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

Advertisements

“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”?

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!”

5 Ways to Bible Toward ‘A Biblical View of Everything’

People of Babylon, you will be destroyed.

The people who pay you back will be happy.

They will punish you for what you did to us.

They will grab your babies

and throw them against the rocks.

~Psalm 137: 8-9, (International Children’s Bible)

 there is no need to interpret, in the sense of debate the real meaning of, the vast majority of what the Bible addresses ~ Contributor to Dialogic Christianities Discussion

the Bible is NOT easy to understand correctly and doing it requires some skill and work. ~ A Different Contributor to Dialogic Christianties Discussion

I affirm a biblical view of everything ~ Eugene Peterson

A Biblical View of Babies?

I don’t know about you, but I strive to hold to a biblical view of babies– you know, the counter-cultural, conservative view that does NOT involve throwing them against rocks. But if I’m being honest, I don’t think I arrived at my perspective of babies with any help from the Bible. In fact, if anything, I arrived at it despite what the Bible says in Psalm 137. Does that mean my view of babies isn’t biblical? What do we do in moments like this, when the Bible is just not as biblical as I wish it would be?

Back when I was a high school English teacher, I would set a nasty little trap for my students. I would have them read and discuss Psalm 137– except I wouldn’t tell them that it came from the Bible. Interestingly, students (many of whom were, mind you, well-versed in the Bible) rarely guessed that this poem had anything to do with the Bible. The Koran? Maybe. Whatever kind of justice was being espoused in this poem, it didn’t sound Biblical: it sounded brutal, primitive, vengeful, and excessively angry. For one of my classes especially, I remember the icy silence when I revealed that this was in fact Psalm 137 from the Bible. I actually felt pretty icky about it afterwards, and I decided that that would be the last time I set this kind of trap for my students.

But as I think of it, the Bible sets these traps all the time. What we find in the Bible and what we mean by “biblical” are often two different things. So it makes me wonder what we mean when we say “biblical”? Do we really mean “relating to or contained in the Bible”? Or are we actually meaning something more like “moral” or “politically conservative” or “White Western European”? Maybe a more accurate word would be “churchical”.

But this isn’t to say that we don’t TRY to use Biblical as a way of referring to something “relating to or contained in the Bible”– it’s just that it’s difficult. But even when we try our best, I think when we say biblical, we are still simply referring to “something valued or important that has something to do with my community’s interpretation of the Bible.”

This is a post about the interpretation part.

5 Ways to Bible

I think all communities that revolve around the reading of Scripture ought to consider carefully the history of the debate that’s gone on in the fields of literary studies, linguistics, literacy, and the social sciences. People have raised really important questions about the process of reading, and these questions often result in new theories, which in turn have led to more questions. I think regardless of which reading theories you find yourself most comfortable with, understanding the direction the conversation has taken can only help as you, like Eugene Peterson himself, seek to affirm a biblical view of everything.

1) The No-Theory-Theory (Plain Text Approach):

Recent discussions on the Dialogic Christianities Facebook group have brought up the question of how to read the Bible. One early contributor to the dialogic Christianities discussions asserted that “there is no need to interpret, in the sense of debate the real meaning of, the vast majority of what the Bible addresses.” This is a clear example of the “Plain Text Approach”– a common assumption not only about the Bible but of any text. Reading is a straightforward transmission of information, and assuming that a person knows how to sound the words out, getting the right meaning from a text is a straightforward process.

Furthermore, the reading of a text will also induce a real, material change in your character. I used to ascribe to this view early on in my teaching. I had operated with the assumption that offering students a rich text would result in their own nourishment, providing all kinds of behavioral benefits. Reading True, Good, and Beautiful texts, I believed, cannot help but make you a better person– and what truer, better, and more beautiful text is there other than the Bible?

Limitations: The tricky element that this perspective always runs into is the long history of Bible readers who obviously did not seem to read it right. There doesn’t seem to be a straight shot from reading the Bible to having a “biblical” view of everything. The question that the last hundred years of scholarship has tried to answer is, “What happens in between the reading and the biblical worldview? Why do some Bible readers not see what I see? What exactly is happening during interpretation?”

2) The New Criticism (Formalism):

Another recent contributor to dialogic Christianities writes “the Bible is NOT easy to understand correctly and doing it requires some skill and work.” This is where the New Critics of the early 20th century started from when they argued that reading ought to be the scientific inquiry into the one objective meaning of a text. This perspective involves building up the reading tools in the tool kit so that with the right skill and implementation of those tools you will be guaranteed to excavate the one true meaning of the text, and thereby discover “a biblical view of everything”. Interpretive tools include but are not limited to a working knowledge of the original biblical languages, working knowledge of all preceding texts that the text at hand could be referring to, a working knowledge of literary devices in a given genre (the convention of, say, chiasm in Hebrew poetry, along with a host of others like allusion, synecdoche, anaphora, ansubstantiation [just kidding, not a real word]), and so on. Basically what the New Critics called for was what we English teachers call close reading.

