Beginning journalists are taught to identify the who, what, when, where, and why. The longer someone tells stories—in any shape or form—the more those elements become wrapped up in one another.
Justin McRoberts cares deeply about the what, the why, even the how—but for him, these are not separate characters or concerns. As the inward and seemingly inexpressible moves toward an outward utterance, it asks for a form that fits and seeks an audience soft to its meaning.
For many years, McRoberts—a Bay Area native—turned first to music to strike the chords that settled and spoke for his soul. His first album hit the atmosphere in 1999 and, as his career progressed, he embodied the ideal of a truly independent artist.
McRoberts’s storytelling gradually has shifted shape; he has written several books on creativity as well as two books of prayer in collaboration with artist Scott Erickson. On his @ Sea podcast, he convenes conversations with musicians and activists, theologians, and authors. And follow McRoberts to any corner of social media, and you’ll find short-form proverbs and lyric sermons that burrow into your brain as well as any three-minute pop song ever could.
To spend time with McRoberts’s work is to recognize that stories show little respect for the laws of motion; they work on, over, around and through you. Pursuing faithfulness to a God who makes something of nothing, meaning from mess, McRoberts hones the instinct that tells him the way the how, when, why, and what fit together. In a recent conversation, he discussed the shapes his stories take, his ever-evolving relationship with music and how theology begets creativity—or is it the other way around?
Danielsen: In recent years, you seem to have pivoted from music as your primary means of expression to writing, podcasting, and even shorter forms of storytelling. What prompted this shift? Did it feel like a gradual or decisive change? How do you feel like audiences have or haven't come along for the ride?
McRoberts: I really enjoyed playing music as my primary focus. Thing is, even during those years when it was the key focus of my work, I told a lot of stories when I traveled to play shows. Paying attention to the “feedback” I got, my storytelling seemed to have at least as lasting and significant a place in the hearts and minds of my listeners as my songs. At some point, I had to honestly ask which creative focus had a higher ceiling. Storytelling and teaching (the prose part of my work) is not only something I can see myself doing well into my sixties and seventies, but something I think I can get better at over those coming years. I can’t say that about music. I definitely have music left in me, but I think I “peaked” a while back with songwriting; I’m just now finding my groove with books and sermons and stories, etc.
Danielsen: As your relationship with these story forms has deepened, how has your relationship to music—as a creator and as a consumer—changed in the everyday?
McRoberts: Definitely. Mostly in that I have so much more respect for women and men whose musical careers continue to grow and deepen after the twenty-one-year mark. I don’t want to go so far as to say that “anyone can make one good record,” but something like that is true. What I marvel at is the band or artist making better work in their forties, fifties, and sixties than in their twenties and thirties (maybe before kids and a mortgage, etc.).
Danielsen: You’ve existed as both an insider and outsider in the Christian music world, working within its framework but often in an independent state of being. What are some of the most meaningful ways you’ve seen that sphere change, for better or for worse, in your career? How do its structures foster or fight against thoughtful spiritual practice?
McRoberts: Andrew Osenga tweeted about a song of his being included in a Spotify playlist not so long ago. He identifies as a Christian. So do many of the artists whose music is featured on the playlist, which is entitled “Good Music, Good People.” Land of Color, Josh Garrels, The Brilliance, Wilder Woods, and Johnnyswim, etc. My son loves that playlist. He’s nine and listens to a lot of pop (Post Malone, Halsey, Zedd, etc.) So does my wife. So do my neighbors (most of whom don’t care a lick about the “Christian industry”).
Graphic novelist Gene Luen Yang tells a story about asking a college professor about religious writing. He was concerned about writing propaganda that might come off like cheap art as well as cheapen the presentation of his faith. His professor told him to stop writing about his faith, which Gene found confusing. That is, until she said, “Just write about your life and if your faith is real, it’ll show up.”
I think a whole lot of folks found the framework/machinery of the Christian marketplace helpful for a short season and then, because of a more direct relationship with listeners, felt the freedom to just write about their lives. Those same structures still exist (Casting Crowns, Hillsong, etc.) and provide a safe place for folks to get a more predictable (not a bad thing) product. But the borders beyond that structure are much, much wider now.
Danielsen: When you sense a creative spark, do you tend to know right away what form or medium that idea will require? How do you know when you're done with an idea—or when that idea is done with you?
McRoberts: When something strikes me now, I tend to move towards some kind of prose because that’s the overall mode I’m in. On occasion (far less often than in the past), I’ll feel like it’s something musical. I do sense a difference in “the spark,” but I think that has only come with a whole bunch of years working at ideas from raw form and figuring out how I can best bring them to life. In other words, it’s less to do with what the idea requires and more to do with how my soul wants to handle it. I’m more self-aware now and more comfortable making decisions about how I’ll go about doing something.
Danielsen: Here’s a chicken-egg question that might be impossible to unravel. Do you tend to see spiritual or theological changes in yourself first, then the creative outworking of them? Or do you think creativity works the other way, arriving first to shape what you think and believe?
McRoberts: I’m going to offer the most unhelpful answer right now: it’s both things. At times, I can tell something has shifted in me and I move to create something to both name and capture that change. At times, I’m in the process of creating something and recognize a need to do some work in my own soul. It’s more symbiotic than formulaic, in that way. The only caveat to that (and this is my personal process/journey) is that I don’t often consider the theological aspect of things until much later. Trying to fit some soul-work happening in me into a specific theological place is stifling. I’m not a theologian. I think I’d rather bear witness to what’s happening in and around me and then let the more academic-minded types do the theological identification part.
Danielsen: I want to borrow a bit of your own technique, asking you to flesh out your lexicon like you do with your guests on @ Sea. Give me your first thoughts or a fuller definition of the following. What comes to mind when you hear . . .
. . . Vocation?
McRoberts: I do what I do because it’s who I am.
. . . Calling?
McRoberts: I don’t get to simply decide all the time what it is I get to do or who I am; There is
also a divine, authoritative desire for my life and the work my life will produce.
. . . Imago Dei?
McRoberts: I’ve been so thankfully wrong and corrected about what God looks like. God is more beautiful now that I see God in faces I didn’t see God in before.
. . . Creator God?
McRoberts: Nothing is what it is; because we bear the Imago Dei, it’s what we make of it.