“Play jazz,” he tells me.
Jonathan Pennington is well known for his roles as professor, teaching pastor, and author. But unbeknownst to many, he’s carried the title of worship pastor on multiple occasions. While playing music may be one of the few things in life at which he is only average—or so he avers—his appreciation of it is anything but. References to the classics, musicals, pop, and yes, jazz make their way into his conversations and teaching.
Playing jazz is about understanding and riffing on the music around you, intuiting and exploring its connections, and, ultimately, adding your own voice in a way that brings out a greater beauty. An odd comparison, perhaps, to writing an academic dissertation—the topic at hand when he advised I “play jazz.” But I understood exactly what he meant because that’s precisely how Jonathan lives his life.
The Tune of Dr. Jonathan Pennington
Like jazz, Jonathan is inherently invitational and innovating, less purely analytical than creatively constructive, and maybe most importantly, he relentlessly seeks beauty. And he’s a good friend. When I called him to talk through this profile, we spent half the time discussing my career aspirations instead of his. The man produces work at a superhuman level and yet always has time to chat with me about my dissertation woes or the latest Ted Lasso episode (he’s a big fan).
I first met Jonathan Pennington while working at a church in Texas. A former professor of a colleague, he would fly in to serve our theological training program for weekend seminars. Though his visits to Dallas were short, the time was meaningful for both our people and for our group of colleagues, so a regular rhythm, as well as a friendship, was forged. Through his encouragement and example, I ended up pursuing further theological study and spent two years as his student. While his preaching and teaching were both impressive, it was his commitment to the people—whether in the congregation or the classroom—that was most impactful.
A born achiever and enneagram three, Jonathan brings a determination and drive to all his endeavors may it be understanding Greek technicalities, cheering on Louisville City FC, teaching the New Testament, writing on any number of topics from positive psychology to philosophy, or just brewing the best coffee. It was not surprising that finding time on the calendar between his many undertakings was challenging. When I asked him what his current big project was, however, he confessed it was actually improving his golf game (don’t tell the publishers waiting on his next book).
The Composition of a Chord Progression
Born into a family of teachers and professors, teaching was “bred into me like a show dog” (yes, that’s an actual quote). It took some time, however, for nature to win out. Jonathan came to know God in college through the ministry of Cru (formerly Campus Crusade), and while he got a taste of ministry through that experience, he initially followed a business path out of college alongside his wife, Tracy, who had earned a prestigious corporate job at Sears. While his entrepreneurial and reforming spirit has brought Jonathan many accolades throughout his career, it might surprise you to learn that one of his first awards was for innovation in the sale of men’s fragrances at Sears. Then again, if you have seen him in his bright purple suit at LouCity soccer matches, it may seem right on brand.
Despite his fragrant corporate success, ministry called. Through the advice of a mentor, he ended up as an associate pastor in Mount Morris, Illinois, and commuting two hours each way to Trinity Evangelical Divinity School outside Chicago. His determination garnered him success in the pulpit and in the classroom. Ministry success didn’t expunge him of his enterprising ways. Before you or I could buy his books, New Testament professors and seminary students were purchasing tapes in Greek that he recorded and sold. It’s all a little exhausting just to think about, and I haven’t even mentioned his six kids!
Breeding won in the end, however. Faced with the choice between the pastorate and a PhD, Jonathan and his family left Illinois for Scotland to study at the University of St. Andrews. When he returned stateside it was as a professor of New Testament at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, a position he’s held for the last seventeen years.
Jonathan Pennington’s Melodic Line
“What drives you?” I ask, hoping he would reveal something interesting and honest about the secret to his superhuman productivity or the motivations for his expanding influence. Jonathan is refreshingly candid—humble, but also not shy about either his successes or his failures. Nor, occasionally, those of others: he once praised me for having the “second best paper in the class,” and as any silver medalist (or former student of his) can relate, I felt simultaneously accomplished and disappointed.
“Beauty,” he says. “Beauty and helping others find meaning in life.”
Anyone who has read his recent book Jesus the Great Philosopher, or the more academic Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing, will not be surprised that his initial response waxes philosophic. Before you quarantine Jonathan to the lofty idealism of academic ivory towers, however, it is worth noting that his most recent book, Small Preaching, trends entirely in the opposite direction. The book is composed of twenty-five short essays aimed at improving your preaching (his best practices work for teaching, too, he assures me). Somehow the practicality of Small Preaching suits him just as well as scholarly thought. He is uniquely gifted at taking our ancient roots and bringing out what is relevant by way of word pictures you can’t quite shake. This gift of illustration is helped by the fact that he is nearly as well versed in pop culture as philosophy, so long as it entails a good story.
