Grieving the Death of My White Christian America

The Grief behind the Blog

In response to this blog, an older and wiser friend of mine mentioned to me that she found the whole project of Dialogic Christianities to be an expression of grief. Clearly, she understood something about what I was communicating that I hadn’t understood myself. And the more and more I think about it, of all the terms you could use to describe this blog, grief is probably the most accurate.

Part of the grief is personal and specific to my own situation. The early posts came at the tail-end of my first year back in America after being on the evangelical missionary field for 7 years. Much of that writing is actually the fruit of a few years’ worth of faith crises I’d experienced overseas; three big highlights had to be 1) infertility in complementarian contexts; 2) an encounter with the pluralism of both the world and the Word (as in, Romans 14), and 3) some painful critical thinking about my own white-American-male-centric teaching practices and its roots in typical Christian school curricula. These specific processes were definitely motivation enough for me to start working out my faith identity through writing.

But it was the broader shared grief that compelled me to make this writing public for evangelicals to read. In 2016, I began to notice that the individual griefs I had been working through on my own were actually far more common than I had realized. American Evangelicals, both the conservatives and the liberals, all seemed to be faced with a grief that they could no longer keep to themselves.  At the time, it seemed to me to be a grief  of looming apprehension, a reckoning with the writing on the wall that we were all preparing for an ugly divorce. I saw a global and historical community of Christians becoming more bitterly divided by the hour, as tweets and posts and articles and comments were quickly marshaled to divide friends from foes.

Wanting to do more than play into the petty back and forth of Facebook debate (although I have had my weak moments), I naively imagined a Facebook transformed to generate as much life-giving dialogue as it did division.  I believed we—divided and dividing evangelicals—could talk/type our differences out. I believed that we, being inheritors of heavenly rewards, could easily afford at the very least to read/listen to each other with open hearts and minds. I believed that we Christians above all would be the most likely to find the courage to engage gracefully with the views that offended us most. We of all people ought to have been most ready for repentance  when faced with challenging realities. I truly believed that with the right kind of tone-management and humility, we could easily heal whatever bitter wound was stretching across our community.

But I was wrong.

Not a wound but a death

I was wrong about a lot of things. But my  biggest error was in under-diagnosing evangelicalism’s issue. If, as I had been thinking, we were dealing with a mere wound, then humility and tone-management could have helped as we strove toward healing. But what if the chaos evangelicalism underwent in 2016 wasn’t anxiety over what’s to come, but rather something more like an involuntary response to something that already happened. It’s possible that we’re not only already dead, but that we’ve been dead for a while now. What white evangelicals saw go down in 2016-7 may have been nothing but a post-mortem body spasm.

It was only while reading Robert P. Jones’s The End of White Christian America (2016; and his corresponding research institute, PRRI) that I began to entertain the possibility that my grief was not actually over a wound that had hope for healing. Instead, I’m grieving the controversial reputation this dead identity is leaving behind. I’m grieving my own disappointments and regrets as I think back over this identity’s long and complex history. Along with my grief I’m also processing what to do with the deafening silence that always accompanies death, a tormenting lack of responsiveness, a gaping emptiness where I once found life and meaning. And looming over everything is the intimidating question: What now?

So what exactly has died? I’m not talking about “my faith.” This isn’t a post about how Chris is now declaring himself an atheist. What has died is a tradition and a culture of thought that Jones calls “White Christian America” (WCA). Like any compound word (e.g.,  strawberry, hotdog, or parkway), its meaning is different than the sum of the individual words (neither “hot” nor “dog” on its own could possibly communicate the glory of a hotdog). Similarly, WCA is not simply White + Christian + America. I think there’s plenty to theorize about the meaning of each individual term– and for the record, I am still White, I am still Christian, I am still American. It’s the compound that has died. And so, like Nietzsche’s madman, Jones seems to be saying “WCA is dead. WCA remains dead.” But, unlike the madman, he’s not able to say who killed it. All the evidence out there suggests that it died of  “a combination of environmental and internal factors” (p.1).

Mostly Dead

After twenty-sum years of living and breathing it, you’d think I’d have gotten the memo that the main source of my identity was White Christian America– but no, when I joined the evangelical mission field in 2009 I had no idea that I was a valued member of WCA. Nor did I get the memo that WCA was in critical condition and that there was very little hope that WCA would make it out alive.

I didn’t realize I was a part of WCA because I — like many evangelicals– spent a lot of time between 2009 and 2014 responding to philosophical attacks from the New Atheists like Richard Dawkins. I was spending my energy trying to combat postmodernism, emotivism, pluralism, and, at times, evolution. I was so caught up in these abstract isms that I had very little patience for anything to do with conversations around the more concrete ones like nationalism, sexism or racism. I was trying to make the case that reducing the classical canon down to issues of race/gender/class was a godless and immoral enterprise. It took the events of 2014 to get me to realize that all of this was historically WCA behavior.

