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.

Going Dialogic: Evangelical Tensions and Learning to Teach More “Christianly”

Most of what I know about God and faith I’ve learned from teaching. Far more than the common parenting or marriage metaphors I’ve heard ad nauseum in sermons, I tend to view God’s relationship to humans through the lens of a teacher. And over the course of my brief , 7-year career as a high school English teacher, I began to feel convicted of my own moments of sloppy, careless, and harmful teaching. I had always tried to teach the way I figured God taught us. The challenge was that over the course of my teaching, my assumptions about God began to change.

Needless to say, my experience teaching high school English overseas for 7 years was more than just a day-job or even a professional career: teaching was always deeply entangled with my Christian identity, my relationships with both God and people. In 2008, upon completing my student-teaching at the school to which I would soon return, I wept like a fool. I’m talking a quivering bottom-lip sucking action on a red-eye flight back to the US. (I had the seat to myself, so maybe no one heard me?) I was told that saying goodbye was supposed to hurt like hell. I was strangely thankful that it actually did.

When we said goodbye again in 2016, I remember hinting at a farewell gathering that teaching at this school saved my faith. I was reminded of how I sabotaged a date I had with my fiancee before I shipped off to Russia for the year, when I brooded aloud: “I wouldn’t be surprised if it all went black when I died.” Caitlin didn’t love hearing that anymore than I loved saying it. It didn’t help that I cited the Bible as the reason for this thought: “Who knows if the human spirit rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth?” (Ecclesiastes). Anyway, it was in such a cloud of existential dread that my 23-year-old-self arrived at the missionary school, becoming firmly convinced not only that there was a God, but there was a God who orchestrated beauty and love in my life, who made all things work out for my good (even during the times I didn’t love him). Did I know if it didn’t all go black after we died? Well, that was a thought I didn’t have to talk about.

In Russia, I found myself immersed in a strange language among strange people. And I don’t mean Russian or Russians. I found myself swimming in conversations peppered with strange phrases: God-things, if-the-Lord-wills-its, God-told-mes, and I-don’t-think-she’s-a-believers. My reformed intellectualist bent toward faith did very little for me in the way of speaking fluent Evangelical Christianese– I could whip out a phrase here or there, but, even moreso than my experience with the Russian language, I have always spoken it with a bit of a suspicious accent.

With that said, I did become comfortable with one Christianese construct: the language of calling. Now sometimes, my accent would come through if I merely said things like “I was called,” or my even thicker accent when I said “I felt called.” But sometimes I would get it right and say straight out, “God called me.”

There have been two things I was always comfortable with attributing to the voice of God in my life. The fact that Caitlin and I are married is one. And the fact that I spent 7 years at the missionary school is another. I can usually say without any hesitation that God told me to do those things.

And so my faith and my teaching were always one. I knew God best when I would enter into that classroom, and I don’t mind saying that I could hear his voice. Every change in my practice or curriculum was a bending to his will, an obedient submission to the God who grows things, trees as well as students. I would begin my classes with prayer because I believed that all learning was communion with God in some degree, all growth was a divine and precious miracle, any development of mind was inherently a spiritual development.

It’s no surprise that it was in this teaching context that God chose to chisel away at my soul– the sins I have been most convicted of throughout the past 7 years have been my teaching sins. It was in the world of lesson plans, grammar quizzes, vocab lists, essays, and participation grades that God called me to a life-changing repentance. It’s not your typical dramatic testimony of drunkenness, prostitutes, or life-in-prison. But in my own mind it was no less dramatic. On the surface it may look to some like I simply changed some teaching methods; in reality, however, my entire theology was turning upside down (or, as I see it, right-side up). For those interested in the pedagogical details, you can read about the changes elsewhere (my view of participation grades, or my changing view on grades in general, or what this all meant for the teaching of grammar). For the rest of us who have kitty GIFs to check out, we’ll suffice it to say that God was telling me that my classroom needed to be more dialogic.

There is a whole library of research on dialogic teaching (e.g., Juzwik et al., 2013) (there’s even a journal devoted to it), and finding it was– and I’m only exaggerating a little here– like being united with my soul-mate. (If you want the gritty details on this end, you could read about how it impacted the way I saw student essays or my classroom policies; or you could read about how it impacted my curriculum). Dialogic teaching is basically a posture towards students that assumes that they might have something to say, or if they don’t, then at least giving them space to say something will help them find something to say. Going dialogic in your teaching can mean a lot of different things in different contexts, but basically I’ve understood it to mean holding fast to the principle that saying stuff, listening to said stuff, and responding to that stuff should be central to the learning process.

