Life can be messy and painful and beautiful. And yet, hope can be found in every moment. This is the heartbeat of Josh Riebock’s book Heroes and Monsters. Much like Paul, Josh identifies that there is a constant struggle within each believer, to follow truth or self. We recently caught up with Josh to talk about his book and unpack its themes.
Family Christian: You grew up in Illinois, correct?
Josh: Yeah, I actually grew up in Chicago. That’s a relatively loose term though… [It was] Western suburbs near Wheaton, West Chicago, Naperville, DuPage County area.
FC: Wheaton has this connotation of being a bit of a Bible belt area... Did you have a Christian upbringing?
Josh: Well, with every year that goes by I feel more like I don’t know… Certainly we said that’s what we believed. Any church that we were ever a part of would have been an evangelical church, though we were never really committed to any particular group of people. It was a kind of public faith. In private it became complicated as to what we actually believed. At times it felt like our faith was much more about belonging to [the] Bible belt community and maintaining a wholesome image of godliness rather than believing and seeking God ourselves.
FC: Do you think you realized as a kid that there was more available or did you basically grow up accepting that type of “nominal” approach to Christianity?
Josh: I think I wasn’t aware enough to separate the two. I didn’t realize this until way later in life, I guess, decades later as a young adult. That’s when I realized I measured my sense of spirituality (and even my standing with God) based on how godly other people thought I was. The bottom line was about people-pleasing. I equated my faith with how pleased with me people of faith were. Like you hinted at, I wasn’t able to separate that as a kid so I just thought what we were doing was normal and good – that this was what Christ wanted of me; to be perceived as a man that had it all together and was a “pretty godly” guy.
FC: And through various acts God continued to (in your own words) “wrestle you to the ground.” In your writings you’ve talked a little about a certain camp experience. Is that point more or less where the wrestling began, or was God working in your heart from a very early age?
Josh: I have to think God was probably doing a lot in my life that I wasn’t aware of. I feel like that’s normally the case. The experience you’re talking about specifically—I was 21 years old, and on my third college. I encountered a group of guys who cared about me, they loved me, and they were willing to embrace where I was at, not where I should be in their minds or anything like that. They were willing to take me as I was and we entered into this friendship. As I grew closer to them, I noticed they had real passion for God. What stood out to me so much was that their greatest passion wasn’t to be perceived as “godly” like mine was, their passion was God Himself.
As I got to know them better, we went on a new student retreat for Colorado Christian University. That weekend was the culmination of a long period of wrestling. For me it was that question of “Are any of these things that I’ve been subscribing to on the outside [just] in order to be accepted by Christians? Is there a real God behind these rituals?” That weekend was one of the culminations of what God had been up to in my life for a long time, although I wasn’t aware of it. I feel like every few years I’m able to look back and see moments and say “Okay, maybe that was the culmination, or maybe that was the culmination.” I feel like God continues to produce things in my life that draw me closer and I feel like my tendency is to fight every time.
FC: How much do you think God utilized your parents to open your eyes to the truth of Christianity?
Josh: My mom was actually a Bible teacher. I went to a private Christian high school in DuPage County. My mom was always a champion of the broken, the fringe person, the person who looks at themselves and assumes God wants nothing to do with them. That mark left such a deep imprint on my perception of people. As I grew to know God for myself rather than simply through my family and cultural Christianity, I was taken back to a lot of things that my mom had been living out in front of me all that time. That’s when I realized that this God isn’t just a champion of fringe people other than me, He embraces me as well. So the mark that my mom left on my life was massive. My dad was never verbal about his faith, about his beliefs, [or] about what he really wanted me to believe. But my dad was very smart, he was very intelligent, he made himself who he was, worked himself out of some rough situations in inner city Chicago, was a college professor. In spite of all his accomplishments, he maintained a sense of incredible humility. I found it so hard to see the picture of Christ in my parents at the time, but when I look back, I see the humility of God in my father and I’m able to see the work of God in him now. I think at the time I was blind to it.
FC: You’ve said that the title Heroes and Monsters is more or less addressed to your dad. At the same time he is both your hero and your monster, and how we’re all like that – with the ability to profane and praise. How does one work that out?
Josh: I think that maybe more important than working it out is to first accept [that we can be that way]. To me, it’s a continual reminder that points me to God – not just in a moment of salvation – but a daily reminder of how badly I need God. I remember hearing stories of people talking about their experience of coming to God. So often, the stories I heard were of people describing an uneven life, a broken character, highs and lows, and then the way they would describe it is they would have this moment where they were awakened to the reality of Christ and opened their life to Him. He came in and then it was just smooth sailing and all of the sudden all of these issues of the heart were ironed out in the blink of an eye. For me, that certainly has not been the story of my life. But it’s also not the story I see in scripture at all.
