The Baptism of the Queer Ethiopian (Acts 8:26-40)

A sermon preached at Hot Metal Bridge Faith Community on July 23, 2017 on the occasion of Judah’s Baptism

Isaiah 56:1-8 & Acts 8:26-40

This is a short scene. But it is also an epic tale. Because it is the climax of a story that began hundreds of years earlier with the prophecy of a prophet called Isaiah. A story that culminated with the baptism of a wealthy Ethiopian eunuch by a poor Jewish Christian in a small stream in the Palestinian wilderness.

It’s a story that demonstrates God’s plan to redeem all of humanity, a story that illustrates the wild movement of the Holy Spirit, and a story that affirms that God’s love is bigger than the barriers we put up between others and God, and between others and ourselves.

And if that’s not enough for you, it’s also a story that features probably the only queer character in the New Testament.

Alright, so first let’s replay some of the tape from last week’s sermon. If you remember, we were hearing about a controversy in the early days of the church. It was a golden age of generosity and sharing when everyone was taken care of. Until a conflict broke out – dun dun dunnnn – between the Greeks and the Hebrews (meaning the Greek-speaking Jews and the Aramaic-speaking Jews). The Greek widows weren’t getting their fair share from the Hebrews in the daily food distribution.

The twelve apostles were concerned about this injustice but also maaaaybe thought that waiting tables was beneath their dignity. Perhaps because women were usually in charge of hospitality and food? So they asked the community to pick seven people to put in charge of the food. And the community picked all Greek men. Which was a remarkable and kind of subversive solution because they basically put the minority group in charge.

So what the apostles wanted was a division of labor – the Twelve would do the preaching and the Seven would do the charity work. But here is something interesting we didn’t touch on last week. In the entire book of Acts we never actually see the Seven waiting tables. Instead, we see them *preaching* sermons that are challenging and subversive. Stephen condemns the temple religious system to the Jewish leaders and gets killed for it. Then Philip converts the most outside of outsiders – a gentile eunuch. Philip doesn’t show up again in the story for twenty years – when we learn that he has bucked tradition again. His four daughters – rather than being married off – have become prophets and leaders in the church in Caesarea.

It’s almost as if the ministry of service helped the Seven to see religion and gender and family and life from a different perspective.

So about that outsider, the eunuch from Ethiopia.

Austen Hartke – a transgender Christian who writes for Sojourners magazine – calls the Ethiopian eunuch an “in-between person.” In ancient society, eunuchs represented a kind of third gender – they were considered to be not quite male but not exactly female either. Their gender did not fit the given categories and so they were in between.

The bodies of eunuchs who were Israelites – or of anyone who wanted to convert to Judaism – also defied the categories of their religion. The Law banned eunuchs from joining others for worship at the temple. So they were members of a religion that did not accept them. They were Jews but also not Jews and also not NOT Jews. They were in between.

The status of eunuchs in society was also inconsistent. Although some were born with the condition and others received it as the result of an accident, many were slaves who were victimized by violence. In some ways they were marginalized. But in some contexts they were highly valued. Royal households found them to be particularly trustworthy servants. Since eunuchs did not have heirs, kings and queens did not have to wonder if their servants would betray them to benefit their own children. So they often rose to prominent positions of power and wealth. In some ways they were ostracized and in other ways they were prominent in society. They were in between.

Some of us here this morning will resonate with that puzzling feeling of being highly valued by one community while at the same time being marginalized by another, especially of being included by one community while being excluded by a religious community.

And I think everyone can empathize on some level. Most of us have had the experience of not being able to bring our full selves into certain spaces. We reveal parts of ourselves to our friends that we don’t reveal to our family. We reveal parts of ourselves to our family that we don’t reveal to our coworkers. And of course many people are cautious about bringing their full selves to church.

And that, of course, is the experience of the Ethiopian eunuch. He is an in between person who does not fit society’s expectations for gender and sexuality, an in between person who is powerful at home but is powerless when he reaches the temple in Jerusalem. What he wants more than anything is to bring his entire self into the presence of God, to be worthy of God, to be accepted by God. But is turned away instead by the people who should be his brothers and sisters.

What a disappointment. And after such a long journey. The Romans considered Ethiopia to be an exotic location. It was thought to be at the edge of the world. On some level he must have known this would be a disappointing journey. He owned expensive personal copies of the scriptures. He had studied the religion. He must have known. So why did he go?

I suspect there was a fire in his bones, a deep sense that he did belong to God, not matter what anyone else said.

