Thursday, June 18, 2009

Bob Briner (July/August 1996)

From 1991 to 2005, I had the pleasure of interviewing a fascinating array of writers, theologians, politicians, artists, and musicians for the Wittenburg Door, the original--only?--magazine of religious satire. From the preparation required to conduct them to the editing required to make them both clear and funny (the Door's two requirements, although not necessarily in that order), these interviews changed my life (mostly for the better). Although I conducted most of the interviews by phone, I was on several occasions able to hop a plane and question my subjects in person thanks to the generosity of Bob Darden and the late Mike Yaconelli, the editors who underwrote my adventures. It was a generosity made all the more special by the fact that the Door was usually deep in the red. For such acts of genuinely Christian charity (or fiscal insanity, I'm not sure which), I remain intensely grateful. Several of my interviews--R.C. Sproul, Chris Yambar--are still online in their entirety. What's posted below is one of the ones that's been MIA for awhile.


At first glance, Bob Briner does not resemble a typical Door interviewee. Having never undergone ordination, he has never found himself defrocked by a major denomination and jarred into a realization of the church's hypocrisy. Neither has he ever sought to maximize his sensitivity to the oppressed by studying liberation theologians like the Clash or by subjecting his innards to a steady diet of roast dog. He hasn't even spent the hours from midnight to dawn downing hard liquor with Door editors, gradually peeling away his many layers of defensiveness and reserve until his raw, throbbing, real self lay exposed and hemorrhaging enough vulnerability for a month's worth of Oprah.

No, Bob Briner is that least likely of Door interviewees--a solid citizen, a happy family man, and a regular guy. Um, make that a solid citizen, a happy family man, and a regular guy who in the course of making his living in the world of professional sports has served as the first GM of the San Antonio Spurs (back when folks called them the Dallas Chaparrals), as chairman of the Men's International Professional Tennis Council, and--since 1979--as the president of ProServ Television, a company that, in addition to marketing major sporting events to far-flung countries, has made and marketed such award-winning specials as Dravecky: A Story of Courage and Grace and A Hard Road to Glory, which Briner wrote with the late tennis legend Arthur Ashe.

He has also recently become one of the few Christian authors to write big-selling books without the help of a ghost. Roaring Lambs (Zondervan), Briner's challenge to the Evangelical church to actually get off its pews and "be salt" in the world, was a surprise Christian-bookstore hit, not only spawning Briner's latest career--that of a traveling speaker--but also invigorating his book output. Squeeze Play, subtitled "Practical Insights for Men Caught Between Work & Home," came next, followed by Lambs Among Wolves, Briner's celebration of twenty-two high-profile Christians who are "influencing American culture."

Briner's latest books, however--The Management Methods of Jesus: Ancient Wisdom for Modern Business (Thomas Nelson) and Deadly Detours: Seven Noble Causes That Keep Christians from Changing the World (Zondervan)--may test his readers' charity, especially since all the "deadly detours" that Briner mentions only happen to be the most popular Evangelical causes of the day. Because we've always liked guys who focus on Jesus so much that they make other Christians mad--and because Briner doesn't identify the Door as a deadly detour--we sent Arsenio Orteza to the nearest phone to await the man's call. And since, as of this writing, Briner still hasn't sent us the bill, we've come to like him even more.

DOOR: How are your two new books doing?
BRINER: Well, The Management Methods of Jesus has already gone into its second printing.

DOOR: What about Seven Noble Detours?
BRINER: The name of it is Deadly Detours--

DOOR: That's what we meant.
BRINER:--Seven Noble Causes That Keep Christians from Changing the World.

DOOR: Can you let us in on one or two of these "detours"?
BRINER: The one that people are most interested in, and the one that I'm getting the most questions and disagreement about, is politics.

DOOR: What about politics?
BRINER: That politics, for Christians, really is a deadly detour.

DOOR: Really?
BRINER: Another one is school prayer.

DOOR: Politics and school prayer?
BRINER: Another one is family values. But you only asked for two.

DOOR: Let us guess why people are upset: For years Christians were apolitical, and society decayed. Now that they finally have some political momentum going, you come along and tell them they're wasting their energy.
BRINER: That's pretty much it.

DOOR: What's wrong with Christians wanting their guys in power?
BRINER: During the times when we've had "our guys" in--whether our guys were Carter or Reagan or Bush, all Christians to some extent, at least--all the bad things that we cringe over increased: divorce, drug use, pornography, child abuse. That should tell us something.

