Friday, August 27, 2010

Matt Ankeny: Cerebral Breakthroughs and Humble Convictions


I see the Christian life as an allegiance to a movement, started and inspired by our records of Jesus of Nazareth. The big catch of the movement, and one of its central tenants, is that it’s not designed for utilitarian ends. It’s a working out of faithfulness to a cause, slowly and potentially unsuccessfully, but vibrantly and with conviction.
Matt Ankeny
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In this second installment of EasyYolk guest interviews, we introduce Matt Ankeny, Wheaton College grad (BA, English, 2007), literary critic and high school English teacher. When one first experiences "Ank the Tank" in person, one is struck by both his physical (6'5") and intellectual stature. After spending some more quality time with Matt, however, one is captivated by his quick wit and adventurous lifestyle. Whether traveling to points unknown, quoting Zoolander or being featured in controversial YouTube videos, he is a refreshing study on the vastly underrated nature of spontaneity in a culture saturated in pretense.

EY: Take me back to your initial entry into the Christian story. Where were you in life? What did “being a Christian” mean for you then?

MA: I attributed my “conversion moment” to a junior high church trip on the California coast. At a campsite that bordered a strawberry field, my youth group was sitting around a bonfire, singing praise songs led by an acoustic guitar. A pretty conventional evangelical moment. I remember sitting on the campsite bench, head in my hands, saying to myself, “This is the moment you need to decide: are you going to buy into this for yourself, or simply because it is all that you’ve known?” Up until that point I had been graciously encouraged to attend church by my parents. But I felt, for whatever reason, at that moment, 13 years old, I needed to make that decision—to take ownership of my spiritual life.That point of conversion meant a couple significant things and a handful of insignificant ones. On the heavy side of things, it meant that I was going to study the Bible with great reverence and solemnity. That has been the greatest benefit of my adolescent decision. It also meant that I was committing myself to a tradition and power outside of myself, which was also significant, however impious and shallow that commitment was at the time. To be honest, I don’t think I’d have identified those two things at that time. I was more focused on personal piety and observing certain community expectations, some good and some detrimental.

EY: What were significant events or sign-posts along the way that have changed how you experience God and faith?

MA: I started rebelling against my faith heritage, which was predominantly Saddleback Church, around 16. I didn’t rebel in a conventional reckless, pleasure-seeking way, but in a search for something more. I wanted something more authentic and substantive than repetitive, introspective praise lyrics, personal advice talks, and self-indulgent accountability groups. I sensed there was something more out there, but I didn’t really know what that was. At 18, I was exposed to Mark Noll’s Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, which gave language and perspective to my misgivings about the unreflective church. I felt like I finally had the words to describe the tension I felt. That was a watershed moment.From there, most of my moments have been cerebral breakthroughs. John Howard Yoder’s Politics of Jesus, Terry Eagleton’s Reason, Faith, and Revolution, and an amalgam of other influences have played a role in my development. I think one of the greatest changes that has taken place has been an adoption of humility—that I may be wrong about all of this. A healthy distrust of my own convictions has led me to focus on aspects of the Christian tradition that seem to be the most salient. The virtue of simplicity, working for equality and opportunity for all, and engaging poverty and ignorance in search of holistic solutions to specific problems seem to me, today, pretty clear prerogatives of the Gospel. But, I may be off.

EY: What do you think it means to “be a Christian” now?

MA: I see the Christian life as an allegiance to a movement, started and inspired by our records of Jesus of Nazareth. The big catch of the movement, and one of its central tenants, is that it’s not designed for utilitarian ends. It’s a working out of faithfulness to a cause, slowly and potentially unsuccessfully, but vibrantly and with conviction. I realize I’m speaking with vague language, and that’s partially because there needs to be space for particularities in certain contexts. But the defining features of the movement, as I have interpreted it, would be working with and for the poor, marginalized, and disadvantaged, and doing so in a way that promotes peace and sustainability. I still see value in personal piety, observance of the sacraments, and celebration, but there is work beyond those that is vital to complete the Christian life.

EY: Who have been mentors, heroes, authors and leaders that have impacted you and how so?

MA: There have been different layers of influence, but since my own particular background has provided me with an amateur understanding of literature, I’ll focus on those guiding forces. For contemporary authors, Wendell Berry, Toni Morrison, and David Foster Wallace have all played a significant role. Berry’s understanding of place and fidelity to land and community is intrinsically tied to our Christian relationship to the earth and each other. Morrison presents in unnerving beauty the struggle of African-Americans and women—two groups who have felt the burden of oppression and the triumphs of gradual progress. And Wallace gives a precise humor and a layered, nuanced hope in the face of our oftentimes drab world. Pull those together and you have a life ordered by place and community, realistically looking at the sufferings of marginalized people, and artfully empowering them through creativity and vitality. I see that as a good Christian life.

EY: What aspect of Jesus do you think is most misunderstood in our culture?

MA: I think his idea of obedience over effectiveness. I think Gethsemane was a crisis moment not because he feared pain of death, but because there was the very real idea that this whole operation could fail. And in some ways, it did. If the disciples had done their work properly, they would have likely been up on crosses as well. Eagleton says (and I’m paraphrasing), “If you don’t find yourself dead at the end of the gospels, you’ve somehow taken a wrong turn.” And facing those odds—the very real threat of failure—Jesus remained obedient to the cause. He didn’t go with the most prolific strategy, he followed the elements of his conviction. I think if people framed his life that way, as obedience to the death, and then included the triumphalist plot twist that he’s raised from the dead, you’d see smaller church budgets and a few more community service initiatives. And that, I think, would be a good thing.

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