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.

Fact, Fear, and Infertile Marriages

 

A post by Caitlin

It was dread at the thought that made her ask him right then if once you were baptized you could ever just wash it off you, and he smiled and said no.

“Even if you wanted to?”

“Well, that’s probably about as close as you could ever come. But no. You don’t have to worry about that.” She was relieved, in a way.

****

“Baptism is a what I’d call a fact.”

—from Lila, by Marilynne Robinson

Baptism is what I’d like to call a fact. I’ve been clinging to my baptism these days and it tends to calm me down. “You’re baptized, Caitlin.” I tell myself. “That’s a fact.” I’m what you might call a “nervous Nancy.” I tend to function as if there is a pit in front of every step I want to take. From my earliest memories, behind every decision I ever had to make was the fear of ending up in some sort of pit. However horrible my current state, I wasn’t naive: things could always be worse. The pit = worse. Whatever that may be. In addition to protecting me from potential pits, this mindset also keeps me standing still and scared to move.

It’s a Wednesday evening, and I’m finally hearing people’s stories face-to-face instead of on a screen or on the page. Stories of homelessness, depression, loneliness. Stories of looking for Jesus and being turned away. Stories of finding Jesus and being told, “No. That’s not what you found.” Being called liars. That old pit fear creeps back in. I would have called “them” liars once upon a time. But I don’t think there should be an US or THEM anymore. So, what do I do with this old habit of fear?

Let’s rewind a bit.

Once upon a time, I knew how to fit into my community. I’m pretty good at checking boxes, avoiding the pits, following every law. If it says “no swimming” or “do not enter” then I’m not allowed! I follow the rules. Growing up, my youth leader told me that Harry Potter was demonic. I knew what that meant—Not Allowed. So I locked all my books and paraphernalia. Throughout my life, at one time or another, I have done all of the following because I felt it was a rule: worn a head covering, not questioned my husband, fed the hungry, tithed 10%, paid my taxes, kept silent in church, talked to a stranger about Jesus, used only blockade contraception…you get the idea.

Conforming to my community’s expectations was rarely a problem for me. So when we tried to get pregnant and didn’t get pregnant and then prayed about it and then couldn’t get pregnant and then went to the doctor and still weren’t pregnant, it didn’t take me long to realize that I was having the same reaction to our infertility as I did when I broke the rules.

I hadn’t forgotten the command to “be fruitful and multiply.” This was a rule. How was it that God would keep me from following a rule!? I was mad, I was sad, I was confused. I felt that I must be doing something wrong. I felt that I was wrong and had been made wrong. And in the middle of all that, somewhere, in there, I was suddenly on the outside of something. I was suddenly being pushed to move towards a pit that I didn’t even know existed.

No one did it intentionally, but our community reinforced our feelings of being outsiders. The thoughts that came with being infertile were thoughts that I had never thought to think before. And how could I? How could anyone? Otherwise, a Mother’s day sermon is a sweet way to honor the mothers in our lives, not a reminder to the motherless that they are less-than women who have yet to live up to their feminine glory. Parenting study groups are a chance to bond with other moms and dads, not an exclusive social club. That wink and nod to the newly expectant father along with the words “Well done” is a simple congratulations, not a jab at those who have not done well. At bible study, church, an outing with our friends at the park, walking down the street: infertility glared back at me through the swollen bellies under winter coats, through the toddlers holding onto mother’s hands, through announcement after announcement of another friend expecting. It gave me silence in the tight-knit women’s circle retelling their birth stories. It left me talking about how my cat wakes me up at night, “I know it’s not the same thing as a baby…” and they gently laugh and nod their heads, agreeing that I have no idea.

No one said we were wrong or weird or other or broken, but we felt that way. Our community systems were made for people to get married, have babies: mom raises the kids and dad has a career. None of this ever bothered us—it’s what we wanted: to be normal. But when you’re suddenly not normal, well, you don’t succeed in your community, at least not in any way that you knew how. A new path needs to be formed, and that’s scary. There are lots of pits out there, after all!