DOOR: What should that tell us?
BRINER: The same thing that Jesus kept telling his disciples: "I'm talking about a kingdom not of this world." To ever think that politics is going to be the answer to the things that Christians care most about--or should care most about--is a deadly detour.

DOOR: What should those of us caught up in the deadly political detour be doing instead?
BRINER: First, you should be obedient to Jesus and do what he asked you to do, which is to be salt and to make disciples. After that, if you have time to be involved in "good causes," O.K. But to think that you're being obedient by supporting candidates and organizing takeovers of your local precincts and going head-to-head in strident ways with the people who disagree with you-- well, thinking that that is being obedient is the big problem.

DOOR: In both Roaring Lambs and Lambs Among Wolves, you talk about the need for Christians to become "salt" in their world--to both sting and preserve those elements of society still sensitive to the gospel. When did you first realize that "salt" and "Briner" are etymologically connected?
BRINER: -----

DOOR: Uh, we mean when did the metaphor of "salt" first come alive for you?
BRINER: When I was living in Dallas.

DOOR: What happened in Dallas?
BRINER: In Dallas, you had this "Christian Mecca," with huge traditional churches like the First Baptist Church, the biggest Baptist church in the world. You had two world-class seminaries. You had the single biggest market in America for Christian music. You had the most powerful Christian radio stations in America. You had all the parachurch organizations with headquarters or big operations there. Even the football team had a Christian quarterback in Roger Staubach and a Christian coach in Tom Landry, who's a good friend of mine, by the way.

DOOR: Sounds pretty salty to us.
BRINER: But that's just one picture of Dallas.

DOOR: What's the other?
BRINER: The other is that Dallas is the divorce capital of America and often the murder capital of America. The race relationships there are just as bad as anywhere else. So I began to focus on the salt metaphor.

DOOR: Meaning?
BRINER: Meaning that the real power of the gospel was bottled up in these Christian institutions. There was a lot going on "for the Kingdom" in Dallas, but the heartbeat of the city went on oblivious to it. No stream of salt was making any difference.

DOOR: If we remember correctly, Laundry and Staubach peacefully coexisted with the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders, who peacefully coexisted with very skimpy costumes. Is that the kind of incongruity you're talking about?
BRINER: In a microcosm, yes.

DOOR: So you began writing books. Considering how busy you've been with ProServe TV, where have you found the time to write five of them?
BRINER: I wrote the first three almost totally on airplanes. At the time I wrote Lambs, I was flying back and forth to Asia regularly because, as far as sports television is concerned, the markets in the sixteen western European democracies and out on the Pacific Rim are so unbelievably dynamic that even dummies like us can make a lot of money. So I was on the airplane even more than usual. Some people think that I wrote some of that stuff when I'd been flying too long and gotten taken over by jetlag.

DOOR: Some people think we've been taken over by jetlag, and we hardly ever fly.
BRINER: -----

DOOR: Um, has the feedback from any of those first three books provided you with what you'd call eye-opening experiences as far as the Evangelical church is concerned?
BRINER: Yeah. I've done almost two hundred radio shows about Lambs, the vast majority of which have been call-in shows. Fielding those questions has made me realize what an unbelievable degree of homogeneity there is in the Evangelical church.

DOOR: Homo what?
BRINER: Homogeneity.

DOOR: -----
BRINER: I can almost tell you what the questions and comments of the callers are going to be before I hear them. And, in a lot of ways, those questions and what I've found in moving through all kinds of Christian colleges and church conventions and men's retreats over the last three years are what's lead to the Deadly Detours book.

DOOR: In what way?
BRINER: I kept seeing people who thought they were talking about Jesus, but they were really talking about some cause. As Os Guinness says, we've forgotten the first things of the Gospel, and we've traded those in for a lot of very good--even noble--causes. But the trade is not a good one for the Kingdom.

DOOR: We interviewed Os Guinness one time.
BRINER: -----

DOOR: Um, a common thread running through all your books is that Christians should get involved in their culture. Since you're writing mainly for Evangelicals, an audience defined in part by their cultural separatism, could it be that you're casting your pearls before swine?
BRINER: I think one of the reasons that Lambs seems to be written for the Evangelical community is that that's pretty much all I knew. Even though I'd been out there in big-time sports and big-time television, when the ballgame was over and the little red light went off, I hustled back to the Evangelical world. I thought I knew so much when I wrote it, but I knew so blinkin' little.

DOOR: “Blinkin'“?
BRINER: And it's embarrassing because everywhere I go to talk about Management and Detours, I still end up answering questions about Lambs: "Why didn't you write about this?" "How could you have left this out?" I wish I had written a broader book. I'm actually trying to do that now. And although I'm not sure I can, I'm going to try really hard because I don't want to give the advance money back.

