By KIMBERLY ELLEN ANDERSON
Karen Spears Zacharias’ last reading promoting her latest book, Will Jesus Buy Me a Double-Wide, drew a standing room only crowd, much to her dismay. Zacharias took photos to verify her story when she told it to her mother. Despite the success of the book, and after more than 20 years living in Oregon, she remains the Southern girl who grew up in a trailer. She’s funny and profound, humble and charming, and warm and rough around the edges when she needs to be. A journalist by nature, yet burdened by thoughts of discrepancies between how the world is and how it ought to be, Zacharias is the author of three creative nonfiction books that resemble investigative journeys reflective of the questions that burn her the most.
Kimberly Ellen Anderson: One of my favorite things about the book, Will Jesus Buy Me a Double-Wide, is that it combines, seamlessly, your very strong voice and deeply held beliefs, yet each person featured speaks in his or her own voice. Was this deliberate, and, if so, were you hoping to achieve a certain effect on your audience?
Karen Spears Zacharias: Yes, it was deliberate. Too often we [Christians] treat Jesus like a lucky rabbit’s foot. Whenever we’re in need of the charmed life, we take him out of our pocket and pet him a little.
I went in search of people who didn’t do that. People who were getting this whole God and money thing right. I wanted to know, where were those people? And what had shaped them?
As far as the audience goes, I always have a two-fold purpose in writing. I want to entertain and tell a good story, but I also want people to dialogue about my books. I never want to tell a reader what to think. I just want them to think about what it is they believe, and why.
KEA: The effect it had on me was to take a hard look at social issues, but the writing was refreshingly non-political. The book contains a strong adherence to your principles but is accessible to all walks of life. How do you bridge the great divides between political affiliations, class and culture that many activists and leaders are resistant to cross?
KSZ: There are plenty of people yammering about all the things that polarize us. The power of story for me is the way it draws us all together.
I am the daughter of war. My father, Staff Sergeant David Spears, was killed in action in Vietnam. I was 9 when Daddy died. The war in Vietnam shaped me as a writer. When you grow up, as I did, isolated and unable to speak about your father, about his life or about his death, for fear of yet another person telling you what a waste your father’s death and your family’s sacrifice were, you learn to appreciate the value of story and its power to unite. I’ve spent a lifetime looking for connections to my father. I’m using the tools I learned during a difficult childhood to uncover the bonds between people of all shapes and colors and political and religious affiliations.
KEA: And yet you stick to your faith as a Christian and your stance against the country’s “Golden Calf”—the idolization of the American Dream. Can you describe what you mean by this and how has your faith shaped your ideas?
KSZ: This is probably the question I’m asked most often about this book. Only it’s usually formed this way: Which prosperity gospel preacher ticked you off?
The answer is none. I didn’t write this book because I was offended by somebody. I wrote it because as a 14-year-old girl I had an encounter with the resurrected Christ. In that sacred moment there was no mention of money, no promise of riches, no assurances that my life would get better or that I would move on up to the big trailer soon.
There was just that moment of simple faith when I understood that no matter what, God would never leave nor forsake me. Best life now or worst life ever, He’s never going to abandon me. What concerns me about Golden Calf theology—this notion that God’s promise to us is to “prosper us”—is the exploitation of all things sacred. Corruption and greed have infiltrated the church. Indeed, there are plenty who would very articulately argue that it has always been a big problem for the church.
There was a time in America when the prosperity gospel was considered a fringe movement. Now the teachings are so mainstream they are taught from the pulpit of the largest church in America. That troubles me deeply.
KEA: Another startling feature of your book is the foreword written by your friend, the preacher who claims he makes Rush Limbaugh look like a communist. He has obviously been moved by your convictions despite political differences. How have you accomplished this?
KSZ: What can I say? I’m charming in that Sarah Palin way. Even those who disagree with me wish they lived next door so that we could barbecue together.
KEA: Do you run into resistance from groups who might distrust your strongly held religious beliefs. How do you bridge that gap?
KSZ: I marvel over all that myself sometimes. The other day I interviewed an atheist for my next book—this one about the End Times. I wondered in advance how I was going to “bridge the gap.” But two minutes into the conversation, he told me he had served in Vietnam. I thanked him for his service and he thanked me for my father’s death. Seems he had Googled me, too.
What happened in that moment was that we established a bond of common decency and respect for each other. That set up the framework for a delightfully engaging conversation.
The value of freedom to me is that we don’t have to live in a world where we are all required to think the same.
KEA: Environmental groups have expressed concern over Christians’ apathy toward the stewardship of the earth. Do you agree? Do you believe that interpretations of scriptures, such as “the poor will always be among you,” and the idea that God’s faithful will be taken up while the earth is destroyed has a psychological effect on people of faith?
KSZ: It can, yes, which, in part is why my next book addresses the End Times. As long as we believe the world is coming to an end soon, we feel no compunction to care for it, or its inhabitants.
Political pundit Ann Coulter suggests, “God said, ‘Earth is yours.’ Take it. Rape it. It’s yours.” I don’t know what translation of the Bible Ann is reading these days, but that’s not in my Bible. What God said is for us to use the earth for nourishment and enjoyment. Delight in it.
While there are those, like Ann, who are sorely misguided, there are many Christians who believe, as I do, that God made the earth a delightful place, a place where He could dwell happily, a place that He enjoys immensely. According to Scriptures, He repeatedly called it all good. Shouldn’t believers of all persuasions, out of respect to the Giver, treat the earth as the precious gift it is?
KEA: What is your vision for mankind? Is it achievable? Where do you find hope?
KSZ: Vision for mankind? That’s heady talk for a girl who grew up in a 12-by-60! Suffice it to say my vision does not include a FEMA trailer for everyone. About the best I can come up with is a line stolen from an old commercial I’ve always loved—I’d like the buy the world a Coke and keep it company. And, yes, I think that’s achievable. I’d travel the world talking to people and sharing those moments in a way that displays the power of story to unite us all.
I find my hope in the place I’ve always found it—at the foot of a rough-hewn and bloodied cross.