Infertility was lonely. I started doing what a lot of lonely people do: getting online. I just wanted to find some camaraderie. After I exhausted the YouTube videos of infertile couples sharing their stories to the backdrop of hope-filled Christian songs, I hit a new level of searches that kept leading me back to a theme I had not expected: debates about same-sex marriage in the church. It caught me off guard. Some Christians make the argument against same-sex marriage by explaining (as just part of their argument) that the purpose of a married couple is to procreate.

Divisive issues aside for a moment, imagine you want nothing more than to conceive and have a child. You’ve been praying about it and crying about it and exhausting every kind of trick you can to encourage conception and then you hear someone arguing against gay marriage. And imagine you think gay marriage is wrong. In fact, it’s so wrong, you don’t even know how to talk about it without a significant amount of discomfort. Part of this argument is said in exasperation, as if this point makes it so obvious that gay marriage is wrong, “The Bible condemns gay sex because its out of step with this original male/female design, which is about the bearing of children.”

Ouch. Not only did I feel my marriage was being called sub-par, I also was uncomfortable with the association with “them.” (Spoiler alert: this discomfort is what I now refer to as homophobia.) I continued to listen to arguments for and against same-sex marriage in the church. What I found in listening to these was a sense of understanding for my infertility that I had found nowhere else. In those arguing for same-sex marriage, I finally felt like my infertility was understood. That scared me. Why didn’t the people on my “team” get it? Arguments against same sex marriage, again and again, damned my uterus and positioned me as a curse against God’s natural order. I didn’t know what to feel. But I knew that one BIG pit was in front of me.

I slowly started to change. I didn’t even realize it at first. For once, I began to take people seriously who said things like: “I did not choose to be gay”; or “I know you’re saying ‘Love the sinner, hate the sin’ but I feel like you really do hate me”; or “I wrestled with God. I prayed. I read scripture. And I came to the conclusion that I can be in a monogamous, same-sex marriage and that that is honoring to God.”

I’m not really here to make an argument for gay marriage to be accepted in the church. I know it kinda seems like that because– well– that is my (hopefully fearless) opinion. However, people who know a lot more than I do about this topic and who have real experience being in LGBTQIA+ communities have written and articulated arguments both for same-sex marriage (click here) and against (click here). So, I’m not doing that. It’s already been done, and quite dialogically, on The Gay Christian Network.

My point today is related to the purpose of this blog. Are you feeling afraid? Are you worried about me? Do you get uncomfortable, much like I did, when someone different from you or who thinks differently than you do occupies your same mental space? My point is this: I can’t afford to be afraid of discussing or considering any controversial topic anymore because, now that I have breathed the same air of those whom I feared, I can see how careless or unexamined thoughts lead to real hurt and harm. I can’t afford to be afraid of taking everyone seriously. I can’t afford to be afraid of asking any question. And I certainly can’t afford to be afraid of how you’ll respond. I can’t afford to ignore people who are different from me or think differently from me. I can’t afford to determine who is or is not a Christian: who is “in” and who is “out,” who is safe and who is in a pit. Even if it’s me.

What I CAN afford to consider –really consider– is that others may be right and I could be completely in the wrong. I can afford to change my mind about things. I can afford to apologize for the harm that I caused. I can afford to trust the holy spirit working in me and in someone with whom I disagree, even if we come to different conclusions.

I used to be different. My infertility changed what I could and could not afford to do.

I don’t know how all this makes you feel. But for myself, I feel much like Kevin in Home Alone, I can finally declare “Hey! I’m not afraid anymore! Do you hear me? I’m not afraid anymore!”

The concept of Dialogic Christianities does not scare me. Different thoughts around women’s issues, race, the LGBT communities, immigrants and politics, how to read the bible and how all of those things relate to our Christian faiths do not scare me. You don’t scare me. (Okay, sometimes you do, but I can’t afford that anymore, okay? So, feel free to be honest in your responses.)

