Listening In: Jonathan Rogers


WARREN SMITH, HOST: I’m Warren Smith and today you will be listening in on my conversation with novelists and Flannery O’Connor, biographer, Dr. Jonathan Rogers.

Jonathan Rogers took an unlikely path to become a writer of children’s fantasy books. He said an academic with a phd in English from Vanderbilt University specializing in 18th century British writers. However, it’s unlikely only if you disregard such people as C.S. Lewis and JRR Tolkien, who likewise understood that tapping into ancient stories, stories that have stood the test of time was often the best way to tell stories today.

Jonathan Rogers fiction includes The Wilderking Trilogy — those books include The Bark of the Bog Owl, The Secret of the Swamp King, and The Way of the Wilderking. He’s also written TheCharlatansBoy. They’re fantasy stories, but as you will hear, he says they owe more to Mark Twain and to JRR Tolkien. He also says they harness humor in the service of divine comedy, a worldview in which the sorrows and hurts of this world, as true as they might be, aren’t nearly as true as a vital joy and love that will one day sweep everything before them lik a flood.

Given all that, it’s probably no surprise that he’s also a student of Flannery O’Connor, who during her short life was concerned about the very same matters. Rogers has written a book about Flannery O’Connor. It’s called The Terrible Speed of Mercy: A Spiritual Biography of Flannery O’Connor.

I had this conversation with Jonathan Rogers, both about his fiction, about Flannery O’Connor, and about the Rabbit Room collective that he’s a part of in Nashville.

Jonathan Rogers, welcome to the program. And, you know, you’re interested in so many of the same things that I’m interested in that it’s hard to figure out how to focus our conversation. But I think I’m going to start with your book, The Terrible Speed of Mercy: A Spiritual Biography of Flannery O’Connor for several reasons. Number one is that I think it allows us to talk about a lot of the ideas that we want to talk about elsewhere. Number two, I love the book. I thought it was great. I read a lot about Flannery O’Connor. You know this about my background that, you know, I studied under a man who knew Flannery O’Connor personally. Andrew Lytle. I did my master’s thesis on Andrew Lytle who taught Flannery O’Connor. So I wouldn’t say I’ve read everything there is to read about Flannery O’Connor, but I’ve read most everything there is to read and this is the best of it right here in your book.

And so let me just start with your interest. You are from Middle Georgia. Flannery O’Connor’s from Milledgeville. Not quite the same town. Was she just in the air? Was she just in the water when you were growing up?

JONATHAN ROGERS, GUEST: No, I wouldn’t say she was in the air and the water. I don’t know that she’s in the air anywhere in terms of everybody knowing… Well, except insofar as when she read her letters and her language she uses there is so familiar to middle Georgia native.

SMITH: You probably came to that much later, right?

ROGERS: I did come to that much later. So it’s not like I even heard that much about Flannery O’Connor. Though once you start asking around people, a lot of people have little stories here and there about Flannery O’Connor.

SMITH: So how did you run across her the then? Did you have to read her in high school or something?

ROGERS: I read, maybe probably read A Good Man is Hard to Find in high school, read her in college, and just really loved her. You know, I was very much in sort of John Milton mode during college and didn’t quite appreciate Flannery O’Connor the way I needed to, or wish I had. Went on and got a PhD in Milton. So it was really after my sort of academic career was winding down, so to speak, that I got interested in Flannery O’Connor. More as when I needed somebody to help me find my voice as a writer as opposed to an academic. And that’s when I realized, wait a minute, maybe I’m not an academic so much as just a writer.

SMITH: Well and I do want to talk about especially your Wilderking Trilogy in just a bit but let’s stick with Flannery O’Connor before we transition to some of these other issues. So you may be read her a little bit. You probably read the short stories. You read those short stories and you do hear a little bit of that southern voice, but I think you’re right. It’s more in the letters that it comes out. When did you discover the letters? Which for those in the know, it’s called The Habit of Being and it came out, I believe, in the 1970s. Sally Fitzgerald.

ROGERS: Might’ve been the 80s.

