Friday, February 6, 2009 | By: Zachary Bartels

Interview with Ted Kluck (pt. 1)

In October, I interviewed my friend and mentor Dr. Michael Wittmer, who had just released a book called Don't Stop Believing: Why Living Like Jesus Is Not Enough, which challenges the Postmodern/ Emergent de-emphasis of doctrine in the church (or rather, destroys said de-emphasis).

Since then, I've been waiting for the right time to interview another friend of mine, Ted Kluck, who has also written on the emergent church. Well, in light of Ted's book Why We're Not Emergent (By Two Guys Who Should Be) winning the 2009 Christianity Today Book Award for best church/pastoral leadership book, I can hold off no longer. But let me warn you: hold on to your freaking face lest it be rocked off.

Ted is a professional writer. He's also been a missionary, a professional football player, trained as a pro wrestler (for a book--at least that's the excuse he used) and boxer. He's half 1940s "press-card-in-the-hat," pipe-smoking wiseacre and half "suck-down-raw-eggs-to-make-me-meaner" jock. And he calls his wife "Lovey." No one makes fun of him for this because Ted once broke his collar bone playing football and tried to get up and "walk it off."

When you hang out with Ted, he gives the impression that he's this struggling writer who got lucky once or twice, and may never have another book deal. But the truth is that he's been widely published, both in print (a quick Amazon search shows six books by major publishers and I happen to know of at least two more in the works) and a bunch of periodicals ( heard of it?--and Sports Spectrum, to name a couple). Ted is unconventional in that he writes on both sports and Christiainity. And, no, that doesn't involve using a bunch of folksy lessons he learned in the huddle as allegories for the Christian life (like most "sports guys" who write spiritual stuff). And he sure the heck doesn't need a ghost writer. His prose is quick, fresh, incredibly entertaining, and often leaves me with that I-know-exactly-what-you-mean-but-I-never-could-have-said-it-that-well feeling that I look for in a writer.

If you haven't read Why We're Not Emergent (co-written with Kevin DeYoung), you should definitely pick up a copy post-haste. This is a topic that is now affecting the church well beyond urban centers and university towns. I also tore through Paper Tiger pretty quick. And believe me, anyone who can make me interested in professional football is a master of his craft.

Let me stop jawing and make with the interview. Here's part 1; the rest will follow in a few days.

ZB: You interviewed Mike Tyson for your book Facing Tyson. If you had to describe him in one word, what would it be?

TK: Thoughtful. (followed closely by intriguing, muscular, and unhappy).

ZB: Of all the professional athletes that you’ve interviewed, who is the most genuinely nice guy?

TK: There are a bunch to choose from here. I’ll stick with boxing and go with Tyrell Biggs, the 1984 Olympic Gold medalist in the Super Heavyweight division, and a former Tyson opponent. I met him on a street corner at 11 PM in a bad neighborhood in Philly. We drank tea together at a seedy Chinese place in his ‘hood and really had a fun time together, once I got over my fear of getting shanked (see also: bad neighborhood). Tony Dungy, formerly the Colts head coach, was a genuinely humble, kind guy as well. Ditto for former SI coverboy, NFL left tackle, and infamous former steroid user Tony Mandarich.

ZB: The biggest jerk?

TK: I got thrown out of a party once by former Michigan State football coach Hank Bullough, who I think was about 110 years old at the time, and who reminded me of the “Pop” character in the Grumpy Old Men movies, except way less cool. That was no fun.

ZB: You have recently written a “Christian fanifesto” called The Reason for Sports. Is there an inherent spirituality to sports?

TK: There is inherent spirituality in sports, inasmuch as there are Christians playing sports and being used by God in sports settings. Paul used examples from sports in his teaching, and Jacob wrestled with the Holy Spirit. Sports can be a great example of athletes created in God’s image doing beautiful/ heroic/ courageous things. They can be a great example of dying to self for a greater goal. They can provide great opportunities for true repentance, when we’ve sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, in public ways.

All of that to say, there’s a lot more to the “Christians in Sports” thing than kneeling in the end zone or penciling a bible verse onto your eye black.

ZB: Do you think Jesus likely played sports?

TK: I have no idea…but I wouldn’t doubt it. We know that Jesus had a “physical life” as well as, of course, a spiritual life. He worked with his hands. He experienced hunger and fatigue. It makes sense to me, then, that he would want to compete, whether it was running races or throwing rocks or wrestling or whatever they did back then. Though I’m certain that when he won he didn’t pound his chest and point at the sky.

ZB: Has your involvement (both as a writer and a participant) in the sports world opened doors for evangelism?

TK: Absolutely. It opens doors for evangelism because it’s a world that I love and care about, so naturally I love and care about the people in it. I think sometimes we feel like if we’re not starting a fair trade coffee shop or writing a screenplay for Jesus, we’re not quote/ unquote Engaging the Culture. But for me, football is cultural engagement. It’s just the culture I happen to really like.

