Jonathan Kopke – God’s Thrifty Extravagance

Tell us about your most recent book.

The Bible says that wealth is a gift from God, and God doesn’t add any trouble to it. But wait — the Bible also says that it would be easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than for a wealthy person to get into the Kingdom of God. Some people might dismiss these two teachings as a contradiction in the Bible, but when I run into dyads like this, I don’t assume that there’s something wrong with the Bible; I just assume that there’s something wrong with my understanding of it. My book God’s Thrifty Extravagance grapples with the most conspicuous paradoxes in what the Bible says about owning, saving, borrowing, giving and spending. The theme of my book is that, rather than giving us an endless set of rules about money, God has given us a timeless set of paradoxes that suspend us in dynamic tensions between perfectly counterpoised principles.

Tell us something about yourself.

My only education is a bachelor’s degree in mathematics. Right out of college, I spent five years as a high school teacher, but then I switched to a job I was better suited for: working with sewage in a research laboratory at the University of Cincinnati. More than thirty years later, Amazon.com is still trying to peddle a volume I wrote about computerizing gas chromatographs to help figure out what makes fish go belly-up in fetid streams. I was working with microcomputers when they still came as a bag of parts with a free soldering iron, and my two years of high school journalism happened to make me one of the few computer geeks who could also assemble a complete sentence, so it wasn’t long before I was the founding editor of the University’s Microcomputer Monitor magazine. The part of that magazine that always seemed to attract the most attention was my eight-year satirical series about PiranhaCorp—the world’s leading purveyor of such user-hostile software as PiranhaDate, “The Appointment Calendar That Works Like There’s No Tomorrow.” Over the years, all of my more significant publications have appeared in journals with names like Neurotoxicology, and they’ve dealt with such electrifying topics as postural disequilibrium, paired kidney donations, and community interventions for high-risk parents. I’m retired now from the University, but I still work fulltime creating healthcare information systems in a little enterprise where I serve as both the president and the janitor. My wife and I live inside the city limits of Cincinnati where we’re privileged to be members of a small and vital inner-city church.

How did you discover the unexplored ideas that you turned into a book?

I didn’t go out looking for the Bible’s conundrums about money; they came to me. In 1988, when I was a member of a mega-church, seven friends and I covenanted that we would study the Bible’s principles about money, practice them ourselves, and teach them in our church. Before long, I was writing articles for our mega-church newsletter and leading all kinds of seminars, classes, and small-group discussions about the biblical understanding of money. And especially at first, it seemed that no matter what Scripture passages I happened to quote, biblically literate people could disagree with me and quote other Bible passages to support their positions. There’s no way to learn more quickly than by exposing your ideas to unrelenting push-back, and my book is largely a collection of the things I wish I had said in twenty years of writing and teaching.

What were the hardest parts of writing your book?

For me, there were two big difficulties. First, I found dozens of reference books on what the Bible says about money, but none of them seemed to deal directly with the paradoxes that I found so inescapable. One book that I read quoted Jesus saying, “Whatsoever you ask in prayer believing, you shall receive,” and that book told me to pray for a Cadillac. Another book that I studied quoted Jesus saying, “Go sell everything you have, give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven”—and that book said it would be a sin for me to own a Cadillac. But I never did find a book that dealt with both of those truths together, except for the Bible itself. I had to spend a decade searching the Bible for other insights that would help me apply the principle of “Scripture Interprets Scripture.”

My other big difficulty was that every time I read the chapters that I had written, I didn’t like the person who was speaking to me from the page. I always sounded like a phony—like I was trying to be something that I’m not. Finally after I’d spent a second decade tearing up everything I wrote, a friend who knew I was wrestling with this topic asked me to teach about it in our adult Sunday school class in the basement of our little church in the inner-city. By that time, the people in that class had become family to me, and it occurred to me that I could just write down what I said to them, the way I said it in Sunday school. That’s when I finally “found my voice”—the voice that welcomes readers into God’s Thrifty Extravagance.

How did you go about publishing this book?