And here is why I do not have to be afraid: I’m remembering my baptism. “Baptism is what I’d call a fact.” That messy moment when I was a child and I stepped into that cold water. My dad held me, and I leaned into his arms. He let me dip into and get covered in that water. It was in my eyes, in my mouth. All in me. And I came out of that immersion a part of a family. A family of Christians that are so different from one another. Some know they are right, others know they are gay. Some fit and some don’t. All of them love Jesus, except on the days that they don’t. They do terrible things. They do wonderful things. And this family orientation doesn’t wash off. It doesn’t even fade. And sometimes that makes me uncomfortable, but mostly it makes me feel safe. I can talk about anything, maybe even believe anything and you still can’t get me out of God’s hands. “Just try and take me out of God’s family!” I’d like to shout. “I can’t even get myself out of it!”

For a great dialogue about LGBTQIA+ subjects in Christianity, watch this video hosted by Biola University. Not only is it the epitome of dialogic Christianities in action, it is also, in a very real sense, a video that changed my life.

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.

But you still believe in … Right?

 

Since I’ve started this blog, half a dozen people or so have respectfully asked where I am in my faith. The following is an account of how I even begin understand that question. 

Stage 1: Images (Intuitive-Projective Faith)

The hole on the other end of the bathtub glares at me, taunting me. He laughs a gurgling, sucking-laughter as the water retreats in fear, leaving me defenseless.

I don’t know what hell is, but I know this hole is the portal to it.

The Sunday school teacher gently rakes her hands through the sand in the plastic box on her lap. She is telling us a story about the ancient desert world of the Bible. She talks about a man named Abraham, and how he is my father. I don’t really know what that means, but I like the sound of the sand and the shape of the wooden figurines she places in it.

Sunday school is filled with laughter, graham cracker snacks, colorful characters on a felt board, sandboxes, and shiny gold gift-boxes that the teacher calls “parables.” Church is when I lay on the wooden floor and army crawl beneath the pews. I like when they sing, because that’s when I can let my Ninja Turtles battle. If I ever have to sit through a sermon, I will tell my dad that I really need to go to the bathroom. If I concentrate I can make sure that’s not a lie, and then I’ll be free to take a walk and play among the coats in the hall way. Most of the time he assures me that I can hold it, so I plug and unplug my ears for the eternity of the pastor’s sermon and listen to a strange undulation in the his voice.

My mom asks me after McDonald’s if I want to ask Jesus into my heart. It sounds like a good idea. She tells me how to do it and I feel loved and safe. Jesus would never let me go down the drain.

Stage 2: Narratives (Mythic-Literal Faith)

Every morning, the teacher invites us to share prayer requests and whenever I could remember I would ask my teacher to pray for my grandpa who wasn’t a Christian. One day when I forgot, a friend across the room raised his hand and said, “I would like to ask for prayer for Chris’s grandpa, that he would become a believer.” True friends pray for the salvation of each others’ grandpas.

In the dimmer light of the evening Sunday service the pastor would pass the microphone to anyone who wanted prayer. Some prayed for work as they had recently been laid off. Others shared about parents battling cancer. Some had lost a home to a fire. Others shared thanksgiving for an unexpected conversation about Jesus with their next-door neighbor. Feeling like I understood the context enough, I raised my hand. The pastor passed the mic and out poured the cry of my soul: “My lips hurt” (pronounced “mwai lipth hwot”).

Having shared my soul with mic in hand and lips on fire, as usual, I didn’t know why everyone was laughing. My dad took the mic and explained to the congregation that I had a nervous habit of licking my lips, causing me a significant amount of discomfort.

By the time I made it to 1st grade, I knew what to pray for. I would pray that Sally would fall in love with me, that I wouldn’t get in serious trouble during the school day, and that I wouldn’t– please, for the love of God!– poop my pants.

Stage 3: Concrete Symbols (Synthetic-Conventional Faith)

Bible camp before I enter into 8th grade: I win camper of the week. I am kind and caring to everybody. I don’t join in on the crude jokes of my bunk mates (confession– I would have been the leader of the crude jokes if my middle-school friends had been there with me), and not only do I know the narrative of Jesus and his sacrifice, I believe it and I own it.

I joined our PCA church that year, and I knew nearly every question in our fill-in-the-blank communicant members’ packet: I could define sanctification, justification, and propitiation; I could provide a defense for the infallibility and inerrancy of the Bible; I knew what I needed to know about the Trinity, that it was mysterious and that that was very important to understand.