Did he still feel that way on his long journey home? Luke makes a point of telling us that he was traveling on a wilderness road. A wilderness road was a lonely road, and a dangerous one. If bandits found you no one would pass by to help. The road is like a picture of his interior state. Feeling alone n the wilderness. Still without a spiritual home. Still in between.

It’s significant that he was reading from the prophet Isaiah. Even though religion and religious people had become a barrier, he still found comfort in the scriptures. He found a reminder that God’s love is bigger than the Law.

In Isaiah, God says:

“To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose what pleases me
and hold fast to my covenant—

to them I will give within my temple and its walls a memorial and a name
better than sons and daughters;

I will give them an everlasting name that will endure forever.”

And:

“My house will be called
a house of prayer for all nations.”

The Sovereign LORD declares—
he who gathers the exiles of Israel:

“I will gather still others to them besides those already gathered.”

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that when Philip caught up to the chariot, the eunuch was moving away from the temple in Jerusalem. He was heading away from the legalism of religion and towards the justice of the prophets.

And Philip was there to guide him the rest of the way towards Jesus.

It is hard for us today to wrap our minds around some of the barriers that some religious people – and even some biblical writers – place between certain people and God. Barriers based on ethnicity or nationality. Barriers based on gender. Barriers based on illness or injury. Barriers based on disability.

But if we’re being honest with ourselves we have to admit that we still put up barriers that make it difficult for others to bring their full selves into the presence of God in worship. We struggle with difference. We struggle with being different from each other. Different politics. Different ethnicities. Different socio-economic status. Heck, different musical preferences are still a problem for a lot of church people. All these things – and more – can make it difficult to relate. Difficult to welcome each other into the family.

But the good news for us this morning is that even when the church puts up barriers, the kingdom of God doesn’t. Even when we hide behind our differences, or when we try to shove others into categories that make us more comfortable, the kingdom of God doesn’t. The Holy Spirit is wild. And subversive. As Jesus said, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” [John 3:8].

Even when we want to hide our true selves from each other. Even when we make it difficult for others to bring their true selves to church. Even when we feel like we have one foot planted in one community and the other foot planted in the church. Even then the Spirit knows that our entire body, our whole self – our heart, mind, soul, and strength – is already in the kingdom of God. We all belong to the kingdom.

When the eunuch asked, “What is there to prevent me from being baptized?” Philip was silent. Because there was nothing to prevent it. So they simply got out of the chariot and into the water.

Whenever our church baptizes a new person, we are encouraged to remember our own baptisms. To remember that there was nothing to prevent us from being baptized. And that there is nothing that can take away our baptism. We are signed, sealed, and delivered to the kingdom of God not matter what anyone says or how we feel.

God’s love is bigger than our feelings and the kingdom of God is bigger than our words.

The Apostle Paul reminds us that in our baptism the Holy Spirit makes us family. “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.” (Romans 8)

So our baptism unites us even when other things try to divide us.

“As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3)

Amen.

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On Being Yellow in a White World

I was born in Malaysia. My mother’s grandparents emigrated there from China in the early 20th century. My father’s ancestors arrived much earlier, possibly in the mid 19th century. Race is salient in Malaysia, especially for the Chinese who are an ethnic minority, many of whom feel marginalized in a society dominated by the Malay majority. Chinese Malaysians raise their kids to work hard, to leave for greener pastures (if possible), and to never forget their Chinese heritage.

I grew up not giving a damn about any of that. I was raised Christian by parents who are the products of British colonial rule, and was shaped primarily by Western pop-culture and ideas (scientific, philosophical, and theological). If you asked me what culture I came from, I would answer “post-enlightenment protestant”. I had the privilege of growing up that way because I am part of an educated, English-speaking middle class. I made it overseas not because my parents pressured me, but because I wanted to complete a PhD. My privilege shielded me from the kinds of marginalization that most Chinese feel.

Lent and Chinese New Year coincide this year. In past years, that would never have mattered to me. As a Christian, I observe Lent. But I’m a banana (yellow on the outside, white on the inside), so while I would go along with my family celebrations, I really didn’t care much for them.

American Asian

For the last five years, I have lived, loved, worked, and worshipped in the United States. Mostly, American culture has been easy for me to flourish in. In some ways, I feel a deeper sense of belonging here than I ever did in Malaysia. But at the same time, the experience of living here has made me feel “Chinese” and “Malaysian” in a way I never have before.

