February 13, 2011 / Praxis
An interview between TOJ Editor-in-Chief Chris Keller and the author of GENERATION EX-CHRISTIAN, Drew Dyck.
June 4, 2007
The Other Journal (TOJ): Can you talk about the origins of Geez, how it got started, and who was originally involved?
Will Braun (WB): My colleague Aiden Enns was working at Adbusters Magazine in Vancouver, BC–Adbusters of course being a hip and snarky, anti-consumer, anti-capitalist type of publication with a lot of images–and he moved back to Winnipeg where I live and where I had met him before he had gone on to Vancouver. And post-Adbusters he wanted to do something somewhat like Adbusters but with more of a spiritual dimension. And that’s the origin of Geez Magazine, really. He subsequently asked me to be involved.
TOJ: So the two of you met in Winnipeg?
WB: Yeah, we’ve been friends from earlier days.
TOJ: What was Aiden’s role at Adbusters?
WB: He worked for three years as Managing Editor.
TOJ: Adbusters can be pretty intense at times.
WB: (chuckles) It is intense. Some people think that there could be somewhat more of a positive angle to it.
TOJ: There’s a place for everything.
TOJ: What is the guiding premise or identity of Geez? Who is the target audience, and what is your goal in reaching people? (i.e. do you want to reach Christians, to educate, to satirize, etc?)
WB: Geez Magazine is a magazine of spirited social action. Our tagline is “holy mischief in an age of fast faith,” um, whatever that might be.
We’re aimed at the fringe of the faith, people at the fringe of the faith in North America specifically. I know a lot of people that sort of go to church or used to go to church and are very creative people, very gifted people, very caring people. But whatever they have experienced of faith up to this point in their life hasn’t completely worked for them. So we’re trying to enliven some of those energies, tap into some of those energies on what I would call the creative fringes of faith. I’m talking about people that certainly believe–at minimum they believe in the idea of belief–who are most likely from a Christian background, and people who also care about the world around them. They’re not interested in a nice car and fancy stereo and going to Starbucks. They’re more interested in connecting with the vital issues around them in the world.
TOJ: What do you feel Geez offers those people?
WB: We’ve tried to create a bit of a new spot in what one might call “the spiritual commons,” to give permission to people both to be reverent and irreverent; to be bitter, but to be more than just bitter as well. Geez creates a bit of a space where people can take shots at the religious right, at some of the expressions of Christianity that we find offensive: things that make us say, “I might be a Christian, but I’m sure as heck not that kind of Christian.”
There is room for that, but not just that. It’s easy to take shots, it’s easy to be bitter, but after awhile being bitter and cynical just gets to be boring and stagnant. So we want to do that; there’s sort of a therapeutic value in saying some of these things are problematic, and I think there’s a role for satire in that, but we want to move beyond that too. To look at the worst and the best, or what we would see as the best and most inspiring things that are happening on the front lines of faith and social action. To bring together stories of where people who are on the fringes of faith can read about expressions of Christian faith that really resonate with them.
And we’ve had people write in and say, “I used to go to that church, then I went to that church and that church and it just wasn’t working out from me, and thank you so much for Geez Magazine.” It seems like the magazine is a home for somebody. There’s something that resonates with them. So that’s part of what we’re trying to do.
TOJ: Geez Magazine has spunk and a sharp design; it is irreverent, yet it meditates on young Christian perspectives. Would you identify Geez as a part of the “Christian Hipster” movement, or as opposed to it? What do you think about the Christian Hipster phenomenon?
WB: We have at times been lumped in with the Christian Hipster movement, which makes us shake our heads. Or hang our heads, I’m not sure. It’s certainly not our intent.
We believe in creativity. We believe in good writing. We believe in good poetry, good images, good design. We don’t believe that Christianity needs to be cool. We don’t believe that Christianity should mimic the trends in society, or clamor for “cool,” whatever that is.
There’s a form of faith that involves a whole suite of products: you have your Christian clothing, Christian music, Christian entertainment of all sorts, Christian doo-dads, Christian fashion accessories where you have to buy-in. Literally, you have to have money. And part of that is a preacher is preaching a sermon and during the sermon says, “And, ya know, you can pick up a book on this at the table at the back.” Forget that. We don’t want Christianity for sale, we don’t want big box religion.