SMTIH: You would know more than… I’ll accept your authority on that subject. Sally Fitzgerald edited them, which, I mean, a masterful editing job. Sally Fitzgerald and Robert Fitzgerald, of course, were close with Flannery O’Connor. Loved her. And, yeah, put her best foot forward with that book. Was that what did it for you, the letters?

ROGERS: I think it probably was. When I read those letters, I thought, good grief, she’s my people. You know, her voice, she kind of looks like in a lot of her, some for better photographs she looks like my mother when my mother was that age, young. And so just everything about her just made me just feel like, oh, this is kind of my people, the way she talks, the way she… just her interests, I mean, not that my family especially interested in serial killers, but there’s the sort of her humor is… I don’t know that I’m not making any particular claims from middle Georgians, there’s a unique humor in middle Georgia, but there’s something about… there actually was a genre, it’s sort of sub sub genre called middle Georgia humor back when the 19th century humorists were kind of doing their thing. And she very much comes out of that. I don’t think people are as aware as they could be of how she and Mark Twain have so many of the same influences in terms of the humorists of the 19th century.

SMITH: Well, I don’t think there’s any doubt that middle Georgia is, you know, so much in, I mean, all of her stories, with maybe rare exceptions, are set in Georgia. I mean, I remember in one of the letters, she gets asked at some college, you know, why did the man in his story wear a black hat? Is that a symbol of evil? And she just says, well, in the part of Georgia I come from, men wear hats and they are often black or something like that. I mean, it was very much, she was describing what she saw all around her.

ROGERS: Yeah. And I think the thing I love about her so much, and again this is sort of an accident of birth. Again, I’m not making any particular claims for, it’s just that that happens to be the part of the world I’m from, the way that she saw, there was a really a mythical, she saw the stuff of middle Georgia. It might as well, mimicking somebody who I remember who said that for her, you know, middle Georgia was her Thebes. You know, the person to compare her to is not the sort of southern gothic writers,  it’s Sophocles. And so the way she sort of took the everyday stuff of middle Georgia and said, this is where the great dramas of sin and judgment and grace play themselves out. That this world is where God does his work. Man, that just made a huge impact on me as a person, as a writer.

SMITH: Yeah. Well, you know, to me that was another thing that is interesting and I don’t want to read too much into this and you can debunk what I’m about to say, if you will, but there is an accident or a providence in the geography that she’s from that where you know, you’ve got these fields that are often surrounded by woods. Whereas if you look at Western literature, it’s wide open spaces. But in the south it’s not so much that. It’s river swamps and you know subtropical rain forest that have been cleared and there’s just always kind of this mystery at the, I mean, we can see so far, but then there’s those mysterious woods beyond and that’s both a part of her theology and a part of the geography of her place.

ROGERS: Yeah, no, I’ve never given this much thought, but I think you’re making a good point here that the wide openness of Western literature is one thing. And in Flannery O’Connor’s literature, it’s not so wide open. I mean there’s people everywhere. I guess in the East, you’re always rubbing up against somebody in a way that maybe in the West, the mythology of the West is aloneness. However accurate that is. But yeah, it is the mythology.

SMITH: No, that’s exactly right. The wilderness, the writing out for the territory of Huck Finn kinda thing. Back to Flannery O’Connor and sort of the theology and, I mean, so much at this late date has been written about Flannery O’Connor and, you know, journals and books and all kinds of things. But I am interested in this one aspect and that is that you mentioned Milton earlier. Milton once described his audience as fit though few. And in some ways that’s Flannery O’Connor’s audience as well.

ROGERS: Certainly when she was alive. She’s more popular now than ever.

SMITH: That’s right. Well, that’s the point I was going to make. She is more popular now than ever. She did okay while she was alive. But since she’s died and maybe it’s Sally Fitzgerald’s letters that helped a lot of that and I think there was a posthumous collection or her complete stories that won a national book award or Pulitzer or something like that. I don’t know what it was that probably helped as well. But why is it today do you think young people, why do young people, I know my adult kids have discovered Flannery O’Connor and they just love her and why do you think that is? Why do you think that that she’s had staying power now?