Jones illustrates the aftermath of WCA’s death with three particularly explosive cultural moments in the year 2014, at which point all evidence suggests that WCA was already dead. The three cultural moments he uses to put flesh on the statistical bones of his argument are: The 2014 Super Bowl ad “America the Beautiful”, a Grammy performance of “Same Love” by Macklemore, and the national attention paid to the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter.

The Controversy over America the Beautiful

Perhaps the fact that the descendants of WCA (white mainline Protestants and white evangelical Protestants) had slipped below 1/3 of the American population in 2014  made the Super Bowl ad all the more bitter for them to stomach. A twitter war erupted in response to the ad, with #speakAmerican on one side and #AmericaIsBeautiful on the other. But when I compare the sentiments of #speakAmerican to some of the professional development (PD) curricula my evangelical school was using at the time, it’s hard for me to pinpoint exactly where Christianity ends and where white supremacy begins. What is the difference between this tweet and this PD discussion question?

“We are English and Christian, mainly. #SpeakAmerican Let’s keep that in mind, @CocaCola” (cited in Hoffman, 2015).

How do we apply the [White Christian American] Founders’ ideas to a “multicultural” America where a flood of moral and spiritual perspectives – e.g., Buddhism, spiritism, Islam, Native American religions, and Wicca – have become part of the cultural fabric? (The Truth Project)

I remember in 2014, I was somewhere between being critical of the America-centrism I saw rampant in evangelicalism, while also feeling a strong allegiance to its values. When I look back to a post I wrote about the Coke ad for my teaching blog at the time, my ambivalence is painfully clear. It seemed extremely transgressive to me at the time to say anything positive about celebrations of pluralism, which is why I walked it back with the question– “Does the American song have any ‘wrong’ notes?”– and just to make extra clear that I wasn’t being transgressive I insisted I hadn’t meant it “in a political sense.” By avoiding the “political sense” I bought myself a bit more time before I realized not only that I was white, Christian, and American, but also that I was a child of the compound White Christian America. I see the following two and a half years after that as an awkward song and dance of trying to convince myself, my students and the world that this worldview (which I did NOT name as White Christian America) welcomed honest critical thinking. Had I known what it actually was and that it was already dead, I probably wouldn’t have bothered.

Macklemore and Same-Sex Marriage

2014 was also the year that Macklemore performed “Same Love”at the 56th Grammy award ceremony. Jones argues that this performance was symbolic of the shifting perspective of most Americans about the legality of same-sex marriage. As this gay-marriage-affirming performance was a rousing success by many standards, it was also taken as a direct affront to WCA. During the performance, not only did Macklemore perform in front of a backdrop of what looked unmistakably “churchy,” culminating in a mass marriage ceremony of thirty-three diverse couples (straight and gay, multiracial and interracial), but the song also directly spoke out against White Christian America’s homophobia with lyrics like:

America the brave still fears what we don’t know
And “God loves all his children” is somehow forgotten
But we paraphrase a book written thirty-five-hundred years ago

However, perhaps in anticipation of those who would want to accuse Macklemore of rejecting the wisdom of scripture, the performance ends with Madonna and Mary Lambert singing the words “I’m not crying on Sunday” over a Gospel choir’s refrain repeating the phrases from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians: “Love is patient, love is kind.” It would seem that Macklemore hasn’t completely disregarded biblical wisdom, but he and much of the country seem to be interpreting it in completely different ways than WCA is known to do.

2014 was also the year when same-sex marriage became legally recognized in several states across America– and not just states on the liberal coasts, but states like Indiana, Pennsylvania and Oklahoma. That same-sex marriage had anything to do with the compound of WhiteChristianAmerica might seem a bit strange. What does sexuality have to do with Whiteness, Christianity, or America? Whether it makes sense or not, the fact is that this one particular issue continues to be a defining feature of white evangelicalism (as well a Mormonism). It continues to confuse me when the stereotypical family held up as an icon for WCA resembled something more like the Cleavers than any of the families I’ve seen in the Bible. The fact that I have a hard time finding anything like a “Biblical marriage” in the Bible tells me that we aren’t dealing simply with interpretations of scripture, but rather we are dealing with deep-seated cultural and political identities.

