At Launch I was able to sit down with Jefferson Bethke, and he was kind enough to let me interview him. Below are some of his thoughts on fame, fatherhood, community, and Kenny G.
How did you become a Christian?
I was raised in a very religious Christian mindset: went to Christian camp, knew all the songs, knew all the things, but I had a really broken past with my mom and stuff of that nature. There was a disconnect between what was going on, and what I thought, and what my life was actually like. There was a lot of brokenness, a lot of discontent.
So then I get to high school and that discontent gets so wide that I finally say this doesn't seem real, this doesn't seem applicable, so I’m just going to go down the lifestyle that feels best. That’s when I went down the very typical hedonistic lifestyle: girls, alcohol, stuff like that. That took me to freshman year of college, and that is when it really spiraled because of no authority, on my own.
And then God totally woke me up in the course of a week or two. In a very close amount of time I got kicked off the baseball team, which was the only reason I went there; got put on academic probation, which means I’m about to kicked out if I get any worse grades; and then my first serious girlfriend broke up with me. If all of those things are really happening at once it sort of shocks you awake, per se. So I kind of pulled my head out of the sand and said: what am I doing? Why am I here? I started asking the really big questions that I think sometimes pain can have you ask. It was through those questions, through that seeking, that I actually turned back to the Scriptures and really saw a Jesus that I didn't see growing up: this real radical grace, this covenant, this beauty of Jesus.
But the crazy thing is it wasn't over night. This was a period from in-between first and second semester all the way to the end of that year, of me just studying, thinking, and (I would say now) walking with Jesus. But what’s funny is I got to the end of that year, and I thought I was being all investigative, but then I kind of looked back on that last six months and was like, well, I guess I’m a Christian now. I looked back and I realized I was reading Scripture, I was in community, I loved Jesus, there was a heart change, so I must have been a Christian. And for me that was actually a big deal because I though it had to be overnight, you know, rainbows and everything had to pop out of the sky. But there was a heart transformation and I didn't even realize that. I just wanted more of Jesus. I think it was Spurgeon who said “you don’t need to know your birthday for you to be born.” So that was my experience. I totally changed and transformed, and when I looked back I said, man, something really special happened these last couple of months.
What kind of music do you listen to?
I literally listen to everything. I listen to 70s, 80s, 90s. Bon Jovi, rap, hip-hop. I love Kenny G, I love smooth jazz, I love saxophone. I literally have the weirdest iPod list you will ever see. Alyssa (my wife) will attest that.
If there was one song you had to listen to on repeat over and over what would it be?
That’s tough. Probably something by Rich Mullins. I love him. I would probably say “Hold Me Jesus” by Rich Mullins. I love that song. Or actually all his songs. His CD “Songs 2,” which is his greatest hits, that whole CD I could listen to on repeat.
You’re a new dad. How has being a father changed you?
I would say two-fold: one, in the sense of what it’s taught me about God; and two, in the sense of how much it’s just really murdering my sin, basically.
The first one—what it’s taught me about God—is just this idea that God’s a Father. There’s nothing Kinsley had to do to get my love. When she was born I didn't have to put her under a contract or say “you’re on probation” or whatever. And what’s crazy is when they’re a baby they literally—not to say it kind of blunt—but they literally do nothing. They literally eat, poop, and sleep. But I’m still so in love with her. So what that teaches us about the heart of God is really beautiful. And then also when you’re having full responsibility over someone like that, I think that is a huge part, too. Life doesn't exist for me. There’s someone that really depends on me. There’s Alyssa and Kinsley. So it’s really making me very selfless.
You weren’t really trying to get the spotlight, and yet God put you in the middle of it all. You essentially wrote a poem, posted it on YouTube, and it went viral. How has that changed you?
To some degree I have to give honor to it and not just bash it because it was amazing what happened. It was all God’s grace. And literally my entire life has changed: where we live, how we make income, what I get to do for a hobby and fun, and what I get to work for. All that stuff is huge. And then I would probably say the biggest thing for me is, God taught me a real big thing about faithfulness. I didn't do that poem so that it would go viral. I did it because I really loved the students who I was investing in, and wrote that poem to my peers at college. So that was a real big thing of faithfulness: God can take something and use it if He wants, but always get back to just the faithfulness of something.
And then that thing you said about living loud. I think a lot of us go for that. And for me this is a bigger temptation because I’m able to do stuff that maybe gets a good amount of views. So for me I have to always fight the fact that if I’m ever feeling a desire in my heart—like if I wake up and I am more excited to work on a poem or more excited to work on my next book than I am to be with Kinsley and Alyssa and serve them and love them—that’s when I know that something is getting off base, because that’s my first ministry. Family is first ministry. It’s this anchor. I think everything beautifully flows out of that if you are really giving your all there. And everything really doesn't bear fruit if you are not getting that right. So for me that’s what I've really learned. But that’s a really quiet life, right? Dad life and husband life is a very quiet life. It’s a quiet faithfulness, it’s a longevity of 30, 40, 50 years hopefully.
Despite the success you've seen, there’s a humility about you that I've been encouraged by. Where does that come from?
The first thing that comes to mind is community. I still have the same group of friends and a lot of the same mentors.
Celebrity culture, especially in Christendom, is just weird. It’s funky, and it’s there, but what’s going here? I don’t think we've really thought through what that means, and what we are dealing with. Especially with social media.
I just always come back to the fact that, like people who see me in a restaurant and say “hi”—love them to death, I love hearing that they’re encouraged and all that—but at the end of the day that person doesn't know me. So this person is kind of freaking out and wants to take a picture and all this stuff because they don’t know me. But what’s funny is my best friend Jeff Cherry, he’s never done that to me. He’s never freaked out and wanted to take a picture with me. Alyssa neither. Why? Because they know me. When you get deeper in intimacy there’s this level where I think the Superman-ness goes away. I think the people who go down a really dangerous path in celebrity culture surround themselves with only fans, and not friends. If you’re surrounding yourself with only people who praise you or only yes men, or whatever, that’s really problematic because they don’t know you. They know a cropped, edited you.
People who just know me for me, who know my struggles, my failures and all that stuff, that’s where I think the real humility comes from. And then it’s not even really a humility you’re trying for; it’s just normal life. Alyssa and Jeff Cherry, they’re not really impressed by me.
Jefferson Bethke, Interviewed by JP