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Troubadour for Jesus: An Interview with John Michael Talbot

John Michael Talbot

John Michael Talbot

Zoe Romanowsky - published on 11/13/14

'70s rocker, Catholic convert, father of a religious community—through it all, Talbot has been a "goof for God."

John Michael Talbot is one of the best-known and most successful Catholic singer-songwriters today. A musician, author, speaker, media presenter, and founder of an Arkansas-based community called Brothers and Sisters of Charity, Talbot is an iconic figure for many Catholics. Born in 1954 to a Methodist family in Oklahoma City, he left school at age 15 to be a guitarist for a rock-folk band called  Mason Proffit. Eventually, a spiritual journey led him to the Catholic faith and a wide-reaching ministry. Aleteia’s lifestyle editor, Zoe Romanowsky, spoke to John Michael Talbot about his life, his conversion, and his ministry.

John Michael, I know of you first as a musician and songwriter, but you’re a husband, a teacher, the father of a religious community, and more. How do you describe yourself at this point in your life?

I see myself as a Catholic Evangelist more than anything else. I travel across United States doing 150 events each year. Catholics are ready to get excited about their faith again, and we’re helping to encourage that through a ministry of love and hope. So, I find myself feeling very much akin to the likes of St. Romuald of the early Middle ages, who traveled most of his life as a itinerant hermit and founded or reformed over 120 monasteries. 

"Troubadour" is a word that’s been used to describe you. Can you explain what the word means to you?

I use music to prepare the soil of people’s hearts, and then preach the word of God to souls that have been properly prepared through musical prayer and meditation. I find that the seed of the word grows more easily in such soil.

Were you always a spiritual seeker? What was it that led you to Christianity?

I think I was. Even as a secular musician in the folk and country rock tradition, I always sought after deeper truths found in the lyrics and melodies of the songs I played and sang. 

After a long search of the various religions of the world, I was attracted to Jesus because he seemed to be able to say everything and more than all the other great founders, but with fewer words. Instead of just pointing to the way, truth, and life, Jesus actually is the way, the truth, and the life. What’s so cool about this is that he does it without any sense of spiritual self-righteousness. He confirms all that is good and holy and true in what comes before, but also completes it in utter humility. This is culminated in the cross and resurrection, where he becomes the paradox of paradoxes. In that great paradox we find proclamation in silence, communion in solitude, glory in humility and humiliation, and eventually life in death to self. Jesus proclaims this not as simply a word that points to the truth of it, but through the actual living of it. He doesn’t just preach the word; He IS the Word made flesh. This is the great mystery of the Incarnation in Christianity.

What in particular attracted you to the Catholic faith?

First, you have to understand, I did not want to be a Catholic; I wasn’t looking to be Catholic; I didn’t even like Catholics very much. (I still work on that.) But the Lord gave me a word. He said: "I want you to become a Catholic. She is my first church, my love, but she has been sick and nearly died. I am going to heal her, and raise her up to new life again, and I want you to be a part of her." At that point I simply said, "Amen," and sought out a Franciscan priest. I moved into a hermitage, received daily instruction, and became a Roman Catholic in February 1978.

Three main things drew me, beginning with the Patristics. The Scriptures came forth from the church, so if there’s a debatable passage of scripture dividing us today, it just makes sense to go back to the early church from which the Scriptures came, to see if they had at least a substantial interpretation of how to live it. When I did that, I found the primitive expressions of what today we call the Roman Catholic Church. 

Second, I found a great tradition of radical gospel living in the monastic and Franciscan heritage, which was not altogether absent in other traditions, but seemed most developed in the Catholic tradition. This includes contemplative prayer and mysticism, which are especially present in the Eastern Orthodox traditions, but also highly developed in the Roman West. I must admit that the Eastern tradition tugs on my heart very strongly, especially in light of the fact that the monastic heritage was birthed in Egypt, Palestine, and Syria. But in the final analysis, I ended up settling for the Roman Catholic West because I am, in fact, a Westerner and I felt most at home there.

Lastly for me was the Catholic charismatic renewal. I was made most welcome by them in those initial years, and still am today.

You began your musical life as a recording artist in a rock band called Mason Proffit. What was your life like as a 70’s rock star?

Well, we were never full-blown rock stars. We played with a lot of rock stars, and were fully immersed in the whole rock life, but we were one of those "almost famous" bands. I never did any drugs, and only got drunk a couple of times. I decided the fun of it wasn’t worth the side effects; I was having a blast without it, so I figured why mess it up? 

But it was a grueling lifestyle. We did 300 concerts a year for five straight years and made five albums. We would travel either by converted Trailways buses, or commercial airlines. It wasn’t unusual to drive 12 straight hours from one concert to the next. On those long bus rides we had a few choices: sleep, get stoned, or read. I chose to read, and it was there that I started reading about religion and philosophy. I also began to read about Jesus in a Revised Standard Version Bible my grandmother had given to me, and those red letters started jumping out. It was on those long bus rides that I really begin to seriously consider Christ. 

I used to come home from concerts and pray, "God who are you — he, she, or it?" I really didn’t care. As we say in Arkansas,"I have no dog in the hunt." I had no agenda; I just wanted to know. After over a year of praying with no answer — and I think that’s important because God doesn’t always immediately answer our prayers — I had an experience with Jesus Christ that was unmistakable. So, at that point I began calling myself a Christian.

