Storyteller Says the Greatest Story Led Him to the Church
Editor’s note: This has been updated from the original post.
Paul McCusker has spent the last 25 years working for Focus on the Family. A former Baptist-turned-Anglican-turned Catholic, McCusker has served as executive producer for the organization’s award-winning audio dramas, such as “The Chronicles of Narnia,” and the recent Audie Award-nominated “The Screwtape Letters,” as well as the children’s radio program “Adventures in Odyssey.” McCusker serves as a creative director for global product development and innovation.
He spoke with the Register’s senior writer, Tim Drake, about his life and work from his office in Colorado Springs, Colo.
Where did you grow up?
I was born in Uniontown, Pa., but grew up in Bowie, Md., just east of Washington, D.C.
Tell me about your family.
I had a quintessential childhood. Bowie is one of those suburbs built by the Levitt Co. — with seven models of prefab houses that, when they went up in 1966, no one believed would last longer than 10 years. Over 40 years later and they’re still there. It’s very suburban, very middle class, and our family were traditional suburbanites. I still am, probably pathetically so. I don’t know that I could live in a rural area. My friends tease me that if I get more than 50 yards from cement I break out into hives. I need to be able to get back to Barnes & Noble and Starbucks.
My dad worked several jobs, at grocery stores and as a baggage handler with United Airlines at what was then National Airport. He was a real hands-on worker. One of my memories was how he didn’t understand guys who liked to be executives or work in offices. “When I leave my job, I’m not thinking about it anymore,” he would say. “But these executive types are thinking about their work all the time. I don’t understand why people would want to do that.”
Of course, here I am, all these years later, doing exactly that.
My mom, for part of our lives, was at home. Circumstances, including a separation and divorce from my dad, forced her out of the house to work.
Did you grow up in any particular faith background?
My dad came from a Catholic background, but I would call him a “cultural Catholic.” There are some Catholics who aren’t Catholic as a matter of faith, but as a matter of family or ethnicity. My dad was like that. I don’t think he cared much about his faith, but he called himself a Catholic because of his parents.
My mother was Protestant. She grew up Methodist. When my mom and dad got married, it caused a major rift in the family. In the area where they lived, the split between Catholic and Protestant was huge. In fact, the split between the Protestant denominations was huge. The United Methodists and Free Methodists wouldn’t talk to each other except to complain about the Catholics.
My mom was determined that her kids would be Protestant. She was strongly anti-Catholic. We attended the Methodist church and the Presbyterian church for some years, and then landed with the Baptist church. My formative years were spent at Grace Baptist Church in Bowie. That’s when I got serious about my faith.
What led you to get serious?
Two things. The book The Greatest Story Ever Told drove me to my knees. The narrative of the Crucifixion was so powerful that, at that moment, everything I had learned in all those Sunday school classes and vacation Bible schools and church services became very real to me. That was probably in eighth grade, in the early 1970s.
Then, later, I met up with a friend at school who was enthusiastically evangelistic. He helped me understand that my Christianity was supposed to be part of my entire life, not just something I did at church.
Have you always been a writer?
From a very early age, I was always interested in writing. It was a part of everything I did. I think I originally fancied myself becoming an artist or a cartoonist, but I didn’t have the discipline for that. But the writing stayed with me. I had a cassette recorder that allowed me to create audio dramas: stories with just sound.
Storytelling was always something that I was interested in, though I never imagined I could do it for a living. Grace Baptist was a very artistically minded church and became an outlet for me. I wrote dramatic and comedic sketches, one-act and full-length plays. Through that, I was able to integrate my faith with the art form. I started there, and it ultimately led to my working with Focus on the Family and “Adventures in Odyssey.”
How did you get connected with Focus on the Family?
I was encouraged to get my sketches and plays published — and did with some reputable publishers. I sent some of the sketches to Chuck Bolte, the producer of a touring group called The Jeremiah People. We eventually met, and he was very interested in my writing.
In 1985 I joined Chuck at a ministry in southern California. At the time, he was consulting with Focus on the Family on new radio dramas they were producing called Family Portraits, which was the precursor to “Adventures in Odyssey.” He asked if I was interested in writing for that show. I knew nothing about it, but said yes. So I freelanced for Focus on the Family for a couple of years before I went on staff in 1988. Fans of the show will know that Chuck was the executive producer of “Adventures in Odyssey” for several years.
Two and a half years ago you entered the Catholic Church. What led you to consider the claims of Catholicism?
