Disability and Faith: Breaking Down the Barriers

By Janelle Dill

In the last few years, I have struggled with one word: belonging.

As a disabilities advocate (particularly epilepsy), writer, artist, and Ambassador of Purple (the color of epilepsy awareness) for Somerset County, I have not found a place to fit with my skillset. Since my diagnosis of epilepsy in 2003, I have grown up from an illiterate person with a disability to a person who has been empowered by the incredible journey as an advocate. I believe God chose advocacy as my ministry to others, including those who have a disability.

The road towards advocacy didn’t happen overnight. I’ve had this dream repeatedly through the years. I think it started sometime after graduating from Geneva College in 2008. I “fell off the cliff,” in a proverbial sense. Falling off the cliff is a term used by psychologists for those who have a disability adjusting to life outside the educational domain. If a person, such as me, has a hidden disability and seeks employment, the potential employer has the right to discriminate against me (they could hire or fire me even if the Americans with Disabilities Act does not allow it). As a result, I did/would experience discouragement and isolation. One can either fight or fly into a complacent state. Trying to find employment that accommodates to my specific needs is a challenge; finding a potential employer who listens and is willing to work alongside someone like myself is no easy feat. Cutbacks, time management, and providing substantial health care benefits obscure a beneficial relationship between the able bodied and those with disabilities. This was the beginning of my journey toward advocacy, and it may surprise some to know that my problems did not end with seeking employment.

My biggest challenge at this point is the lack of positive leaders in church who have a disability. The churches I’m familiar with have no idea how to integrate those who have “diverse” abilities, both visible and invisible to others. Church operates in a “separate but equal” style of worship, learning, and growth when it comes to people with disabilities. In a 2016 study done by Through the Roof, a nonprofit organization founded by Joni Eareckson Tada, the group surveyed thousands of churches across the United States. The organization discovered one major issue: the disability community offered plenty of mature spiritual fruits– wisdom to offer and gifts to provide–however, not one of them was in a position of leadership or service. It makes me wonder: Why aren’t we utilizing “the least of these”? What are we afraid of?

I’ve encountered plenty of discouragers in the church. I had some tell me I can’t serve as a missionary. I’ve had individuals say I shouldn’t advocate about disabilities. I even had a relative pray my disability gets “cured.” I don’t want my disability to be remedied; I don’t want a prayer to fix my neurological, medical self. Don’t get me wrong; it is good to pray for help that I get through each day with its challenges. I want prayer for the growth and development of my spiritual self. I feel that if someone prays away the uniqueness of those who have visible and invisible disabilities, we lose the beauty of God’s creation. In church, those with disabilities are hidden away and not put in the spotlight for leadership roles. Too often, classes designed for those with disabilities are watered down or infantile. They are haphazardly thrown together, in a “here goes nothing” sort of way. It doesn’t work; the disabled get left behind and ignored, despite being amazing, incredible people. There is no such thing as a one size fits all standard for people with disabilities; the spectrum is too broad.

For me, trusting God has been a mountain-and-valley-roller-coaster ride. God’s helped me walk through a series of difficult circumstances. In 2010, I dealt with a dangerously low white blood cell count from an immune system crash. Later, I had to undergo tests for overnight seizures, which are particularly dangerous. I had to reduce my seizure medication because it did more harm than good to my body system. Currently, I am one year and six months seizure free. But, I am not cured of epilepsy; at any time, I could have another series of seizures. I get ocular migraines and have vertigo show up every now and again. I still have bad days and I forget stuff. My body won’t be in perfect health as long as I live.

I think about the apostle Paul when he describes his thorn in the flesh in II Corinthians 12:9-10,”I will most gladly boast all the more about my weakness, so that Christ’s power may reside in me. So because of Christ, I am pleased in weakness, in insults, in catastrophes, in persecutions, and in pressures. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (Holman Christian Standard Bible)

Does that mean I enjoy every difficulty or should complain over it? Absolutely not! I don’t have control over my circumstances all the time, but I can always control my reactions to them. I can choose to be bitter or better. Too many well meaning Christians view a disability as either a form of martyrdom or glorified sainthood. That is NOT what Paul means at all. Disabilities are difficult. It is important to talk about the struggles, barriers, and misconceptions. Claiming a disability as a form of sainthood or martyrdom places the disability and those who have it as idols. It becomes objectified idol worship. It takes focus off the Creator and onto the created as a pitiable object or charity case. Being an advocate is tricky: you walk a fine line between sentimental and sensational.

