Creative Theology: An Interview with Sam Mahlstadt

A couple of months ago, I had the privilege of interviewing Sam Mahlstadt after reading his book, Creative Theology.
The writing, the imagery and the theology gave me a lot to ponder and I have since read the book multiple times. I like the idea of refocusing on God's creation as a gift to be tended too and be inspired by. There is so much good in Sam's writing.  
I had a slew of questions ready for Sam and luckily he agreed to answer them all :)

Me: Tell me a little bit about you.

Sam: I fill a few roles in my day. First, I am a husband and father of two girls. I am a manager in the finance industry by day, and a non-profit leader and writer by night. I feel like I do good, fulfilling work many hours a day, but writing is my first true love, and the non-profit I helped co-found gives me a deep sense of purpose.

Me: What is your background in writing?

Sam: I went to college to be a writer. I attended the University of Iowa and originally majored in business and journalism communications. Within a semester, each of those areas of focus fell away, and I pursued an English degree. I dreamed at that time of writing for a magazine or writing the next great American novel. 
Near the end of my college education, I became re-engaged in my faith, and decided to dive into vocational ministry. Through that process, I neglected writing for quite some time, as I wasn't sure how to reconcile writing and ministry. Ironically, this is lately what led to me writing the book.

Me: How did the idea for the book come about?

Sam: The book in its earliest form was part of a series I was writing about how the American church was (or wasn't) responding to several major issues. One was how we care for the planet. It was the topic that was the most prominent for me at that time, and the more I pushed the more wrapped up I became in exploring the vast implications of our interaction with God and his creation. A few years later, it turned into a book. 

Me: How did you come up with the concept for the design?

Sam: Originally I was planning on writing a standard 50,000-60,000 word book. But as I worked on building it out I realized the format didn't fit the message at all. So I quit writing, took what I had, and began the process of stripping everything down. I took sections and chapters and cut them down to their most core elements. What was left was often a sentence or a paragraph. I took that material and engaged a couple artists to help me take these very basic thoughts and breathe life into them on the page. Thankfully, it turned out beautifully.

Me: In the book, you write '...revisit what it means to serve the garden,' the idea that taking care of the earth is central. What is your take on Christians and environmentalism? How should Christians react?

Sam: Like I mentioned, this is the very concept that I started with when I began writing the book. My observation has been that we as the American church have largely separated our faith from our interaction with God's creation. This is why in the book, I bring up the concept of Ekphrasis art. It basically means that what you create (we're all creating a body of work with our lives) is in response to another piece of creation. And when you spend time observing and reflecting on a piece of creation, you are inevitably responding to the creator. So for me, environmentalism is much more than leaving a healthy planet for the next generation, although I certainly feel that's important. For me, the key is that we recognize God in creation, and allow that simple act of recognition to inform how we interact with his work. If we do this, we will act in a way that lines up with God's command to Adam and Eve to serve the garden rather than the lazy, greedy, opportunistic response our country is known for. 

Me: You mention Adam and Eve sinning to push their relationship boundaries with God, that without the chance of heartbreak, love holds no power over us. I thought this was a unique view of their relationship.How did you come to that conclusion? Do you think that is why we have trouble with sin today? Lack of emotional and relational maturity?

Sam: I think it's human nature to become obsessed with the boundary when all along there is an abundance of life well within the boundary. People often want to know how far they can go with their sin without facing consequences rather than enjoying the life found in obedience. I believe the possibility that God's creation could turn their backs on him as they turned their focus from him to the single boundary in the garden, can only be explained as total love. God could have not allowed for options and choice and free will. But he didn't, even if it meant leaving a possibility for heartbreak. It's a compelling love.  

Me: You say 'there is no such thing as a creative' insinuating we are ALL creative. How do you think people can find God through creative means?

Sam: The most powerful way we can encounter God is to start with the mundane things. Start with the seemingly insignificant things we take for granted, and start paying attention. God is present in all moments, yet we tend to only look for him in extreme highs and lows. Look for him to be reflected in the landscape he created, the gift of breath in your lungs, in the relationships he's blessed you with. When we are in tune to his presence in our daily lives, it becomes much easier to see him reflected in beautiful art that we make and/or observe. 

Me: The book ends with a call to action- to join in the renewal of God's kingdom. What would you like to see people do after reading Creative Theology?         

Sam: I hope for a couple things. The first is that the book doesn't just end up on a shelf (I actually intentionally designed the book to not fit uniformly on a book shelf), but rather is referenced and discussed over time. The second is that people would open their eyes to God's great work in and around their lives. I pray people would begin to observe, God in their lives and respond to his great work by living intentional lives and creating work that comes out of a depth of faith.                 

'People often want to know how far they can go with their sin without facing consequences rather than enjoying the life found in obedience' - isn't that the truth? I think Sam could probably write a whole other book on that statement alone!

Huge thanks to Sam for providing me Creative Theology and offering to interview for EvenMe. I'm so thankful to know him as part of my church community and am glad I could share his story here on the blog.

Interested in reading Creative Theology?
Sam has offered to give away both a hard copy and an ebook of Creative Theology. 

Leave a comment below on how God's creation inspires you and be entered to win!

(I'll pick a winner at random and announce it next week!)