DOOR: Let's get back to those seven deadly detours. One of them wouldn't be abortion, would it?
BRINER: Next to politics, abortion is the biggest deadly detour. It may be the one that's ultimately the most dangerous for the church.

DOOR: Why?
BRINER: The whole abortion deal just drives you crazy because it's so bad and so evil and so rampant, and we seem to be so ineffective in dealing with it. We see it almost as belonging to a different category than any other evil does, and we tend to think that that gives us license to act in any way possible to stop it. So we go to all kinds of extremes instead of understanding that Jesus is the only answer to that situation as well as to every other one.

DOOR: But isn't abortion different from lots of other sins?
BRINER: In degree, but not in kind.

DOOR: In one of your books, you say that professional sports--especially the NFL--isn't as corrupt as Hollywood because there's a strong Christian presence there.
BRINER: Right.

DOOR: So why isn't a strong Christian pro-life presence in politics similarly desirable?
BRINER: I think it is. Christians should definitely be good citizens. Some of us are called to be in politics in the same way that some of us are called to be screenwriters or humor-magazine writers. The problem is that because we see political ends as ends in themselves, we end up being involved in tactics that drive people away from the Savior instead of to him.

DOOR: You've mentioned politics, abortion, and school prayer. Would one of the four remaining deadly detours be church-bulletin art?
BRINER: One of the really big ones is thwarting the homosexual agenda.

DOOR: Our Promise-Keeper readers will love to hear that.
BRINER: The homosexual agenda shouldn't be any concern of ours. Our concern should be to minister to homosexual people in exactly the same way that we would minister to any other group. It's not a worthy goal to thwart the homosexual agenda. That's not our calling. Our calling is to proclaim Jesus to these people and to love and minister to them.

DOOR: What would you say to parents who don't like the fact that their grade-school child has a teacher who lives and advocates an openly homosexual lifestyle?
BRINER: I wouldn't like it either, but if my home and my church are not efficacious in that area, I can't blame the school. What I'd want to do is pray for that teacher every day and pray for all the kids in that school and minister to that teacher in the best way I can. I'm not going to be up there picketing the school and yelling.

DOOR: Have you, in your years as a sports entrepreneur, encountered many homosexuals?
BRINER: Probably because of my naiveté, I wasn't aware of ever coming into contact with homosexuals until my friend Arthur Ashe got AIDS. He got really involved--particularly during the last couple of years of his life--in fighting AIDS. Arthur was not a homosexual. He got the virus from a blood transfusion down in Atlanta. But it was only then, as I began to try to help him in his anti-AIDS work, that I knowingly came into contact with very many homosexuals.

DOOR: And your word to Christians as far as homosexuals are concerned would be what?

BRINER: We have done worse for the homosexuals than maybe any other group around. At one extreme, the church has portrayed them as worse than the scum of the Shanghai gutter. We've tried to get the worst pictures of them that we could so we could put them on television and raise more money to fight their agenda.

DOOR: What's the other extreme?
BRINER: At the other extreme, the church has said, "Come on in! Do whatever you want to do. It's not a problem." And the poor homosexual doesn't know where he is. He's consigned to hell at both ends. In Deadly Detours I talk about Chuck Colson, who's a guy I admire tremendously. He goes into prisons and takes a big portion of the evangelical church in there with him to minister to rapists, child molesters, armed robbers--the whole spectrum of criminals--which is great. But where is the Chuck Colson who's going to lead the church into a loving ministry to homosexuals?

DOOR: When Colson goes into a prison, he makes it clear to the prisoners that the effectiveness of what he has to offer depends upon a change in their lives.

DOOR: And since they're already in jail, they must have already admitted their guilt to some extent.
BRINER: That's not necessarily true. I just had dinner with a prison doctor, and what he tells me is that very few prisoners admit that anything went wrong with them. The system screwed them or something else.

DOOR: Nevertheless, one gets the impression that homosexuals don't even want help, that they don't think they need it.
BRINER: Every homosexual that I've developed any sort of trusting relationship with--and that's not a lot--every one of them has told me, in one way or another, mostly right out, that they're the saddest, most troubled, beat-up-inside people you can imagine, and that "gay" is probably the biggest misnomer ever. Now, what you see is the complete opposite of that: the strident, in-your-face, this-is-fantastic, I'm-great routine. But I think they behave like that because they don't see any other way. They see that blatant exhibitionism as their only choice.