It appears my being a “post-enlightenment protestant” is usually not enough. In many contexts, I am a perpetual “other”. I’m constantly asked where I learned to speak English, and I often have to listen to plenty of ignorant-speak about immigration issues affecting people like me. I have been spoken down to, and am expected to listen like the good “model minority” that I am. The treatment of some from the majority culture reveals to me how I may never be a full participant of the dominant culture (ironically, these are the people who most expect immigrants to assimilate).

Even in conversations about race, Asian voices are often lost in the mix as the conversations mostly center on black-white relations. Those conversations are important, but it’s hard to know what my place is as a participant.

When ethnic minorities find themselves on the margins of a culture, there are two main responses. First, we can strive even harder to assimilate, trying to achieve and attain enough to earn full acceptance. Unfortunately, even the most meritocratic parts of society are not free from racial prejudice. Second, we can embrace our minority identity even more fully, appropriating the “American dream” for our own communities and carving out small spaces we can call home.

For the first time in my life, I have come to understand the need for times when I can retreat and just be with “my own people”. I used to pride myself on being able to engage with people on an intellectual level that could transcend barriers of race and culture. But after so many interactions in which I have to bear the burden of explaining and interpreting aspects of my culture, it’s comforting to be with people you don’t need to explain things to. There are things that other immigrants, people of color, and minorities seem to just “get” about each other’s experience without any explanation.

Monochromatic Church

Surely the church is the one place where I can feel at home and not have to retreat. I believe in the holy catholic church. I believe that my identity as a Christian enables communion with others across barriers of race, culture, and nationality. For the marginalized “other” the church should be a place of belonging.

I have been blessed by so many life-giving relationships with my fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. I believe our shared communion in Christ enables us to know and love each other in our cultural and racial otherness (though as far as Asian immigrants go, it probably helps that I’m pretty acculturated and a native English-speaker).

My good friends don’t treat me any different because of my race. My best friends manage that while also embracing the parts of my identity that are most foreign. With these friends, I can be comfortably myself; an alien at home in a foreign land, the way God probably expected Israel to welcome the foreigner (see Leviticus 19:34).

Unfortunately, I also meet those in the church who (without malice) make me feel the need to hide my otherness. These are the people who claim to be “colorblind”, who emphasize that “there is neither Jew nor Gentile”. These people expect a unified “Christian way” of viewing the world, but are blind to the fact that their conception of the “Christian way” is more accurately a “conservative white Evangelical way”. These are the people who speak of the transcendence of the Christian faith, but downplay the diverse ways it is embodied in different cultures.

Such talk can feel like violence to those who are not a part of the dominant culture, because those on the margins are also those most vulnerable to injustice. It seems all-too-easy to silence people on the margins 1) for the sake of “unity”, and 2) by dismissing their concerns as secondary to the gospel. I believe this is what happened with Lecrae “leaving white evangelicalism”. In his case, he found that the concerns he felt for marginalized and oppressed people were dismissed by the dominant group of white evangelicalism, pushing him to the margins of black Christianity. I feel a similar tension when I read of the marginalization of immigrant communities and attempt to communicate my own experiences of this.

The “other” who experiences injustice but believes the Gospel calls the church to fight it is pressured to assimilate in spaces dominated by “colorblind” Christians. We are presented with false dichotomies; we are warned against the “social gospel”, as if advocating for the marginalized and oppressed means we do not acknowledge the reality of sin and our need for Jesus. As if it might distract us from salvation.

In those moments, I have felt that I have had to choose between an “abstracted” and Westernized Christian identity, and my racial/national/cultural identity that marks me out as someone on the margins. The former allows me to easily assimilate, the latter means I am never at home in the dominant culture.

Liminal Spaces

As an Asian immigrant in the US, I am never fully home. I have one foot in the culture here, and one foot in my home culture. This places me in what Asian-American theologian Sang Hyun Lee calls a liminal space. People in liminal spaces are open to the new (we are not beholden to a single cultural center), to community (those at the margins share experiences and intimacy sometimes by necessity), and are able to take prophetic stances against the dominant culture (because we see it without being beholden to the status quo).

I have come to know and love my Chinese Malaysian heritage because 1) God made me to be that and I cannot change it, and 2) because that identity forces me into liminal spaces and gives me a deeper experience of the love of God. I would be less Christian if I denied my racial and cultural heritage, because there would be less of me.

