can we expect anything soon from you writing wise? You published Awaken Your Senses about four months ago, no?
JBB: Yeah it came out officially in February and it just went back for re-printing, which is good news for us. This means people are buying the books and this message is resonating with the community. I’m working with some publishers now on various projects. It certainly won’t be within a year, but you can expect more from me. We thought maybe The Bad Quaker’s Guide to the Good Life (released in 2016 as Life Lessons from a Bad Quaker). My agent and I think we like that title.
Interested in more from J. Brent Bill? Check out his website at brentbill.com and his titles sold by QuakerBooks. Want more? You can check the blog run by Brent’s co-author, Beth Booram at peregrinejourney.blogspot.com