ROGERs: I guess the project of evangelicalism for so long has been demystification. Look at the titles in a Christian bookstore. It’s seven steps to this and know it’s this sort of —

SMITH: How to do that. 

ROGERS: Yeah, it’s not coming face to face with the mysteries. It’s saying we’re going to solve the mysteries. Sort of the project of modernism period is to — when I say modernism, you know, as distinct from postmodernism. But you know, in Flannery O’Connor’s era, she was always speaking out against that kind of “instant uplift” she called it. And instead offering to the reader an opportunity to just sort of dwell in mysteries that are beyond what they can make sense of. And so I think in a world in which, you know, the sort of evangelical project has brought us where it has, that sort of demystification, which you know, can end up being pretty brutal. I think an author who says, hey, why don’t we just have a look at these mysteries and not try to solve them, just inhabit them. I think there’s a lot of appeal in that.

SMITH: Well, looking at the mysteries, but also firmly grounded, firmly rooted in — it’s not ethereal mysticism.

ROGERS: Sure.

SMITH: It’s thoroughly grounded in Christian dogma and theology.

ROGERS: She was perfectly willing to use the word dogma. Now I’m going to misquote her…  But basically she says, dogma is the guardian of mystery. And she didn’t choose between dogma on the one hand and mystery on the other. And I do think that traditions that shy away from dogma end up losing track of the mystery as well because we have to have some kind of certainty.

And so if that has to be seven steps to your best life now or whatever, then then we’ll end up taking that if we don’t embrace dogma. And the dogma allows us to live with mystery.

SMITH: And is that maybe one of the reasons why so many of the great fantasy writers — C.S. Lewis, JRR Tolkien — have also been deeply rooted, firmly grounded in dogma and theology, do you think?

ROGERS: Yes. I mean, you think about somebody like Tolkien who’s looking to — is the word re-mythologize — I don’t know if that’s the right, precise enough term, but to awaken us to the mythical possibilities of the world around us by inventing a new world. And I think that’s one thing that’s different about Flannery O’Connor’s approach to storytelling was to remind us of — both of them are sort of reinvigorating the idea of mystery and mythology.

But for O’Connor, I’m going to show you, I’m not going to make up a new world, I’m going to show you this world right here. Here’s a doctor’s office where these mysteries are playing themselves out. Here’s a dairy farm. Here’s a city bus. Whereas you had Tolkien and Lewis sort of making up new worlds where they —

SMITH: Well, the example that you just used from one of Flannery O’Connor’s most famous stories — some people would argue her best story, Revelation, which starts in that doctor’s office. And one of the things, I mean, it really is an example of what you just said. I mean, she’s showing human kind — Yeah, the sociology book, Human Development, but showing them, though, in their sickness there in the doctor’s office. There’s something wrong with everyone in that room or they wouldn’t be there. And then by the time you get to the end of that story, there is a vision of mystery, of grace. That’s the reason the story’s called — a revelation. And a part of that revelation is, you know, Ruby Turpin understanding that we’re all sinners in need of a savior, even though she doesn’t quite, and Flannery O’Connor doesn’t quite put it in those terms.

ROGERS: Yeah. I love that story because it’s one of the few places where in the fiction Flannery O’Connor says here, y’all, here’s what I’ve been doing in all of these stories. She didn’t mind being misunderstood. And thankfully — this wasn’t too long before she died that she wrote Revelation — and thankfully she finally wrote a story or where she said, here’s what I’m really doing. I love that story.

SMITH: Jonathan, there was an old TV commercial, I forget what it’s even for now, where this guy stands up, says, I like the product so much I bought the company. I don’t remember — it’s a razor blade or something like that. And I think about that for some reason whenever I think about you. I mean, you’re an academic, you’ve got a PhD in, you know, what the 17th century. But now you’ve become a writer yourself and I don’t mean a writer of nonfiction, but of fiction. The Wilderking Trilogy, I’ve heard it described as a fantasy with an American accent, which resonated with me because when I do think about a lot of the fantasies, like the Narnia and Lord of the Rings, there is something very British about those, right?

ROGERS: Yeah. British or northern.