When he teaches his students how to interpret the New Testament, Jonathan encourages them to approach the text with an “encyclopedic context,” a concept rooted in a very technical conversation about language, meaning, semiotics, and more. But the idea is equally as meaningful in its simplest form: think broad, not narrow. Or to put it in Ted Lasso terms, be curious. If you are looking for the special sauce that makes Jonathan Pennington the thinker, communicator, and man that he is, I would argue, much like his favorite football coach, curiosity is key.
Striking A New Chord
These days, Jonathan Pennington’s brand is changing. Or perhaps I should say innovating, or maybe focus would be a better way to put it for polite Christian company (though some might say, dear reader, that you don’t quite fit that, well, brand).
Some professors achieve in publishing while others are superior in pedagogy; Jonathan, however, excels in both. Recently, though, he has directed his energy to yet another endeavor—pastor and preacher.
Technically he has been a pastor longer than a professor. But where historically his attention has been in the academy, his calendar now shows more of his time and efforts revolving around the church. Locally, you’ll find him pastoring and preaching, but he serves the universal church as well. Jesus the Great Philosopher and Small Preaching—his most recent titles— are aimed at a broader audience than his previous scholarly publications.
Why the pivot? The cynic might point out that academia can be a challenging place or that he has six kids to get through college (two down!) but anyone who has sat under his teaching knows that the beauty within him simply cannot be contained. Jonathan, however, would say it began with a question.
Repeating the Riff
Jonathan is a Matthew scholar by trade, so one might argue it was less curiosity than necessity that initially drove his deep dive into the Sermon on the Mount several years ago. Never one to settle for face value, something about the word “blessed” in the beatitudes caught his eye. One question led to another and then another and ultimately he asked the question that would define this next period of his career—publishing, preaching, pivots, and all—What is the good life?
If you want to understand the “encyclopedic context” of his answer to this question (so far) pick up Jesus the Great Philosopher or, for more background, The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing. But the TL;DR is this: Jesus is a philosopher of true happiness. He proclaims a whole life philosophy that turns upside down all other life philosophies not only of his time but of ours as well. Jesus teaches that human flourishing, or the good life, is not dependent on external circumstances but an internal reality marked by allegiance to the kingdom of God, and ultimately, hope. This philosophy or way of living and being he proclaims as the true message of the Bible is not one of mere faith or fear but of flourishing—of true happiness.
For many of us, just the word “philosophy” conjures up confusion, but the quest for meaning is no mere academic idea. Before it became a caricature of esoteric college classes, philosophy was a field inherently both intellectual and mundane. After all, what good is defining human flourishing if it only applies to a few in an ivory tower? The meaning of life by definition must account for all of life and all living, or there is no meaning in it at all. What began for Jonathan as a question about the nature of blessedness and insatiable curiosity led to a search for the true meaning of life, a universal and holistic journey, which cannot be contained in seminary classrooms or academic books but naturally spills over into preaching, writing, and above all, living the good life.
Lost in the Music
What truly sets Jonathan apart is not his brilliant mind, nor, even, his brilliant heart, though together they are certainly a winning combination. The mind and heart, powerful though they may be, are merely that: power; they are the engines that drive toward the ultimate destination, but that final goal is governed by our values and virtues. It is not enough, however, to say that Jonathan aims at beauty, though that is true. What truly sets Jonathan Pennington apart is the quest to find beauty.
Once, in the classroom, he told us that he sees his job, and thus what he was training us to do, as that of a servant who goes into the royal treasure-house, brings out the king’s beauties, and puts them on display. Our job is not to create beauty but to find it, to stand in awe of it, be changed by it, and, when possible, to bring it out and put it on display for others.
Jonathan said in a recent sermon when we encounter beauty, it catches us up into its wonder, sets us free from our momentary circumstances, and evokes praise, awe, delight—perhaps, true happiness. This is a truth he shows even more than tells. I have felt those very things when listening to Dr. Pennington teach—the awe, the delight, the burning in my heart. The irony is that sometimes by allowing curiosity instead of achievement to color our quest for beauty, we end up creating something truly beautiful, and that is exactly what Jonathan has done. And it is a journey you are invited to join. Come play jazz, he beckons to the world around us. The good life is waiting.