EerdWord Greatest Hits: Wife, Mother, Parish Professional, and CT Award Winner (An Interview with Julie Canlis)

It’s summer vacation time in the Eerdmans Internet marketing department — and to celebrate, we’re reposting a few “greatest hits” from our first year and a half in the blogosphere.

Today’s selection originally appeared March 15, 2011. Enjoy!

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In January [2011], Julie Canlis received a 2011 award of merit from Christianity Today for her book, Calvin’s Ladder. In 2007 she won the John Templeton Award for Theological Promise. Not only did Julie manage to write a groundbreaking, award-winning book, but she also did so while raising young children and partnering with her husband in parish ministry! We, of course, have been dying to know how she pulled it off — so we asked.

We will publish our interview with Julie in three parts, beginning today with a personal account of her five-year sprint and an introduction to her excellent work.

Part 1

Julie Canlis and family
Julie Canlis and family

Q 1: Congratulations, Julie, on your Christianity Today award! We are pleased to call your book our own and are glad you chose us as your publisher. Tell us, though, how did you do it? How did you manage to earn a PhD and publish an award-winning book while raising young children and being both a parish professional and a pastor’s wife?

I’m not sure I can really answer this question, because those years are a total blur! I applied for the PhD program at the University of St Andrews because I wanted to work under the excellent and caring supervision of Dr. Alan Torrance. My husband was also going to pursue a doctorate, but we were blissfully unaware that I was pregnant at the time! We arrived with a newborn and four small suitcases. In our naïveté, we spent our first year studying in shifts, which meant that we never saw one another. We didn’t realize that the quality of our life and relationship was essential for a PhD to be done well (and I mean “well” in the Christian sense of wholeness and relational — not academic — perfection). We mortgaged our marriage to get the PhD, and in some respects, we are still paying off that loan.

So my husband graciously quit his academic career to take care of our son and to help me over the finish line until our daughter would be born. Then I took a year off to stay home with them while Matt worked for local parish churches. And then it was back to work for me until our third child was born. I still have photos of her at 12 hours old in my left arm, with my thesis corrections tucked under my right arm, as I lay sleeping in my hospital bed!

The correct theological answer to “how did you do it?” is “by the grace of God alone!” and I still stand by that answer. But it was a difficult five-year sprint, and I sometimes wonder if the sacrifices we made were the right ones. Of course, everything seems justified when your work wins awards, but I don’t think that is how things are justified in the Lord’s eyes. I’m now a glorified Sunday school teacher (for a Sunday school in the range of 15 to 25 children, between the ages of 3 and 13), and I feel that my work is as difficult, as taxing, and as theologically murky as ever! But I love it. And I feel just as alive. And thankfully, my husband and I have time for one another, which is not a luxury but a necessity for living a relationally right life.

Q 2: For those of our readers who are unfamiliar with your work, tell us a little about your groundbreaking study.

I find it intriguing and wonderful that the other book awarded in my category of the CT awards is N. T. Wright’s After You Believe. That is precisely my question. What is next? How can I be spiritually formed by what I now believe? How has the church, over the centuries, come to understand discipleship? Often we disciple people by getting them busy. This is backwards. We’ve got to begin by helping them understand what it really means that they are now in Christ. We’ve got to begin by helping them enter this wide, wonderful world of the Father, Son, and Spirit.

Calvin's Ladder
Calvin’s Ladder

My evangelical upbringing was built around that marvelous hymn, “Amazing Grace.” But for all its strengths, I found that this evangelical emphasis on grace was, in some ways, paralyzing. We knew that we could “do nothing,” and so we vacillated between an unhealthy activism and a self-repudiating passivity. “God” was our goal, our great motivator, our Savior. Yet we weren’t exactly sure what role He played and what role we played in our transformation.

So I read far and wide, and I found myself drawn to Christian writers and thinkers from the past who tackled these questions. I suppose that today, these writings would be shelved under topics like “sanctification” or “discipleship.” But these writers “shelved” them under the category of the Trinity. And that is where it all began to make sense to me. This isn’t about what I am supposed to do, or even what God is hoping that I will do. This is about what God is doing and whether or not I am allowing myself to be pulled into his love, his dynamic, his mission, his communion, his people, his Church.

Calvin is brilliant at showing how Christ’s mission to us — his “descent” if you will — is only the first half of the story. Calvin is adamant that Christ’s goal wasn’t just to get us into heaven. It was to bring us back to his Father and to the communion that they share in the Spirit (this is our “ascent” both in this life and the next). Our entire life is an outworking of this “ascent” as we live out our everyday lives, in community, under the healing shadow of the cross.

What I think people find interesting about my book is the pastoral point that when Christ descended to us, he also ascended to the Father for us. We are included in both of these movements. He didn’t descend so that we could become workaholics. He descended to put sin to death among us. He ascended to lead us to his Father, to involve us in his life of communion, and to give us his Spirit, who would in turn make Christ real to us. We need to participate in his death and resurrection, his descent and ascent. Grace is about getting caught up in this life of Jesus that is going on all around us.

Click to read parts two and three of our interview with Julie Canlis or to order Calvin’s Ladder: A Spiritual Theology of Ascent and Ascension