What Is the Eucatastrophe and Why Should It Matter to Christianity?

I have this friend, Phil Shepherd. He's a brother-in-arms and a catalyst for change. He's a provocateur and an Alaskan native. He co-pastors a group of experimental people in Texas called the Eucatastrophe, which assembles to talk about God, drink whiskey, and deconstruct life. In my interview with him, he talks about Glenn Beck, The Huffington Post, being a recovering fundamentalist, and, of course, the faith community he founded. Check out the interview, and don't forget to follow the links below to find out more about him and his community.

Can you tell us a bit of your story?

I was born and raised in Anchorage, Alaska. I have found over the years, as I have traveled and moved away from Alaska, that we Alaskans are a breed unto our own. Not all of us grew up seeing Russia from our own back yards; however, looking back upon my childhood, the stark reality was that the right-wing, fundamentalist-Christianity crusade I was exposed to as a Southern Baptist in Alaska was just as much a threat to my well-being as was nuclear fallout from Russia. Unfortunately, my high school didn't posses a fallout shelter to protect me from the Southern Baptists!

I am a recovering fundamentalist -- or, as I read recently on a friend's blog, a "funagelical," which is a fundamentalist who happens to be an evangelical. To be completely honest -- because that is what they say you need to do in recovery is to be completely honest -- I am a recovering Southern Baptist evangelical fundamentalist...from Alaska. From Alaska? Yes. Talk about an identity crisis. I was raised in a faith that was created over the issue of slavery (they were for it) when my state was still being occupied by the not-yet-superpower of Russia. Southern Baptist, in the northernest state in the union. Needless to say, I was out of touch with the real world in some places. I am thankful that I grew up in a family who loved God and truly wanted to seek a healthy faith, but the path of this journey loaded many of us up with baggage that may take the rest of our lifetimes to unpack.

This unpacking started my junior year in high school. Life was going in all different directions -- and I don't just mean my hormones, either! In my junior year, I realized that I was not a good fundamentalist Christian. I would sneak R-rated movies into my media diet, as well as "secular" music that my peers thought to be an abomination. I got tired of living in a world that was built upon a foundation of checklists that were passed out every Sunday morning during Sunday school. It wasn't realistic or healthy. I was exhausted living a dual life and couldn't do it anymore. Tracy, who was my youth pastor at the time, really saw my struggle and encouraged me. Tracy gave me the freedom to start asking questions in a safe environment -- questions that I needed to ask to get into healthily place. In this process, Tracy ended up instilling in me a love for questions, embracing them rather than fearing them, in our faith journeys. And for this I will always be grateful.

In the years of unpacking my faith journey, I found that I was not alone in this conversation. In fact, that there were others all around the world who were going through the same type of deconstruction that I was! The emergent conversation (not labeled with this title until some years later) was a life raft for many of us.

As a side note, I think it's amusing that I am now reading articles that are suggesting that the emergent conversation is dying or is dead. My response to those people is that if they truly think it is dead, then they don't understand it in the first place. Just because it looks different than it did 15 to 20 years ago doesn't mean it's dead; it means it's different -- and I guess in the modern mindset of Christianity, they equate different to death.

What's something people do not know about you?

I am a closet fan of the Gather Vocal Band.

You personally claim that you follow Jesus. What does that mean to you?

I claim to follow God through the way of Jesus. Jesus to me is one part of the community of God that many call the Trinity. I think Jesus was and is God incarnate, but he was 100-percent human, too. To me, Jesus led and still leads a revolution of love. In my opinion (which I respect), Jesus' ministry, death, burial, resurrection, and ascension had the sole purpose to show the creation (that he helped create) that we are not pieces of shit but a loved creation.

How have your past experiences with faith affected the way you see the world now?

I am more patient and tolerant in some ways and less patient and tolerant in others. Let me flesh that out for you a little. I keep booklets of CDs that I grew up listing to that are littered with Christian music that I can no longer stomach listening to -- not because it's "Christian music," but because it's shitty music. However, I keep them around to remember where I was and where I have come from. By no means do I think I have life and faith figured out and that I've evolved into some supreme being. No, on the contrary, the more I get to know my Creator, the more I realize my perspective is limited and there is much that I don't yet know about Him or Her.

It is this tension that I live in -- it seems that the more I try to love the Creator and love the creation, the less intolerant I am of injustice, especially amongst folks who I call family and friends. I am not the type of person that can sit back and let someone abuse or take advantage of someone else simply because they seem to be in weakened state of some kind. In those types of situations, I am the usually the first to defend someone and the first to attack a predator -- whether it be verbally and (thank God) not physically in very long time. There are some advantages to being big, bald, and tattooed! Some call me a throwback. Some tell me that this is the tension of being a sinner and saint. Some call me a motherfucker because I can be the most loving person you have ever met, but if you mess with my family and friends, I can be the biggest fucker you have ever met. Some tell me I live an outlaw gospel. Whatever you may want to label, I realize I walk a tightrope of love and justice -- sometimes I am really good and sometimes I am not.

What is the Eucatastrophe? What does the name mean?

