Two-Book Preacher: An Interview with John Van Sloten

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John Van Sloten has been a friend and collaborator of ours for many years now. After more than two decades pastoring Christian Reformed Church congregations, John is currently a writer and community theologian in Calgary, and our very first international interview. He’s also written a great book: God Speaks Science: What Neurons, Giant Squid and Supernovae Reveal about Our Creator. Continuing our series of interviews with Christian leaders, Greg spoke with him recently.

Bringing Science Into Sermons

How would you describe yourself as a preacher?

In church on Sunday mornings, I’ve always been what I self-define as a two-book preacher. I always preach from the book of the Bible and the book of creation. Following John Calvin, I wear the Bible like a pair of glasses, so I can see God in the world and find God’s revelation and wisdom embedded there. So, I’ve always done that. Before I met you, I was doing it in the pop cultural context a lot with art, music, and film. Then I did it in a vocational context.

When we first met over a decade ago, I had something of a “duh” moment. I wondered why I hadn’t started first with nature and science. It would have had a much warmer reception than Metallica’s music or the work of an accountant. Ever since, for at least a decade now, I’ve been preaching science sermons six or seven times per year.

It seems like you do this work intuitively, like it evokes part of who you are.

Yes, it goes way back. When I was young, I was quite dyslexic. I couldn’t read like other kids, so I learned to read the room. That sort of oriented me and sharpened a skill set that has always looked at creation and the world to see God’s presence in it. It helped that I was born into the theological tradition that says creation is the handiwork of God and something through which God is revealed.

What are important scientific issues for Christians?

I don’t approach my preaching based on the important issues. I’m more opportunistic. Something shows up or I meet a scientist, and I ask them what they do.  While it’s not an intentional choice, I have stayed away from some of the conflict areas. And I know your question isn’t about conflict or the ethical concerns science raises, but my choice has been more relational, finding scientists and learning about what they do.

Nobody has a problem with the biology of the human knee or with neural stress reducing mechanisms or with how God is revealed through the equine nature of a horse. These are all texts that avoid conflict or an ethical dilemma. But they are topics the scientists I have met are excited about, and they are texts from nature that will preach and help people to see God through the language of science.

Experiencing Christ’s Lordship Over All Creation

So much of the way you’ve done this—this engagement with science—is through personal relationships?

I try to be a nice guy and genuinely love people, which includes loving this people group called scientists. I’m living proof for anyone reading this that you don’t have to have any scientific background to do this in your church. When you lean on those scientists in your congregation in ways that respect them and honor them and learn their language, that really helps draw them in. Every scientist I’ve worked with knows that I don’t know what I’m talking about, and I need their help. They end up peer reviewing my sermon before I preach it, and they sometimes tell me how to pronounce certain words, so I don’t get it wrong. It’s born out of a deep relationship that is developed when I seek to understand what they do.

I’ve seen other scientists in my congregations watch what I do, and they will say, “Hey, you just preached on geophysics. What about what I do?” It might be delivering babies or whatever.

It seems like, in your book, you don’t start with theory, but you start with practice and the theory emerges from it.

I am really trusting that if God’s wisdom is embedded in creation that I can bring that wisdom into conversation with the scriptures. If it is, then in the preaching moment, the spirit will do its thing.

How have people come around to the idea of science being preached in church, in the communities that I’ve led? I think it’s happened in great part because they’ve had a come-to-Jesus moment hearing about tree branches or any of these science topics. Like many things in faith, it’s more to be experienced than it is to be theologically or theoretically grasped.

I encourage preachers to go and check out lots of good science sermons that are out there. Let them inspire you to offer your community the experience of seeing God’s wisdom embedded in creation proclaimed in your sermons.

What makes your preaching science specifically a proclamation of the gospel?

I just want to reinforce the Christocentric nature of this endeavor. This is not some abstract truth here, but it’s about the God who spoke truth in the Bible and in creation. I imagine there was a moment when the New Testament writers looked back at the Old Testament texts, and said, “Whoa! Jesus was there all the time.” And they knew the lordship of Christ in that moment. It’s very relational; it is empirical; and it is science, and it is scripture. But ultimately it is about knowing God and seeing Christ in the moment.

Everything that’s of significance in my book, in all my sermon writing, has been accompanied by tears sitting in my chair in my study writing as I realized God really did both these things. It is a moment where time disappears, and you experience the lordship of Christ over all creation.

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