I've never had a mentor, but that hasn’t stopped me from imagining what it might be like to have someone dedicated to pouring wisdom and godly counsel into my life. In the scenario I’ve created, my mentor—an older, elegant, and spunky woman—sits me down for tea in a sun-drenched room filled with books and possibly a chubby cat or two. We drink and talk about my questions, which she answers with a knowing smile before giving me good advice by the double handful. And I leave full of shortbread and Earl Grey, feeling truly seen, invested in, and well-loved.
While I’ve yet to experience that warm and fuzzy moment, I did have the chance to chat with author Keith R. Anderson, president emeritus of The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology. And he made me feel both heard and valued through a long-distance phone line connecting Atlanta to Phoenix. I could hear songbirds twittering in the trees—and an occasional fighter jet taking off from a nearby airbase—as he sat on his patio, sharing thoughts about the importance of mentorship in the Christian life.
Why do you think it’s so important for Christians to be mentored and to mentor others? Why is mentorship a struggle for us, especially since it was modeled so well by Christ Himself?
Keith R. Anderson:
One question I’ve been pondering for the last 30 years is, How did Jesus train followers for the kingdom? How did Jesus do discipleship? I’ve asked this question of leaders, pastors, whole congregations, and it’s been fascinating to me because people always say, “He taught. He performed miracles.” They go through the standard list, but there are two things that don’t come up very often: He had meals with people and was often in community with others. When Jesus sent the apostles out on an assignment, He sent them two by two, not as solitary individuals. And I think that’s what we’re missing today. American individualism has become very strong in church culture—so much so that we believe we come to faith alone. That’s not true; we come to faith together. That’s the reason that mentoring is so important. I need somebody else to help me understand my story. We all do. It’s essential to our humanity, and also I think it was Jesus’ way of doing discipleship.
Why do you think we continue to struggle with “rugged individuality” impulses in American Christianity?
Some of it is the way we have tended to teach and preach about biblical people. I grew up in a church where we talked about Old Testament characters in a very simplified way. But as I got older and began to read those stories for myself, I found that these weren’t heroic people, most of them. They were very human, very flawed people who also found ways in the midst of all that for some level of faithfulness to God. We tend to teach a kind of heroism that isn’t helpful. The disciples certainly weren’t perfect, but they became faithful.
You don’t view the mentor/mentee relationship in the traditional sense. You believe the task is “to read life as a story.” What do you mean by that?
The Old Testament characters were very human, very flawed people who also found ways in the midst of all that for some level of faithfulness to God.
In 2 Corinthians 3:3, Paul says, “You are a letter of Christ, cared for by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.” We are, each of us, a letter written by Christ. That’s part of what I mean by reading life as a story.
My conviction is that Scripture is the story of what God has done. We tend to get that today in preaching and Bible studies, worship and liturgy, and history, but Scripture is also alive and dynamic. It’s what God is doing. I don’t think we can say that loudly or boldly enough. That’s what it means to be resurrection people.
I remember in my early seminary classes, I was told the Gospel of Luke is a text about what Jesus did as teacher, healer, and in His crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension. And the Book of Acts is volume two, what Jesus continues to do through the Holy Spirit and through the church. So reading my story is reading what God is continuing to do. To me, that’s simply good theology. It’s seeing what God is writing in our story.
If our God lurks everywhere—if He “comes to us disguised as our life,” as Paula D’Arcy says—then reading our story is essential to our spirituality. It’s the core of discipleship. God shows up in the details of life, and spiritual mentoring is one of the ways that we learn to pay attention to what God continues to do.
What you said made me think of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”—“If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.” To me, that line has always been a reminder not to overlook the things I think I understand. The answer’s not somewhere “out there.” It’s as close as the dirt under your feet. I think we miss that when we try to look outside of our stories, outside of ourselves, because God is revealing Himself to all of us in very unique yet universal ways.
The danger for us as disciples is in abstraction. Abstraction, as far as I’m concerned, is an enemy of our spirituality. Jesus came to us in human flesh, and it was in the particularity of His humanity that He revealed His divinity to us. How do I come to know who He is? I need great preaching. I need worship. I need to learn to listen in all of those ways. But if it stays in some abstract form, then I really miss the essence of it. Because Christ comes to us in life, in the most common order of things.
