Susan Isaacs is done equating success in life with God's favor—or equating her failures with him just being a stingy sugar daddy. After discovering Monty Python in high school, Isaacs, who grew up in a conservative Lutheran home in Orange County, California, delved into the world of acting, playing minor roles while living in L.A. and New York City. Meanwhile, she dabbled in all varieties of American Protestantism, from a huge Pentecostal church to an "Orthopraxy, Dude" church led by a former drug addict to a Bel Air church where the praise band wore Abercrombie and flip flops. After several near-breakthroughs in the acting world and some painful romantic breakups, at age 40 Isaacs went through what she calls a "middle-class white girl's Dark Night of the Soul."
Despite her self-deprecation, Isaacs's story Angry Conversations with God has hit a nerve with a brand of evangelical that favors authenticity over authority and messy narrative over formulas for success. In September she will be touring with Don Miller, author of Blue Like Jazz and the forthcoming A Million Miles in a Thousand Years. CT assistant editor Katelyn Beaty spoke with Isaacs about her new book.
A major theme of Angry Conversations with God is facing disappointments—having roles in Hollywood that ended up falling through, going to churches where the congregants were unsupportive. What made you want to write such an unhappy book?
What was important in writing the book was going through the anger and disappointment, and God loving me through the process—God showing me my part in things, grieving the parts that were genuine losses, and still being able say, "Even if the fig tree doesn't bloom and there are no cattle in the stalls," I'm still going to rejoice in God my Savior, because he's enabled me to climb mountains.
Anyone who thinks that you're not allowed to get angry with God has never read Jeremiah or Lamentations or a lot of the Psalms, where there is plenty of anger and heartbreak aimed at God. I wasn't doing myself or God any good by hiding it.
Is this why you chose the couples therapy motif to narrate how your view of God shifted from a negligent abuser to a loving husband?
I think it was a fun motif to use. I wrote this comedy sketch for a comedy group in New York in which I took God to counseling. A lot of the people at the show knew about The Sacred Romance [by John Eldredge] and the "Jesus is your husband" stuff that especially single Christians go through. The sketch was turning that known idea on its head. It had God saying, "You don't give me enough quality time," and me saying, "You don't give me what you want," and people, even non-Christians, loved that sketch. And then, because the husband motif and therapy motif were recognizable, I thought it would be interesting to give God the opportunity to answer back. I knew that God doesn't change, but clearly my idea of God was wrong, and that character needed to change, that we needed to see her understanding of God change over time.
Did you think that putting words in the mouth of the living God would be irreverent?
If you look in the Bible, there are a lot of funny moments of sarcasm, and God has his own wit and sense of humor, and I wanted that playful, funny, snarky side of God to come out.
Also, there are a lot of people who are disgruntled, who grew up watching SNL and Monty Python—who's going to speak to them? They're not going to read A. W. Tozer or Max Lucado and feel like it pulls on them. My thoughts were more on the people for whom irreverence and snark were a common language, people who are already there and already closed off to God. I wanted to say, "Yes I know, and, this is my story."
Would you call yourself emergent?
I would say that I'm a Lutheran who attends an Anglican church and appreciates certain parts of the emergent conversation, and who's a fan of N. T. Wright and Robert Webber. I repeat the Nicene Creed every week, and I firmly believe in everything in it. There's a scene in the movie A Hard Day's Night, the Beatles are having this press conference and someone asks, "Are you a mod or a rocker?" and Ringo says, "I'm a mocker." I have a problem with the label. It's flimsy, because in 10 years people aren't going to talk about emergent.
Have you had any bad interviews since Angry Conversations with God released this spring?
I remember talking with a publisher who asked, "What's the takeaway?" I said, "Takeaway? I mean, in Britain, that means 'take out.' What do you mean?" They wanted to get to the happy place. Granted, I realize they have to make sales and don't want to say, "Here's a real bummer book about a person who went through hard times, and she doesn't have any answers." But a lot of interviewers have the pressure of, "Oh my gosh, we have this woman on the phone whose book is called Angry Conversations with God. We want to assure our readers she's not an ex-Christian who's out to fight the Lord."
How do you reconcile your humor and your faith?
I have to say, getting my life barbecued and reaching the absolute bottom, I had to write about faith because it was the most important thing, and I couldn't not talk about faith without finding humor in it. I lost my fear of what people would think. When I stopped caring about what the church would think and what my comedy peers would think, and just told the truth, this door opened up. So many people came out of the woodwork in secular venues and Christian venues and said, "Thank you for talking about this."
I did one comedy piece called "On Fire for Jesus," about the fire of God. It ended with a story about gold teeth. It basically was the thing [in my life] that precipitated my walk away from God. It was in this prophetic movement that was going on in a church, and people were claiming that God was turning their silver fillings into gold. I said, "Okay God, I know I've been burned before, but I really believe you can do anything." I showed up and people were laughing and roaring in the Spirit. Then the gold teeth happened and I thought, well, why didn't he just turn the fillings back into teeth? Come on. And the pastor there prayed over me, but it was a really violating prayer and I left, walked out to my car, and screamed. I was so traumatized by it.
I told this story at two venues in Hollywood, and people were on the floor laughing. But then I said, "I miss the fire." The people in the audience got quiet and were like, "Ohhh—I know what you mean. I want that too." That's the best. After that, I realized, okay, that's what I need to do. This is better than Pampers commercials.
Do you think making people laugh is your calling?
I do feel like it's a calling. I feel like it's the most fulfilling thing I've ever done.
When I'm on stage and making people laugh and asking, "Do you remember that moment when you were in the backyard and you felt Jesus stand next to you, or you felt the presence of God in Communion? It wasn't a lie. There is something there." Yeah, your life might be crap, but you know what? It's not because God doesn't love you, it's because bad things happen, and we need to love God anyway. In the dark night of the soul, I end up questioning if I had ever heard from God, and if this is a marriage, what was I? Was I the lesser concubine who's way down on his list?
But ultimately, I realized that if it was a marriage between me and God, I married God for his money. I married him for what I could get out of it. I was one of those horrible trophy wives who are only in it for the stuff. I needed to learn to love God anyway. I realized God put me on the barbecue spit, that he burned off all the entrapments and scaffolding that had been erected around [my life]. I had a picture of being barbecued on a barbecue spit, like one of those rotisserie chickens. Then I realized, Okay, he's going to put breath back into me and put my life back together, but on his terms, and without all the stuff I had attached to it.
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