Instead of making out, I prayed with my first girlfriend on the soccer field, and I led a worship band at school. We sang reformed songs, theologically rich hymns from the 1800s set to folksy guitar chords and catchy melodies. I made sure I always had my capo. I prayed that God’s will would be done even if I couldn’t understand it, and I wrote letters to my next girlfriend about the “peace that surpasses understanding.”

I dreamed of God as a straight steel beam extending either way into eternity. Nothing you did could bend the beam, tilt it, or move it. Perfectly straight. Perfectly fixed.

The symbols of my faith were all fixed and concrete– concrete fixtures in a concrete fortress without any cracks. My calling was clear: now that I know the fortress, my job will be to protect it. Only pity the person whose fortress falls apart.

Stage 4: Disassembly (Individuative-Reflective Faith)

Where does a crack come from? Concrete is heavy, strong, and fixed, but even it can’t resist morphing and flexing when the temperature changes.

Was it the countless unthinking comments that well-meaning Christians gave in response to our longing for what seemed natural? So many reminders of the faithfulness of the Sarahs, the Hannahs, and the Rachels in the Bible. Why would God command us to be fruitful and multiply if he made us infertile?

Was it the thought that maybe God would send people who are living in hell into a worse hell because they didn’t have a White Western middle-class upbringing like me?

Was it from wondering what is so good about the gospel in the church play where Jesus stands center Stage aglow with glory ready to receive the shrieking daughter whose mother is dragged off by ravenous demons stage left?

Nwoye from Things Fall Apart had the image of mutilated babies in the bushes. I had the consistent and telling silence in response to my questions: questions about when is the Bible metaphorical and when is it to be taken literally? Why do some churches care so much about keeping women out of leadership, but do not require them to wear head coverings? Why are we so intense about Leviticus 20:13–about men lying down with men–and yet care so very little about Leviticus 20:18 (are pastors ensuring that they don’t schedule weddings during the bride’s menstruation?). And why, of course, are we not selling all that we have and giving to the poor?

It’s the suspicion that what is being said and what is deeply and truly believed are completely different things. The thought that maybe the Christianity I thought I knew was all along either one big chauvinistic power move, or at least an ignorant and naive prop in the hands of chauvinists who care nothing for unborn babies, their mothers, or the teachings of Jesus.

The thought that behind all of this bullshit there is really no God, there is no righteousness, justice, or peace–just rapacious political power or selfish psychological comfort. This, with the dismay that many evangelicals since November have had no intention of proving me wrong.

Stage 5: Dialogic Resurrections (Conjunctive Faith)

Just how far does the arm of resurrection reach? Do you see the ruins of my faith? A once imposing concrete fortress now a heap of ashes and dust. The death of a body. The death of belief. The death of God himself.

Some believe that the material bodies of the deceased stay dead forever, completely gone from this world. “Like water spilled on the ground, which cannot be recovered, so we must die.” Instead, their spirit floats to heaven, no longer imprisoned in our weary world. Cold comfort for the grieving, if you ask me.

So Lazarus, a question for you: What did you think Ezekiel in the valley meant when he described sinews and flesh collecting on the dry bones? A metaphor for your people’s political power? An image of the end times? A symbol of your personal salvation? Did you ever imagine you’d enflesh the vision, that you would be living proof that spilt water, under rare circumstances, can return back to its vessel?

Please stop asking me what it is I believe. You do believe in the infallibility and inerrancy of the Bible, though, right? You do believe in Jesus, right? You still believe in the need for the forgiveness of sins– you do believe there is such a thing as sin, don’t you? 

I haven’t really surveyed all of the rubble to know what’s survived. Like the dove’s olive branch to Noah when his world was laid waste, I find a scrap of scripture that God (who may or may not be who I think he is) spoke to Ezekiel (who also may or may not be who I think he is):

“And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people.”

“Okay,” I say to the Lord who may or may not be the Lord, “I’ll hold you to that.”

Stage 6: The Apostle Paul (Universalizing Faith)

The Apostle Paul– God love him– sometimes comes across as rather arrogant, sometimes dangerous, and often downright obnoxious. The whole “women ought to keep silent in church” thing feels a little icky, even for many conservatives. “Therefore,” Paul has the audacity to write, “I urge you to imitate me just as I imitate Christ.” And it can make some rather nervous that Paul says, “hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord.”