Many teaching practices are rooted in principles other than this one. One common one, for example, is to be wary of stuff that gets said. Only say good stuff, never say bad stuff. And it just so happens that the teacher is probably most equipped to say the good stuff. It’s at least a principle that I often taught by. Which brings us back to my repentance: I felt that God was telling me to make my classroom more dialogic.

Before going dialogic, my teaching was exceptionally strict, unreflectively egotistical and teacher-centric. I was an unapologetic authoritarian, and I must have struck many of my colleagues as a bit of a nut. Students were marked late if their butts weren’t in the seats before the bell rang; the highest participation grade I would offer was a 95%; I took the liberty to penalize all absences (even when excused) by refusing to issue make-up work if the student didn’t personally email me with a reason for the absence; I insisted on hours worth of grammar homework every night, work I rarely kept track of, but made for certain I could penalize if necessary. I led classroom discussions in much the same way– striving to lead all interpretations to converge with mine. I encouraged the students I liked, ignored the students I didn’t understand, and made it a point to convert the students who threatened to make the class less about me.

I became convicted, however, when I realized that these teaching policies were at odds with how I thought God behaved toward us as our teacher. I began to find both moral and logistical fault with monologic teaching methods. Not only did I find they do not work in a diverse classroom, but they are actually damaging and unfair. I could never imagine God to teach us like that. For example, I just did not believe God would ever:

  • assign  busy work;
  • get irritated when we bombard him with questions;
  • tsk-tsk us when we disagree with him;
  • lead us in the dreadful discussion practices of “guess what the teacher is thinking”;
  • design his curriculum to benefit only those “who got it” and punish those who didn’t understand;
  • feel vindicated when watching the rebellious students fail;
  • shame us for being unable to complete our tasks in time;
  • turn us against each other;
  • forget about us when we aren’t flattering him with compliments;
  • insist we follow every little grammar rule;
  • reduce us to a pass/fail;
  • expect us to read his mind, especially when the directions are so complicated;
  • put undue weight on multiple choice comprehension tests;
  • insist that we all be the same;
  • use the fear of punishment or negative consequences as his primary motivators.


I believed God to be far more dialogic than that. I imagined God as the teacher who


  • values our differences
  • takes compassion on our limitations;
  • walks with us when we don’t get it;
  • waits patiently when we throw the assigned text at the wall;
  • allows us to approach him when we have questions;
  • gives enough feedback when we need it;
  • designs the classroom to meet everybody’s needs;
  • motivates us with the joys of learning and growing;
  • allows us to get it wrong;
  • encourages us to get it wrong;
  • laughs with us and finds us funny;
  • gives us tasks and projects that take time to master;
  • has done his homework so that he can actually be of help when addressing our concerns;
  • provides us tools to engage the process (rather than reducing our whole school year to a product);
  • looks at our homework and weeps because he finds it so beautiful;
  • shows us an unexpected human side just when we start to feel he is too distant and too perfect.

Some may be wondering a bit more about what I mean by dialogic teaching. Some of you might be thinking that dialogic teaching is about having more discussions and debates in the classroom. It’s not. From my earliest teaching days to my later teaching days, I always hosted discussions and talking in the classroom. But dialogic teaching is much more than “letting students talk.” Taking turns talking does not make anything dialogic (not a classroom and not a blog). Rather dialogic teaching structures everything around “tension– indeed even conflict– between the conversants, between self and other as one voice ‘refracts’ the other” (Juzwik et al., 2013: p. x). It is teaching that is guided by the idea that “what I say responds to what you said” (p. 4).

Others of you might be thinking that dialogic teaching is euphemism for an “anything goes” classroom, where all snowflakey students are told that they’re perfect, where everyone gets a participation trophy. That’s also not what I mean. I found research on dialogism refreshing because it ended up being far more rigorous than what I had been doing, despite all my strictness. There is a missing sense of responsibility when a student submits a multiple choice test back to the teacher; and same for the teacher. He can always say, “Well, the book says you got it wrong, so you got it wrong.” There is far more cognitive energy exerted (both on the part of the teacher and on the part of the student) in classrooms revolving around dialogic tensions. Students cannot appeal simply to a sentence in a textbook to defend their answers. They must take responsibility for what they say and how it was received. Same for a teacher. Dialogic classrooms, I found, hold students to greater accountability, nurturing in them a sense that what they say is always responding to what someone else has said. (And, for the record, students under my dialogic teaching tended to be just as punctual, more engaged, and more reluctant to miss class.)

Dialogic teaching, blogging, speaking, or anything, to conclude, is always directed to a particular person. We can talk about abstract groups of people we’ve heard of. We can talk about “the conservatives,” “the liberals,” “the charismatics” or “the homosexuals”– we can talk about worldviews and ideas or thoughts, but until we direct our words to a particular you in particular contexts, we are not being dialogic. I may be wrong about this, but I believe God is dialogic with us. He has been dialogic with me. It was within dialogue with him that I changed my teaching, and again within this same ongoing dialogue that I write for this blog. If God is monologic, the way I had been at times as a teacher, I’m probably in some serious trouble. It would also be my unfortunate opinion that if this monologic God ever wanted to teach high school English, he might need to tweak a thing or two.