Limitations: When I first learned the close reading techniques of New Criticism, reading looked both difficult and super exciting; it promised an all-around satisfying experience. With the right amount of effort in the right direction, I could strike gold. However, as I began to develop these literary skills (and also tried to teach them), I began to wonder if the project wasn’t merely hard, but actually impossible. Gold is harder to find than the instructions suggest. Granted, the close reading skills were always useful and helpful in a “journey-is-the-destination” kind of way, but they never seemed to result in agreement about the one true meaning of a text. There were always mutliple and conflicting interpretations that I and my students would arrive at using very solid close-reading techniques.

3) Reader Response Perspectives:

I. A. Richards, who helped begin the New Critical movement, conducted a study in his university English classes in which he gave his ivy-league students the same poems to analyze. He was surprised to find the myriad misreadings produced by his students. What he concluded was this:

“We should be better advised to acknowledge frankly that, when people put poems in our hands (point to pictures, or play us music), what we say, in nine cases out of ten, has nothing to do with the poem, but arises from politeness or spleen or some other social motive” (Richards, 1964, p. 318; retrieved from Morris, 2006, p. 164).

In other words, all readers bring their own life experiences to a text and even when they use the exact same methods, they cannot help but bring their own pasts, worldviews, assumptions, and intuitions to their interpretations. This baggage always impacts how any person reads a text.

Reader Response continues to be the most common reading perspective used by English teachers in American school settings. Perhaps that’s no surprise, but upon further research I’ve seen that there is a strong case to be made that Reader Response perspectives are also the most common approach to the Bible in your typical evangelical Bible study (Bielo, 2009), or in your average Sunday morning sermon. If you’ve ever gone around the circle and shared one thing that stuck out to you about a biblical passage, you’ve used Reader Response methods. If you’ve ever journaled about how a text spoke truth into your personal life, you’ve implemented Reader Response. If you’ve ever engaged in lectio divina, praying through the scriptures, you’ve used reader-response reading methods. Even John Piper’s advice about how to read the Bible can’t entirely escape being reader-oriented (see points 2.6 and 2.7).

Limitations: Reader Response tends to be critiqued from two different angles. I think people who tend to lean toward unreflective New Critical assumptions argue the most against Reader Response, believing that it is essentially an attack on absolutes and objective meaning; if there is no one interpretation of a text, then all truth must be relative and (I’ve heard some argue) that means that society will digress into moral chaos. These critics are mostly offended by the prospect of there being “a biblical view” among many rather than “the biblical view” which I and my people have sufficiently sorted out.

But there are other grounds on which people have critiqued Reader Response methods, primarily from post-modern multiculturalists and anti-racist advocates (see for example Lewis, 2000 or Borsheim-Black, 2015). Reader Response has been, it is argued, used in the service of dominant White communities to resist engaging seriously with any critique of their White privilege. By overly identifying with characters in texts situated in completely different cultures than my own, I am at risk of assuming too much sameness and thus missing some of the most important, critical, and disruptive messages in the text. I feel like I understand Toni Morrison’s Beloved by relating it to the time I felt ostracized on a train in Moscow. But did I really hear her message to me as a White man? One researcher calls it “reflexive affirmation” when readers’ readings of major historical events like the Holocaust always seem to conveniently position them with the good guys, never the bad guys (Schweber, 2006). It is rare for me to be able to even acknowledge harsh critique of my own positionality when employing Reader Response methods, let alone accept it and be changed by it.

4) Deconstruction:

If I had a dollar for every time I was warned about Deconstruction in a worldview class . . . Deconstruction is invoked by reformed evangelicals as often as and for the same purposes as the name Adolph Hitler. It is a solid, ready-made example of everything that is evil and bad (mmmk). The anxiety around deconstruction is perhaps warranted in that it has no reverence for the orthodox readings of any text. It holds that the text is made up of language, and language itself, a deconstructionist might argue,

“is unstable and ambiguous and is therefore inherently contradictory. Because authors cannot control their language, texts reveal more than their authors are aware of. For example, texts (like some institutions as the law, the churches, and the schools) are likely, when closely scrutinized, to reveal connections to society’s economic system, even though the authors may have believed they were outside the system” (Barnet, 1996; retrieved from Appleman, 2015: p. 113).

