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Navigating life’s spiritual path

Five questions for Journalism Professor Stephen Reese on faith.

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Christmas, which celebrates the birth of Christianity’s central figure, Jesus, is around the corner. With that in mind, Stephen Reese, professor of journalism and author of “Hope for the Thinking Christian: Seeking a Path of Faith through Everyday Life,” answers questions about his own faith journey.

Know: Describe your religious upbringing. Did your parents have a strong faith? Did you grow up in a vibrant spiritual community?

Reese: I grew up in a southern, middle-class family, and raised as a Methodist. I was active in my large, rather formal downtown church in Knoxville, Tenn., as were my parents. I call it a “stiff upper lip” church, and we frowned on the Bible-thumping, “holy roller” backwoods types in that area. I also resisted my evangelical friends in high school and college who had “found Jesus” and wanted to make sure I would too. So, somewhere in there I wanted to find my own path, with the special twist of having a Jewish wife and needing to navigate these different faith traditions.

Was there a time — perhaps during a crisis — when you drifted away from your faith? If so, please explain. How did you return to your faith?

Like a lot of young people, going off to college and grad school means getting away from a faith routine. And then when the kids arrive you try to recapture it, because you realize you have a responsibility to that part of the family heritage. Sleeping in on Sunday mornings would make me feel guilty and ill-at-ease. Beyond that though there’s the search for something deeper that drove me to seek a more intimate experience of God. A crisis often helps “defeat” us and make us more open to the grace of God, and I had my own such crisis to confront. It doesn’t have to be a outwardly visible trainwreck, but I explore in the book the idea of the spiritual crisis of everyday life, which we all face in one form or another.

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What inspired you to write “Hope for the Thinking Christian?”

I had been doing some informal talks to men’s retreats and other groups at my Methodist church here in town, and I had accumulated enough personal reflections to consider making a larger statement. As an academic, I guess we feel this drive to publish, but this project was a particular challenge. I wanted to express honestly how I experienced by faith in the everyday moments of life, to ground that in an intellectually engaged theological understanding, and be willing to let others into what is usually a very private side of our worlds.

You’ve said you had to reconcile your faith and beliefs with your intellectual tradition and you concluded the two are not antithetical. What was your process for coming to this conclusion?

I knew they weren’t antithetical within my own life, because I hope I can be considered both an intellectual and someone who is called to Christian discipleship. Nevertheless, there’s still that sense that university life and the faith journey are worlds apart, or at least highly compartmentalized. There’s also a general sense that the “brand” of Christianity has been tarnished by the intolerance, anti-intellectualism and fundamentalizing impulses in the world, so it needs to be recuperated by thoughtful believers. I hope I’m helping do that in this book, and from the responses I’ve received it seems others agree. Without holding myself out as a religious exemplar by any means, it sort of gives people permission to talk about these issues.

How do you connect with your spirituality during Christmas?

Like a lot of people, I have trouble getting “spiritualized” in the lead-up to Christmas, given the busyness, cultural distractions and expectations of how we want the season to go. I don’t like being told to shop when I don’t want to or obliged to feel a certain way when I’m not ready. Now that my sons are grown I enjoy attending the later Christmas Eve service with the family, apart from the restlessness of the younger kids at earlier services. It can be a contemplative and magical time. I agreed this year to do a four-part advent series around my book’s chapters for a local Episcopal church, because although it’s a lot of time to commit I knew it would help me be more intentional about the season and encourage me to pay attention to where God is leading me next in my life.