SMITH: But you were very intentional about this kind of being an American story.

ROGERS: Yeah. I mean The Wilderking is set in an imaginary place, but that place looks suspiciously like South Georgia or Florida. Because those are places that have always felt very sort of mysterious and mythical to me. There’s alligators there, for crying out loud. I was like there’s dragons who live in these places, who — I grew up in a place that didn’t have alligators when I was born and then the alligators came back and as alligators came back, it was as if dragons have come to my hometown, you know? First time I saw an alligator in the wild, you know, it was just this staggering experience for me. I was probably 18 or 19 years old, but, you know, the alligators, I was very aware that they used to live in middle Georgia, then they went away, and then as they came back and it was, you know, and I realize this is nine miles from my house and there’s an alligator here.

SMITH: Well we’re talking about alligators because you know, in some ways they’re an accident of geography, shall we say. But in other ways they’re not either. I mean you know, I’ve heard it said that there were only really three kinds of stories and one of them is slay the dragon, right? 

ROGERS: Right, yeah.

SMITH: And the others are also in your —

ROGERS: A man goes on a trip.

SMITH: Sort of a quest story, yeah. Keep going.

ROGERS: Well, really, I mean The Wilderking stories sort of retell the David story, although as you get deeper into the trilogy, the parallels are maybe not quite as obvious to a young reader. But within the David story, you have the slay the giant story, you have the quest story where Saul sends him off to bring back, what is it, a hundred Philistine foreskins or whatever it was. And then there’s the Robin Hood story where he’s hiding out in the caves and canyons as an outlaw, trying to sort of establish some kind of world of order when the whole world around him is his disordered.

SMITH: Can you say a little bit more about that? I think people kind of understand the first two, but the Robin Hood story is not to me as obvious an archetypal story. I mean, we know the story of Robin Hood, but help me understand that a little bit more. I mean, is this a quest for trying to understand what’s good and what’s evil, what’s right and what’s wrong? The way we should relate to authority?

ROGERS: That’s always been such a fascinating part of David’s story to me. In general, just the idea of, hey, you’re a boy and you’re going to be king someday, but you’re not yet. What’s it like to live in that gap? And that’s really in many ways what the Wilderking stories are about. But such an important part of that in the David story is what do you do when the people who’ve told you all these things about who God is, when they’re not living it. When they tell you that Jehovah reigns and yet they’re cowering in fear before this giant, you know, what’s a boy supposed to do with that? Or in the case of when he’s in the caves hiding out from Saul, you know, as you said, this is a question of what’s our relationship to authority. And it’s very complicated and I think it’s something that young people deal with all the time.

SMITH: Well, in your books, The Wilderking Trilogy, who would you say are your literary forebears? Would it be Tolkien? Would it be Lewis? Or would it be Mark Twain?

ROGERS: I mean, I came to understand this more as I got into it, that it’s Mark Twain more than — I mean, of course it’s all three of them, but, the more I — like so many young writers, when you set out, young Christian writers of fiction, your first go-to is someone like Lewis. And I thought, I thought of Lewis as a model, but as I sort of found my own voice, I realized, wait a minute, this is more, some reviewer pointed out some parallels between, I guess it was my second book and Huck Finn. And at first I said, no, I didn’t think about Huck Finn once. But then I realize, I think about Huck Finn all the time. I just don’t even know I’m thinking about Huck Finn.

SMITH: Yeah. He’s in the air, he’s in the water.

ROGERS: Yeah, and so Twain is an exceedingly important influence for me. Also, the people who influenced Twain were important influences on me, which ends up looking like very similar to being influenced by Twain, right? 

SMITH: Say a little bit more about that and be more specific? Because when I think of Twain for example, I think about that troubled relationship to authority. I think about, you know, lighting out for the territory. It’s not… I don’t know if we would necessarily want to call it Western literature. I once heard it said that all American literature is Western literature. That, you know, if you read The Scarlet Letter, for example, that was the west. Massachusetts was the west. And then you know, by the time you get to, you know, Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn and the Trans Mississippi was the west. I’m not sure whether I buy that, but I do think that the idea of exploring the frontier, going to the edge of the frontier and then deciding whether to put down roots or to go into that unknown territory probably is an important part of the American experience. It also seems to be an important part of what you’re describing in your books as well.