But we want good art; we want good creativity. So when people say we’re hip, we go back and, I guess, think about how to distill those things, how can you be creative and have a bit of smirk and a bit of snark without buying into a cool mentality. And that’s probably a good dilemma for us to consider.
Now, if readers of Geez Magazine saw, let’s say, where I’m sitting now and what I’m wearing, they wouldn’t describe me as a hip sort of person.
TOJ: Well, where are you sitting and what are you wearing?
WB: (laughs) Well, I do have a Macintosh computer, so that’s probably… Although it’s an old one; it’s one that the computer salesman called a “beater.” Sort of like clothes from the second hand store and not like the really cool clothes from the second hand store, the ones that I’ve bought when I was just sick of trying to look for anything else. You know, stuff I’ve picked up for free and whatever. (laughs) We’ll leave it at that.
TOJ: What kind of music are you listening to these days?
WB: Oh, gosh! I don’t have very refined tastes! Steve Bell is one. He’s quite well known here in Canada, not so much perhaps in the U.S. I listen to U2 ‘cause I’m interested in their popularity. I think there’s a reason they’re popular and I want to understand that.
TOJ: There is a really good book by Michka Assayas. I think it’s Bono: In Conversation. It is multiple interviews with this guy over a period of time and Bono talks about everything. It came out about two years ago. It’s got a picture of him with his Dolce Gabbana glasses on, looking slick, but approachable.
WB: He’s a poet of our age, really. Other stuff I’m listening to right now is good ol’ Canadian Rock ‘n’ Roll: Tragically Hip, Barenaked Ladies, The Weakerthans.
TOJ: What other current trends in modern Christianity do you identify and seek to challenge or highlight?
WB: I can answer what we seek to highlight. The things that come to mind are things that Christian Peacemaker teams are doing–[these are] people in a very prayerful, very distinctly faithful Christian religious way who are going to some of the most violent places in the world because they believe that there should be a prayerful compassionate presence in the violent places. So that’s the kind of thing that fits really well because it is steeped in faith and they’re right there in the front lines of social change.
I think also of The Simple Way (www.thesimpleway.org), a community in Philadelphia, and Shane Claiborne, who’s sort of the main articulator there and the people around them. I mean they also have a great deal of popularity in sort of the more mainstream evangelical circles, which I think is fantastic, but the thing that they’re doing there, again, in terms of really being on the front lines, is living a simple life, just loving their neighbors and living in a rough part of the city there in Philadelphia and really articulating a Christian vision and talking about love and those good things. That, to me, is very inspiring. It’s a delight to be connected to them. So those are some things that come to mind.
We’ve also tapped into the monastic movement in some ways and I’d like to do that a lot more because one might think that these monks and nuns would be the most rigid, straight-laced, moralistic, legalistic people around. And what I’ve found in the times I’ve spent at monasteries is just the opposite. They are people who are very alive and can be both reverent and irreverent, but who really live from a very deep place and care about the world deeply and are very open to broader expressions. They seem very rooted in something and that’s very open to people like us who aren’t quite there or people of other faiths or people of no faith. So I think the monastic tradition really holds something valuable, and we’ve had some of that in Geez and I hope we can have quite a bit more.
TOJ: So, when you talk about encountering the monastic tradition, you’re talking about having writers write for Geez or have you actually visited these people, or what was the extent of that encounter?
WB: The most recent one was an interview, with Fr. Jim Profit who is a Jesuit Priest in the city of Guelf, Ontario, (http://www.ignatiusguelph.ca/jamesprofit.html) in Canada, and they’ve been fighting WalMart for ten years. WalMart wanted to build right beside their 600-acre retreat center. They have a farm there. So they’ve been fighting WalMart for ten years; they lost. We interviewed him about failure! “When Goliath Wins” was the title of that piece.
So, going to the monastic people to look at what posture do we take in relation to these big corporations which are easy to hate, I suppose, or are common targets. That was one thing. We had someone write who visited Christ in the Desert Monastery in New Mexico, somewhat of a well-known monastery and a very, very beautiful place. (It’s near Abiquiu, New Mexico in the Chama River Valley). They wanted to tap into the essence of what is happening there. And hopefully we’ll get more people from the monastic communities to write to Geez as well.
TOJ: What is your church/faith background and how has that led into where you are at now with your work at Geez and your faith?
