November 18, 2017

The “Realest” Michael Spencer (Jeff Dunn)

Michael & Denise Charleston

One of my biggest regrets was not meeting Michael Spencer in person. I was his literary agent and, like many of my clients, he communicated with me via email and phone. We never were in the same state together, let alone the same room. I first got to know Michael in 2008. I came across his blog while doing research to find new clients who had more to say than the usual Christian pablum. I printed off a number of his essays to get a feel for his writing. Then I emailed him to introduce myself and see if he would be willing to hear my spiel. We set a time to talk via phone the next day.

“You cost me a good night’s sleep!” I said after long distance introductions were made. “I read your essay, ‘Our Problem With Grace,’ and I wrestled with that all night. I think you just knocked down everything I thought I believed.”

He laughed, then said that was his favorite essay. We talked about grace for a few minutes, then got to something just as important to Michael, if not more so. His—and my—beloved Cincinnati Reds. The Reds were firmly committed to sucking that year, but being true believers, we were still debating which pinch hitter was more valuable for the losing club. At the end of our conversation, I had a new client. More than that, I had a new friend and spiritual mentor.

Michael would growl at me if he heard me call him my spiritual mentor. He didn’t want anyone following him, for he felt he was too messed up to be anyone else’s role model. But I—and now you, by proxy—have followed Michael Spencer for many years. Yes, he knocked over what I believed, or thought I believed. He made me uncomfortable with my theology. I found that after reading or talking with Michael, I had to throw away much of what I had held dear. So like it or not, Michael did become my spiritual mentor. He was not perfect in any way, but he was shaped just like Jesus.

Michael was very smart. If you wanted to argue theology, he could quote Barth and Bruce and Hodge (A.A. or Charles) at you all day. If you waxed philosophic, he brought out his Kierkegaard. If you danced around semantics, he would whack you over the head with his Complete Shakespeare and tell you to mind your p’s and q’s.

And if you wanted to argue the merits of Scott Hatteberg playing first base for the Reds in spite of a lack of home run power, strap in, because you were in for a long discussion.

If Michael was anything at all, he was real. He was really a Southern Baptist filling a pulpit in a Presbyterian church who had strong Catholic leanings. He was really a reluctant chaplain at a school in the hills of Kentucky. He was really a husband of one and a father of two. And most of the time, he felt really out of place everywhere he went.

Photo_25Except, perhaps, here. Here, on the blog site he created to let out steam, Michael could explore. He explored who he was, really. For a while, he dabbled in political commentary, then cultural criticism. But in the end, the “realest” Michael Spencer came through when he wrote about the one person who was the most real to him: Jesus. If you read a lot of his essays, you’ll see that Michael didn’t try to explain Jesus or categorize him or describe him, any more than a man in the dark wants to explain a flashlight. Michael talked about the world as he saw it through the lens of the Gospel. Jesus is the light of the world, and Michael talked about what he saw in that light. In doing so, he tweaked the noses of those who wanted to spend their time focused on the flashlight or who spent their time pointing the light to themselves. InternetMonk let Michael be Michael, and anyone who didn’t care for the real Michael was free to not come here.

This is where I met Michael Spencer. He became my client, and I got him a book contract with Random House. I remember a Friday night, talking with Michael from my home in Tulsa. You have to understand I was used to authors who were full of themselves, who wanted the largest advance they could get so they could brag at the next Holy Spirit Convention that theirs was bigger. I was used to authors—preachers in large churches—going ballistic when there weren’t enough zeroes in their check. So I didn’t know how Michael was going to react when I told him I was going to get a five-figure advance offer on the coming Monday morning. When I told him the amount, there was silence on the phone. “Great, here we go,” I thought. I asked him if he was ok with the amount Random House was offering him. I heard him crying.

“All I wanted,” he said, “was enough money to buy a pair of pants that fit.”

That was the real Michael Spencer.

I wish I had met him in person.

(Monday is Opening Day for the Cincinnati Reds. What do you want to bet Michael lays off singing around the throne of God for just a few hours to take in the ballgame?)

Comments

  1. I miss him. Thank you Jeff, CM, and all the others who write here for continuing his work. I hope we all get to have a drink together in Heaven.

  2. Brianthedad says:

    Sure do miss the internetmonk. It is good, though, to hear from Jeff Dunn again. Thanks for this reflection on Spencer. Peace to you, Jeff.

  3. chipandmybrothersnameis dale says:

    Ditto srs and the first round is on me. I to wish I had met Michael too, I had just started to read IM shortly after his passing.

    BTW Jeff good to hear from you you are missed here at IM.

    Chip

  4. JoanieD says:

    Thanks, Jeff! It’s always great to hear from you and to hear about Michael Spencer. I spent many hours at night, reading his words and crying silently at the beauty and heartfeltness (not a word?) of what he wrote

  5. El Burro Que Mastica Zarzas says:

    He was, as I have said before, a fractal guy in an asymptotic world.