DOOR: The Catholic Church has an organization called Courage that helps homosexuals to live chastely. Ironically, some bishops have been hesitant to give their blessings to it for fear of seeming hostile to Dignity, an organization of homosexual Catholics who do not want to live chastely.
BRINER: There's no question that a healthy homosexual ministry is probably the hardest of all ministries to form, to get support for, and to get people to understand. And it's probably the hardest one in which to see results. But nobody promised it was going to be easy.

DOOR: In what way do you see ProServ TV as having lived up to the roaring-lambs standard?
BRINER: One Thanksgiving we sold NBC on doing Thanksgiving specials called Athletes Who Care, and what we did was take high-profile athletes who were doing good things in their communities rather than knocking over filling stations, and we told their stories. We asked them on camera, "Why are you doing this?" And the answer was always "Because of Jesus."

Arthur and I wrote a television program called A Hard Road to Glory, which won three Emmies. Arthur and I both got Emmies for writing it. The centerpiece of that program told the story of a Christian cyclists back at the turn of the century, so people got the gospel message there. The third thing that I feel good about that's on film is the story that we did on Dave Dravecky called Dravecky: A Story of Courage and Grace.

DOOR: Was Arthur Ashe a Christian?
BRINER: He became a Christian after he got sick.

DOOR: Did he not want to make a big deal about it?
BRINER: He didn't have the time to make a big deal of it.

DOOR: Did you play a role in his conversion?
BRINER: Here's what happened: One day Arthur called and asked me to come up to see him. At that time he was living in an old farm house in upper New York state. And that didn't seem to be too unusual because we'd fished together and done a lot of other things together over the years.

DOOR: What happened when you got there?
BRINER: He sat me down and told me that he had AIDS, and he asked if I would begin to try to build Scripture into his life and to minister to him during this time, and also to watch for signs of dementia, which was his biggest fear about AIDS at that time. As it happened, the dementia that hits some people with AIDS never hit Arthur.

Then he also said he was going to tell Stan Smith, who was his great rival and great friend and the most mature Christian of all the tennis players about this. Arthur was going to ask Stan and his wife Margie to meet with him on weekends and at tournaments to really be with him in an intense course. I was to be in touch with him daily. So we had this deal that, for months, every day, wherever I was in the world, I would fax Arthur Scripture and explanations in the morning, and then we would talk about it on the phone in the afternoon.

After about six months of this, Arthur made a real commitment and accepted Jesus into his life. One of the last television appearances he made was with Larry King. Larry asked him about that, and Arthur was very straightforward about it. The sad deal about it was that he didn't get to finish his book, and the guy who finished it, not being a Christian, excised all the Christian stuff from the book.

DOOR: This is all news to us.
BRINER: I have written about this in a couple of different publications. The Dallas Morning News, for example, had a big story about how Stan and I had ministered to him. But it wasn't widely known, and it didn't make it into Arthur's book.

DOOR: In Lambs Among Wolves, you praise politically active conservatives like Fred Barnes and Cal Thomas, but now you're calling a lot of what they do "deadly detours." What has changed?
BRINER: The scary thing for me--with the House and Senate both--is that Dick Halverson, the chaplain, isn't there any more.

DOOR: We interviewed him once, too.
BRINER: Very few people know that he, more than anybody else, was the single biggest force for keeping the Christians in all branches of government really focused on the person of Jesus. That's not a pejorative statement about the current chaplain. I just don't know him. Halverson was just an unbelievable force there, and now he's gone.

DOOR: We asked you this earlier, and you dodged it. In writing to a predominantly Evangelical audience, do you ever feel as if you're casting your pearls before swine?
BRINER: Sometimes. But of the more than three thousand individuals who have contacted me about Lambs, most of them have simply wanted help in applying the ideas in that book to their lives.

DOOR: No complaints?
BRINER: One paragraph in the book generated almost one hundred percent of the negative criticism.

DOOR: Which paragraph was that?
BRINER: The one in which I wrote well of Amy Grant.

DOOR: You caught flak for writing well of Amy Grant?
BRINER: I wrote, "Those who criticize her for 'crossing over' forget one thing. Her music takes up the airtime that could have gone to one of the multitude of recordings offering only degradation and moral rot .... We need more Amy Grants much more than we need more reactionary sermons."

BRINER: You asked me what I've discovered from the feedback I've gotten from Lambs. I've discovered that if people want to say something nice about your book, they'll do it through your publisher or they'll go through your office. But if they want to blast you, they'll find you at home. And--somehow--they always know to call when you're asleep.


Bob Briner passed away in 1999 at the age of sixty-three.

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