I am not nearly as marginalized as many other people, but the marginalization I may experience is a window into the spaces where I believe God is most present. In the Incarnation, God moved towards those without social or cultural capital. In the Gospels, it is explicitly reported that Jesus moved towards those who were racial outcasts. If God is in liminal spaces, following Jesus requires that we inhabit those spaces.

If we are blessed when we suffer for being Christian, I believe we are also potentially blessed in sufferings that come from being members of a particular race/nationality/class. I weep for those who by being “colorblind” shut themselves off from standing with the oppressed at the margins, for they shall know little of the beauty of God’s care for the outsider. The margins are where we glimpse what God does for the oppressed, and it is where we can work for God’s justice in anticipation of the New Creation, when God’s justice on earth will be as it is in heaven.

I spent years trying to assimilate into the dominant culture. After all, I was told that in Christ “there is neither Jew nor Gentile”. But I am learning that my Chinese Malaysian identity is both a cross and a blessing that is essential to my Christian identity: it places me on the margins, but it gives me an ever deepening knowledge of the God who is there to meet me in liminal spaces.

This year, I look forward to Lent. For the first time, I am also able to proudly say 新年快乐, trusting that God will meet me there, too.

Dialogism as Writing Process & Call for Voices: are you an evangelical?

It must be a dialogue where no voice is done the “slightest violence.” (Bakhtin, 1984, p. xxxvii). 

 

This is a call for dialogic compositions:
Writing topic: Are you an evangelical? Why or why not? Which voices are you attending to help you arrive at the position you’re in?  
If you don’t know where to start, here’s an exchange of voices that strive to make sense of this. https://soundcloud.com/wetalkdifferent/ep-69-the-evangelicalism-edition-020618
Email me at cao48@pitt.edu if you would like me to post your writing on this blog 

Dialogism as writing process

I’ve remembered something I had forgotten as I’ve watched discussion unfold on this blog’s corresponding Facebook page: dialogism as I used it for the title of this space actually wasn’t ever about discussion, believe it or not. It wasn’t about debate. It wasn’t about argument. It wasn’t about bringing people who disagree with each other in one space to watch them fight to the death.

Dialogism was originally a theory about the writing process. Dialogism in some way works as an alternative to argument. Argumentative writing and dialogic writing have one major similarity: both require at least two minds in order to exist. In writing an argument, the writer needs to foresee and predict the kinds of objections and responses that their most critical readers will have, and in their argument they will pre-empt these responses with strong supports and rebuttals. The more these rebuttals and pre-empted “attacks” actually address the concerns of the critical reader, the better the argument. When you read an argument that actually predicts your objections and responds to them in ways that satisfy you, you may find yourself being persuaded.

Dialogism similarly requires an attention to other perspectives that are not the writer’s own. One difference though, is that dialogism imagines these perspectives not as logical chains of reasoning, but as voice. Real human voices. And this makes a difference in how the voices are handled in the actual writing process and its final product. Argument that boils down a person’s words to “a perspective” lends itself far too easily to dishonest manipulation of what they said: a sound argument doesn’t actually need an ethic in how it handles voices; it just needs to handle them persuasively. Argument prioritizes the writer’s agenda, and uses the voices of others to reinforce it.

Dialogism, on the other hand, works with a messy arrangement of voices. Instead of manipulating voices to serve my original writing agenda, dialogism insists that I as a writer let the voices speak clearly enough that they might even drown out my own voice. Dialogism is a way of authoring a text that gives priority to other voices, even your “enemy’s”– and I put enemy in quotes because after enough time with their voice, you do begin to see them differently. Dialogism involves you as a writer to ask yourself “whose voice do I find to be the most jarring, threatening, and dangerous to listen to?” And it makes you listen to it. It makes you honor that voice.

Honoring the voice doesn’t mean endorsing the perspective. You don’t HAVE to end up agreeing with the ideas in the voices that you find problematic. Those will exist. But you do end up hearing them differently, even if you continue to believe they have it wrong.

I believe the Christian faith can afford to be dialogic. I believe this because Christ embodies a sacrificial dialogism in his very life. And it takes faith to follow his example in our writing process: Faith that you won’t lose yourself when try not only to listen to your enemy, but even to give them an honored spot in your mind, and literally in you writing composition. Faith that after opening yourself up to criticism and threatening ideas, that you will still have your integrity, you’ll still have something to say. Faith that your voice matters. And finally faith that your readers will be even more dialogic than you’ve tried to be (because you know you’re going to need them to be). I could point to compositions I’ve written on this blog where I’ve missed the mark, where I misused other people’s voices, or completely ignored others. But I still hold that dialogism has been a driving ethic for me, and I continue to cling to it like I cling to my Christianity. I work towards it, revising my compositions as I go. This is what going dialogic is all about.