In Romans it’s eloquent theology and it’s very profound, and then Paul gets to Romans 7 and says the things I want to do, I don’t do, and the things I don’t want to do, I end up doing. I don’t understand myself. So he sees and accepts that reality. I think that’s a difficult thing for any person to do - to take an honest look at who we are as people; to really look in the mirror. Sometimes it’s even more difficult for a person who would say they’re a Christian because we assume that when we come to Christ we’re supposed to be fixed. But Paul acknowledges that it’s the hero and monster in [him] that [helps] to point out his need for Christ. He says praise be to Jesus Christ. So for me, before working it out it’s about acknowledging and allowing it to be a constant reminder that we need a God, Who is more than we are.
FC: Josh, do you continue to wrestle with God (and maybe that’s too personal of a question)? Do you think that following Jesus is a “call to wrestle with God” continually?
Josh: Yes I do. Whether the word is wrestle or struggle, I see that throughout the course of my life. I find much more fruit in my life when I’m willing to wrestle with God about the honest things that are happening in my heart and life, whether that’s good or bad. Whether those are moments of doubt, hate, anger, fear or pain, I find much more fruit when I’m willing to wrestle with God rather than wishing or pretending those struggles away, and then being [left] in a flat, dead relationship with God. I heard someone say once that it’s true we are often transformed by God’s embrace, but perhaps we’re never more transformed than when we wrestle with God. I have found that to be true. If I’m honest I’m much more out of harmony with God than in harmony with God. I don’t know any other than to just deal with it, and that often means wrestling. I see confession as a form of wrestling too. “God, this is where my heart has been. This is where I’m at.” Even that feels like a form of struggle. It’s not a bad struggle. It’s the beauty of struggle.
FC: With that in mind, Josh, what do you hope to accomplish with this book? You are obviously very honest about your past, your family and that continual struggle or wrestle with God. What do you hope that a reader walks away with when they hit the last page?
Josh: Another great question. A few things come to mind. I look at Heroes and Monsters as a story. In that context, I don’t know that I have a specific hope other than I hope it does something. [Let’s say we went] to see a movie. What makes it powerful is if you can sit there and say, “Man, this part hit me” and I say, “This other part hit me.” We’re moved by different pieces [of the film] and maybe different parts of our life are touched, but the point is that we are both touched. And so in that way, I just want [the book] to do something. On a more specific level, what I would love to see is people drawn into intimacy with God by willingness to examine their own life. It’s only when we’re honest that intimacy is possible. That’s true person-to-person, but it seems like it is certainly true person-to-God [as well]. The Psalms are such intimate pieces of Scripture because there’s so honest. People acknowledging they don’t know where God is. They’re upset, they’re afraid. That’s what makes it such an intimate piece of art. If I was specific, my hope would be that someone would feel the freedom to look at their own life, not just the bad or the pain, but see the great parts of it too, and allow those things to draw them into really deep connection with the people around them and the God who is always with us.
FC: So let’s talk a little bit about what came before Heroes and Monsters. You worked at a restaurant. You were a coach. You were a painter, a janitor, and a wilderness guide. Where did that take place?
Josh: I did that just outside [of] Colorado. I had a mentor of mine who led these wilderness trips in Colorado through a place called Noah’s Ark, a rafting company. He wasn’t employed by Noah’s Ark, but he would lead groups of students out there on leadership development trips, and he asked me to come and lead these trips with him. So a couple of times a summer we would spend four or five days at a time backpacking and white water rafting through the mountains near Buena Vista, Colorado. It was amazing. Actually, I never need to go camping again my entire life. (laughing) It’s not really what fires me up. But at the time it was an amazing experience. I learned so much about leadership and about people and conversation. I absolutely loved it.
FC: You were a pastor and now a writer. When did you meet your wife?
Josh: Kristen and I grew up down the street from each other in Wheaton. Actually just around the corner. We went to the same elementary school, junior high, and high school, but I’m almost five years older than her, so [any] knowledge we had of each other was second-hand. When I graduated from college, I ended up coaching each of her brothers in both high school soccer and basketball. So I got to know her family pretty well. By the time I turned twenty-five, she turned twenty [and] I was working at a church. We were enlisting some more help in that church. Kristen ended up becoming one of people who came to help, then I ended up falling in love with the help.
FC: You wrote a book, My Generation. Tell us a little about that.
Josh: I wrote My Generation after Kristen and I had moved to Austin. Actually we had been living in Austin for a couple of years. I worked at a church [there] for almost two years, and then I quit to become a writer, and My Generation came out. Essentially what it’s about, what I see it as is a compilation of stories that examine what it would look like to alter the lives of a young generation of people. Basically people that are part of my generation. The Millennial Generation, the Y Generation. What would it look like to live in a way that impacts those lives? It’s not me saying, “Well, you know, here’s all the things I know, and go do this and it will change people’s lives.” A lot of it is actually the stories of how others have really altered my life, brought healing and hope to my life and brought out the best in me; pointing me to Jesus in the process.