As I enter another season of valley dwelling in the faith, I live as a desert rose. I have my thorns and not a lot of resources to aid me. A number of friends I thought trustworthy deserted me in a time of crisis. I’ve released countless dreams and broken promises. I’ve shed many tears, put into a bottle that only God has preserved somewhere. I’ve lost countless opportunities-and had friendships go south. Epilepsy and ocular migraines are always with me- and I adapt to the constant changes that come with them. God continues to utilize them and remind me I am not alone. I can do all things through Him and with Him. He’s given me this ability to advocate about those with disabilities as active participants in the church community. The disabled don’t need to change; they’re fine. Rather, the able bodied need to adjust their attitudes, addressing the issues that prevent growth. Doing so involves time, listening, patience, and lots of love. A good church community must work together with all its members-including the disabled. There is no such thing as a normal, able bodied person. All of us have a disability of some sort. It can be physical, mental, emotional, and for all of us, spiritual as a result of our fallen nature: . I hope that in my work as an advocate, many others will improve the church body’s function to a more interdependent, belonging place.

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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?

Opening the Fissure

I have the occasional privilege of wrestling with Chris Olshefski over lunch; he calls it dialoguing. Some of our conversations, like his and Caitlin’s blog posts, are unsettling; they force me to hear ideas that are challenging, question my own beliefs, and follow arguments that sometimes have no conclusion (as a scientist, this is hell for me).

Disclaimer: I only disagree with him about 18% of the time on significant issues. I am grateful for this because dialoguing with him exercises the muscles I need for engaging with some in my theologically conservative church (disagreement 45% of the time), my woke progressive friends (34% of the time), and my politically conservative family (97% of the time).

I have been reflecting on what it means to have relationships with those we disagree with on significant issues (possibly up to 97% of the time). Refusing to engage isn’t always a viable option. I could avoid Caitlin, but I work on the same floor as Chris. Maybe I’ll just keep asking him about the state of his faith.

I see two options. First, I could ignore and minimize any differences, but then friendships would lack intimacy – what psychologists describe as inclusion of the other into the self, in which we feel our identities to be known, validated, and cared for. Second, I could deliberately engage with others despite the discomfort they bring. I’ve been trying the latter, which has had a strange effect on me: it has grown my identity to include others. We enter conversations acutely aware of the incompatibilities of our identities; there seems to be little shared basis for communion. In the midst of dialogue, we may not change our positions on any issues, but I find myself knowing, validating, and caring about others in ways I didn’t before.

In this, I have received help from Miroslav Volf’s Exclusion & Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation. Because I’ve read the book, Chris asked me to share how Volf’s ideas have helped me to embrace the Other.

Keep them out

Volf observes that we are constantly in conflict with Others because of loyalty to our own cultures (based on ethnicity, nationality, or ideology). We regard our identities as ‘pure’ so long as they are not tainted by identities from competing cultures. We do not understand their identities, and fear validating them (lest it be mistaken for endorsing their positions), which allows us to care less if we choose to disassociate from them. This allows us to say with pride that we do not (or no longer) associate with a person or group. Our identities are defined by who we are not. We are not them!

Volf calls this the sin of exclusion: a will to push Others out of our identities and cultural worlds. This can take several forms. First, we might cut off the Other from communion and relationship. This is exclusion by abandonment (e.g. ignoring, excommunicating) or elimination (e.g. genocide). Second, we might forcefully shape or limit the identities of Others to ‘permit’ them space amongst us. This is exclusion by assimilation (e.g. silencing) or domination (e.g. slavery). Exclusion in any form entails violence against the identities of Others.

The sin of exclusion is inescapable; I am either a perpetrator, or a victim of it. When I am excluded, I exclude in kind. Both parties are locked in a mutually-reinforcing dance of exclusion. This dance seems never ending, but Volf outlines a way forward.

Volf writes, “Christians take a distance from their own culture because they give the ultimate allegiance to God and God’s promised future” (p. 51). The Cross serves as the foundation of a new community, allowing us to live with one foot in our cultures and another in God’s new creation where we are reconciled to God and others. Where our identities were previously incompatible with others, in communion we become catholic personalities – enriched and shaped by our relations to others, even those we are prone to exclude. To Volf, this is accomplished by God’s working: “Being born by the Spirit creates a fissure in me through which others can come in” (p. 51).