That is a thing that you could think


A professor of mine would exasperate me to no end. In response to my eager attempts to gain his and the classroom’s approval (Enneagram 3, baby!) with my clever comments or my best-worded theories, he would anti-climactically and unaffirmingly stare back at me and say, “That is an argument that could be made.” At times, he would vary the formula by saying, “that is a belief that some people have,” or most aggravating for me, “That is a thing that can be thought.”  

However frustrating these responses were to my chronic lust for approval, I came to value them as some of the most memorable and valuable learning experiences of my life. Of all the many thoughts that are thought about a given complex topic, my professor was telling me, my thoughts are a drop in the bucket. They are not definitive, absolute, or even original. And it wasn’t meant as an insult, either. He said the same thing, after all, about Piaget’s pivotal learning theory. In fact, he said it about all the theories of learning we discussed in that class. It was the posture of description (as opposed to prescription) to which my professor held, simply assuming plurality of beliefs as a fact of life. The first and most important step, in this posture, is to survey the options. Describe them well, and try your best to keep your judgments from smearing them as you do so. As it turns out, this is much more diificult than I thought it would be.

Whether you are comfortable with the plurality of beliefs or not, thinking these thoughts about thoughts at least provides a description of the terrain, allowing us–if we find we disagree with one another– at least to know what it is we’re disagreeing with.

So this is a thought. Thoughts get thought, and sometimes they get validated by a community, or they get challenged and refined, and occasionally they work themselves into sermons, books, classes, or the footnotes in your favorite Bible. These thoughts will sometimes go on to impact the behaviors and new thoughts of entire communities of people in very consequential ways.

James Fowler (see my last post) had some thoughts about faith, proposing that maybe it developed over time, and that maybe those developments were more or less predictable and progressive. This is the kind of thought that got thought a lot in the 1970s and 1980s. Piaget, for example, hypothesized that cognitive development progressed in predictable stages, regardless of person or culture. Erik Eriksson proposed a stage theory about a person’s identity development; Lawrence Kohlberg thought the same thing applied to moral character as well. And then comes Fowler, thinking that maybe it would make sense to mash up Piaget, Eriksson, and Kohlberg into one stage theory about faith. And now it’s a thing that has been thought.

But there are other thoughts. There is the thought that faith is not a thing that develops over time at all. Faith is black and white; you either have it or you don’t. You are either for Me or against Me; Jacob I have loved, Esau I have hated. Most of my Bibles have plenty of sentences that can be used to support the thought that faith is an either/or affair. But this thought might raise other thoughts– for example, what happens after you’re in? What about the verses that talk about spiritual growth, or being works in progress, or that whole thing Paul wrote about baby food and tough meat? And what, of course, do we do with doubt and the feeling of being distant from God? 

That’s why I found comfort in Fowler. And I don’t hold it against him that he didn’t anticipate all the counter-thoughts one can have about his book (and there’s a lot). But Fowler’s thought works well when a student comes to you in desperate fear, saying she doesn’t think she believes in God anymore. Or when a student expresses grief and frustration, fearing for the salvation of his friend who is making choices he doesn’t agree with or understand. Stages have helped bring perspective in both these cases and I’m grateful that Fowler followed that thought the way he did. 

A Bible teacher once told her class that she would not be teaching her own opinions for this course, but rather, she would stick to teaching God’s truth. But what did the student do with the thought that he thought he shouldn’t be thinking? Wondering, How do you know the difference between your own human thought and Biblical truth? How do you differentiate between the voice of God and the voice of your mind? the student stopped himself. He didn’t want to think a sinful thought that should not, indeed cannot, be thought.

Dialogue involves speaking and responsibly responding to sincere thoughts that get thought. It involves allowing ourselves to, first, think the thoughts that we’re already thinking, regardless of their heterodoxy. It means assuming the best about our conversation partners, trusting that our thoughts won’t break them. This trust, then, allows us to have the courage to speak and also receive these thoughts. And most importantly, dialogue involves a response– a response that emerges from careful and descriptive attention. 

Of course this is not to say there is no dumb idea or bad thought (I have plenty of those): it’s just to say that when they’re sincere, these dumb ideas and bad thoughts also need to be said, heard, and responded to. When thoughts are trained to die before they even enter the conscious mind, something tells me that a controlling monologue is hard at work; wondering what it’s trying so hard to hide is– well– a thought that you could think.