Fire from Ashes: The Reality of Perpetual Conversion is a new book that has just been published by Ancient Faith Publishing (formerly Conciliar Press). Intriguingly, this book was penned by not one, but two very notable Orthodox personalities. The Very Rev. Fr. Joseph Huneycutt is pastor of the burgeoning St. Joseph Orthodox Church in Houston, TX, a well-known podcaster and blogger, and an accomplished author of several books on the faith. Steve Robinson of Mesa, AZ is an insightful blogger and illustrator, podcaster, and author. They were kind enough to answer a few questions in the below interview.
I don’t really remember how this came about. My recollection is, about a year and a half ago, I got an email from Fr. Joseph asking if I would be willing to illustrate a book he was thinking about writing on “perpetual conversion” and what happens when people “fall hard” after starting out zealously. We both read and followed each other’s blogs but had never met in person.
Fr Joseph: It’s true, Steve is old …
Back when I was updating the Orthodixie blog regularly I would check in daily with Pithless Thoughts. Steve writes subjectively, honestly. It wasn’t always my cup of tea, but it was always thought provoking. I laughed at Steve’s humor; I was often stung, alarmed, or amazed by his freedom to be real.
Was the idea to add Steve Robinson's pithy illustrations made early
in the formative process or did it come later?
Steve: Again, it was Fr. Joseph’s initial idea. He pitched the concept to me and it sounded interesting. I asked him for a basic outline and some sample chapters for the book to see if it was something I could illustrate and work with. I wasn’t REALLY jazzed about his initial proposal to be honest. It seemed kind of “light-weight” though the concept behind it and his intention was intriguing to me. Over a period of several months of emailing back and forth we decided we needed to meet in person to discuss the focus and content of the book and what parts would lend themselves to illustrations. At that point we were still thinking “ortho-graphs” serio-humorous kinds of things.
Fr Joseph: Originally, I thought it’d be great if Steve would allow some of his “Orthographs” to serve as illustrations. My idea was to write a humorous book coupled with Steve’s humorous illustrations. Sound sickening? We thought so. After emailing back and forth, it became obvious that we needed to meet and speak. After a very productive meeting in Phoenix, we decided Steve would just put all of his sins in the book (and my name on the cover for support).
The "market" is replete with books about conversion stories or translations from ancient patristic texts, but there's not a lot in the way of contemporary spiritual guidance. There certainly aren't many books out there with the humorous bent this book has rolled into it. How does the idea of "perpetual conversion" play a part in the lives of the faithful?
Steve: Fr. Joseph flew to Phoenix for a weekend and we spent two days discussing the nature and content of the book as he originally intended it. Part of the meeting for me was to see who Fr. Joseph really “is”. To be honest, I haven’t had the greatest experiences collaborating with clergy. I was ready to bail out of the project if I thought he was an egotistical control freak. My wife and I had dinner with him the first evening and we did some pretty up front “gut spilling”. Fr. Joseph was equally open and responded with a great deal of wisdom and compassion. We came away feeling he was “the real deal”, no pretenses, no egomania, and a “good old boy in a collar” with a lot of hard earned wisdom.
Fr Joseph: Aha. See that? My plan worked!
Honestly, Steve has a natural gift of disarmament – drawing people out from behind their walls, removing their mask. He doesn’t use them, why should you? Although this typifies accountability and true discipleship, I can understand why Steve might be perceived, by some (especially clergy) as a beautiful asset – or a threat – to parish life. Thanks God, we hit it off pretty well (and he lives in Phoenix).
Steve: Over the next two days we talked about our individual visions for the book. As we talked, his original outline and focus changed and sharpened. The thing that came to the forefront was, we wanted something that would bring an Orthodox perspective on the “dark side” of the spiritual life, falling…. But without hitting people over the head with an “Orthodox bat” and people wouldn’t need an “Orthodox lexicon” at the end notes to know what the heck we were talking about. For instance, there is a section about how to find and discern the qualifications of a good “spiritual advisor” that is solidly out of the Fathers, but speaks directly to the broad Christian culture that recognizes the need for a “spiritual director” or “accountability partner” kind of thing.