Let them in

In contrast to human relationships marred by exclusion, Volf uses the metaphor of embrace to describe the healing of human relationships and communities. This willingness to embrace the other precedes any conditions we place upon them. Volf writes, “The will to give ourselves to others and ‘welcome’ them, to readjust our identities to make space for them, is prior to any judgment about others, except that of identifying them in their humanity. The will to embrace precedes any ‘truth’ about others” (p. 29). Volf describes the drama of embrace playing out in four steps, a metaphor that mirrors a literal, physical embrace.

I. Opening the arms

This signals to the other your own will and desire to embrace. This requires a recognition that our own identities require others for enrichment and healing. Volf writes, “Open arms are a sign that I have created space in myself for the other to come in and that I have made a movement out of myself so as to enter the space created by the other” (p. 141). We may have a desire to embrace someone, but have we signaled it to them in a way they can perceive?

II. Waiting

Open arms extend to – but stop short of enveloping – the other. Embrace must be entered freely; to embrace someone without waiting for them to enter our open arms is to do violence against them, to invade their identities with ours. Volf speaks of waiting as a modality of love: postponing our will and desire to embrace because we place the needs of the other before ours. Am I impatient with others, demanding embrace on my terms and according to my timing?

III. Closing the arms

Once the other accepts the invitation and approaches, there is reciprocity: a gentle closing of the arms by both parties; two independent identities now stand as a single entity. I must not close my arms too tightly and suffocate or assimilate the other, and I must resist any assimilation of myself. In embrace, “the identity of the self is both preserved and transformed” (p. 143). In embrace, a lack of understanding may emerge (as when we notice the strange smells and contours of another in close proximity), but there is more knowing when we see past our caricatures of the other. There is a certain amount of mystery to how one self includes another. Am I comfortable allowing that mystery to shape me?

IV. Opening the arms

A single embrace does not last forever, just as two identities cannot become one. Embrace is a habit that we return to, a dance that gets repeated over and over. Each time, we release the other and retreat to ourselves having been changed and enriched by the other’s presence.

Practicing embrace

Dammit. This means that to embrace those with whom I disagree, I might (to my horror) have to change – my identity has to make space for them. But what if they don’t make space for me? That might in fact be the case, but I still feel we would be better off putting Volf’s ideas into practice, resting in God when faced with the uncomfortable tension.

I think about Volf’s ideas every time I observe ideological and theological disagreements in the Church. Many of us (especially American Evangelicals) have the habit of diagnosing the theological positions of others, to determine where their identities stand in relation to ours. Would anyone trust me to teach in a church context, or do people worry about my views on the creation account and gender? Are Chris and Caitlin in the fellowship, or are they people I’m supposed to ‘reach out to’?

The habit of diagnosing others’ positions usually comes from a good place – a sort of spiritual triage where a stronger sister tries to determine if a weaker brother is in need of correction. The unintended effect, as I’ve observed and felt, is that a contingency is placed on the relationship. Dialogue can easily become an attempt to convince, and without intending to, carries an implicit threat of exclusion (should the convincing fail).

What if instead of trying to identify whose views needed correction, I took a dialogic stance towards them? What if I had a will to embrace that preceded my judgments about others and their beliefs? We might hear each others’ voices and perspectives in a fresh way, and regardless of whether there is any agreement, our identities would be enriched by inclusion of the other. This does not mean we cannot make judgments about what is true or reject untruths, but it means recognizing that truthful and loving judgments can only be made by identities willing to hear the voices of others and be shaped by them.

I wish we in the Church embraced embrace as a practice more. Perhaps we could all share in the meal that Jesus shared with us. Presently, we fence our tables, to ensure that those we break bread with believe the right things about the meal before partaking. While beliefs about communion are not unimportant, this seems akin to emailing my family ahead of Thanksgiving, insisting we work out all conflicts before we’re allowed to share a meal.

In the real world, families work out conflicts over meals – we share meals not because we have managed to come to some ideological agreement, but because our identities include each other. In fact, there may be little agreement. My racist uncle might end up sitting next to me at the table. I’m supposed to embrace him simply because he’s my uncle, even as I reject his views.

Perhaps it would heal us to break bread with those whose beliefs are unsettling to us, recognizing our shared communion as the basis for dialogue and fellowship. Can we embrace others and include their identities in our own? I know that when I don’t, I grow increasingly narrow in my perspective, not realizing that it has covered the fissure in me, leaving no room for anyone to enter.

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.