The Hashtag that Broke the Camel’s Back

Perhaps 2014’s most damning turning point for WCA’s descendants– the smoking gun that made young white evangelicals all over the US incapable of ignoring their WCAness– were the murders of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, made nationally known through the famous hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. It’s a damning turning point not only revealing the structural racism in our society and judicial system, but also White Christian America’s dependence on and complicity in these structures. WCA would have liked to shut this hashtag down, and many of its successors tried to honor its wishes. WCA’s resistance to messages of racial equity and justice was nothing new, but it was this hashtag that made it difficult for WCA’s children NOT to see their communities rushing to protect their cherished anti-Blackness with defensive retorts like #AllLivesMatter or #BlueLivesMatter.

Franklin Graham expressed the attitude most clearly when he said: “Listen up–Blacks, Whites, Latinos, and everybody else. Most police shootings can be avoided. […] If a police officer tells you to put your hands in the air, you put your hands in the air. […] It’s as simple as that. Even if you think the police officer is wrong—YOU OBEY” (Jones, p. 148).

Significant for me at the time was the implication this had for me as a Christian school educator. It forced me to trace the history of my corner of the profession, which cannot be understood without a thorough exploration into the Brown v Board of Education act in 1954, which made it unconstitutional for schools to be separated into Black and white. It’s no surprise that it was not long after this act that many private conservative Christian schools began to sprout up. “The most immediate response to [desegregation of American public schools] was the launching of whites-only private academies—many of them church related” (Jones, 162). As a completely Christian-school educated person, from kindergarten through my bachelor’s degree, I cannot avoid the fact that “the leap to private academies provided an immediate mechanism for avoiding mixed race schools” (163). This fact forced me to realize that my resistance to conversations around racism were mostly due to the fact that my whole educational life had been historically designed to protect me from ever seeing it in person. It had me wondering where in my teaching my whiteness ended and my Christianity began? I still don’t think I can pinpoint that line.

 

The Five Stages of Grief

Jones’ book makes the argument that these three cultural events (a celebration of multiculturalism during America’s favorite pastime, a celebration of family-diversity, and a direct indictment of American racism) were not precursors to WCA’s death, but rather results of it. WCA’s children witnessed a world stretching it limbs for the first time after WCA restraints had finally been lifted. And we were left with an ideology that had few mechanisms to defend itself.

The book ends by re-examing the death of WCA through the lens of Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief. Jones shows how particular spokepersons of White Christian America seem to be exhibiting stages like Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance in response to WCA’s death. As I read this section I realized that all of my writing on this blog exhibits a stage in the grieving process. White Christian America’s death is the death of a life-shaping identity. I have struggled to know what I’ll do without it. Who am I if not a White Christian American?

Through these posts you can see my denial, especially as I continued to say things like “I have no intention of shedding the label evangelical” despite the fact that everything I was saying and doing was explicitly non- (sometimes anti-) evangelical by almost all definitions. You’ll also see my anger, especially in my post about Fart-Blaming and classical Christian education. I asked a friend to read that post and his feedback was: “I think that the tone of your proposal sounds a little dismissive and frankly a little ‘pissed-off,’ if you don’t mind me saying that.” – he was right. But now I believe that I’ve been “pissed off” because of grief.

You’ll also see me bargaining at times, attempting to postpone the inevitable. I have done it by trying to enliven an already-dead conversation, trying to invite white Christians to talk with me, to engage with me, to treat this conversation like there’s living potential here—to show me that there’s still a life worth living in White Christian America. But no matter what I try to do, it will not change the fact that the death of White Christian America is irreversible. If we’re to dialogue, we’re going to need a reason outside of WCA to do it.

Of course there’s depression. There’s not much to say about it, mostly because depression tends to work without words. But it’s been an important part of the grieving process for me. Kugler-Ross writes, “The harder [terminally ill] patients struggle to avoid the inevitable death, the more they try to deny it, the more difficult it will be for them to reach this final stage of acceptance with peace and dignity” (Jones, p. 213). I don’t know if you’ll find much peace and dignity in my own grieving process. But I’m working my way toward acceptance. Of course I believe there is life after the death White Christian America. I just don’t yet know what that life looks like. I certainly don’t know what a healthy life after WCA looks like. I also can’t say I know exactly which version of Christian in White Christian America is actually worth restoring. With WCA as my main teacher, how can I know know authentic Christianity if I saw it? I just know the dust is going to need to settle before I’ll feel ready for the search.

Of course, these are grieving questions. It’s possible that we– the children of WCA– have some sort of inheritance worth preserving; and I will say about that what I always say about the promise of bodily Resurrection that some people read in the scriptures: I’ll believe it when I see it.

Advertisements

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.

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).

Laura:
[…] 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. […]

Chris:
[…] 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?

Laura:
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:

Chris,

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.

Blessings,

Laura