There are lots of hours in weight rooms and on buses that naturally lead to spiritual conversations. I thank God for chances to share the gospel with teammates from Paper Tiger, and some of the fighters in Facing Tyson. That made those projects feel worthwhile.

ZB: What are the origins of the slogan “Ted Wins?”

TK: Remember the whole “Love Wins” thing in Grand Rapids? The bumper stickers, t-shirts etc. that were all based on a Rob Bell sermon? My blog name and slogan is kind of a satire of that. “Ted Wins…because Love Won last year.”

ZB: Do you know of any other writers who split their work between the world of professional sports and matters of theological/ ecclesiological significance? (Sub-question: are you one of a kind?)

TK: I am, to my knowledge, completely unique and fabulous in every way (hint: buy my books).

On a serious note, no, I don’t know of a lot of guys who do this, but I do know of a lot of Christian guys who are thoughtful about sports and wish they had something to read besides the Orel Hersheiser and Dave Dravecky biographies.

ZB: What were you and Kevin trying to accomplish in writing Why We’re Not Emergent?

TK: To remind people that the gospel isn’t primarily about what we can do for God, but about what God did for us. We also wanted to encourage the kinds of humble, plodding local pastors who wouldn’t describe themselves using words like “revolutionary”, “futurist”, “activist” or “transformational change architect” but who are nevertheless heralds for the gospel.

ZB: What kind of responses have you personally received to the book?

TK: Almost overwhelmingly positive. It’s really humbling for me, a “Joe Blow in the pew” type, to receive letters from pastors, telling me that they enjoyed the book or were encouraged by it. I have a great deal of respect for pastors, and it blows my mind to think that something I wrote could encourage them. I also get a lot of “you put to the page what I’ve been thinking for years” type-responses, which is also very cool.

Oddly enough, I’ve received the most hate mail for the section I wrote about holiday letters and homeschooling, which I just mentioned in passing (a half-page, if that) in a tongue-in-cheek way. These messages usually take a thousand or so words to tell me that I’m an idiot and wrong, and then almost invariably end with a signature like “In Him” or “Blessings.” You’ve got to love Christian hate mail.

ZB: What do you think are the greatest strengths of the emergent church?

TK: The fact that they think they can save the world. Also, I think the existence of the emergent church has forced a lot of people to articulate exactly what it is they believe, which at the end of the day is a good thing.

ZB: The greatest weaknesses?

TK: The fact that they think they can save the world. Ultimately it’s the kind of thing that will crumple under the weight of its own moralism.

ZB: When you found out that Why We’re Not Emergent won the 2009 Christianity Today Book Award for the church/pastoral leadership category (even beating out the late Robert E. Webber), were you surprised? Have you become cockier?

TK: Fame is hard, Zach. I can’t really grocery shop in town now, without people stopping me and saying things to the effect of “Hey, didn’t you win the 2009 CT Book Award for Church/Pastoral leadership?” Young, reformed children (note: there are a lot of these) have also been known to ask me to sign copies of their church bulletins. Heady stuff. Now I know what Carman felt like in 1986.

Seriously though…I was very surprised. Especially given CT’s friendliness toward the Emergent Church. But what people don’t realize about writers and cockiness is that writing is pretty much the most humbling thing in the world. If I get 100 reviews, and 99 of them are good, I’ll obsess over the bad one. This pretty much negates any cockiness that might develop. Though I wouldn’t mind getting cockier…it sounds like fun.

ZB: At least two of your books have now won awards (the Library of Michigan selected Paper Tiger as a Michigan Notable Book in 2008). Have you considered appending “award-winning author” to the front of your name? I don’t just mean in promotional material, but when introducing yourself, etc.

TK: I’ve tried to encourage my wife to call me “an award winning author” around the house…also, bank tellers and the guys at the gas station really seem to get a kick out of it when I do it (often).

Okay, I'm gonna pause it right there. Chew on that for a while and then check back in a few days for part 2, in which Ted talks more about Why We're Not Emergent and his new book, Why We Love the Church. He also re-visits "evangelical smackdown," but with a personal twist. If you miss it, you're probably not elect.

Update: Click here for Part 2.

6 reader comments:

E. said...

This Ted Kluck character sounds like a real cool dude. Could someone this awesome be real?

poopemerges said...

"The fact that they think they can save the world. Ultimately it’s the kind of thing that will crumple under the weight of its own moralism."

Perhaps one of the greatest sentences ever spoken by and award winning writer.

Andrew said...

Strong stuff.

mikewittmer said...

Great interview, Zach. It's encouraging to know that Ted wins.

VRM said...

Architecture geek alert - what church is in the background of your sketch? I like the woodwork.

ZSB said...

No idea. I got the pic from this guy I know named "Google."