I hope you will add your voice-filled-with-other-voices, either here or elsewhere.

 

Dialogic problems and promises: A review of the criticisms

One Wednesday last May (2017) I found myself nearing the end of the semester with a pile of work I needed to address. I couldn’t for the life of me focus on the tasks that paid the bills, but instead could only think about one thing: coming clean. My faith and my understandings of God and scriptures were at the time undergoing an excruciating “deconstruction” period, leaving me feeling isolated and depressed and ultimately ashamed. It is my success-obsessed mentality (my idol, if you will) to strive in every social interaction to conform to whatever I think you think is good and likeable. It just so happened that all my life I’d been surrounded by mostly conservative, and mostly white evangelicals; and since puberty I managed to pick up on the virtues in that space and strive to embody excellence gaining favor from leaders who seemed to trust me without looking too deep into my credentials.

Not that I lied to you (my beloved conservative evangelical men). I just habitually and conveniently omitted sharing the ways in which I knew I would disappoint you.

So I made this blog Dialogic Christianities, wrote three posts in one day and posted them fast enough to make it to my afternoon meetings. By that point I felt certain that I’d disappoint just about everybody in my Christian life. But I also knew this was what real growth in my faith would involve. Not everybody is disappointed, but it’s my idol to constantly harp on who is (or might be).

Not surprisingly, over the past year I’ve received some very well-meaning and sometimes constructive criticism. I’ve chewed on these criticisms non-stop, and they’ve certainly made me reflect on the problem-spaces of this project; they’ve also made me wonder what this project promises. Overall, I agree with one of the biggest themes in the criticisms: “Chris, the whole purpose behind the project just seems unclear.” For this post, I’d like to cover some of the recurring criticisms; In doing so I hope to clarify what I think this project is and what it is not. I have to concede once and for all that it cannot be everything to everybody.

Criticism #1: “Did God Really Say . . .?” The project is rooted in arrogance and disobedience

I get accused of being arrogant quite often, and frankly, it’s the safest argument against me. The word is broad enough that it will almost definitely describe a part of me in any situation. I cannot deny that I am arrogant: I’m a presumptuous white man who would dare to believe he deserves a portion of your income or your church’s discretionary fund simply for being God’s instrument in Moscow. Early in support-raising, I compared my ministry in Moscow to Noah’s ark-building project. I have assumed–this is embarrassing– that if there were ever a Biblical canon documenting today’s people who “found favor in the eyes of God,” I would no doubt make the cut. I’m also arrogant in assuming that I deserve to get away with being lazy and sloppy in my thinking, in my relationships, in my work. And anyone who knows me has probably been irritated with me at least once when they’ve heard me boast about getting away with cutting corners on in my life, arrogantly assuming it’s more comical than harmful. I’m arrogant in assuming that people should like me. I’m arrogant in assuming that my white voice in a Critical Race Theory class deserves to be heard because I’ve always felt deserving of an audience as long as I’ve lived. I affirm accusations of my arrogance when they get at the core of my vices.

But these aren’t the reasons this blog gets red-flagged as arrogant for some critics. I think when some people accuse this project of arrogance, they are addressing its relationship to church authority. The arrogance of this blog, as one of my first critics put it, is associated with its focus– am I seeking to “discover the God of the universe” (which would be arrogant); or am I striving to know “how He has disclosed Himself to man” (which would be obedient)? The first option, “discovering the God of the universe,” according to this critic, is ultimately an exercise of my ego. “Those that depart from what God has revealed about Himself, may be academically brilliant, but the results of their efforts are naught and just arrogant.” In this perspective, I am like the serpent in Eden who asks, “Did God really say . . . ?”

Fair enough. I think it’s not unfounded for this critic to hear a thread of questioning in this project. I think every post on this blog could be heard from critics to be asking “did God really say . . .?” but it isn’t the primary orientation we’re (I’m) trying to promote. I think the Serpent is being completely anti-dialogic here asking a coercive “known-answer question.” And if there’s anything Dialogic Christianities tries to resist, it’s coercive known-answer questions (it’s not easy, but we try). But it’s also true that Sunday school teachers ask very similar known-answer questions all the time in the form of “Didn’t God really say . . .?” It’s the same dead-end, monologic exercise.

I want this blog to ask neither “Did God really say?” nor “Didn’t God really say?” but rather, “What is God saying? What has he said? How did he say it? Who or what mediated it? An ancient Hebrew poem? Translated into Greek? Translated into English? A pastor? Trained by a seminarian who was trained by a seminarian? How does this mediation work? How is it being used?” The only answers I’m expecting are those that I couldn’t make up myself. If we ever do slip into “Did/didn’t God really say,” my prayer would be that we are truly asking because we truly want to know something we don’t already know, not because we’re trying to coerce each other to one side or another.

I think this criticism ultimately comes down to a difference in understandings of authority and obedience. It’s true; if arrogance refers to an orientation against mindless obedience, then yes Dialogic Christianities is arrogant. This is where some of us will differ: I do not believe God wants the “obedience” of soldiers in his army who cannot afford to ask themselves about the whys and the hows of directives from their Superior. This project has the arrogance to believe that we can afford to interrogate the truth, believing that God, far from punishing us for asking questions, actually delights in the dialogue.

So yes, Dialogic Christianities is “arrogant” in that it runs on a spirit of inquiry and an understanding that “obedience” in many cases silences the dialogue.

Criticism # 2: “What is Truth?” The project is too “postmodern”

Many people have critiqued Dialogic Christianities on the basis that it seems “postmodern,” “relativistic,” and ungrounded in any firm understanding of truth. The project is wishy-washy and doesn’t take a stand for truth or morality one way or another. These criticisms often remind me of the language in my Christian high school apologetics courses, language that fights hard to establish an absolute truth based on the scholarship of R.C. Sproul, J.I. Packer, C. S. Lewis, Lee Strobel, Tim Keller, Francis Schaeffer, Nancy Pearcey etc. I find some of this helpful. In my own apologetics training, I found myself aligning with the common argument that absolute truth is the only basis for any type of morality. But, feeling the need to really do my homework if I were to engage in these struggles for truth on the front lines, I sought to brush up on my understanding of Postmodernism, beginning with some of its literary thinkers: Li Young Lee, Toni Morrison, Chinua Achebe, Sherman Alexie, etc. And I found along the way, that these writers seemed to have very “biblical” things to say, despite being called “postmodern.” I tried to be even more thorough in my apologetics homework, looking into the seminal philosopher/thinkers like Foucault, Derrida, Bourdieu, Marx and Feuerbach– and much to my chagrin I found that if I read them honestly, my apologetics training often mischaracterized their main ideas and the nuances of their thinking. These thinkers are easily written off as anti-truth, anti-God, anti-morality. Sometimes they are; but sometimes they’re not.

What really changed my thinking about post-modernism is that some of the most moral (and “biblical”) movements I know of in the domain of educational research employ the vocabulary of these post-modernist thinkers to make the case that Black people in the U.S. deserve quality education. It seems like no small coincidence that many white-dominated private Christian school curricula work agressively the make the “post-modernists” out to be “anti-truth” when really postmodern insights can provide convincing critiques about abuses of power and privilege. Postmodernism, as I’ve engaged it, is not any more of an enemy to truth than evangelical Christianity is; but rather it provides tools to expose the truth of evangelical Christianity’s most inconvenient realities. If I am to be an honest evangelical Christian (which, I’m still trying to be), I need to stop waging war on inquiries into “power” and “perspective” and humbly listen to the truth in what these postmodern critics are saying.

So, Dialogic Christianities recognizes that truth is always knotted up in issues of politics and power. Because many of us come from evangelicalism, we pay special attention to the critiques against our own in the service of humility and due diligence.

Criticism #3: I do not feel welcome here. DC is exclusivist, overly academic, and inaccessible.

Some critics of this project have been disappointed that the discourse is too academic, others have been disappointed because they thought the discourse should be more academic. Some misunderstand the discourse to be argumentative, others believe it isn’t argumentative enough. I think there’s confusion about what this whole thing really is, and how to do it well. I’m confused about it too, which probably makes matters worse.

Here’s one thing I do know. A friend wrote to me recently, calling attention to the possible similarities and differences between this blog’s facebook group and Francis and Edith Schaeffer’s L’Abri Fellowship in Switzerland. Francis and Edith Schaeffer opened their home “to be a place where people might find satisfying answers to their questions and practical demonstration of Christian care. It was called L’Abri, the French word for ‘shelter,’ because they sought to provide a shelter from the pressures of a relentlessly secular 20th century.” As much as I love the idea of the Schaeffer shelter, it’s clear to me that this blog and its corresponding facebook page are very different.

I don’t think I can promise shelter in this dialogue. A dialogue isn’t necessarily safe, and I think of it in terms opposite of shelter, that is, exposure. Not only exposure to other perspectives that may or may not be dangerous, but also exposure of my own perspective, which, in this climate is equally dangerous. We know what happens when Christians go public with their questions. It’s risky. There’s a lot to lose when a person states publicly that they’re embarking on an inquiry about what God’s word is and what it’s not and how we know. So I kind of imagine dialogic Christianities to be an open plain, a place of exposure. Not a ton of safety, necessarily. But I say that trusting that we all have plenty of shelter options for when the sun gets a little too intense. Bring your sunscreen, and drink lots of water. But, a little bit of exposure every now and then (and this is the heart of my faith) won’t kill us.

So it’s true, everyone is welcome to share in the facebook group and even to post on the blog (seriously, let me know if you have something), but not everyone will be completely accepted and understood. That is its risk. Exposure is never safe. But as an observation over the duration of this blog, it is interesting who is more inclined to expose their thoughts and who isn’t. Who feels welcome in this space and who doesn’t. The week I started the blog, I made a point to try to get as many white conservative male perspectives as I could, personally emailing and inviting white men of good reputation in their church to share their thoughts in the form of a blog post or positionality statement. Still none has taken me up on the offer. I can’t blame them. They have way more to lose than I did when I came off the mission field into academia where no one really cares what I think.

But I still believe that whether you’re academic or not, whether you’re a good writer or not, you are more than welcome to share in the inquiry in this space. It’s a sacrificial service to do so. Like MLK said, “You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.” The invitation is open. The more voices in the dialogue, the merrier.

So, Dialogic Christianities is exhausting and dangerous. It cannot promise safety, it can only promise exposure: exposure to new ideas (most of which are probably wrong), and exposure of your own ideas (most of which are also probably wrong). The cost of exposure is worth it to some people, and not worth it to others. Participate as you wish, and feel free to take breaks. 

What’s your “Bible-in-the-Bible”?: How cherished verses probably change everything

Drew Hart, as a guest on this week’s The Bible for Normal People podcast, discusses the way African American churches tend to embrace a certain “canon within the canon”– basically, certain biblical passages take on iconic meaning in these spaces that may be very different from many white churches. It’s possible, for example, that even though both white churches and black churches have more or less the same Bible in their pews and pulpit (depending on what our standards are for “same”), the passages that circulate the most in either of these types of churches might end up being significantly different.

This got me to reflect a bit more on what is my Bible-within-the-Bible? What are the key passages that I return to again and again? What passages do I consider the difficult ones? And what passages do I use to interpret the difficult ones? While some inerrantists might argue that, in theory, every sentence has equal authority, I imagine that there’s a disparity between sermons on Psalm 137 and Psalm 23. Might there even be a disparity between references to Romans 7 and Romans 14–depending on the church community? All this is to say, I believe that our communities all probably favor a Bible-within-the-Bible– all faith communities have their “pet verses” that take on more authority than the others.

Bibles-within-the-Bible may be one of the most important unnamed barriers that get between people from different theological contexts, frustrating their conversation, disrupting the possibility for shared meaning: even if we can discuss different approaches to the Bible, there still remains the possibility that we are working with different Bibles-within-this-Bible, and what’s more, it’s these “nested Bibles” that actually inform our actions and our beliefs on the most important levels– simply put, we aren’t organizing our churches around the passages we never cite.

Over the years, especially within the past few, my Bible-within-the-Bible has evolved. I’ve come to believe that I had based my actions and life on a few key passages in the Bible at the expense of others. This is what I had been taught to do. My early Bible-within-the-Bible committed me to certain interpretations of other passages. I would say much of my early Christian thinking was marked by a Proverbs-driven Bible, while these days, much of my Christian thinking is marked by a “liberation prophecy”-driven Bible. And either of these Bibles led to very different interpretations of Jesus’ words: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”

Proverbs-Driven Bible in the Bible

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” It’s not just that I like food, though that may be an important factor in why I’ve been so drawn to this passage all my life. But early in my life this passage took on a meaning for me that is very different from the meaning it has for me today. My early Bible-within-the-Bible interpreted this passage through a Proverbs perspective. Here’s what I mean: Take, for example the wisdom of Proverbs 11:30-31 (NIV)

The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life,

and the one who is wise saves lives.

If the righteous receive their due on earth,

how much more the ungodly and the sinner!