    My only contact with him was a private e-mail he sent after I sent him my testimony. There was more grace and Christianity in his twelve line email than there is in the top ten religious bestsellers or any six random Patheos posts.

    He is missed, but not really absent.

  6. Yesterday was pretty grim here at the Monastery, but real. Today is like Resurrection Day showing up as Spirit flows. Jeff, it is so very good to find you here this morning, like finding the first Crocus flower pushing into Spring. God bless you and strengthen you and heal you, along with us all. Glad you are here, my friend.

  7. Robert F says:

    Happy Easter, Jeff. It’s good to hear from you. It’s been a while.

  8. I also wish that I had met him. Internet Monk has been very important to me, usually with my morning coffee, for several years, beginning about the time that Michael wrote about bringing his mother home. Thanks to you Jeff, and to all the other inspiring writers on here.

  9. I miss Michael Spencer, and I also miss Jeff Dunn. What a gift this morning to get a good dose of both.

  10. Patricia says:

    Jeff, so very good to hear from you! I discovered IM only within the last couple years, so to me, you were the Internet Monk, and I became a daily reader. I pray that you will soon feel like coming back, for you are sorely missed.

  11. Klasie Kraalogies says:

    I regret never having met him in person either. I knew him by being a member of the BHT, and later also through email and at least one phone call- he commented on my accent at the time, which was a new one for him.

    I was at work when I read the news of his death, and essentially was not productive for the rest of the day. I told my manager at the time, and he was very understanding.

  12. Beautiful Jeff…Thank you! Emailed Michael Spencer once with some questions concerning “church” and didn’t really expect a reply. What a received from Michael was powerful and meaningful to this day….he is missed.

  13. Christiane says:

    it seems about right to read that Michael thought he was too imperfect to be someone’s spiritual mentor . . . that humility was a sign that he might have been one of the better ones to have

    Michael Spencer was mourned by a lot of people when he passed
    . . . I am Catholic, my blogging friend Debbie is Southern Baptist, Emily Hunter MacGowin is now Episcopalian (Anglican)
    . . . we all saw in Michael’s gifts something that is what Christianity SHOULD be about: bringing people together around Christ . . . people who previously had not realized that those of other Christian faith communities shared much more than they were aware of due to their separation from one another . . . and that this ‘shared’ faith was real and was focused on Christ Himself.

    He will be remembered by many who wished that he did not have to leave so soon. We are left to thank God for gifting Michael with the light he shared with others.

    • It seems as if when you put JESUS front and center, you are instantantly, seamlessly, ecumenical;

      well said Christiane

  14. Jeff, thank you so very much for this. And it’s good to hear your voice on here again.

    “But in the end, the “realest” Michael Spencer came through when he wrote about the one person who was the most real to him: Jesus.” Yesterday I read through one of Michael’s oldest journals. He was writing back in 1980 about the struggles of a youth minister wanting so much for his little flock to know the Jesus he loved so dearly. Yes, that was and is the “realest” Michael.

  15. Good to hear from you, Denise. Thanks for the comment!

    No shame in admitting I cried a little reading this last night and remembering it was the anniversary and remembering him. I stumbled upon Michael’s writings slightly before I walked into my bad cult church experience, and while his theology was totally at odds with their teachings, I stuck with him. I had dozens of his essays bookmarked. And at one moment early on, he reached out to me, and we emailed back and forth a few times, and I think I’m still his friend on Facebook, lol.

    I remember when he was finishing up his book, when the diagnosis came, his stepping back and letting Chaplain Mike and others start taking over. Every new post from him was a treasure, and to be honest it always annoyed me when I saw someone else writing back then, but I learned to grow and love the new contributors. His passing affected me in ways I can’t explain, and I’m sure my friends had no idea why I was so sad all of a sudden. How can you explain the loss of someone so important to you that you’ve never met? I don’t know.

    I think I picked up his book a year or so after it was published, and it remains a favorite that I visit every few years. I loaned it out last summer to a friend’s fiancee, not the first person I’ve loaned it to, and I’d be content to never get it back as long as I can order more.

    I cannot understate just how impactful and important Michael Spencer and Internet Monk have been to my life. From first finding Michael’s writings around 2006 or so, up to my mind and worldview crumbling late 2009, early 2010, and then the past subsequent years, Michael and IM have been there in some form or another, guiding and challenging and comforting. It’s why I was so eager to help out with the Mark project, which to my regret I fumbled badly on…overextended myself, youthful arrogance, whatever; I’m still looking forward to it.

    In some ways, Michael was my mentor and my pastor through a lot. Internet Monk has been my home, my church, and my spiritual family. Not perfect, definitely got its quirks and weird aunts and uncles, but it’s still a place I belong. And I know I’ve been a bit more assholery recently on here as I’m finally confronting and digging up a lot of things in my life I need to confront, so thanks for putting up with me. Still, lol.