In his defense, I think Paul’s rough edges are cast in the worst light when we assume that Stage 3 Faith is the pinnacle of spiritual maturity. Paul, it would seem, never stopped being a pharisaical bigot; he just converted his bigotry to “the right team.” When people use Paul’s words as mortar for their concrete fortresses of faith, there is no end to the terrorism they can justify.

Others may see Paul as a man writing from the vantage point of Stage 4, deconstructing his pharisaic fortress, unmasking the legalism and rigid structure of all things Jewish. He searched the doctrines of circumcision, dietary laws, and sabbath observance and found them wanting. Dismantling all the superficial trappings of law and ritual, Paul calls for an authentic Christianity of the heart.

But Paul, despite what some may believe, probably wasn’t such an anti-Semite. But to solve the inconsistencies here, some see Paul as a Stage 5 relativist. Romans 14 seems to conclude that those who want to honor the sabbath on a particular day, go for it– those who don’t, feel free not to. If the pinnacle of spiritual maturity is Pauline relativism, then it’s very difficult for some to know what concepts, if any, have real meaning. If circumcision, dietary laws, and sabbath observance were up for such relativistic interpretation in Paul’s day, then one wonders what might be up for reinterpretation today.

I don’t think a charitable and attentive reading of Paul can place him as just a deconstructionist or a relativist. I definitely don’t think it can place him as a concrete-fortress-believer. Paul, I think, is read in the best light when we consider that he may have something to teach about Stage 6 faith. James Fowler (1981), who constructed this Stages of Faith paradigm, writes that Stage 6’s are “heedless to self-preservation,” incarnations of “absolute love and justice,” they engage in “spending and being spent for the transformation of present reality in the direction of a transcendent actuality.”

They are ‘contagious’ in the sense that they create zones of liberation from the social, political, economic and ideological shackles we place and endure on human futurity. Living with felt participation in a power that unifies and transforms the world, Universalizers are often experienced as subversive of the structures (including religious structures) by which we sustain our individual and corporate survival, security and significance. Many persons in this Stage die at the hands of those whom they hope to change. [. . .] Life is both loved and held to loosely. Such persons are ready for fellowship with persons at any of the other Stages and from any other faith tradition” (200-201).

I think it’s safe to say that not only was Paul heedless to self-preservation, but he also preached a message of absolute love and justice. He spent and was spent to transform his context for the sake of what he believed was the Kingdom of God. Paul was contagious, spreading this love and justice across the Roman world, liberating “true-believers” from the shackles of religion, and Roman citizens from the shackles of oppressive government. He was seen as subversive in his day, and challenged the structures of religious thinking. He died at the hands of people who needed his message most, and he both loved his life and let it go. And, far from that bigoted Stage 3 Paul I used to imagine, I think he was always ready to fellowship with people at different faith stages and different faith traditions.

Conclusion:

James Fowler notes that many people remain at Stage 3 their entire lives. The symbols of their youth that they have come to know and love have frozen and ossified. They–the symbols– are absolute and complete. The goal in life at that point is to maintain the fortress, protect it from threats. And I have it on good authority that many faith communities would kill to protect their fortresses of faith– Paul did.

I don’t blame people who fight like hell to avoid entering into Stage 4, where all they know and love would come crumbling down. But to be so safe does come at a cost; It’s lonely to be absolutely right while most everyone else is wrong. It’s difficult to manage the anxiety that comes with the fact that there are billions of humans–past, present, and future– who are too dangerous to engage, who are diseased, contagious and ultimately doomed. And, frankly, its exhausting to keep shooing away the nagging questions, and the glaring tensions. Some people may have the patience to arrest all faith development at Stage 3; but not everybody can afford to do that.

I don’t know if anyone in their right mind ever chooses to dive into Stage 4. Nor do I think it’s easy to climb into Stage 5. I think it’s vital to have examples, mentors, friends who can guide post-Stage-3-ers as they navigate the rubble of their fallen symbols. And frankly, I don’t think it’s common, but it would be nice if Christian churches aimed their faith trajectories as high as Stage 6. I think Paul did. I don’t know what it looks like, but I think it wouldn’t hurt to begin talking about it.