How did your religious conversion affect your relationship with music?

I think it made me more thoughtful. I was always interested in looking deeper than just the emotional impact of a particular musical style. I was looking for the energy beneath the vibration of the strings. It also affected my relationship with my bandmates. The guys were actually quite defensive about my conversion, in that they wanted it to be real and to be kept pure from all of the obvious impurities of the rock ‘n roll lifestyle. I still appreciate that to this day, and still consider them good friends. But the guys used to say, ”What happened to John Michael — he’s actually become a nicer guy!”

Real Christianity makes us better human beings. As the old saying goes, "Jesus doesn’t make freaks out of people. He makes people out of freaks."

It’s one thing to embrace religious faith, it’s another to found an entire religious community. Yours is one of the few that accommodates married couples and families. Can you tell us a bit about The Brothers and Sisters of Charity? What can guests expect when they visit? 

We say that Jesus is our founder, the Scriptures are our rule, and our greatest law is love. Love is guided by truth so that it doesn’t just become misdirected human emotion. We integrate various spiritualities and states of life into one unified community. We also integrate the charismatic and contemplative, the spontaneous and liturgical, the monastic and secular, and the clerical and lay traditions of the church. If you were to visit us, in many ways you would see an integration of a traditional Catholic monastery and the more communal expressions of the Mennonite faith. It’s pretty amazing.

What is it like to be the spiritual father of a religious community, and what have been your most important lessons to date?

It comes naturally. People are attracted to your ministry, and seek your input and support. Some want to come and live the lifestyle with you. A community is formed, much like a child that is birthed. At that point you simply become a spiritual father or mother. The analogy of the spiritual father or mother is not meant to be a sign of excessive control that can border on abuse. I like what Pope Francis is saying about this kind of relationship. He calls spiritual directors and such, ”companions." That’s really what spiritual direction is–walking with people along the way their spiritual journey.

You’ve had a huge impact on many people over the years. What’s the most rewarding part of the ministry you do?

The most rewarding is hearing about stories of conversion and healing. This is especially cool with the advent of things like Facebook and other social media. Nowadays I hear a lot from folks who were literally saved from death by listening to my music, reading a book, seeing a TV show, coming to a live ministry event. I’m always left a bit stunned by such testimonies. I mean, after all, I just make my little songs for God, and write books based upon the little bit I have discovered in my spiritual journey. It is truly an act of grace when I hear such testimonies. Lately, I’ve been hearing how people will play my music as a loved one passes away. This always reduces me to Jell-O.

Who inspires you?

Simply put, Jesus! I consider him the master of masters, guru of gurus, king of kings and Lord of lords. After that would come the great monastic saints. And when they don’t inspire me I can always count on St. Francis of Assisi to give me the spiritual boost I need. I love the Catholic and Eastern tradition of venerating the saints. When I read and meditate on the lives of the saints I’m always left encouraged that if they could get radical for Christ, maybe I can too.

I understand the Jesus Prayer is big in your life and you encourage people to pray it. Can you tell me more about what it is and why you love it so much?

It is a way to unite the name and person of Jesus with every breath you take: “Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Each of those words is highly significant and revelatory in our spiritual journey in Christ. I have written a book on it called The Jesus Prayer and included it in the chapter of my newest book, Nothing Is Impossible With God.

There is often a chasm today between people with religious faith and those who may consider themselves "spiritual" but not part of any religion or church. How can theycome together better to make the world a more just and peaceful place?

I think it’s a mistake to separate spirituality and religion too much. Religion without lively spirituality is dead on its feet. But spirituality without a religion that places its feet firmly on planet Earth is not fully incarnational. It’s like a bird that needs wings to soar to the heavens. We need both.

You have a very long beard, which may remind people of the guys on Duck Dynasty, an A&E reality show. Can you share a little bit about your decision to grow such a long beard?

Well, I’m more of a believer in “Monk" Dynasty then I am in Duck Dynasty! (Laughter.) Seriously, the monastic tradition is far older and more venerable — and their beards are longer! The monastics in early Christianity grew their beards and hair after the time of their profession. Many never cut it again. I grew mine out over an extended period of time and prayerful reclusion. It’s just easier, and it also symbolized some of the growth I was experiencing internally. I decided to leave my hair and beard long, and was delightfully surprised that there was a new show on the air called Duck Dynasty. It’s kind of become a joke since then, but it’s a great way to kick off a mission: I assure audiences that Moses has not come to their parish, nor Gandolf, nor the guys from Duck Dynasty. It usually gets quite a laugh.

What might people be surprised to know about you?

Let’s see… I like good rock as well as chant and classical music. And I like a good movie. I also use social media to minister to millions who do not buy my spiritual resources or come to my ministry events. Because of the meditative style of much of my music, many folks think I kind of float around on a cloud. I hope I’m prayerful, but I’m actually a pretty goofy guy. After my time in greater reclusion, it’s as if all of the masks came off, and I was unafraid to just call myself a goof for God. I sometimes say that John Michael Talbot has died, so that I can discover who I really am in Christ. The old persona has pretty much been dropped so I’m pretty relaxed now. I’m actually happier than I have ever been, and I’m having a blast in this chapter of my life.

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