ROGERS: Absolutely. Yeah. I mean my stories are very much frontier stories for those very reasons you’re saying here. What does it mean to — we all have this kind of wild streak in us that’s there for some reason and I don’t think it’s just that we’re weak and wounded, sick and sore. I don’t think this is just the fall or that is just sin. I think there’s a reason there’s a wildness in us. And I think maybe Americans are a little more in touch — for better or worse — Americans have traditionally been a little more in touch with that.

SMITH: Well, I hate to sort of do a Jesus juke on you and get theological, but you know, I’ve heard it said that Satan doesn’t create, he only corrupts and that wildness that’s in us having, you know, God made us holy and pure and put us in a wild place. He put us in a garden. He told us to cultivate that garden. I mean that being comfortable with that wildness and doing something with that wildness, that frontier, it seems to me a prelapsarian condition, shall we say. Again, I don’t want to get too theological on you, but it does kind of make sense that what Satan has done is corrupt that sense, and not create that sense in us.

ROGERS: Yeah. And so I think all those themes are — they end here in the David story. And the first time I really understood the extent to which the David story felt like a Western was Eugene Peterson’s book Leap Over a Wall. I didn’t actually … it wasn’t I read the book, I heard the sermon series that the book was based on and then the book came out and it just set me on fire. You know, I just wanted it to tell that story. And then I wanted to sort of transpose it to an American setting. That seemed very appropriate to me.

SMITH: Yeah. Well, you know, Jonathan, to pivot just a little bit in our conversation. I’m having this conversation with you. I’ve had Andrew Peterson on the program before. Claire Gibson, I just interviewed about her new novel and she’s a student of yours. It seems to me that there are a lot of Christians who are grappling deeply with some of these questions that you’re grappling with. You know, what it means to be an artist in this postmodern world as a Christian. How to tell stories that touch some of these ancient ideas but do so in ways that readers today can resonate with and connect with. Am I making this up or am I seeing something here?

ROGERS: I think you’re seeing something, sure.

SMITH: Do you intentionally see yourselves as part of a movement or are you just doing your thing?

ROGERS: I don’t think in terms of movement, necessarily. I assume there have always been, you know, Christian storytellers trying to do what they can to sort of help people align themselves with something that’s truer than the stories that the world is telling them. You know, I think that’s the Christian’s role in the world. Whether they are a storyteller or a parent or whatever, it’s just sort of offering this counter-narrative that says, oh, all these other stories that you’re hearing from the world, there may be some truth in there, but here’s something truer. And I count it a privilege to have the opportunity to just sort of tell some stories that maybe help people align with something that’s true. And that’s the funny thing about fiction is we think of it in terms of — it’s not that we’re making up imaginary worlds so much as saying, here’s a vision of reality and I think that’s the real value to stories. And stories that that, by the way, align us with something that’s not real, aren’t especially helpful stories. Although I think it’s pretty hard to tell a story that doesn’t have any kind of reality, any relationship to reality. 

SMITH: Jonathan, I’d like to pivot once again in our conversation and rather than talk specifically about your work, I want to talk about your place in a larger community, which we’ve also kind of alluded to and that is the Rabbit Room community. You’re up here in Nashville, Andrew Peterson’s here in Nashville. Pete Peterson, his brother’s here in Nashville, Douglas Kelby, whole lot of others, that have this loose affiliation, as being members of the Rabbit Room. Tell me how that came about from your point of view, how you got involved with these guys, whether you guys see yourself —as I maybe have asked earlier — intentionally as part of a movement or you just doing your thing and are nurtured by the friendship and the association? 