Fr Joseph: I warned John Maddex that the humorous book I’d initially pitched might evolve into something a little “darker” than Ancient Faith Publishing’s usual fare. He basically said, “Bring it.” When Steve and I met, we agreed that what was needed was a book that anyone struggling – really struggling, perhaps fallen and not really struggling – could utilize.
Steve: As we talked we decided that we should co-author rather than me just illustrate HIS text. We created an outline, divided up chapters and sections and began exchanging chapters for each other’s edits and suggestions. We wrote our respective parts, but we also critiqued and edited each other’s material all along the process. There was a LOT of give and take involved in the final product.
Fr Joseph: This is true. Co-authoring a book is a challenge. There is a natural sense of protection around one’s cherished words – whether they’re worthy or not! It was a good experience for me to have another pair of eyes, a sound theological perspective. It’s tempting and easy to be frustrated with an acquisition or copy editor. It’s humbling when you have to share credit/blame with another.
Steve: So, back to the book. Basically our vision was a book that ANYONE of any Christian background could benefit from without having a library of Orthodox dogmatic theology on their bookshelf, but yet still be faithful to the Orthodox patristic witness to the nature of the human being, sin and repentance. Anyone who has lived the Christian life seriously knows that we begin with zeal and then we fall. Often the fall is inversely proportional to the zeal of the start. We have to bring that “fall” into perspective, even though it is often vile, horrific and despairing, it is STILL within the context of our “Christian life” and we have to struggle with how to understand how to get up and head back home to the Father.
Fr Joseph: Hopefully, we learn from our mistakes – or the similar falls of others. Essentially, there is only one sin: rebellion of the will, disobedience. I think I can speak for both of us: This is something we know from experience. The stories in the book are true – they may not be, verbatim, my story, our story, or your story. But, they are true stories. All things can be redeemed in Christ.
Steve: The other thing we discussed was “being real”. The gospel is God reaching to the lowest depths of human depravity and being light in the darkest night of our souls. We wanted to reach those places. It was a delicate balance to interject an edge of humor into what was an edge of darkness. It was a “dance” to decide how “dark” to get without being too crude. Fr. Joseph actually balked at an illustration, but ultimately deferred because well, it was “real”, but just a little too real for him he admitted.
Fr Joseph: We’ve both experienced some dark moments – even years – in our Pilgrimage. Our life in Christ is a joy! Our life with self, sin and other Christians can be hell. We eventually agreed that there must be others, within or without the Church, who could benefit from a book geared toward keeping it real – all the while stumbling toward the Real.
How did the illustrations get put into the text? Did some images prompt more writing or did the images encapsulate the ideas found in the text after you had written it? Did they always fit right in or was there some debate on a few of them?
Steve: The illustrations were driven by the text. Some of them came pretty quickly, some of them I pondered the text for quite a while.
It was difficult to choose what to illustrate and I probably tossed a half dozen ideas in the recycle bin. Like most creative endeavors you always look back and think OH DANG, I SHOULDA.... but that goes for text too.
I tried to balance the illustrations between "serio-humor" and serious images. I think only a couple of them were knock offs of previously done "orthograph" stuff from my blog. I didn't want the book to just be a re-hash of stuff my blog readers had already seen. What's the fun in that?
The only illustration we disagreed on was the "Dog Vomit Menu Board". Fr. Joseph thought it was too disgusting, I thought it illustrated the text perfectly: a visual icon of exactly what the text was saying. We ultimately left it up to the editor to decide to include or not, and with the "footnote" from Fr. Joseph if it got included.
Fr. Joseph: Still: "YUCK!"
An Excerpt from the book:
Sinning is like dating our exes.
Temptation is my “Little Black Book”. It is a list of the phone numbers (OK… and email addresses and Facebook profiles) of old friends or lovers that I broke up with long ago but still hold a soft place in my heart. They are people I chose once and then chose to give up and throw out of my life. I know I ditched them for a reason; they were bad for me in some way. The problem is, I don’t know why I still hang on to their number and call them up when I need what they once gave me that I once enjoyed.
St. Peter, quoting the Proverbs, says going back to my old “friends” is like a dog that returns to its vomit. (2 Peter 2:22) That is probably one of the most unappetizing images in scripture. But it is exactly what I do when I go back and eat what I spit out and threw up in my “conversion”.
The problem with all of us is, if sin really looked and tasted like vomit, the choice would be easy.