(Did you find this post troubling? Please see the dialogue in the comments section between me and a reader.

Also, for a brief description of the Stages of faith, see Justin Cook’s article in Christian Educators Journal: “Learning in the courtyard of the gentiles”. )

Will it Bible? Whose Bible bibles the bibliest?

Thanks to Caitlin and Kevin who provided much needed feedback before I posted this prematurely.

bibleness
noun, abstract
the somewhat unquestioned characteristic of being or relating to or transmitting the inerrant and infallible language of God directly to a recipient.
“When I walked into the Family Christian Bookstore, I could just smell the bibleness.”
“I’m pretty disappointed that MXPX albums seem to have lost their bibleness over the years.”

bible
verb, intr
1. to evoke in a reader or a reading community a categorical sense of bibleness.
“Why didn’t Martin Luther have confidence that the book of James bibled well enough to be included in the canon? I always thought it bibled better than Song of Solomon, if I’m being honest.”
2. to bible around with: To unquestioningly categorize a textual artifact as having indisputable bibleness and to engage with it accordingly.
“I confess that I bibled around with a book called Ecclesiasticus until I realized it was part of the Apocrypha. Since then I’ve kept my bibling within the bounds of biblegateway.com just to be safe.”

Picture a Bible; what do you see? The immediate answer in my mind involves a thick black leather-bound book with thin pages, sometimes with gold along the edges. A page of the Bible in my mind is much more busy than your typical best-selling novel, as it has smaller print, two main columns of text interspersed with numbers and abbreviations. Sometimes the text slips into italics to indicate some information about translation (maybe?), or [it might be bracketed] for another kind of reference. In between the two columns of text, I imagine a very narrow column with even smaller print with references like “22. a. Gen.10:44″. Sometimes, actually, there is a horizontal line–at times as far up as the middle of the page –separating two columns of the main text from explanatory footnotes. Sometimes early pages will have a preface or an explanation of the translation or much more. Later pages sometimes have an index or concordance and some even contain glossy colorful maps of the ancient world.

The Bible in my mind also has a specific number of sections (books, we call them)– 39 in what we call “The Old Testament” and 27 in what we call “The New Testament.” Sometimes I’ll have a Bible with just 28 or 29 books– the whole New Testament with the book of Psalms and sometimes Proverbs included. If you come from a Mormon, Catholic, or Orthodox background, your numbers might be different, but I’m sure you have black-leather books just the same.

While I know rationally that different versions of the text exist in English, the Bible in my mind always begins with, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”  Going to check just a few of the bibles on my mantel, I find that some begin just like that: “In the (a)beginning (b)God created the heavens and the earth” (NKJV), or “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (ESV). Others are quite different, like:  “001 First this: God created the Heavens and Earth” (The Message), or even “When God began to create heaven and earth . . .” (Five Books of Moses). Regardless of the different translations I know exist, the Bible in my mind will always say “In the beginning” and it will always be an automatic impulse to assume that that is the correct way to do it.

Another complication about bibles is that every single one of my bibles includes what could technically be called “non-biblical text” within its pages. Yes, major portions of my bibles are not all Bible, but rather modern editors making and explaining interpretive choices. And it is here where we get an explosion of Bible-production activity, where Zondervan makes the big bucks. Timothy Beal (2011) hypothesizes that the Bible-production market, which sold 6,134 different kinds of Bibles in 2005 (bonus points for anyone who can find current numbers on that), is appealing to consumers’ “felt needs” to gain access to God’s word in their lives with minimal effort. Hence the Teen Study Bible or The Bride’s Bible or The Metal Bible (i.e., heavy metal: “with the hippest exterior ever”) (Beal, 2011: p. 49). No matter how you feel about these Bibles, they seem to be scratching someone’s itch– meeting someone’s needs. Beal offers this:

“At the heart of all [these] felt needs is the longing for the iconic Bible, the literal Word of God between two covers. Bible publishers are not selling Bibles. What they’re selling is that iconic idea of the Bible. Their value-added biblical content promises, and speaks in no uncertain terms about God’s plan for your life and how to live it. Adding value to the Bible almost always means adding “biblical” values that are either missing or really hard to find in the Bible itself but that provide that feeling of Bibleness so many seek” (50)