ROGERS: That term, for whatever reason, I like coupled with that term movement because that sounds like a kind of, I don’t know what it sounds like, but the Rabbit Room starts with friendship. I mean, you know, it got started when Andrew just sort of invited some of his friends who also happened to be writers or artists or songwriters or whatever who were Christian people and who shared those interests and kind of said, why don’t we start a blog? Why don’t we, I mean it’s kind of was  — Rabbit Room started as a blog but also these were people who were friends with each other. Or, in any case, they were all friends with Andrew and then became friends with each other because Andrew’s kind of a connector anyway. He kind of collects people, collects friends in the best possible sense, you know And so, I mean many of my most important friendships now came out of that connection. Cause now that I think about it, I guess I didn’t actually know many of the Rabbit Room people before the Rabbit Room started, but it’s through the Rabbit Room that I got to know these, you know, various people who are mixed up with it.

SMITH: Well, I do wonder out loud here just a minute and you can correct me or affirm it. You’re uncomfortableness with the word movement, in part, I wonder if it doesn’t stem from the fact that in some ways it’s like the anti-movement. I mean, it really started as a friendship and friendships that “have an agenda,” that are trying, you know, where I’m trying to get you to do something or I sense that you’re trying to get me to do something, they don’t last. But true friendship is not about what you can do for me. It’s rooted in love. It’s rooted in caring for the other person is rooted in service. I mean, is that fair?

ROGERS: It turns out that’s an exceedingly generative position.

SMITH: By that you mean it’s fruitful? 

ROGERS: I know from my part, I think I would’ve — writing’s hard and I don’t know that I would have kept doing it if I hadn’t had these friends who were encouraging me, reminding me that it was important. Also to look around and see, oh yeah, this isn’t easy for anybody. At least not for any of the creators — of these people who I respect their work so much and it looks — when you see the finished product and it looks so polished and good, to realize, no, no, no. That was her really hard process for them. 

SMITH: Well, you know, it’s funny, a couple of weeks ago I interviewed a guy named Joe Loconte who wrote a book about Lewis and Tolkien and the Great War, WWI. And one of the things that he talked about was just how important the friendship was between those two to their work. Joe Loconte said about Lewis and Tolkien exactly what you just said, or almost exactly what you just said about the folks that you’re working with or are associated with in the Rabbit Room, which is that both of them would have probably given up — probably more so Tolkien on Middle Earth without Lewis’ support. Without Lewis saying this is important, you need to keep doing it. And it’s hard to imagine that today when you think about all the, you know, billions of dollars and hundreds of millions of people that have been nourished by that book, that it just almost didn’t happen. But for a friendship, it probably wouldn’t have happened.

ROGERS: Yeah. These stories, they appear all the time, you know, the friendships that resulted in, you know, good work. And sometimes work that, you know, you’ve never heard of either, right? But there’s something about having somebody alongside you with a shared interest that spurs you on to love and good deeds. Right?

SMITH: Yeah. Well, so this friendship, which has resulted in a lot of great individual work is recently started to kind of come together into a more intentional community. I mean, you guys are doing, for example, the Rabbit Room On the Road with the Colson Center this spring, which we’re really excited about. How did that come about?

ROGERS: I thought you had something to do that come about, Warren, didn’t you? 

SMITH: Well, I guess I had it to do with you guys being at the Colson Center. I might have played a role in that, but I think it’s genesis was in Hutchmoot.

ROGERS: Oh yeah. Right. Yeah. So Hutchmoot is our annual gathering. I guess you’d call it a conference, but it’s, you’ve been to Hutchmoot, haven’t you? 

SMITH: I have, yeah.

ROGERS: You’ve been to a lot of conferences, right?

SMITH: Yeah, it’s kind of the anti-conference.

ROGERS: Yeah, it is. Isn’t it? It’s terrible for networking. It’s not a good place to sort of make business connections. And if you do sort of bring your manuscripts to look at, it’s kind of frowned on. Everything people would go to conferences for, Hutchmoot’s not a good place for. But it’s a great place to sit down and have a meal with somebody you’ve never met before. And to talk about some topic that you might share an interest in or you maybe you didn’t realize you shared an interest in until you got there. Hutchmoot is kind of this embodiment of what we were hoping to accomplish in the blog, but you just can’t accomplish online. You can’t sit across the table from somebody and talk to them on the Internet.

