A Conversation with Catherine McNiel about Her New Book

I have long admired Catherine McNiel’s eloquent, prophetic voice. Her words make me think and seek to live differently.  

She writes these challenging words in the opening pages (12-13) of her new book, Fearing Bravely: Risking Love for Our Neighbors, Strangers, and Enemies:

Whatever contrasting evidence we might produce, we Christians are not primarily associated with loving others but with being afraid of others.

The most afraid, most easily swayed by conspiracy theories, most quickly driven to hatred.

This is a major blow. The Christian community exists to declare and demonstrate God’s love, even in difficult, dangerous circumstances. But instead, it seems many of us have been nurtured through fear into hatred, and from hatred to neglect.

I want you to meet Catherine and hear some of her wise words. Welcome to our conversation!

Q: Tell us a bit about you as a person and a writer. How do you spend your days? What writers have shaped you? How does your faith in God infuse your writing?

I am a writer in the Chicagoland area with three kids and an enormous garden. I have three kids in three different schools. I get them off every morning, make a cup of coffee, and get to work. I work on a lot of things in addition to writing books. I do a lot of editing and lots of reading because I’m in seminary. And then after a few short hours, I collect my three kids from three different schools and the pace shifts. 

I love any writer who can do a good job of representing both the joys and sufferings of life as one thing. C.S. Lewis in Till We Have Faces; David James Duncan in Brothers K, Water Bruggeman . . .

In every possible way I want always to try to make sense of faith and God in real life, not just in theory or in idea. I want to ask, “What does faith and God have to do with me right now—this conversation, this season of life or this year, where we live, how we are in the world?”

Q: What prompted you to write Fearing Bravely?

I wanted to explore fear and love from a spiritual formation perspective. The Bible repeatedly invites us to be formed by love and tells us that if we are formed by love, we won’t be formed by fear. But when I look around, I see us being more formed by our fears, even in a way that keeps us from love. What I actually see is that our fears have cast out our love. I wanted to wrestle with that in this book. I wanted to wrestle with what Jesus says and what we say to ourselves. 

Q: How did you come up with that title?

As I dug into what Jesus had to say about love and fear, I discovered that Jesus is consistently saying the most important thing is loving our neighbors and friends and enemies. He puts it right up there with loving God.

I wanted to explore how to we love neighbors, strangers, and enemies as a primary task.

I wanted to be honest about the fact that Jesus was teaching in the Roman empire. When he was a toddler in Judea, 2,000 men were crucified. Empires rule by terror.

Jesus wasn’t saying that our fears are lying to us. He was saying the world is so full of danger, yet we can’t be so full of fear. We have to take our eyes off fear and focus on love.

Q: What has informed your unique perspective on this topic?

The story of the Good Samaritan. It is very informative and scandalous. As recorded in Luke 10:25-37, Jesus is asked the question: “How do I gain eternal life?”

He responds by telling a  story of a man on dangerous road. Thankfully,  two very good, holy, God-fearing men walk by. They assess the situation, however, and decide it would be ungodly for them to stop. But a Samaritan—someone considered a heretic, an enemy—stops. He sees and helps the man in need, even though it is costly and inconvenient.

Jesus says, “This is the guy who gains eternal life.”

Imagine Jesus telling this incredibly theologically challenging story to the religious people of His day.

We also have rules—like the two religious people in the Good Samaritan story—about how to remain good Christians, such as staying away from heretics, immigrants, people from other political parties . . . Instead of being taught how to care for them, we are taught how to stay away.

Jesus says, “No! I want you to engage with these people. They are the people who are part of my kingdom.”

Q: Why four sections? Do they build on each other?

They do. I had a story arc in mind.

The first section talks about love and fear in the Bible and in our lives. Then I start unraveling Jesus’ story.

The second section talks about loving our neighbors.

The third sections talks about loving our neighbors.

The last section talks about loving our enemies.

Throughout the book I wrestle with the question: What would it look like in our real lives if we followed Jesus? Not just as wearing a name tag “Christian,” but as an active decision, a way to live?

Q: Tell us about the material at the end of the section: Reflect and Discuss; Practice; Look and Listen. How do you hope readers with interact with these sections of your book?

First, I put that material in the book because I imagine most people will read the book on their own, but I would love this book to become a conversation. I would love to see people read it together and dialog about it. I wanted to make that as easy as possible.

I also added suggestions of songs and art work. With my suggestions I wanted to give readers ways to use every possible muscle to engage with these words of Jesus.

Q: What was the hardest chapter to write? Why?

The first and last chapters were the hardest to write.

I always have a hard time setting the stage. I rewrite the first chapter at least seven times before I get the right tone. By the last chapter, the words just poured out of me.

The last chapter was the most difficult material to write. I wanted to be faithful and clear that God is calling us to a love that overcomes evil, pulling the whole system inside-out. In 100 ways fear has discipled us to be afraid of others. Instead of overcoming evil, we have perpetuated it through our fear or neglect.

Q: What do you hope Fearing Bravely will do within the hearts and minds of readers?

I would love for us to retune ourselves to Jesus’ voice that is always exhorting us to love—to  put aside our fear and actively love

I want to change the conversation. I want to change the way Christians talk about each other. Instead of weighing in and saying, “This person is  in and that person is out,” we can say instead, “How can we give to this person? What can we do? How can we love?”

Jesus said living this way would change the world.

You can connect with Catherine on social media.

You can find Catherine’s book, Fearing Bravely: Risking Love for Our Neighbors, Strangers, and Enemies on Amazon.

You can also find it at this independent bookstore: Hearts and Minds.

If you want to hear Catherine talk more about her book, take a listen to this episode of the Mudroom Podcast.

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