Foreword by L. Gregory Jones
Dan Ariely, Karl Barth, and Jane McGonigal walk into a bar . . .
Sounds like the beginning of an intriguing joke, a variation on a theme. But this joke would likely fall stillborn, as there are few people in the world who could recognize the incongruity of all three characters finding themselves in a bar together. Not exactly your typical “a rabbi, a priest, and a minister” or even, for Catholics, “a Dominican, a Franciscan, and a Jesuit.”
Who are Dan Ariely, and Karl Barth, and Jane McGonigal, and why should we care if they walk into a bar together? Well, Ken Evers-Hood believes that fruitful theological imagination, insightful understanding of human beings, and a promising future for congregational ministry are likely to result from their conversation. And, with Ken’s intoxicating sense of humor and earthy incarnational approach, of course they would meet in a bar.
In Evers-Hood’s deft rhetorical hands, the result of this conversation among Ariely, Barth, McGonigal, and many others is a fascinating book that ought to be read not only by pastors but also by theologians, economists, and others. Why? Because he both builds on the insights of behavioral economists, showing relevance for pastoral ministry and Christian theology, and he offers theological wisdom that deepens our understandings of human nature and communities in an era when social scientists and other “secular” disciplines are tempted by reductive or siloed accounts.
This book originated in part out of an encounter I had with Ken in the midst of a Doctor of Ministry seminar I was teaching. During the break, he came up to me and asked if I was aware of various experiments in behavioral economics and “game theory” that he thought would be relevant to our class.
He may have been surprised to discover that, in fact, I did have some familiarity with his interests. And in that brief conversation, a friendship was born. To be sure, it took some time for each of us to learn to trust that the other was serious about both sides of the conversation.
I assumed that Ken really was looking for a way to develop a paper, and perhaps a thesis, that would enable him to develop his interests with a minimum of theological research or engagement. And I suspect that Ken doubted that I really had read Axelrod, Ariely, Kahneman and others—or if I had read them, that I had thought about them deeply.
I agreed to supervise Ken’s thesis for his Doctor of Ministry degree. I was surprised and delighted when he persuaded my Duke colleague Dan Ariely to serve as co-supervisor. Ken promised to work hard and develop some interesting arguments. It was a promise that he has exceeded by leaps and bounds, for which this stimulating and insightful book is testimony.
The remarkable journey of Ken developing the argument of his thesis, and then expanding his argument into this book, reveals both a gifted pastor and a deep and imaginative theological mind. Ken represents the life of a “reflective practitioner” at its best, for he takes both the reflection and the practice with the utmost seriousness.
As you read the book, you will learn about the challenges Ken had to address in order for Dan to believe that he was doing serious social-scientific research. Less visible in the book, though, but no less significant were my challenges to him to be sure he treated with equal seriousness classical Christian theology—and doctrines such as Christology, sin, holiness.
And so it was that he probed deeply into the thought of Calvin and Barth even as he was learning from Ariely and Kahneman, and designing his own experiments with those odd collections of people called “sessions” in Presbyterian churches. His playful evocation of Jesus’ (and our own) “irrationality” may seem initially too clever by half, especially coming from a pastor in a Calvinist tradition known for its rationality (and at times, as a Wesleyan might note, its obsession with rationality).
Ken’s emphasis though is on the limits of our rationality, not that we are never rational. In his gentle, humorous, and thoughtful approach, Ken returns us to a rich theological (and Calvinist) tradition that actually points us toward wisdom that is holistic precisely in the ways it points to the integration of our reason, limited though it is, with our emotions, perceptions, and actions.
As you read this book, I suspect you will discover as I did that you are learning a lot from Ken’s insights and provocative ways of framing issues. You will discover a rich interweaving of Scripture with social-scientific studies, discussion of theological doctrines with humorous stories of congregational debates. And Ken will invite you to laugh with him, and occasionally at him, as you are drawn into the wondrous complexity of human life.
The tapestry that you hold, the book The Irrational Jesus, is a wonder to behold. As you pause to reflect and are stirred to argue with this or that point, as you chuckle at others’ foibles and wonder about your own irrationality, I trust that you will be prompted also to reflect more deeply about God, about human beings, and about the purpose of the church and its ministries.
Ultimately, though, Ken and I both hope you will do more than reflect, that you will be inspired to live and lead differently—and more faithfully—in service to God in the midst of a fully human church, and a fully human world.
[L. Gregory Jones is Senior Strategist for Leadership Education at Duke Divinity School and Ruth W. and A. Morris Williams Jr. Professor of Theology and Christian Ministry.]