As I said, my formative years were spent as a Baptist with all of the theology that comes with that. It wasn’t something I was inclined to question. But, looking back, I can see that I wondering about my faith more than I realized. For example, I wrote an “Adventures in Odyssey” episode called “Connie,” which explored her journey to Christianity — the way circumstances and events drove her to a conclusion about her faith. My journey was much the same. I was in a period of life where I was intuitively exploring and trying to understand my Christianity.
To put it in context, it’s helpful to understand that I had moved from Maryland and left all of the support where I had grown up. There I was in Southern California, attending a community church that was very different from what I knew. Maybe that knocked me off some of my assumptions about what I believed. And what I found during the next three- to four-year period of living there was that attending church became increasingly difficult. It felt like an option that I could take or leave.
This was the advent of Willow Creek, and it seemed like a lot of churches were bending over backwards to cater to the so-called “seeker movement.” They were doing all they could to make church anything other than “church,” to make it more acceptable to more people. Some even took the word “church” out of their names. It was all about marketing and anything to make their assemblies more accessible, especially for those who didn’t like church. The danger, of course, is that you can wind up with something akin to nothing more than a happy club. And I lost my incentive to get out of bed on Sunday mornings for that. In a way, it felt as if all of the nondenominational churches had become like spiritual 7-Elevens.
Personally, I didn’t sense any real progress in my spiritual growth. I kept yearning for something more transcendent, something more than just the latest gimmick to get people to church. I thought that there had to be something more than the latest marketing strategies.
In 1991 we moved to England and wound up in a beautiful Anglican church. It was very liturgical and “high church.” In that — my first experience with the liturgy — I thought, This is it. I’ve come home. It was the most unlikely thing I ever could have imagined. Never in my wildest dreams as a Baptist would I have thought that ancient liturgy could have deep, deep meaning for me. I was drawn in. When we returned to the U.S., I continued as a member of the Episcopal Church for more than 15 years.
That’s where I learned a few things. The problem with evangelicalism, I discovered, is that people don’t know Church history. Most evangelicals think you have the first-century Church, then this blip called the Reformation, and then Billy Graham. That’s pretty much all anybody knows. Anglicanism, though, took me back about 500 years. As I went back in history, it whetted my appetite for more. Then the Episcopal Church in this country began to implode with the battle between more orthodox believers and progressive liberals, and that made me wonder about the authority of the church. Was church authority really supposed to be a whatever-you-think-best model? Who has the authority to speak for Christ?
I attended a C.S. Lewis conference in Austin, Texas. There, I met Peter Kreeft and had a chance to talk with him during a break. In that moment, all of my bigotry about Catholicism came to the forefront. My thought was, Here is an incredibly articulate and intelligent man who became a Catholic while he was attending Calvin College, of all places. Why would he do that? What does he see that I’m not seeing?
That triggered a desire to find out. I realized then that, on one hand, I needed to push aside all of the misinterpretations of Catholicism that I had learned from Protestants — people who thought they knew what Catholicism was, but didn’t. And, on the other hand, push aside all of the misrepresentations of Catholicism that I had learned from “cultural Catholics.” I had to simply study what the ancient Church itself believed, to let the Church speak for itself. That put me on a five-year gentle journey of study and prayer and talking to priests and others who could articulate the essence of what the Church is. Eventually then, the time came when I concluded that it wasn’t a matter of if I might become Catholic, but when. It became inevitable. So I was received into the Church in August 2007.
Were there any books that were particularly helpful?
A few. Not surprisingly, though, it wasn’t an academic or theological book that impacted me the most, but through a novel by Cardinal John Henry Newman. Father John Bartunek, who had become a good friend and mentor, suggested I read it. It was called Loss and Gain, which was a didactic novel that proved to be a semiautobiographical account of John Henry Newman’s own journey from the Church of England into Catholicism. That book probably meant more to me than anything else I read at the time.
How did your family and friends react to your conversion?
My family are staunch Protestants. When I became Anglican, I think they dismissed it as a choice of worship style. But becoming Catholic was more decisive and alarmed some of my family members. I had entered “enemy” territory. Some friends felt it was a betrayal of my Protestant faith. They do not understand why or how I made the move and have no desire to talk about it. Others were more accepting and decided that, as long as I still loved Jesus, then it was okay.
My wife graciously agreed that we as a family would attend the Catholic Church, but she is not Catholic. Yet, she attends regularly, out of faithfulness to me and our children. My children were just received into the Church a few months ago.
Tim Drake is based in St. Joseph, Minnesota.