Eucatastrophe -- or "The Euc," as we call it -- is an intentional faith community in downtown Fort Worth that my wife Stephanie and I started together in the fall of 2007. The late J.R.R. Tolkien coined the term "eucatastrophe" in his essay entitled "On Fairy-Stories." (This essay can be found in a collection of his works called The Tolkien Reader). Tolkien used the term "eucatastrophe" to explain the "turn" of events in the story that gives hope to the hopeless. It is where the light invades the darkness so the hope and the joy of the Creator may be illuminated throughout all of creation. The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of humanities' history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends with joy.

What was the inspiration behind the Eucastastrophe?

The Eucatastrophe was a calling from God that turned into a haunting. I knew around age 21 that I was supposed to plant a church and that there was a particular vision God was instilling in me. However, I ran from this calling every which way I could for almost 10 years. The Eucatastrophe was originally inspired by the many different faith communities that my wife Stephanie and I had either pastored at or been a part of in sort of capacity over the years: Christ Community Church in Anchorage, UBC in Waco, Mosaic in Austin, 10th Ave. Church in Vancouver, Solomon's Porch in Minneapolis, and L'Abri, a community study center in the Hampshire countryside southwest of London. Shortly into our marriage, both Stephanie and I purposefully took a year away from working in the church. It started a bit as a Lenten practice, when we gave up church for Lent -- but after Lent, it turned into a purposeful year of reflection and rest from vocational church leadership. Soon this dream instilled in me to plant a church was haunting me day in, day out. One day, in the midst of a worship service, I said, "Fuck it, I won't be chickenshit anymore, God. I'll do it."

What are your reactions to the views of Glenn Beck on the subject of social justice and the role of it in the church?

Glenn Beck would be relative to me if I paid attention to him -- but I don't. I know only of his idiocy through friends. And from what I can tell, Glenn Beck is about as reliable as Sarah Palin. By the way, that's not a compliment, Glenn -- especially coming from an Alaskan.

If there was one issue in the world that you could deal with, what would it be? How would you deal with it?

Human trafficking. It's horrible and it breaks my heart, but nobody seems to want to talk about it because it's a hard topic to wrap oneself around. I know that this is not very "Christian" of me, but let's just say I don't know the culprits of human trafficking well enough to miss them when they are gone, to quote the late Johnny Cash.

What things in Christianity might need to change? How can we better be relevant? How is the Eucatasrophe already implementing these things?

Western Christianity needs to stop worshiping the bible. I think if we started to have scripture point to God instead of being our god, we would be in a lot healthier place than we are now. I am sure I'll receive hate mail for saying that. But we in Western Christianity have created a theology around a book and not the Triune God. We have created theological wars out whether scripture is inherent or not -- and I think it's bullshit that we spend our time on that conversation. If we took the bible out of the center of our theology and put the Triune God in there instead, there would be mass hysteria because we wouldn't know what to argue about anymore!

We talk about this a lot at the Eucatastrophe, about the practice of scripture pointing to our Triune Creator and not being the center of theology. We have a lot of biblical abuse survivors as well as former biblical abusers that are a part of our community; I fall into both areas, being a biblical abuse survivor as well as a former biblical abuser. Hear me and know that this is the context in which we do community. We have not wanted to throw the baby out with the bathwater concerning scripture, so we intentionally strive to find healthy ways to engage the biblical narrative as a community, and one of the best ways we have found that has been a constant since the genesis of the Eucatastrophe is through the ancient practice of Lectio Divina that literally means "sacred reading." It is a spiritual discipline that was created by the Benedictine monks some 1,500-plus years ago. I don't know if using of an ancient practice to engage scripture makes us relevant, but I do think it makes us healthy -- at least for our context, it does.

What are your thoughts on The Huffington Post? Are they too liberal with their subjects? How are they helping the global conversation?

If you had asked me 15 years ago if The Huffington Post was too liberal, I would have said yes -- while secretively peeking at it like a Playboy, hoping no one would find out. If you had asked me 10 years ago if The Huffington Post was too liberal, I would have said I don't care. If you had asked me five years ago if The Huffington Post was too liberal, I would have asked why am I still living in Canada? Now, I would say that no, it's not too liberal -- however, it may be considered so after you publish this article!

I think The Huff is helping people realize that there are other voices out there. Whether we realize that we are not alone or that there is a differing view, voices are being heard, and that is a good thing in my book.

What books are your reading at the moment? What's in your iPod?

The Grief Recovery Handbook by John W. James and Russell Friedman.

On my iPod: Damien Rice, Johnny Cash, Rage Against the Machine, Blue October, Counting Crows (old Counting Crows), Jay-Z, David Crowder Band, The Swell Season, Pink, The New Frontiers, Flyleaf, Flobots, Lyle Lovett, Soul Savers, Old Crow Medicine Show, La Coka Nostra, Loretta Lynn, Jason Mraz, and Gungor, to name a few! I am very eclectic in my music! Currently, I also really starting to get into Sam Cooke & The Soul Stirrers.

What makes you come alive?

I am an eight on the enneagram, so some would say conflict makes me come alive! I would say Stephanie, good friends, good music, good cigars, good whiskey, and nerdy discussion about theology!

Check out more on what Phil and his community are up to by following the links below: