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.


A Letter on Being Dialogic

If you happened to follow recent discussions on the Dialogic Christianities Facebook group, you may have had the pleasure of reading Laura’s perspective, which often provides a strong counterweight to any perspective I might provide. In the context of a dialogue that started over the Nashville Statement (and more specifically about how we responded so differently to John Pavlovitz’s “Nashville Statement in Plain Language Translation”), Laura drafted a letter about what it means to be dialogic.

Some “Dialogic” Context:

Below are a few email exchanges that led to the letter included below. (Note: These aren’t the whole emails, and some have as much as a week between responses).

[…] I’m trying to demonstrate that JP (John Pavlovitz) hasn’t spoken the truth here. And that’s honestly what is most concerning to me about your posting of the blog and your claim that JP is fighting for the Gospel. Making baseless claims isn’t fighting for the Gospel, and it is not dialogic. […]

[…] Maybe I should tell you that I debated whether or not I should say John P was defending what he believes to be the gospel, as opposed to defending the gospel. But I figured I’d omit the qualifier.

I’m really intrigued by your passion for the dialogicality of the discussion– it can be a squishy definition. Interested in elaborating? say, in a blog post?

Whew. I’ve sat down each day this week to work on this, and each day hit a wall. Today I realized that the main issue was not so much what to say, but how to say it…it was throwing me off to think about writing a blog post. So, I just wrote a letter to you as a response. If it’s not quite right for the blog, don’t feel like you have to post it. Really.

Chris: [in response to Laura’s first draft]
Laura, I really appreciate this letter. I think it’s great for the blog. I definitely would like to post it.

I do want to ask one clarifying question about “Truth”– especially since you cite a Dostoevsky scholar–

Dostoevsky […]  is probably what unsettled me the most in my faith walk as a high schooler, then again as a college student, and yet again as a teacher: [especially]quotes like “Lying in one’s own way is almost better than telling the truth in someone else’s way.” Or “My friend, always let a man lie a little– it’s innocent. Even let him lie a lot. First it will show your delicacy, and second, you’ll also be allowed to lie in return — two enormous profits at once. Que Diable! one must love one’s neighbor!”

[I’m] just curious how confident we can be when it comes to truth-telling and truth-recognizing. When does this confidence turn into self-service or arrogance? […]

Laura’s Letter on Being Dialogic:


Thanks for asking for me to elaborate on what it means to be dialogic. As I’ve said before, I’m grateful for your blog, particularly because of the way you have created a space on Facebook for people to talk with one another in a posture of embrace. There is so much hatred and violence in our world, not least in the way we speak to one another. Spaces like these are oases, and I’m thankful for your example as you seek to love others through hearing their stories and their pain, and seeking to show Christ’s love for each one.

In regards to defining “dialogic” – quite a few characteristics come to mind, but in the past week the one that I’ve been mulling over is a commitment to the truth. Of course, disagreements that happen in dialogue usually happen because there is a disagreement over what is true. I can think of many examples just in your Facebook threads where a statement has been made, but then someone has responded by saying, “No, that’s not true.” And that’s what continues the dialogue – challenging, clarifying, explaining, what has been said. Perhaps this is why you asked for elaboration; this definitely makes the requirement of truth-telling more complex.

At the heart of true dialogic conversation, I believe, is the affirmation of Truth, of “one monologue beyond the dialogue, the one Word of the one God who entices us into his future kingdom of freedom and beauty” (see Peter Leithart describing Dostoevsky’s conviction). Without this affirmation, we lack a motivation compelling enough to push us past the pain and risk of dialogue.

So, even as we dialogue about what is True, we seek to speak the truth. Telling the truth involves a commitment to representing an opposing view, and the people who hold that view, accurately and without distortion. We resist painting those we disagree with as all the same. We resist speaking before listening – really listening. We are so used to using deprecating language and sarcastic jibes — language that does not ask for serious reflection, but dismisses the other without consideration. If we are to tell the truth well, we have to give up our delight in snarky one-liners that do nothing more than gain applause from those who agree with us.

Truth-telling does not allow us to indulge in cynicism over others’ motives. Too often we assume that we know others’ hearts: arrogant, hateful, lacking compassion, callous, hardened. Given how blind we are to what is in our own hearts, most – all? – judgments we make about someone else’s heart are sure to miss the truth.

You asked me how much certainty we can have that we are speaking the truth, without self-service or arrogance. My first thought was of Pilate, who stands in front of Jesus and asks, “What is truth?” My sense is that his question of cynicism is becoming more and more the question of our culture. So we need to be warned to not stand in front of the Word, the Truth, and refuse to be implicated by him.

I also believe that in every way the Christian faith is a religion of self-giving and humility. So if at any point our affirming of the truth leads to our self-service or arrogance, we can be pretty sure we’ve missed the mark.

There are degrees of certainty that we can have, and that’s a function of us being finite and fallible. But I would say that affirming the truth means that we say, at the most basic level, that there is Someone who was and is and will be, that it’s his way of seeing the world that we are trying to understand as we read his word and discover his creation and love his people. This most basic affirmation grounds us and directs our dialogue.

As I think about the character of people who are truly dialogic, so many descriptions that are completely foreign to our culture come to mind: humility. meekness. peace-making. love that does not insist on its own way. a greater concern for what is right over being right. And I’m increasingly aware that these descriptions are far from what is in my own heart. It’s that reality that makes dialogue potentially so painful and risky. We must also be honest about ourselves, not just others, and this might prove even more difficult.

Thankfully we are not required to pursue this honesty alone: the same Spirit whose sword pierces our hearts is the one who is Comforter. Jesus did not wait for Peter to come to him, but instead he confronted Peter with the weakness of his heart and graciously restored him. And so he does for you and me.



“Least of these” theologies & how they will always insult “The Most”

Megan DeFranza: “You don’t get to have it both ways; you don’t get to have solidarity with the marginalized and popularity with the powerful. It doesn’t work like that.”
Pete Enns: “Which brings me to the entire New Testament. . . .” ~ The Bible and Intersex Believers (The Bible for Normal People podcast)

“Black people, I love you. I love us. We matter. Our lives matter.” ~ A Love Note to Black People by Alicia Garza


“What Would Jesus Do” and Social Theology

Here’s one way I was ahead of the curve. I heard the slogan “What Would Jesus Do?” before 1995, when almost every person who attended an Evangelical Christian youth group in America felt compelled to sport a WWJD bracelet. I was introduced to WWJD when I boasted as a rather “slow reader” in second grade that I had read a whole 253-page book (with mostly pictures) called What Would Jesus Do?: An Adaptation for Children of Charles M. Sheldon’s In His Steps. While the picture book mostly served to earn me major Book-it points towards a personal-pan Pizza Hut pizza, I’ve recently come to find out how much Sheldon’s original novel would bible for readers in 1896. Often accredited as one of the leaders of the “Social Gospel,” Charles Sheldon wrote a novel that would shame middle-class America to think about getting off their White asses to progress beyond a Gospel of “good feelings” to one that actually compels them to do difficult Jesus-type stuff, like sacrificing economic advancement to help people in need.

The novel builds to a climactic iteration of the social gospel:

“What would Jesus do? Is not that what the disciple ought to do? Is he not commanded to follow in His steps? How much is the Christianity of the age suffering for Him? Is it denying itself at the cost of ease, comfort, luxury, elegance of living? […] Is it true that the Christian disciples today in most of our churches are living soft, easy, selfish lives, very far from any sacrifice that can be called sacrifice? What would Jesus do?”

For 19th/20th century progressives this was a message to embody the line in the Lord’s prayer, that “thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Instead of resting in the psychological comforts of simply going to heaven when they die, the social gospel called Christians to act out their faith by solving social problems like “economic inequality, poverty, alcoholism, crime, racial tensions, slums, unclean environment, child labor, inadequate labor unions, poor schools, and the danger of war” (wikipedia). While conservative Christians cared mostly about what Jesus meant, these Social Gospel Christians attended to what Jesus did while walking this earth 2000 years ago. What would Jesus do today? Probably what he did then.

“What is Jesus Doing” and Black Liberation Theology

James Cone takes issue with both the White conservative and White progressive gospels. In what may be a direct response to Sheldon’s novel In His Steps, Cone argues that “Being Christians does not mean following ‘in his steps’” or doing exactly what Jesus did (1969, p. 139). “We must ask not what he did,” Cone writes again, “but what he is doing– and what he did becomes important only insofar as it points to his activity today” (1997, p. 204). Cone seems to be identifying in White theology (conservative and progressive gospels alike) a tendency towards “what-about-me-ism,” in that we’re always wondering about what I should be doing, what I am not doing, what I do and don’t deserve, and how I will be rewarded. Cone makes the audacious claim that Christ is still alive and active today, that the woulds and the dids of our theology keep us from seeing Christ’s actual performances NOW. If Christ is a living and active presence in the world today, how do we know if what we are focused on is actually Christ at work, or a cheap imitation?

Cone would say to look no further than the most vulnerable and abused among us. As Matthew 25:31-46 predicts, Christ will take on the form of the starving, the thirsty, the foreign, the sick, the naked, and the imprisoned (“as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me”). While the social gospelers prefer to imagine that they are being Christ to the needy, this prophecy suggests that they have it backwards: The needy are Christ and the social gospelers are merely responding to Christ. Where is Jesus today? To answer the question, look for the crucified among us– whose innocent blood is being shed?

#BlackLivesMatter and “the least of these”

The Black Lives Matter movement begins with the intersection of three of the “leasts” in America today: female, Black and queer. In a sense, it speaks to the least of the least of the least of these. And I think that’s partly why BLM continues to be so misunderstood by “normal” White people.

Identities of one “least” do not automatically understand identities of multiple “leasts.” In fact, intersections of multiple “leasts” are sure to be lost in the cracks. If the history of the U.S. voting rights amendments is any indication, it was Black women who remained legally sub-human the longest.  This is probably best illustrated by the link between White supremacist views in the American Women’s Suffragist movement. Belle Kearney, speaking at the 1903 National American Woman Suffrage Association, makes this racist feminism painfully clear: “The enfranchisement of women would insure immediate and durable white supremacy, honestly attained, for upon unquestioned authority, it is stated that in every southern state but one there are more educated women than all the illiterate voices, white and black, native and foreign, combined” (Junior, 2015, p. 12). Thus, White women lobbying for voting rights ground their case in White supremacy. Even prominent Black men, like Frederick Douglass, left the needs of Black women unaddressed: “I do not see” he writes “how anyone can pretend that there is the same urgency in giving the ballot to woman as to the negro” (p. 13).

I imagine this is why Womanist theologian Jaquelyn Grant wrote “Christ […] is a black woman” (Cone, 2011, p. 121).

In the spirit of what-about-me-ism, critics of BLM conflate the movement’s particularity with the racist and hateful rhetoric of neo-Nazi White supremacists. It’s as if any declaration of love for a particular people is a detraction of love for the White man. And maybe it is. Of all people on earth today, we Whites somehow manage to be the “Most of the These”– the average, the dominant, the majority. We claim to speak for all categories. We call humans “Man” because that is all that matters. It is a White man we see when we read the word “he” and it is a White man we imagine when we pray. We need no modifiers; we are American, while you are African-American, Mexican-American, Asian-American, or an American woman. We call you foreigners even when we are visiting you on your own soil. Again, we are “The Most of These.” So when you say Black Lives Matter, you threaten the colorless backdrop that gives us power. Our response is, “nuh uh! All lives matter!” You are not allowed a name or a color or a trait. If you want to matter you must do so invisibly.

As their website puts it, BLM is pro-Black, pro-diversity, pro-restorative justice, pro-globalism, pro-collective value, pro-Black women, pro-transgender people, pro-Black villages, pro-empathy, pro-families, pro-loving engagement, pro-queer people, pro-intergenerationalism. It’s main offense, when I really think about it, is that none of these categories are about me.

Where is Jesus today?

Is Jesus here? Is he doing something now? If so, it must be particular, not abstract; substantial, not vapor. So where is he? And what is he doing? If you ask me, it looks like the work of Jesus is suspiciously consistent with a movement like Black Lives Matter– despite the fact that most of the pivotal members feel unwelcome anywhere near a White evangelical church.

Do we know the work of our savior we claim so much to love? Do we need him to announce his presence on a loudspeaker or can we spot him based on the sound of his footsteps? Based on his breathing? Do we know him well enough to recognize him in the eyes of “the least of these”?

Or are we continually missing him? Is the Jesus we’re looking for simply a construct we’ve taken for granted? Is he a dead historical figure who only exists in a text and lives somehow ambiguously “in our hearts”?

How can we be sure it wasn’t Jesus we mocked when we rolled our eyes at our neighbor? How can we be sure it wasn’t Jesus we were judging when we condemned the heretics?  Is it possible that our anger, our repulsion, our self-righteous indignation are the same impulses that  nailed Jesus to a cross? Are we so sure we aren’t crucifying him again as we rejoice in the silencing of “sinners”?

Political Christianities: How Jesus Made Me a Progressive

“I am a Christian. There are any number of things that a statement of this kind might mean and not mean, the tradition and its history being so complex. To my utter chagrin, at this moment in America it can be taken to mean that I look favorably on the death penalty, that I object to food stamps or Medicaid, that I expect marriage equality to unknit the social fabric and bring down wrath, even that I believe Christianity itself to be imperiled by a sinister media cabal. It pains me to have to say in many settings that these are all things I object to strenuously on religious grounds, having read those Gospels.”

­— Marilynne Robinson, The Givenness of Things

In my opinion, Donald Trump lives a life of loving and helping others as Jesus taught in the great commandment.”

“I think evangelicals have found their dream president.”

— Jerry Falwell, Jr., President of Liberty University

When I first became a follower of Jesus, I knew only one thing – that God is love. Arguably, this was and is the most important thing anyone can know. What I came to realize over time, is that God, in his love, pervades all aspects of life. There are no peripheral issues, nothing unrelated to His reconciliation of all things to Himself – politics included.

The moment when I saw for the first time that this God was real and at work in the world happened while I was among followers of Jesus in Russia. I was sixteen years old, and I had already known about Jesus. I had read about the things he’d done and said. But these people from a small church community had a peculiar quality – there seemed to be light inside them, a radiant love that I had never before experienced, or at least had never recognized. They accepted me without knowing anything about me. They made me a genuine member of their community. They valued me, and they gave me the gift of their joyful kindness – without expecting anything in return. Suddenly, the light that was in them surged outward and flooded everything and everywhere. And I was in it, and was a part of it, and it was in me now too.

And so with this mysterious but undeniable revelation among people whose words I couldn’t understand, but whose love spoke volumes, I began my journey. Like many new Christians, I devoured any and all educational materials I was lucky enough to get my hands on. Back home in Boston, I studied the Bible diligently, attended youth group at a nearby church, and discussed how to best apply Biblical truth to my everyday life with Christian friends and mentors. In college I read almost every book C. S. Lewis ever wrote, I listened to the sermons of highly educated and well-respected evangelical pastors, and even (like every male student at a Christian college is obligated to do) considered becoming a pastor myself.

But because I was still new to the faith and so focused on understanding what it meant to have a personal relationship with God, I considered things like politics to be peripheral, definitely not of central importance. In any case, I believed I could trust my evangelical community to figure out which policies and candidates were the good ones.

And so I accepted without question that the government should be small, that taxes should be minimal, that social welfare programs hurt the poor by encouraging dependency, that abortion should be outlawed, that marriage equality was out of the question, that global warming is questionable, and that the Republican party is where it’s at if you love Jesus and want to uphold Christian values in American society.

However, as my understanding of Jesus’ teachings deepened and my worldview slowly expanded to encompass more and more “peripheral” issues, I began to see a severe misalignment between my most closely held beliefs – self-sacrificing love, peace, compassion – and the political candidates and policies I was supposed to support. I worried that instead of fulfilling the Lord’s prayer, instead of reflecting God’s Kingdom here on earth, my support for these politicians and policies was stifling that kingdom and keeping its promises at bay.

The first rumblings of this conflict rose up inside me during the fall of 2008. Throughout that presidential election season, I familiarized myself with the candidates and their platforms, and made sure to watch the televised national debates. Although I can’t point back to any particular speech or stance, I distinctly remember liking Obama’s ideas much better than McCain’s. And yet, I ended up voting for McCain. The guilt I would have endured for not supporting the anti-abortion candidate was too great to overcome. At the same time, I couldn’t help but feel I had shortchanged myself. My conscience was clearly drawing me toward the other side of the political spectrum in almost all other matters, whispering in my ear “There’s so much more to consider than this.” I had voted for the Republican candidate because that’s what I thought I was supposed to do as a faithful Christian.

Over the next several years, I asked myself a series of questions:

Why, if Jesus commanded us to help the poor, should we care whether individuals or the government gives them that help?

Why, if we claim to be “pro-life,” don’t we espouse a consistent pro-life ethic? In other words, why don’t we care as much for the women who face the complex, life-changing decision of whether to bring a child into the world as we do for their unborn children? And why do so many of us reject pro-life stances when it comes to health care, the death penalty, and war?

Why, if LGB youth are up to 4 times more likely than other teens to attempt suicide, and over 8 times more likely than their LGB peers if they come from highly-rejecting households, do we oppose gay rights so vehemently? Whatever we might think about the morality of same-sex relationships, do we not have an obligation to value the lives of LGBT people?

Why, if God has made us stewards of the earth and all that is in it, do we so readily dismiss expert findings on climate change and seem to care so little about sustainable living?

None of these things made sense to me. None of these things reflected that radiant love that I first experienced when Jesus so clearly said, “Come, follow me.” The love I continued to catch glimpses of in books and in conversations with Christian friends and colleagues. It seemed that my evangelical community was able to express that love within our immediate context, but unable to extend it into national policies that affected millions of people.

I wanted a kind of politics that recognized our interconnectedness and interdependence as human beings living on a fragile planet. I wanted a kind of politics that acknowledged the fact that our salvation was undeserved and even impossible without God’s grace, and that therefore sought to dispel the myth of meritocracy, recognizing that none of us can truly be successful on our own. I wanted a kind of politics that understood that since we do not all agree on which lifestyle is right, the best way to be good a neighbor might be to allow others freedom to explore that which gives them personal meaning and joy.

For these reasons, liberal ideas resonated with me. Liberals, whom I had learned to fear for their supposed contempt of God and the Bible, had a vision for society which seemed to align much better with my understanding of Jesus’ teachings about the Kingdom of God.

I don’t identify now primarily as a liberal or progressive (so maybe the title is a tiny bit misleading), even though I agree with many liberal ideas. And while I may have made this mistake in the past, I no longer assume that all well-meaning Christians must inevitably come to the same conclusions regarding politics. Jesus is neither a Republican nor a Democrat, because ultimately he transcends our rigid binaries. But I am concerned that in many places in America being a Christian and being a Republican have become synonymous. I am concerned that we often prioritize party affiliation over common human decency.

At this particular moment in our nation’s history, I am profoundly troubled by the fact that many Christians have been willing to condone the rampant immoral behavior of our current administration. Not only that, but I fear the outspoken support of some prominent evangelicals for President Trump is doing unspeakable damage to the message of Jesus in the larger culture.

James Dobson, founder of the highly influential conservative organization Focus on the Family, said about his support for Trump, specifically in regard to the importance of the next Supreme Court nominee, “I don’t vote for candidates or political parties. I support those who will lead the country righteously, honorably, and wisely.” Jerry Falwell, Jr., President of Liberty University, said of candidate Trump, “In my opinion, Donald Trump lives a life of loving and helping others as Jesus taught in the great commandment.” More recently in an interview on Fox News, he claimed that evangelicals have “found their dream president.” Others, such as Franklin Graham and Paula White, have even gone so far as to suggest that God intervened miraculously in the election to tip the scale in Trump’s favor, and that opposing Trump is akin to “fighting against the hand of God.”

What is so troubling about this enthusiastic support is that Donald Trump’s true character has been on full display for some time now. He has a history of unethical business dealings and has on numerous occasions spoken offensively and obscenely about women. Throughout last year’s campaign and his presidency to date, he has lied incessantly, stoked divisions among us by labeling anything that challenges his narrative as “fake news,” encouraged violence against protestors at his rallies, emboldened white supremacists, insulted and belittled critics, called his political opponents by childish names rather than engage them in substantive discourse, and has made impulsive statements without considering the possible global consequences of his words.

Russell Moore, a man with whom I don’t always agree, but for whom I have great respect, said of the religious right’s ardent support for Trump, “The damage is not merely political. What’s most at stake here is the integrity of our gospel witness and our moral credibility.” I think that Moore is absolutely right. By supporting a president whose character is so unmistakably unchristlike, we evangelicals have disastrously impaired our own ability to be a trustworthy voice for good in America, and likely have prevented many eyes from seeing the wondrous beauty that is in Jesus.

Ultimately, the point of this post is not to suggest that there is only one correct way for Christians to think about politics, even though I feel very strongly that following Jesus and continuing to support our current administration are entirely irreconcilable notions. Rather, it is a plea for politically conservative brothers and sisters in Christ to understand something better about myself and other so-called “progressive” Christians. We hold these views not because we’ve given in to pressure to be like the surrounding culture, but precisely because we love Jesus so very much and want to live the way we believe he wants us to live. We want nothing more than for God to say to us at the end of our race, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.”

So, when it comes to politics, I want to support candidates and policies that embody that same radiant, extravagant, overflowing love that I experienced when Jesus first reached out and grabbed hold of me. That love that continues to stretch me and transform me, that love that refuses to let me go. Jesus is not a Republican or a Democrat, a conservative or a liberal – he is the Son of God who poured out his own life that we may have life, and have it to the full. Wherever I find that same self-sacrificing, all-consuming love of Christ in politics – I will claim it, affirm it, and when the time comes, vote for it.

Fart-Blaming, The Life of the Mind & Spiritual Aristocracy

“The first time you read The Republic or Don Quixote or Hamlet or Bleak House, it is like the first time you hear the B Minor Mass! With any luck, the heavens will open and you will, for a moment, know what it is it have a life of the mind.
~ “Defense of the Tradition” (email quoted in Macedo, 2006: 62)

“By an evangelical ‘life of the mind’ I mean more the effort to think like a Christian […] Failure to exercise the mind for Christ […] is the scandal of the evangelical mind.”
~ Mark Noll (1994: 7)

Whoever smelt it dealt it!
Whoever denied it supplied it!
~ some kids (1998)

The Scandal of the “Life of the Mind”

Evangelicals have been calling doorknob on each other at least since 1994, when Mark Noll sniffed out the scent of an anti-intellectual Christian Right in his book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. In an honest reflection of the difficulties of being an academic in Evangelicalism, Noll decries the failure of the American church to cultivate a “life of the mind.” While you’d think I would appreciate any and all thoughts that unmask irresponsible thinking of Christians, I cannot help but see another scandal in this “Life of the Mind”– a life Noll and other Christian intellectuals seem to value so much that it often goes unquestioned. I agree completely with the argument that “fidelity to Jesus Christ demands from evangelicals a more responsible intellectual existence than we have practiced throughout much of our history” (p. 27); I just find attempts to compensate for this irresponsibility by embracing the Western Classical tradition to be dangerously narrow, causing more damage to the church than any anti-intellectual ever could.

I don’t blame Noll so much as I blame the responses that seek to compensate for decades of anti-intellectualism. My issue is that by blurring whatever Noll meant by “life of the mind” with the “mind of Christ,” Evangelicals striving to be “intellectual” have often put our eggs in the wrong basket. In our intellectual insecurity, many of us have irresponsibly (as par for the course) pilfered our “life of the mind” from the closest model we could find: the Western European Tradition. You know, “The Classics” or the “Great Works” — the faded elbow-pads on the tweed jacket of the beloved gray-haired, pipe-smoking White grandfather quoting Homer in its original Greek. It is too often this picture that gets held up as the antidote for our Evangelical anti-intellectualism.

The Classical curriculum takes Matthew Arnold’s (1822-1888) opinion for granted, that the Western Tradition is unequivocally “the best of what has been thought and said.” Textbooks training students in this “life of the mind” often begin with an Enlightenment interpretation of the ancient Greek philosopher Plato, who imagined a utopian society being ruled by “philosopher kings.” Such a tradition privileges “the mind,” the intellect, and reason over other human faculties like affection, enthusiasm, intuition, and culture. Reason takes on a universal, absolutist character and is assumed to be universally identitical across cultures, contexts, races and genders. This perspective has faced some of its sharpest criticism from the multiculturalists.  

The scandal of this “life of the mind,” according to multiculturalist Donaldo Macedo (2006), is the failure to recognize “how the traditional approach to education has primarily served the interests of the elite classes, mostly White males” (p. 63). By emphasizing the Classical Canon “as the only vehicle that enables one to search for the ‘Good and True’” the Classical tradition of the “life of the mind” –far from enlightening a darkened world– actually perpetuates an “elitist, antidemocratic, and discriminatory” society (ibid.). Scandalous or not, it’s a curious coincidence that I have yet to find any Classical Christian curriculum that includes important African American authors like Toni Morrison, Chinua Achebe, W.E.B. Du Bois, or James Baldwin. And the fact that they will always include Uncle Tom’s Cabin (and sometimes, if we’re lucky, Booker T. Washington) is probably not going to satisfy Macedo’s concerns.

Anti-Intellectual Farts Just Stink: Intellectual Farts are Deadly

Do you remember SBDs? The Ole’ Silent-But-Deadlies? Instead of just smelling really bad, like Evangelical anti-intellectualism, Macedo’s charge is that the injustices of the Classical canon are silent and literally deadly. While the scandal of the Classics is one thing, we would hope that the “Mind of Christ” variable in Classical Christian education would more than mitigate the problem. Unfortunately however, Classical Christianity cranks the conflict up a notch: instead of cultivating an attention for the needs of “the least of these” (as one might expect the “mind of Christ” to do) the Classical Christian curriculum faces charges of being mostly silent on issues of racial, class, and gendered injustices– silent, that is, until certain prejudiced sentiments seep inadvertently into the air.

Of course, whether or not you find Macedo’s interpretation of the Classical tradition as “elitist, antidemocratic, and discriminatory” to be “scandalous” depends largely on your perspective. Rousas John Rushdoony (1916-2001)– arguably the most important advocate for Evangelicals’ involvement in the homeschooling movement– might even be proud to be a part of this scandal. Rushdoony, in major opposition to both public and progressive education, argued that “Christianity is completely and radically anti-democratic, [. . .] committed to spiritual aristocracy,” and that only “the right have rights” (FitzGerald, 2017: 340-341). Homeschooling and private Christian education would afford his followers (and those unknowingly influenced by them) the freedom to cultivate such an “aristocracy” in their children.

While few Christian educational institutions that I know of directly claim Rushdoony’s educational philosophy as their own, one wonders if his separatist aristocracy isn’t at least somewhere “in the air” (here is one essay celebrating Rushdoony’s influence on Christian education). Any stake-holder in private Christian or home-schooled education would do well to search their curricula for the silent rumbles of Rushdoony. His scent is all over the place.

Calling Doorknob on this Christian Life of the Mind business

In a strange mix of scents (much to the chagrin of one Rushdoonyite), supporters of both Classical Christian curricula and a resistance to state-sponsored education have joined forces to form what looks like a spiritual, intellectual, and moral aristocracy (see how Douglas Wilson pulls off being both a Classical Christian Ed supporter and Rushdoonyite). This could be a problem, especially if you care about social issues and find the Gospel to be meaningful beyond a “life of the mind.”

Along with omissions of Toni Morrison and W.E.B. Du Bois, you can be sure you also will never find James Cone in either Classical Christian School book lists or the Rushdoony libraries.  

James Cone (1997) pulls no punches in accusing any “spiritual aristocracy” of blasphemous heresy:

“It is difficult not to conclude that [the] theologies [of the advantaged class] are in fact a bourgeois exercise in intellectual masturbation” (p. 43).

And just a page earlier he reminds readers that

“For black and red peoples of North America, the spirit of the Enlightenment was socially and politically demonic, becoming a pseudo-intellectual basis for their enslavement or extermination” (p. 43).

Cone has no patience for a Western European “life of the mind.” What good is such a life if it perpetually ignores the voices of the oppressed in our midst? What “Justice” or “Beauty” is accomplished by privileging Homer, Dante, and the Latin language, if it also means silencing the minds, voices, and lives of the most vulnerable in our history?

As rusty as I am at the juvenile game of fart-blaming, I’m gonna go ahead and call doorknob on the scandalous intellectualism of the Christian “Life of the Mind.” It reeks of a superiority complex of marginalization and oppression, and I just can’t hold my breath anymore. And it’s true, I “smelt” it because, as one recovering from a bad case Christian Intelligentsia, I’ve “dealt” a lot of it.

But calling doorknob is not the end of game: I’m not married to critiques against a Classical Christian Curriculum. There is always the doorknob– in this case it would involve expanding the curriculum to include as many perspectives as possible. When assigning Joseph Conrad, always include Chinua Achebe; if you’re going to read Uncle Tom’s Cabin, at least also address the questions raised by Richard Wright in Uncle Tom’s Children; and when reading Huck Finn, know that Toni Morrison’s introduction may be even better than the novel; If you are going to discuss the Native Americans, at least think about Sherman Alexie’s “Indian Education.

If we can agree to expand the definition of the “Good” the “True” and the “Beautiful” beyond a White, Euro-centric “single story,” I’ll gladly drop the charges. If I were to learn that the Classical Christian model already covers this ground, I’ll be more than happy to admit that I got it wrong– in which case I should probably call “safety!”