As a teenager seeking to conform his life to God’s commandments, this passage and others led me to assume that much of the meaning of the Gospel and the Bible was in reference to my own personal righteousness; and as my culture seemed to define it, righteousness was something a lot like “purity.” As a middle school boy righteousness-as-purity meant being wary of my sexuality. Righteousness-as-purity meant being careful about the music I listened to. It meant not swearing. In high school and college it meant steering clear of alcohol and tobacco. It meant diligently finding a church once I got to college. And of course, it always meant BEING CAREFUL ABOUT THE COMPANY I KEPT– because bad company corrupts good character. I hunger for righteousness-as-purity in my personal prayer life, praying through Romans 7 over and over again, asking for forgiveness for my impurities involving sexuality, subtances, language, and friends. Righteousness as purity has its fulfillment in Christ’s death on the cross by washing me clean of all my personal impurities, and I can move forward with my day knowing that no matter what I did last night to my body, through my spiritual engagement with Christ (or his spiritual engagement with me) I can know in my mind and feel in my soul that I am truly and spiritually clean. That knowledge is good news.

Verses that allowed me to read this notion of righteousness ended up being the ones I defined my actions around. It was in this way that I approached Romans 7: “ For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.” This epitomized what I imagined hungering and thirsting for righteousness meant. Being filled would involve my eventual conformity to a life of purity.

Liberation Prophecy-Driven Bible in the Bible

The Proverbs-driven Bible-in-the-Bible would have me read some sentences over and over and over again, meditating on them, allowing them to structure all my thinking; while other passages I’d read over quickly, because they didn’t exactly give me what I was looking for. So I didn’t spend a lot of my time allowing the Hebrew prophets to shape my thinking, because they didn’t exactly speak to the piety and purity I thought was central to the Gospel.

What about when we take into account the fact that the Proverbs passages in the Bible are often an object of struggle and tension, particularly for the Hebrew prophets like Jeremiah and Isaiah? For example, doesn’t Jeremiah call God out on the fact that real life does not resemble the simple wisdom in the Proverbs?

I would speak with you about your justice:

Why does the way of the wicked prosper?

Why do all the faithless live at ease?

You have planted them, and they have taken root;

they grow and bear fruit. (Jeremiah 12: 1-2 NIV)

This adds dialogic tension to the readings of the Bible that overcomplicated my simple understanding of the Gospel. How does this speak to my quest for purity and piety?

Or what about Isaiah? When something like fasting could be seen as a symbol or purity and piety, he asks:

Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:

to loose the chains of injustice

and untie the cords of the yoke,

to set the oppressed free

and break every yoke?

Is it not to share your food with the hungry

and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—

when you see the naked, to clothe them,

and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? (Isaiah 58: 6-7 NIV)

These passages were a bit too heavy for a simple Proverbs reading– often leaving me with overwhelming boredom, or sometimes guilt (which would send me back to Romans 7, allowing me to rest in the peace that no matter how oppressive I am, God will forgive me). But what if I were to move on past a Proverbs reading of this? What if I took this passage as the Bible-within-the-Bible?

Well, for one, it would change my interpretation of “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness”? Knowing especially that “righteousness” could just as easily translated it as “justice” (See Wolterstorff, 2006)

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice, for they will be filled.”

When I think of this justice as the loosening of chains, the untying of cords, my Bible-in-the-Bible starts to take on a new shape. When David prayferully reflects in Psalm 23 that “He leads me in paths of righteousness” I no longer think simply about my own purity and piety, but I think more broadly about justice and liberation for the oppressed. Psalm 137, which really has no place in a Proverbs-oriented Bible-within-the-Bible, now begins to take a central space in my Bible in the Bible– resembling what it means for the oppressed to hunger and thirst for liberative justice. And Romans 7 loses its prominence to Romans 14 which illustrates the way Paul placed more value of the social order of the church than each camp’s definitions of purity and piety.

So in our dialogue with one another, I think it helps to consider that we aren’t just dealing with different ways of reading the Bible or different ways of valuing the Bible; we are also possibly dealing with different Bibles-within-the-Bible. I think it is a fact that your church not only has its own cherished verses, but also cherished ways of reading those verses which impacts every subsequent interpretations of any other passage. If this is true, then it would help to begin to articulate and own our Bible-within-the-Bible. And maybe even allow our conversation partners to get us to consider other Bibles in the big and confusing book. We’re not, after all, reading all these words at once; and really, if we’re honest, we’re probably not even reading all the words.