I spent ten years trying to write this book because a friend who’s on the inside of a major church network told me that he might be able to get his people to publish it. But as it turned out, when I finally finished my manuscript, that organization wasn’t interested in it, and it just gathered dust for most of two years. Now I don’t believe this part of the story myself, but it happened: A friend of a friend needed a place to stay for a weekend in Cincinnati, so my wife and I invited this stranger to stay with us. She turned out to be one of those Christians who have an unsettling ability to discern things, and she said to me, “There’s something God is disappointed about with you, and you know what it is.” I didn’t know whether to take this seriously, but hey—why take chances? So I started looking up Christian publishing companies on the Web to see where I might send my work, but all of their Web sites said the same thing: “Don’t send us your manuscripts.” On the other hand, they also said that if I had an unsolicited manuscript to offer, I could post it on www.ChristianManuscriptSubmissions.com, and the publishing companies would look there occasionally to see if there was anything on file that might meet their needs. I paid a hundred dollars to post one sample chapter of my book on that Web site for six months, along with a lot of indexing information about the topic, the target audience, and the reading level of the book. A few weeks later, an editor from Discovery House Publishers sent me an email and asked to see the rest of my manuscript. And a few weeks after I sent it, the editor called and asked if it would be okay with me if Discovery House featured my book on a cover of the advertising circular that they send each month to more than a million addresses.

How did you tolerate having an editor tinker with your work?

I was very leery of the editing process, but Dave Branon, who edited my manuscript at Discovery House, made it painless. The tone of my book is very conversational, and I was afraid that an editor would want to get rid of all the exclamations like “Yikes!” and the bad grammar like “God’s gonna bust Hoover Dam.” But Dave appreciated that those turns of phrase are what make my book my book. On the other hand, Dave was more sensitive than I had been to the possibility of offending readers with words like “snafu” with its vulgar etymology. And he told me that he was completely baffled by two separate paragraphs, which was a very valuable revelation because it convinced me to rewrite those paragraphs before anybody else had the same problem. Also, Dave helped me get rid of quite a few superfluous words that “weren’t doing a job, so they ought to be fired.” This was quite a long process, but overall, Dave improved my book without making any unwelcome changes.

Do you still have any insecurities about your book?

I have to admit that I’ve been bothered by the question, “If the insights in this book are valid and helpful, why wasn’t it written a long time ago, and by somebody more qualified than a computer programmer?” But the Bible says that God chooses the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and he chooses the weak things of the world to shame the strong—so, as uncomfortable as I am with this possibility, maybe that’s what has happened with me. There’s a poem by e e cummings that describes how I feel about myself: “I am a little church—no great cathedral . . . [but] I lift my diminutive spire to merciful Him whose only now is forever.”

What are you doing to promote your book?

Working with a publisher definitely has its advantages. Discovery House Publishers solicited endorsements of my book from several big-name people, and they’ve used those endorsements on the back cover of the book and in all kinds of advertising. Discovery House has given at least 75 copies of the book to “influencers” who might talk it up to large groups of potential readers. Katy Pent, the publicist at Discovery House, has created video “trailers” for my book, and she’s placed them strategically on the Web. She’s also made arrangements for me to appear on radio talk shows, and to write guest postings on blogs. Discovery House featured my book on the cover of their March 2011 advertising circular, and as the editor had mentioned when she first talked to me, they sent that circular to more than a million addresses. Also, Discovery House books are “distributed to the trade” by Barbour Publishing, and that company has landed my book in every online bookstore from Japan to Germany, and from England to India.

Are you working on your next book?

I started collecting the ideas that became God’s Thrift Extravagance when I was 38 years old, and I held the first printed copy in my hand right before I turned 60. I’m not sure I have enough years left to write another book.

What is the best advice you could give other writers about writing or publishing?

One thing I discovered when I was a high school teacher is this: The biggest handicap most teachers have is that they already know the material they’re teaching. In fact, most people who are charged with explaining things are the very people who mastered the material most effortlessly in the first place, and they’re completely incapable of retracing the steps that they raced through on their way to understanding their subject matter for the first time. So one of my guiding principles comes from Frank Zappa who said, “You have to come to terms with stupidity and make it work for you.” To me, that means I have to sequence my ideas like a chain of dominos so that when even the most stupid reader knocks over the first idea, it always falls on the next one, and so on down the line. To my Grandpa, a chain of dominos was a “rip-snorter,” and in God’s Thrifty Extravagance, I’ve tried to set up a rip-snorter that leads readers into a cumulative understanding of the whole biblical view of money and possessions.

Where can readers learn more about you and your book?

The book God’s Thrifty Extravagance is available from the Discovery House Publishers’ Web site, www.dhp.org, and a Google search for the title of the book (or my name) will pop up many other citations.