FC: Did you enjoy your time as a pastor?
Josh: Ya know, it depended on the day. (Laughing) I suppose that’s a bit of my personality, but as a whole I worked in churches about five and a half years. I walked away having learned so much, having spent time with so many incredible people. I felt like I was in way over my head. A lot of the time, it really became about me, and I made it about me a lot. I left my time as a pastor knowing that it was exactly what I needed for that five and a half years. I was humbled a lot, so to your question, “Did I enjoy it?” I don’t think I enjoyed being humbled (laughing). I can’t necessarily say that, but I look back and I can say it was certainly transformational. I have so many fond memories of doing it, but for me at the time, the learning process was very, very painful. I probably like it more now looking back on it than when I was in it.
FC: Josh, as a former pastor and now a writer, what is your thought of Christiandom here in the US today? Is the church in trouble?
Josh: Yeah, ya know, I don’t know. I think it depends on what we’re looking at. I don’t know the statistics, but the statistics that I hear about church attendance – it’s declining. [But] I don’t know if church attendance declining is a bad thing. The truth is, I look at my own life and I went to church for so long and it had nothing to do with a relationship with God. So I don’t know if that’s an indicator of how many people are actually embracing Christ. So, simply measuring that statistic alone, I don’t know. For me, I get to travel a lot in addition to the writing. I spend a lot of time around really wonderful leaders around the country in the context of church. I meet so many people who, when I walk away, I say, “These people love Jesus deeply.” They want to know how to impact their community and how to participate with God in what he’s doing in the city and the lives of the families in their church. And this is so encouraging to me. I think the church gets in trouble when we wrestle with and we’re spending all of our time on questions that, in my opinion, aren’t going to lead to the deepest impact. When the question is always “Well how do we get people here next Sunday, and how many people are in small groups, and what does the front of the sanctuary look like?” That’s when I feel we get into trouble. I think when the thing we wrestle with is what it would look like to really embrace Christ in our own lives and [how can we] allow that to bleed out into the community and lead people that way. When I hear people hungering after that and spending their time in that, I find it wildly encouraging.
FC: How can our Christian communities help to revive the hero or slay the monster?
Josh: I suppose it sounds simple, but we have to create environments where we're free to express our doubts, fears, insecurities, questions, and struggles to one another. Environments where we're free to share our dreams about who we want to become. Too often the church environment drives all of our weaknesses, doubts, questions and dreams underground, rather than inviting those things to the surface so that we can encourage each other, accept one another, and move forward together. When we're able to honestly engage the people around us, growth and transformation can happen. But when that isn't the case--when we aren't willing to dig deep within ourselves, offer grace and understanding to one another, when we aren't willing to walk through the messiness of life together—community becomes an obstacle to transformation rather than a conduit of it.
FC: Josh, who are you currently reading?
Josh: I actually just got a new book in the mail today. It’s a book called Magic Hours by Tom Bissell. It’s essays about creativity, about creating things and the people that create them. I’m actually really excited to dig into that. Most of what I read is either memoir or fiction. That’s pretty much all that I read, and some short stories, but the majority of those things probably wouldn’t fall under the category of a Christian book. Sometimes I don’t feel my imagination captured by the things that would fall under the category of a Christian book. So I seek out people who really stir my imagination and my creativity and teach me about storytelling and character development. I love to read. I read for enjoyment, but every time I pick up a book I feel like I’m in class. I feel like I’m always trying to learn to do better at my own craft. So I love it.
FC: And who are you listening too?
Josh: For one, I love a band called The Killers. I listen to a lot of Broadway music. I listen to a whole lot of Andrew Lloyd Webber, who wrote Phantom of the Opera and stuff like that. I also listen to a local band here in Austin called Penny & Sparrow, a singer songwriter guy who’s really gifted, very talented. I love music. I feel like I’ve always got something going around in my head. If you really want to get specific, I’ve got a thing for the 80s.
FC: We thought you would mention Guns and Roses too!
Josh: (Laughing) I’ve got a lot of other hair bands going, they’re my constant. I have these other seasons where I listen to other guys, but I love BonJovi, Guns and Roses and Queen, I always listen to that music too.
FC: How old are you, Josh?
Josh: I’m thirty-two. I’ll be thirty-three in a couple weeks. So, I was born in ’79.
FC: So you’re too young to be listening to the 80s music, aren’t you?
Josh: (Laughing) I don’t know. I look at the 80s as more a matter of the heart than a matter of the calendar. So for me, I may belong in the 90s according to my birth certificate, but according to my soul, I belong in the 80s.