Deconstruction involves implementing an even closer reading of texts than the first 3 perspectives above. Deconstructive close readings, involve a little bit more: methodically interrogating the binary oppositions implied in texts. The word girl, for example, has no meaning without its binary opposite, boy. The word left has no function unless there is also a concept of right. When I question these seemingly “natural” binaries in a text, I often find that one “end” of the binary tends to be privileged over the other. “You throw like a girl” conveys meaning through a gender binary; and it just so happens to favor boys, at least when it comes to throwing.

Inherent in Psalm 137 above is the binary opposition implied in the reference to “Babylon”– and it is the Israelites, of course, who are on the privileged end of this binary. To deconstruct this passage would involve this thought experiment: What if I approached this passage without partiality toward the Israelite perspective? How would that change the poem? What if instead of automatically assuming that the Israelites are favored by God, we examine the poem as if they are merely another human group of people hungry for power and dominance. How does that affect our readings of their pleas to the LORD?

Limitations: Deconstruction always and perpetually calls for another side of the story. While this can result in readings of texts that have never been considered before, it also results in a type of “hermeneutical vertigo” in which it feels like all meaning has been ripped out from under you. This results in a lot of stomach aches and vomitting– just kidding, or, on second thought, sometimes it literally does.

Especially if done poorly, deconstruction has been criticized to do more harm than good. “The problem with deconstruction,” Barnet puts it, “is that too often it is reductive,”

Telling the same story about every text– that here, yet again, and again, we see how a text is incoherent and heterogeneous. There is, too, an irritating arrogance in some deconstructive criticism: ‘the autor could not see how his/her text is fundamentally unstable and self-contradictory, but I can and will issue my report’ (Barnet, 1996, p. 123; Appleman, 2015, p. 115).

While I think this problem tends more often to be a problem with the way a person chooses to deconstruct a text, the fact that this reading approach can be and is so often misused in this way is defintiely a limitation, and deserving of critique.

5) The Social Lenses:

Because this post is getting way too long (have you seen this cat GIF yet?), I’ll lump several reading lenses into one. These lenses all assume that reading is a socially determined practice. Interpretation happens in social contexts, is informed by social contexts, and it has potential to reshape social contexts. These lenses all implement the close-reading tools used by the above perspectives, except they do not stop with texts; close reading tools and the interrogation of binary oppositions also prove useful when reading a given social world.

When I say social contexts, I mean the social realities of race, gender, and class. Each of these social realities are complex enough, however, to merit their own unique reading lens. The social sciences have generated libraries and libraries of discussion about the ways these realities behave and interact with written language throughout history. But no inquiry into the social reality of a text makes much sense without beginning with certain basic principles.

  1. All text is ideological; all interpretations are also ideological; the ideology of an interpretation can easily be different from the ideology of the text.
  2. A person’s ideology often depends on how much power they and their group have/has; members of dominant groups have the ability to force their ideologies on others; members of marginalized groups struggle to have their perspectives validated.
  3. Colonization, exploitation, and oppression are powerful destructive forces that have serious consequences on the identities and ideologies of both the oppressor and the oppressed. These forces are always influencing the writing and reading of text.
  4. For many socially-minded theologians, it is a fundamental presupposition that God is always on the side of the oppressed, marginalized, abused, poor, and needy (see especially Isaiah 42:6-7). Along with this, the dominant group always misappropriates and manipulates text to protect their own privilege.

From the social lenses, we might ask, does it make a difference that the social context of the writer in Psalm 137 seems to be that they have been colonized by Babylon? What difference would it make if it turned out historically that it was the Israelites who colonized the Babylonians? How might a person’s gender impact the way they interpret this poem?

Limitations: Another term I could give to these lenses would be “The Ideological Lenses”– They are often seen by many to be agenda-driven and overly political. And many of these lenses have no response to the critique that they are ideological distortions of the Bible for political purposes (see Cone, 1997, p. 123). All I can say is that the critiques are often valid but not always.

Of course, there is much more than needs to be said, but if you want a brief overview of different reading lenses, check out Deborah Appleman’s “Literary Theory Cards”–

So, next time someone claims to have a Biblical view of anything (or everything), could we all agree to ask them what exactly they mean by that?

Why Jesus’ Black Life Matters

If there is any contemporary meaning of the Antichrist (or “the principalities and powers”), the white church seems to be a manifestation of it. It was the white “Christian” church which took the lead in establishing slavery as an institution and segregation as a pattern in society by sanctioning all-white congregations. ~ James Cone

Jesus was like the original rapper, though. He was arguably a Black guy, or at least dark; hung with a posse of homies, one of them was strapped with a knife; went to war with the government–lost, just like a lot of Black guys do; and everybody loved him more after he died, like Tupac. ~ Killer Mike

Is there anything more humbling, more convicting, more threatening to a comfortable White Christian like me than the exercise of imagining God as Black? I don’t necessarily mean skin color, though I think the image helps. Nor do I mean that God is a rapper, though that also helps. But what if it’s true that Whiteness is the anti-Christ as James Cone argued? What if Jesus meant what he said and what if he meant White people when he said it– that it’s impossible for some to enter the kingdom of Heaven? We White men have always had clever answers for why he couldn’t be talking about us. What if it’s those very answers that we so cleverly construct that will ultimately prevent us from ever entering the Kingdom of Heaven?