    We miss you, Michael. And I’m grateful for Internet Monk.

    • Chaplain Mike et al, I’d love to read what is the earliest Michael essay or post on this site. How would we find that?

    • Also, if you guys ever need someone to help clean up, manage, organize the site and back essays and whatever, fix formatting, etc, I’m more than eager to help.

    • Thank you, StuartB. I’m glad the site has been such a blessing to you.

  16. David Logsdon says:

    I have been absent from Internet Monk for quite some time. Last I heard there was going to be a 2nd book “authored” by Michael Spenser to be released. Perhaps a study on Matthew or Mark. News on that?

    • Rick Ro. says:

      I recently asked Mike Bell, who is working on it, for an update. Sounds like life and such has impacted the effort for a bit.

    • A compilation of Michael’s essays would be great too. After reading Jeff’s recommendation, I pulled out my copy of “Our Problem with Grace” (stashed by my chair with a mishmash of articles) and saw that the cat had chewed on it. Still readable, and I’m glad she got something out of it too.

  17. Thanks for this fitting tribute, Jeff. It’s good to hear your voice again, too.

    I never met Michael – after all, an ocean separated us. I did have a bit of e-mail correspondence with him, and he was most gracious. He was a giant figure in my journey. I began reading his blog in about 2006 – it’s one of only two blogs that I’ve been following that long – and his writings were instrumental in kick-starting a journey of theological deconstruction and eventual reconstruction that continues today. I may not have ended up in quite the same place theologically as Michael, but I owe him a huge debt of gratitude for helping me see through some of the theological and ecclesiological prisons in which I had long been trapped.

    I owe him another huge debt as well, for having introduced me to one of my favourite and most irreverent theologians, the late Robert Farrar Capon.

    Peace, brother Michael. Your legacy does you proud. Mainly because it relentlessly points to Jesus.

  18. Dana Ames says:

    Ditto to all the above. Grateful for Michael and all at IM. Good to hear from you, Jeff.

    Grant rest, O Lord, to the soul of your servant Michael who has fallen asleep, and make his memory to be eternal; his soul shall dwell with the blessed.

    Dana

  19. Patrick Kyle says:

    This post brings back a lot of bittersweet memories. I was a regular back in 2006/07 and often engaged in heated debates with Michael and other commenters. This was my favorite stop in the blogosphere. I was one of the founders of New Reformation Press and we were Michael’s first advertiser here on the blog. I often hoped he would come out to Southern California to speak, and we promised him seafood, drinks, and cigars while watching the sun set on the ocean from a local pier. Unfortunately he never got the chance. He is deeply missed.

  20. So much has already been said by others on here that better captures my thoughts than I could ever put into words. Thank you, Jeff, for such a thoughtful tribute to a man who must of us never met but has had such a large impact on our lives ( and it’s good to hear from you, too.). I think that is most likely because Michael, more than any person I’ve read, truly was able to keep Jesus front and center. So many times, other writers venture off into side issues but Michael seldom did after he “found his voice” on the blog.

    I’ve been reading this site since, oh I don’t know, roughly 2003. I happened upon it when I was new to the faith and was hearing a lot about some guy name Osteen. I was googling for information and ran across something Michael had written about him that was so different than what others were writing and have been coming back almost everyday since. I can only say it is by God’s grace that He led me here instead of towards that other guy for it’s here, first through Michael and then Jeff and Chaplain Mike and all the marvelous contributors to this site that I have been pointed to a gracious, loving Savior; that I have been introduced to other authors (like the aforementioned Robert Capon and Brendon Manning and others) that write of a gracious Savior and, though I seldom comment (I don’t feel like I can add much to the conversation), I have benefited greatly from the comments of all of you.

    Thanks be to God for the “realest” Michael Spencer and the rest of you for he and all of you have led me to the “realest” Jesus.

  21. Jeff Dunn says:

    Thank you all for your kind comments. Today is a day to remember Michael–and to pray for Denise. The best way to honor Michael is to seek to be shaped like Jesus.

    (And if you can do it while wearing a Reds hat, all the better!)

    • Rick Ro. says:

      Well, wearing a Reds hat kinda screws up that whole “shaped like Jesus” thing, doesn’t it? I mean, being shaped like Jesus would be more of a Mariner hat look…

      • OK…..but there will be the powder blue doo-rag on underneath, hope that’s close enough..

  22. Praying for you too, Jeff.

    Sorry, no Reds hat.

  23. Richard McNeeley says:

    Thanks Jeff. It looks like the Reds had a better start than the Cubs.

  24. Damnit I miss Michael. And I’ve missed you too Jeff.

    Tom

  25. After years of being away, I felt the most random urge to check in with this blog today. Thoughts of Michael Spencer just popped into my head, and here I find this tribute. I hadn’t realized that it’s been 5 years this week.

    I continue to value Michael’s voice both online and in print. May God continue to give peace to the many who knew and loved him.