22.1.09

Burnside Sells Out: David A. Zimmerman

(Editor's Note: For this edition of Burnside Sells Out, Larry Shallenberger offered to interview David Zimmerman, author of Deliver Us from Me-Ville and Comic Book Character: Unleashing the Hero in Us All.)
BWC: David, you wrote a book about your narcissism, how you managed to escape it, and how you can help others along the way? Do I have that right?

David Zimmerman: (Laughs) Yes, I’m a master of narcissism. I dole out insights to others from my lofty position.

BWC: So just how overqualified does your wife find you to write a book on narcissism?

DZ: Overqualified. My wife keeps me from embellishing. It’s interesting to write books about yourself–to share personal experiences. There’s a fine line between adding color and embellishing. She’s a good sounding board, and she keeps me from crossing the line.

[INTERVIEWER’S NOTE: Deliver Us From Me-Ville is a witty book. Its filled with spiritual insight. But it’s also cheeky. I tried to match that humor with my opening questions. But I fear that I came off as a jerk. I’ve just badgered the author. Nice. Everyone has to make a first impression…]

BWC: In your book, you use the word supurbia. How is superbia different from pride?

DZ: In its purest form supurbia is not that different from pride. In his book Life Together, Dietrich Bonheoffer didn’t translate the word into German. He left it in the Latin, which can be defined either as pride or excellence. So in of itself, the word is value-neutral.

But throughout the history of the church, supurbia has been listed among the seven deadly sins. Supurbia goes beyond a healthy sense of worth and becomes self-obsession. Where’s the line? I think you can only see the line when in retrospect. Humor and confession are two effective ways to deal with supurbia. By looking back you discern the difference.

BWC: You noted the apostle Paul as someone who had “prideful” moments without succumbing to supurbia.

[AUTHOR’S ANGST: Oh, nuts. Here’s where I lose the audience. “He hates the apostle Paul!?!? He hates the Bible!!!” How can I get out of this?]

[INTERVIEWERS NOTE: Oh, nuts. This guy hates the Apostle Paul. How do I get out of this interview?]

DZ: I used to avoid reading Paul’s writings because I saw him as cocky and arrogant. I’ve come to see that as a superficial reading of Paul. Those times when Paul seems to get especially arrogant are mitigated by his concern for his churches. He was contending with the supurbia that was threatening several of the communities he was developing.

BWC: His writing gets more big and forceful the more he forgets himself and tends to the needs of his churched?

DZ: Exactly. Of course, he’s human, so pride is part of his struggle, his experience, as well. And I think that peeks through the scriptures here and there.

[AUTHOR’S ANGST: OK, did that get me out of it? Or did that get me deeper into it? I should really go to seminary . . .]

BWC: Is it possible to completely escape from Me-Ville?

DZ: Not on our own juice. Discipleship is directional. When we start reflecting on the distance that we’ve placed between ourselves and Me-Ville, we reveal the extent to which we are still in it. Me-Ville is a construct that we build; the Kingdom of God is already present to us. So God doesn’t deliver us from Me-Ville–he delivers us through it. The way out of Me-Ville is drawing close to Christ.

BWC: I don’t know if you’ve watched this new season of American Idol. We’ve got another crop of would-be singers who grew up with Barney telling them “You can be anything that you want to be.” And now they encounter Simon Cowell, who counters with “You’re horrible!”

[INTEVIEWER’S NOTE: Shut. Up. I made an American Idol reference. I need to rent Babette’s Feast this weekend to cleanse the palette.]

DZ: You see two things in action in American Idol. You see people who declare themselves “Idol Worthy” and a lot of people—the judges and the viewers–making fun of them. What you don’t see is a consistent kind of love. Simon tells the truth with very little acknowledgment of the personhood of the candidate. Paula tells people they’re great and offers them encouragement, but she does so cavalierly, even dismissively. We see the failed contestants walk away. But we don’t know where they walk to. We remember them as a moment, but their story goes on.

BWC: So, in part, we need community to be delivered from Me-Ville?

DZ: We need a community that recognizes God as a deliverer. God didn’t discover Israel as a kingdom and then anoint that kingdom as his people; he heard their cries of slavery and delivered them to a promised land. The contrast would be if Simon took people with horrible voices and made them into great singers. That’s the message of scripture. Isaiah said, “Woe is me, I am a man of unclean lips.” And God purified him. God is not an endorser of our every instinct. God is a deliverer. We need reminders that God delivers all of us from narcissism to a community organized around and under him.

BWC: You write that Jesus is pro-me. Isn’t that just more of the same religion turned on its head for consumerism?

DZ: Pro-me is another Latin phrase that Bonhoeffer appropriated from Luther. It means that Jesus is invested in us. We are meant to be in relationship with God. And Jesus exerts himself toward that end. Romans says God is for us. And that if God is for us who can be against us. Jesus visits us, trains us, advocates for us, dies for us, prepares a place for us.
The way that we organize the universe around ourselves is a defensive measure. We are insecure in this world. Remembering God’s covenantal love, his pro-me stance, give us the ability to drop our narcissistic defenses.

This is so different than “Buddy Jesus.” God is not offering a blanket endorsement for our instincts. God wants what he wants for us. But he gives us the love and security to accept it.

BWC: What’s agere contra and how does it differ from mere personal ambition?

[AUTHOR’S ANGST: Boy, I sure like Latin. I must sound awfully pretentious.]

[INTERVIEWER’s NOTE: Carpe hoc, Latin-boy.]

DZ: Agere contra is a spiritual discipline that emerged from the Jesuit movement. A spiritual director would assign a task that pushed his mentee out of his comfort zone. The mentor would identify something that inhibited spiritual growth or worse, something that cultivated decay. The assignment would press against it. Together, the pair would see how God used that assignment to guide the disciple through it. In the book I compare agere contra to that anxious moment when an actor goes off script; until you do that, the play is just a reading; once you press against your reliance on the script, the play takes on new life and frees you to bring new insight to the scene.

Ambition, by contract, is the willingness to enduring difficulty to get what you want but a corresponding absence of circumspection. There’s an element of idolatry. You lose sight of the why behind the prize. You don’t pay attention to who gets hurt.
Deliver Us From Me-Ville (David C.Cook) is available at fine online retailers everywhere. David Zimmeman’s musings can be read right here at Burnside and at his loud-time.com blog.

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