WB: I am a Mennonite farm boy from southern Manitoba. I grew up in a town where 95% or more of the people went to a Mennonite church, which has an Anabaptist, Radical Reformation kind of background, a church known for its peace stance, strong emphasis on community, and at one time at least, a sort of simple life style. We are historically cousins of the Amish–I’m proud to be historical cousins of the Amish.
So that was sort of my background, a fairly straight-laced sort of religious upbringing. I was fortunate to come from a family where it was definitely OK to question the voices from on high and the voices from the pulpit and the head of the classroom and whatever, so I grew up with that sort of curiosity, in a questioning environment. And one where I was taught to care about the world around me.
In regards to Geez, like many people, I’ve become quite frustrated with institutional religion. I have had certain experiences that have been quite negative in relation to the church. And there’s times where I’ve sort of taken a year off, but somehow I find myself going back [to the church]. There’s a bit of a love/hate relationship, which sounds a bit harsh, but, you know, some of that, there’s the good and the bad intention, but I find myself going back to church, perhaps sitting in the back, and caring about what happens there and finding something there that I don’t find elsewhere and really needing to be and wanting to be connected to something larger.
In this day and age, it is popular to say you are “spiritual but not religious” and I find that completely unsatisfying. I am religious. Or to put it differently, I believe in organized spirituality. I’m afraid that this “spiritual but not religious” sentiment just leads to the individualization of spirituality where we can each sort of go and do our own little thing in our own time and our own space, removed perhaps from a history, from a tradition, from a community. I find that individualization of spirituality very problematic.
I want to be connected to a community, I want to meet with people, I want to be part of a community where the people think very differently than me and people who disagree with me and all those kind of things. So I’m spiritual and religious both. And in terms of work at Geez, it’s not just a magazine about social action or environmental issues, or whatever. It’s a magazine about spirited belief in Christianity. At one point we talked about Geez Magazine as a project to build a little lean-to off the side of mother church. If the church is a big circle we just want to create a little bit of a bulge somewhere, where there’s room for us on the edges. And just the name Geez itself situates us in relation to Christianity, but, you know, with an obvious twist.
TOJ: Just for clarification, when you say you go back to church, is that a Mennonite church then?
WB: That’s a Mennonite church in the neighborhood that I live in, yeah.
TOJ: What sorts of stories motivate and excite you? What are you afraid of?
WB: The stories or design and photo elements that I find most gratifying, I suppose, are the ones that when I look at them, I think this probably wouldn’t appear in any other magazine. Or certainly not any other magazines that I’m aware of. And then I think, that’s good, if we can do something that is unique, that’s of value to me, and I think that’s worth doing.
Part of what we’re trying to do is to speak about matters of faith without using religious jargon and we suggest that writers write in a way that would work for their sharpest non-churched friend. So the articles that can do that I find gratifying–those that can talk about deep spiritual matters in a way that an atheist or a pseudo-Buddhist can read and say, “Wow, that was a good article, a helpful article to read.” Those [articles] I find satisfying and motivating. And just being able to tell the stories of people that are doing cool stuff, inspiring things–it’s exciting to find those stories. It’s also exciting to find new writers, people that haven’t been published before and have a unique voice and have a bit of spunk. That’s also very gratifying.
In terms of what I’m afraid of? I don’t know that I usually think in those terms, but what we try to avoid perhaps is being predictable. There’s many magazines that are quite predictable and that just entrench people in their views already. If they hate George Bush, the magazine is gonna make them hate George Bush more and they’re just gonna have a great time reveling in that. I don’t think that is an appropriate use of language, to just entrench people’s views, so I hope that we won’t be predictable in that way and certainly we can do a better job of that.
We printed an article written by one of our harshest critics, who is a very right-leaning Christian from the U.S. We said, “Hey man, we value dialogue. You’ve got a page, go for it!” And he wrote something that was great, he put a lot of effort into it and he was just taking us head on, which, I think that makes for good reading, ‘cause then you have to think, and it’s not all just straight forward.
TOJ: If I can be bold, what motivates you, Will Braun? What are you afraid of?
WB: I’m motivated by the possibility of spirited adventure. I don’t know if it’s helpful to you, those kinds of words.