SMITH: Well, one of the things that was interesting to me about Hutchmoot was Russell Moore, who is with the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention and, you know, he’s often involved in policy matters and he’s on Capitol Hill. He was teaching a class on I think Johnny Cash at Hutchmoot. There were people there — you go to the “exhibit hall” where everybody sort of pedal — normally you would see, you know, booths. There was a potter there. There was a leather worker there. And I mean, and they weren’t just selling pots or selling belts, they were making them on the spot and you could watch them and pick up a hammer and hit a piece of leather if you wanted to. 

ROGERS: Yeah, I mean, Hutchmoot is sort of like Christmas. Probably my favorite weekend of the year, just the time to sort of gather and see friends that you don’t see all that often who share this interest in the arts, in faith, and in the ways that community nurtures art and the way that art nurtures community or friendship. 

SMITH: Well, I do wonder — and you and I have had some of these conversations off mic, Jonathan — but is this a transferrable concept? I mean, Nashville is a unique place. Other communities have other uniqueness, if that’s the way to say that —

ROGERS: Uniqueries, I think is the word.

SMITH: But Nashville is unusual, to say the least. And so I know a lot of people come to Hutchmoot encouraged as I was, and then I’ll go back to my home of Charlotte and say, oh man, I sure wish we could do this here and discover that it’s probably not going to look like this in Charlotte. 

ROGERS: That’s true enough, right? It’s just not whatever gets put together in another place, isn’t going to like what gets put together in this place. But that’s just the fact of the way the world works.

SMITH: That’s not a reason not to do it. That’s not a reason to build whatever is unique to your space, your place.

ROGERS: Yeah. I mean that’s what’s so gorgeous about this world, you know, is that every place has its own signature and its own — But also I think this is a really important point. I mentioned this earlier. The arts are just a relatively small wedge of the pie that is creativity. Every time you are telling a truer story than the one the world is telling, whether that’s in entrepreneurship or in hospitality or writing stories, whatever it is. I mean, every time Christian people live out the Kingdom of God and say, here’s something that’s truer — you’ve got the city of God that’s sort of trying to make its way here in the city of man and to tell the story of the city of God and say, no, no, no, we’re, we’re citizens of this city.I think there’s a clue there as to what I mean — As it turns out, the people that started the Rabbit Room, they are in the arts. That’s true enough. And I think the artist’s job is to equip people to be creative well beyond the arts in telling that truer story. And so I don’t know that at the Rabbit Room we have yet sorted out how to do this, but I think that’s our calling is not to create arts communities, but to equip people to be creative in ways that go way, way beyond the arts.

And you know, the great thing about the arts is that they’re especially good, I think, at helping other people be creative in other areas beyond the arts, but to sort of elevate the arts as if they are the be all end all of even something like the Rabbit Room, I think is a mistake.

SMITH: Well, you know, there’s also another element of this that comes to my mind in that is that God made the whole world, not just Nashville or not just Colorado Springs or not just New York or LA or Washington or Hollywood. He made it all. And even in Jesus’s day they were saying, can anything good come out of Nazareth, right? And Flannery O’Connor, nobody thought of Milledgeville, Georgia as a hotbed for artistic activity whenever she was there in the 1950s and early sixties. So, it’s to be obedient wherever God has put you, it seems to me, is an important part of this.

ROGERS: And I hope that the Rabbit Room, will get better at equipping people to not look, to think of Nashville as the Vatican of the Rabbit Room, you know, but do a better job of helping people do their thing where they are.

SMITH: Jonathan, I hope you have — you’re still a young man, especially compared to me, and I hope you have many, many more great years of writing and teaching and other things ahead of you. But I know you’re enough of a Bible scholar to know that what the Bible says is true and that is that one day we will all die. How do you want people to remember you? How do you want people to remember the work of Jonathan Rogers?

ROGERS: Well, forgive me cause this is the third time I brought it up, but this has been such an important idea for me of the idea of telling a truer story. I hope I’m remembered as somebody who told some stories that were truer than the ones the world was telling. Stories that help people to resort to Augustine — Augustine didn’t come up this whole time — that helps make it clear what reordered, properly ordered, lives look like.


(Photo/Jonathan Rogers)

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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