Heroes and Monsters: A Conversation with Josh James Riebock
Almost every day, I get a book in the mail. It’s one of the perks of being a blogger, I suppose… the constant stream of books from publishers who hope you’ll say something on the blog about a new work.
Most of the books I receive don’t get reviewed. It’s not that they don’t look interesting or wouldn’t be a fit for the blog. Usually, it’s simply a matter of time.
I want to be careful not to focus the majority of my reading on the latest, greatest thing. Better to mix it up. To visit saints from other centuries. To listen to the church fathers preach. To pray with the Puritans and scratch my head with the philosophers.
Occasionally, though, a book grabs my attention and won’t let go. Josh Riebock’s Heroes and Monsters: An Honest Look at the Struggle within All of Us(Baker, 2012) was that kind of book. The look and feel of Josh’s memoir intrigued me. So I started reading and then kept reading and kept reading. I finished the book after a couple of evenings, thoroughly impressed with the artistry with which he crafted the story. Like all good books (and particularly memoirs), some of it bugged me. Some of it moved me. Some of it inspired me. But none of it bored me.
The result is a quirky memoir (“Hide your quirks and you’re a Volvo,” Josh says) that contains some nuggets like these:
The most fascinating people in the world are the people who are most fascinated by the world, and those same people are the ones who change the world. No one who’s ever influenced this planet has ever done so without being remarkably curious.
Dreams can’t live alone. Sharing our dreams with others may risk destroying them, but without sharing them, we destroy ourselves. Most dreams aren’t murdered. Most dreams commit suicide.
Disappointment knows where we hide. Pain is more reliable than Santa Claus, more determined than a starving thief. It will bang the door, jimmy the lock, crawl through a window, come down the chimney, bypass security; it will find a way in. In this life, there is no such thing as safe. Insulation is an illusion.
Laughter is the evidence that we’re still here, the proof that our tragedies will not define us forever. Laughter is the language of the survivor.
Josh lives in Austin, TX, with his wife, Kristen, and they attend Austin Stone Community Church. I asked Josh some questions about artistry, truth, and beauty.
Trevin Wax: Memoirs are an interesting genre, aren’t they? Part biography, part fantasy, with life lessons woven into interesting narrative. What do you say to the person who says, “You wrote a memoir? How old are you? Like 25?”
Josh Riebock: Well, first off, I think the blend of elements you mentioned—biography, fantasy, narrative, lesson—are exactly why I find the memoir genre so fascinating. It’s such an elastic form of writing, boundless, when we allow it to be.
A memoir isn’t so much the retelling of someone’s life but an interpretation of someone’s life. It’s a writer’s attempt to make sense of their own life and the things they’ve learned in order to help others know themselves and to make sense of their own lives. In some ways, the whole thing is a weird and terrifying stab at intimacy, I suppose.
And yes, I’m a young memoirist (32 actually!). So in that way, I certainly can’t offer people longevity or the wisdom that comes from walking this planet for decades on end the way other memoirs can. But I can offer my life in detail—the beauty and ugliness, the tragedies and triumphs—and do that with honesty and creativity.
To me, those two pieces form the heartbeat of compelling art, compelling communication, compelling writing. And those two traits aren’t necessarily aided by age. Actually, they’re often hindered by it.
Trevin Wax: There’s a lot of paradox in the way you write. In the moments of beauty, you find pain. In the moments of pain, you find beauty. For example, you admit your embarrassment at your parents’ hoarding habits and your father’s alcoholism, and yet your love and affection for them is on display throughout the narrative. Tell me about that. Do you see the exploration of paradox as the hallmark of good writing?
Josh Riebock: Paradox is all about complexity, and that’s why it’s essential to truthful storytelling: because life is complex. People are complex. Experiences and faith and relationships are complex.
For example, part of me hated my dad. And part of me adored him.
On the one hand, I cherish the quirkiness of my family. And yet that same quirkiness has often been a source of shame for me.
I’m a believer. I’m a doubter.
I want to be noticed. And yet I wish I could disappear.
There’s a lot of paradox in the way I write because paradox is something I see when I tunnel into the cracks of my own life and heart.
As a writer, I want to have the courage to talk about what I see, to embrace the often-paradoxical nature of life rather than gloss over it in order to maintain a false sense of symmetry or tidiness. And that, I believe, is a hallmark (I wouldn’t say it’s the hallmark) of good writing—the willingness to embrace, explore, and speak truthfully about the complexities of what we see, to write in such a way that readers are compelled to do the same.
Trevin Wax: You take this picture of paradox and drive it home in relation to human nature. Here’s a quote I liked:
Every human, Jack says, is both an arsonist and an architect, marked with the thumbprint of good and the claws of evil, breathing both death and life into this world. Humans, Jack says, are both the stench and the aroma.
That’s a beautiful way of expressing the shattered image of God in humanity – that God created us good and yet we are fallen in our sin. How has your study of Scripture and theology – and your life in church – influenced what you write?
Josh Riebock: In some ways it’s made writing more difficult. As Christians, we sometimes foster a culture of fear that makes artistic expression very intimidating. Often we spend so much energy critiquing theology and culture, and in doing so we drive creativity underground. People—along with their imaginations and gifts—go into hiding in order to protect themselves rather than being set free to make beautiful things.
For years I’ve struggled with the fear of how the church would receive my writing. I’ve feared making a theological misstep and then being rejected for it. Sometimes I still do.
But recently, as I’ve been growing through some of my own insecurities and fears, I find that theology, Scripture, and the church are so much of what propels me to write. Scripture talks about God and humanity through poetry, fiction, short story, biography, song, and metaphor. It’s spectacular. It’s off the wall. It’s raw. It’s creative. The writers of Scripture didn’t just care about what they were saying but also about the elegance in how they said it. That releases me to do the same.
And therein lies the incredible challenge and opportunity of writing. I want to write about the things of God using a language and form both accessible and fresh to those who’ve grown tired of the same Christian talk and to those who struggle to engage Scripture in the ways it’s often talked about. I want people to see the artistry of God in every sentence I write.
Trevin Wax: I’ve talked to pastor-friends about how to encourage artists and fan the flame of their artistry for the glory of God. Reminds me of a quote from Francis Schaeffer:
Christians should use these arts to the glory of God — not just as tracts, but as things of beauty to the praise of God. An art work can be a doxology in itself.
How can we encourage men and women like you? How can the analytical, theologian types help you sharpen your skills so that truth is never compromised for the sake of artistry, but neither is beauty ever minimized as an expression of truth?
Josh Riebock: Great question. What we all have to navigate is the line between sharpening and meddling, and I’m not always sure what that line is.
I suppose sharpening is an attempt to help someone become who God created them to be. And meddling is an attempt to help someone become who I want them to be. One glorifies God. The other glorifies me. One contributes. The other detracts. Like I said, I’m not always sure how to do that. But I will tell you that I want guidance from people, from pastors. As an artist, and a man, I need it.
One specific thing that I’ve found so encouraging is when pastors are willing to address the subject of creativity and artistry corporately. A class. A sermon. A staff meeting. Whatever. Doing that—even if I don’t agree with what is said—invites my wife and I, my friends and I, my small group and I, to have these conversations. It tells the church that these conversations are important, worth having—that the artist is important, worth having. And in that I’m able to learn so much. I’m able to see the places where I’m wrong, the places where I need to grow, the places where I have grown, and the places where I can help my community grow.
Pastors can be catalysts for healthy conversation about beauty and truth and what it might look like to do that in a way that brings God joy. That is something I cherish. That sharpens me. I suppose that sharpens all of us.