Sometimes I think about a new set of spiritual disciplines. Stuff like riding a bicycle. I’m big into biking. I bike all over the place, including to different states and provinces. I like to think that sometimes my soul is centered in my legs. Somehow in those actions, that biking is my prayer for the world, my prayer for people that are caught in the way of the oil development machine. And I think of energy conservation as well, as a spiritual discipline, something that is like an active love in the world.
One can do these things out of obligation and duty or as a way to experience something new of the love of God. So many of the decisions we make in daily life, the things we consume, have a negative impact on other people, so I think if we can untangle ourselves from those things, we can experience something new of the love of God. Living into those sorts of spiritual disciplines–that’s definitely something that I find exciting.
I’m also a farmer, an organic vegetable farmer in the short Manitoba summer and that’s something that I’m very proud of. I’m fortunate to work with some very wonderful people there and innovative thinkers, and I think there’s something really important happening there. Farming, biking, making pickles–all those kinds of things are things that motivate me. Connecting that with something deep within me and within the community, those are some of the things that motivate me.
In terms of fear, I’m not sure how to answer that one. I’m afraid of succumbing to the consumer rut, succumbing to what is normal around me, which is a life of– a very fast paced life with too much stuff in it. And it’s hard to resist that sometimes.
TOJ: Thanks for those candid answers. I liked the part about– did you say your soul is centered in your legs?
WB: I did. Have you ever heard anyone ever say that before?
TOJ: Never ever in my life. I really like that! Can you comment more on the relationship between Geez and Adbusters? Is Geez a conscious movement away from Adbusters or is it just another outlet for you?
WB: We owe a lot to Adbusters. They do great work there and obviously we’re inspired by what is done there and we border elements of their basic ethos. A number of people that work for Adbusters now or used to work for Adbusters have written for us as well. At this point most of our contact is with people who used to work at Adbusters and we continue to look at their magazine closely and admire what they do.
TOJ: We just finished Film Faith and Justice 2007 and a particular theme that was addressed by Shane Claiborne, Dwight Hopkins, and other speakers and panelists was that of imagination–having creativity and imagination in our approach to how we live our lives as followers of Jesus Christ. How does imagination find its place in your faith and following from that, in your work with Geez?
WB: Part of what comes to mind is, I think we need to imagine different ways of living. If you take the example of climate change: the world is faced with a very large issue and we know what needs to be done and we’re not doing it. We’ve done “everything but!” Everything to address climate change but actually significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. And I think it’s a challenge of the imagination.
We have the science, we have the technology, we know what needs to be done–public awareness. But we can’t imagine doing it; we can’t imagine living differently. And I think the imagination that’s required these days is to find a way to invite people to a different sort of life. The “Al Gore’s wagging finger” will not change the way we live to the extent that it needs to!
I think we need to find language of invitation. Part of what we’re trying to do with Geez Magazine is work at that kind of language of adventure and experimentation; to try and provide a different avenue to ethical living instead of just the duty and the moral obligation, the moral imperative; to think really hard about how we can frame those things in a positive way.
So it is an adventure to ride a bike. It’s an adventure to leave your car behind–and it’s a spiritual adventure ‘cause you’re learning something more of the love of God, like I mentioned before. That’s the sort of imaginative experimentation that excites me the most: practically imagining different ways of living and doing it as an adventure.
TOJ: Who are the leaders of today that you think are remarkable?
WB: I’m not much into heroes. I want to learn from the people that are the most unlikely people, I think, to listen to: the people in my neighborhood, who are dying of AIDS; the people in my neighborhood who have mental health issues; children (my wife and I are having a child soon).
WB: Thank you! First one.
The elderly people in my life, too. Also indigenous people. I have a fair bit of contact with indigenous people here in Manatoba. Those are some of the voices that I really want to listen to.
I’ll read some best-selling books and stuff like that, and listen to some good music. But I see in the scriptures Jesus always pointing us back downward–not to look up to the stars kind of thing. (Stars in terms of the pop culture sense), but to look downward. When you look at some of the greats in the Christian past, or whom I would consider the greats, people like Jean Vanier, Henri Nouwen and Dorothy Day, Archbishop Oscar Romero, these are people who really took their inspiration and their guidance from those on the margins of society.
Scott is a writer living in Seattle. When he makes time, he writes stories, plays, poetry, music and love letters. This is his first published credit.