Before I’m accused of hating God and the Bible, I should say, that I, like most evangelical Christians, have my own opinions of which Bibles have the most Bibleness. I do believe it’s probably possible for some Bibles to bible more biblically than others. I just don’t think it’s a straightforward question. And I certainly KNOW that 100% agreement among the Christianities about which Bible bibles the bibliest is under such intense debate, that the different viewpoints probably have stopped talking to each other decades ago.

I might be crazy, but I think it’s constructive to ask myself, when does a Bible on my shelf start and stop being biblical? How much “biblical” text is necessary for my Christianities to consider something “a bible”? How much and what kind of added text is too much or not enough for my different communities to begin to find it suspicious? What bibles would have been biblical enough for Paul, who is said to have written, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching” (2 Tim. 3:16 NIV)? What about for Jesus? St. Augustine? or the illiterate medieval saint Margery Kempe? What about David’s bibles? Or St. John’s, who wrote, “And if anyone takes words away from this scroll of prophecy, God will take away from that person any share in the tree of life and in the Holy City, which are described in this scroll” (Revelation 22:19 NIV)?

When do our bibles bible biblically enough for God?

So with these questions in mind, let’s move on to what I hope will be a recurring segment that we will call, “WILL IT BIBLE?”

Below are 3 different items available for purchase in your local bookstores that, from one perspective or another, could be considered “Bibles”. It’s my assumption that some of these “Bibles” will bible biblier in your communities than others. But which “Bible” bibles the bibliest is certainly a subject of debate.

The Scofield Study Bible KJV Classic Edition (with 1917 notes)

Frances FitzGerald highlights the publication of this particular Bible as a turning point in American evangelical history:

“Published by Oxford University Press in 1901, the Scofield Reference Bible had a41bhbhohy0l-_sx349_bo1204203200_n attractive format with copious notes on the pages that identified biblical characters and permitted readers to follow themes from one book to the next through a system of cross-references. […] From it many Americans learned for the first time […] that the creation occurred in 4004 BC after a catastrophe destroyed the ‘primitive order,’ killing all the animals and leaving their fossils. […B]ut mainly it canonized dispensationalism. […] Not only did it reach a mass audience, but it also proved far more persuasive than any dispensationalist tract. Interpolated within the text of the King James Bible, the notes seemed the authoritative interpretation–if not part of the Bible itself. According to students of the subject, readers often could not remember whether a particular idea they encountered came from the notes or text, and some memorized the notes along with biblical verses” (FitzGerald, 2017: 101-102; my bolding).

It’s no coincidence that this Bible’s popularity took off in 1917 during the first World War, a time when many American Christians began to anticipate Christ’s second coming at any moment. According to a dispensationalist Christianity (often attributed to John Nelson Darby [1800-1882] in America’s post-Civil War period), the Bible teaches that the history of the world could be broken up into several “dispensations”: some of which included Innocence in the Garden of Eden; the Law beginning with Moses and ending with Jesus (or thereabouts); the time of Grace which accounted for the history of the early church up until “The Great Tribulation” which would involve a rapture of God’s chosen people (see Wikipedia and tell me if I’m getting this right). Scofield’s particular readings of (what I find to be) difficult prophecies (from which he predicts the Jews’ return to Palestine, or asserts that Magog in Ezekiel 38 refers specifically to Russia in the 20th century) continue to be held today not only in many American church communities, but they also have great influence on US political discourse. Stances on issues from US foreign policy regarding Israel to beliefs about climate change can seem to Scofield Bible readers biblically justified, while readers of other Bibles with different commentaries may tend toward very different interpretations.

So, the question I pose is, Does the Scofield Bible bible biblically? What about its bibling is or is not biblical? How could it bible better?