It was actually when we first started to consider adopting a child from Haiti that I began to recognize the cultural prestige of my White skin. I was running through scenarios in my mind about how I might inform our landlord in Moscow that we’d be returning to the country with a Black child. Would I tell him the child would be Black? Or would I just let him find out on his own? I felt a flood of anxiety as I imagined walking past our neighbors, who already didn’t trust us for being American, holding the hand of my brown-skinned child. For the first time in my life, I felt like I was in very real danger of losing a roof over my head because of race (not that I really understood, since it wasn’t my race). I imagined the stone-faced passport control officers scrutinizing my passport, then my face, then my passport, then my face, then my child’s face, then her passport, then my face.

We began to feel like it would be cruel not only to uproot a Haitian from a tropical climate to the tundra of Moscow, but moreso to bring an unconsenting Black body into such an unreflective White racist environment. And based on some of the conversation over the past two years around which lives do and don’t matter, I don’t know if I could say America is any better. Maybe more sadly, I definitely couldn’t say White American churches are any better.

It’s a cliche and probably a shamefully accurate picture of my racial naivete, but the anxieties I began to feel about the challenge it would be to bring up a Black child in Moscow (even after adopting from Haiti was no longer an option) led me to search for all the rap music I could find. There were many things being said by rappers, after all, and the communities I frequented often wrote those things off long before anyone would think about listening to them.

Of course, I started with Kendrick Lamar whom I consider a missionary to White millenials like me. His “Blacker the Berry” broke me into pieces, my heart burning at holy and convicting revelation.

You hate me don’t you?

You hate my people, your plan is to terminate my culture

You’re fuckin’ evil …

You sabotage my community, makin’ a killin’

You made me a killer, emancipation of a real nigga

Who is Lamar calling “fuckin’ evil”? Surely not me. Surely I’m not evil. I never did anything to hurt him, or any Black person for that matter. Despite my reformed theology that reminds again and again that I’m a sinner (we’re all sinners), and that apart from God I can do no good, I have a sneaking suspicion that most White theology would prefer to admit sin on its own White terms. God forbid we hear it from a Black man, and God forbid we hear it peppered with the f-word for emphasis.

As a thought exercise I like to imagine a White Reformed church, who every Sunday confesses the safe corporate confession, “we fail to care for the weak and poor among us. We do not love our neighbors as ourselves, and we neglect to reach out to those in need”; But this Sunday, instead, in our monotone White voices we confess that “we hate Black people; we confess that our plan is to terminate their culture; we confess that we’re fucking evil and that we sabotage their communities, making a killing, making them killers. Amen.”

It didn’t take me long before I came across several articles about how Kendrick Lamar is a devout Christian. Christianity Today has an article about it; or you could read about it here, here or here. Kendrick not only convicted me, but he began to Bible quite a bit for me. The Bible, after all, ought to interrupt my sinful thinking, right? If the Bible simply confirms what I already suspected, if it doesn’t shock me, alarm me, or offend me, then it might be reasonable for me to wonder if I’m just reading my own convenient agenda into it. Well, Bibling with Kendrick continues to interrupt my thinking in all kinds of ways. My clean White theologies begin to sound like the clean Wal-Mart editions of his albums, which omit just about half of all the important words.

His most recent album DAMN. has far exceeded My Utmost for His Highest for me in the supplementary devotional department. Especially the song FEAR. (Go find it on spotify or amazon or itunes and buy the song. It’s worth it). All the libraries of White commentaries attempting to elucidate the meaning behind “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom” could never do what Kendrick does on this track. I have nothing to add to it, other than the comment that I’m grateful for a dialogue with Scripture that brings dusty Biblical images to life in discomforting and jarring ways– I don’t think there’s a single image in that song that doesn’t harmonize with some image from the Old Testament.

Forget sexual sins, or sins about who should marry whom, or sins of “arrogance.” Forget the sins that involve any amount of choice or my control. What if my Whiteness is the sin? What if Chance the Rapper’s comment about “Jesus’s Black life” not mattering is a cosmic indictment of the most oppressive of sins? And what if my lifestyle, my comforts, my privileges are an embodiment of that sin? I guess if that were the case I would be in a pretty tough spot– such a tough spot that I might really be in need of a savior.