Thursdays with a Thinker: Interview with Laura Ortberg Turner

Michael and I are launching a new series of interviews with Christians whom we believe are writing thoughtfully and gracefully in today's public square. You will likely have read articles by these Christian thinkers as they grapple with today's cultural, political, economic trends and issues. This interview series will illuminate what goes on "behind-the-scenes" of their writing and thinking. With Michael's help, I will conduct the interviews and post them here every other Thursday, with the hashtag #ThinkerThursdays. 

The first one up is one of our favorite writers: Laura Ortberg Turner (@lkoturner). 

This interview has been edited for brevity.

Q. You have written for Her.meneutics, Religion News Service, The Atlantic, Pacific Standard, and Jezebel. You have written on a variety of religious and non-religious topics—gender, anxiety, friendship, the church, etc. How do you choose what to write on? 

One of my favorite things about writing is that it lets me learn while I do it. I started with the Christian world because that was the world with which I was really familiar. But then I did an MFA and realized there was so much else I was interested in.  The more I’ve been writing, the more I use it as a way to explore things that I’m really interested in the world and that I hope other people are interested in as well.

LauraTurner.jpg

Q. What’s on the writing table now?

One of my main questions is this question of home. We see this in so many ways nowadays with our generation who tend to move pretty easily and not be attached to a place. I’m also thinking about people who are refugees – that is obviously such a prevalent story in history of humanity, as well as in our present moment. So the questions I’m asking are: What is home, how do we cultivate that within ourselves and recognize that God is creating a home for himself in all of us?

Q. I know a lot of people my age, especially those within the Fare Forward community, are asking the same questions. What is your personal investment in this question of “home”? 

To some degree, it’s in the ether; there are many different people thinking about this and having conversations about it. A lot of it comes from my own sense of anxiety. I never know how to say this, but I have anxiety, I deal with it, I take medication for it… I start to feel a little bit restless if I’m home for too long or if I do not have a flight booked in the next month. Part of my interest in home is I want to know going on inside of me at a deeply personal level that feels the need to be gone so much. It’s not so much a physical symptom of dislocation as much as it is a grasping for what else is out there. What more can I be doing to achieve? Who else can I talk with? What else can I see? I want to think that I can get rid of my anxiety by achieving and doing a lot.

Q. You have written a lot about anxiety and it is not just something we should “get rid of,” but learn from. Could you elaborate on that?

I feel like I have a lot to learn from my anxiety, and there is a lot in it that has drawn me closer to God. I recognize, “Gosh I really have these hard limits and hard days sometimes.” On the best of those hard days, I pray and talk to God about them. And God helps me feel like I belong somewhere: to someone, to my family, to my church, to my husband, and that I belong to the place in which he has put me. And so that question of home is really at the bottom of all these million other questions.

Q. You had a wonderful article in Pacific Standard on the history of domesticity, and you’ve written extensively about gender within the church. Our society has been talking a lot about gender and asking hard questions about what constitutes a woman, especially given the recent rise in attention to trans women. What are your reactions to this recent conversation? 

I do remember that conversation when Caitlyn Jenner was on Vanity Fair magazine. It’s such a complicated question. I don’t have a good answer… but this is the problem of what happens when we make one individual represent the entire community. I understand why if you had grown up feeling like you were a woman in the body of a man, you would want to be able to have access to all the things that society considers feminine. But then we need to ask the question, “Ok, so we celebrate these women and put them on the covers of magazine, which is wonderful, but there are many, many more trans women who aren’t ever going to be on the cover of a magazine, so how are we going to listen to them, honor them and so on?" 

Q. How can Christians contribute to this conversation?

 There are a variety of perspectives within the church on this issue… I think the unique contribution that Christianity can bring to this conversation is that every single person is created in the image of God, is known by God, is loved by God.

We try so often to take on the role of Holy Spirit in people’s lives. “They don’t know they are sinning, or they know that they are but I need to help convict them.” And I think the most beautiful friendships, especially between a Christian and a non-Christian, are those friendships where there is acceptance, love and knowledge that we let God do the work that God does, and we don’t have to do that in other people’s lives.

It’s still true that members of LGBT are those often marginalized, suffer depression, commit suicide at much higher rates than the rest of the world. The most important thing we can offer is to say, “You are loved and you are accepted, and this is not just a nice slogan but it is how we are going to reach out to you and live life together.” 

Q. Both you and Michael share an appreciation for Dallas Willard. Unlike Michael, you actually knew Dallas personally. What do you think are the most important lessons from Dallas’ life and writings for Christians to grab hold of in this current cultural moment? 

I’ve gotten to know Dallas a bit and his family, but not super well… One of the things that doesn’t come from his books, although they are fantastic, was the way he was with you when you were with him. One of the phrases that he said to my dad was that one of the most important things for Christians to do was “to ruthlessly eliminate hurry from our lives.”

When you were with him, there was no sense of “Oh I have to go” or “OK I’ll listen to you and smile but I’m really thinking about three other things and what I have to do next.” He lived his life very gently, very non-anxiously, very curious and very ready to see God in the people whom he met. There is no one else quite like him in how he would sit down and talk with you, and how he would look right at you and give you all of his attention. On my best day, I give someone right in front of me maybe 80% of attention, and 20% of me is thinking, “What do they think of me? What do I have to do next? How do I look?”

Q. It seems to me that perhaps what you are describing is the quality of a saint—an elevated sense of being.

That’s a very fair thing to say. In that old and glorious sense of the word “saint,” that we all are with God always. Dallas knew that, and he got that, and he is continuing to help people get that, even now. I have a good friend who recently became a Christian; she’s been an atheist much of her life. She was reading some of Dallas’ stuff – and that was it for her. She now knows God. It’s incredible to see the way that his work and his mind are still blessing the world even after he is gone.