God shows up in the details of life, and spiritual mentoring is one of the ways that we learn to pay attention to what God continues to do.
Many Christians approach spiritual growth the same way they do a plate of broccoli. They know learning is good for them, so they power through it. But they don’t really enjoy anything. However, you believe in “endless curiosity.” That’s different than learning information for information’s sake. Could you talk about that a little bit?
A good story keeps me engaged, and I think God writes good stories in all of us. That’s why I tell people, “If you aren’t curious about people, please don’t try to become a mentor, because you’ll be awful at it!” It’s not hard, but it means learning to ask really good questions and not rushing to judgment about what’s being said. For me as a mentor, so much of what I do is listening and waiting and living with the surprise of it and then enjoying what I’m learning. Curiosity is a way of engaging—truly engaging—with the story of another person as well as your own.
You believe “information is not formation.” What’s the difference and why should we be seeking one over the other?
So, information is an essential pathway to formation, but Paul says to Timothy, You need to train in godliness. He doesn’t just say, You need to write a dissertation about godliness, or You need to have an abstract knowledge of godliness. He says, You need to practice it. You need to train in it. (See 1 Timothy 4:7-8.) For me, information is the way I was taught the Bible. I memorized it. I held it at arm’s length and wasn’t taught to pay attention to the larger questions of what God was doing, such as, What was He doing in the lives of those kings? And how should I engage my own spirituality and my own story and my own humanity through the stories I’m reading?
“If you aren’t curious about people, please don’t try to become a mentor!”
When I went to college, I got a set of books about growing in Christian maturity. They were fill-in-the-blanks—all abstract information. And guess what? At the end of the last book, I hadn’t been formed at all. We’re formed through engagement in our own lives and our own stories. Transformation comes, in part, from information, but that’s not the end of it.
There’s value in knowing things about the Bible because it was written in particular times and places, but at some point you really have to flesh out your faith and say, “This is how I’m going to live. I’m going to examine and fully own my orthopraxy (right practice) as well as my orthodoxy (right belief).”
Yes. And one of our best teachers for that is actually the reading of Scripture as stories, not just as information I’m supposed to be able to recite on the next test. We narrow the distance between us and Scripture and allow the voice of God to be heard through it. I read about Jacob and know he was a deceiver, but if I compare his story to mine, I’m invited to explore my own deception. It’s so much more than a morality play. It becomes, How do I listen to what God is continuing to say into my story? And that’s why mentoring is important: I need somebody else to help me do that.
One of my colleagues said—and it freaked me out a little bit at first—“I’m the only one who has never seen my face.” His point was, we need the reflection of others to help us be able to see and to understand ourselves.
How does our reading of Scripture influence our ability to read others’ stories, as well as our own? What’s the interplay between the two?
In his book Spirituality of the Psalms, Walter Brueggemann says there’s typology in the Psalms. According to him, there are songs of orientation, disorientation, and new orientation. When I read that during seminary, it was a traumatic moment, a different kind of conversion because I could no longer flatten Scripture or the experiences of David and the other writers of the Psalms. It forced me to say, “There’s nuance here.”
With orientation, things make sense. Everything’s working. With disorientation, there’s confusion. A crisis has happened, something has come along. And then afterwards there are seasons of new orientation or re-orientation. By narrowing the distance, I can’t read and listen to Scripture in a single way. I mean, it would be dreadful anyway. I would miss so many things.
Where I grew up, Wednesday nights in our little Baptist church were testimony times. I can remember one man we’d prayed for over several years, asking God to reconcile him to his wife. Reconciliation finally happened, and it was a wonderful kind of story. The only problem was, in my church, the stories had only “before” and “after” moments. There were never testimonies of people in disorientation. It was only people who were back into a new orientation. So we didn’t learn what to do with shame and abuse and failure and brokenness. We knew only how to kind of praise God after the fact.
When I’m mentoring people and listening to their story, I can’t just push them to the moment of triumph and victory. I’m no good to them if I do that, because they’re still in process. Theirs is an unfolding narrative. A lot of what we do in good mentoring is help people listen to all parts of their story. The Bible helps us do that—to see how everything works together. I don’t ever want to flatten Scripture or mute the voice of the living God, because He always has something to say into my life and yours.
Photography by Jarod Opperman