Reformation Study Bible (2015) ESV (edited by R.C. Sproul) 

Take a couple minutes and get a sense of what makes this Bible special according to its editor (Click here for the promotional video)

I bibled around with an earlier edition of this Bible for some time during my teenage years as an eager member of both a reformed presbyterian church and a reformed Christian school. The 31tj72bfdv2l-_sx355_bo1204203200_description on Amazon reads:

“The Reformation Study Bible (2015) has been thoroughly revised and carefully crafted under the editorial leadership of R.C. Sproul and the contributions of 75 distinguished theologians and pastors
from around the world. Over 1.1 million words of new, expanded, or revised commentary represent 40% more content faithfully presented to emphasize the need for the grace of God to lead out of darkness and into the light of Scripture.”

Formerly known as The New Geneva Study Bible (for the Swiss city of the 16th C. Reformer, John Calvin) this particular Bible and commentary purports to interpret biblical text through the lens of 16th c. Protestant Reformation teaching, or at least from a modern interpretation of 16th c. protestant Reformation interpretations. Not only does the Reformed Study Bible include R.C. Sproul’s interpretive commentary on nearly every verse, but it also contains both the Apostles’ Creed and The Nicene Creed, the Westminster Confession as well as the longer and the shorter catechisms (among others). Perhaps what sets it apart the most, however, is its supplementary articles on the following topics:

Apologetics
Canonicity
Covenant Theology
Creeds and Confessions
Hermeneutics
Inerrancy
New Testament Textual Criticism
Old Testament Textual Criticism
Preaching of the Reformation
The Reformation
The Bible in Church History
The Bible vs. Other Sacred Texts
Worship
Interpreting Scripture

R.C. Sproul proudly presents this Bible as a means to pass down the truth (in case you want to watch the promotional video again) to the next generation. Of course, the notion that biblical truth is best conjoined with 16th c. White European truth through the discerning authority of the 75 (mostly White European/American?) men who contributed to this text (yes, Sproul himself assures us that they are all men, which conservative reformed doctrine would consider a biblical move), is a question that different Christianities may contend.

So again, the question I pose is, Does Sproul’s Reformation Study Bible bible biblically? What about its bibling is or is not biblical? How could it bible better?

Robert Alter’s translations and commentaries of the Hebrew Bible

Far from invoking the authority of 16th c. Christian Reformers or espousing a dispensationalist politico-theology, Robert Alter’s approach to Bible translation and commentary seeks to present key biblical texts as literature, as opposed to historical accounts or a book of moral imperatives. Because of this, Alter’s main ideological commitment is to reconstruct the text as literally and as poetically true to the original Hebrew manuscripts as he possibly can.

This literal/poetic commitment affords Alter insight into Biblical passages that I never had access to in my more protestant Bibles. For example, Alter writes in his introduction:

The Hebrew noun zera’* has the general meaning of “seed,” which can be applied either to agricultural sense or to human beings, as the term for semen. By metaphorical extension, semen becomes the established designation for what it produces, progeny. [… The] term for offspring also meant semen and had a precise  equivalent in the vegetable world” (xx).

Thus Alter finds it justifiable to maintain the original Hebrew connotations when rendering Genesis 38:9 to say that Onan “knew that the seed would not be his” and that “he would waste his seed on the ground, so to give no seed to his brother.” (The KJV tends to translate the middle “seed” as “semen,” losing a bit of the poetic punch). Coupling this imagery with God’s promise to Abraham, that “I will bless you and will greatly multiply your seed, as the stars in the heavens and the sand on the shore of the sea” (Genesis 22:17), one can maybe see why many protestant Bibles tend to differentiate between seed and semen, avoiding the unseemly image of Abraham’s semen being as plentiful as the stars in the sky. Apparently the original Hebrew language doesn’t necessarily have the same sexual hang-ups.

Judith Shulevitz’s review of The Five Books is quick to assure readers that Alter does not overlook

“the Bible’s moral and spiritual dimensions; he could hardly do so, given that roughly half the Five Books is made up of laws, and the other half — the narrative half — is concerned with working out the covenants made by God with his chosen people. […] What Alter does with the Bible instead is read it, with erudition and rigor and respect for the intelligence of the editor or editors who stitched it together, and — most thrillingly — with the keenest receptivity to its darker undertones.”

And later

“Alter has thought these stories through to their shocking ends. Often enough his choice to be literal stems from the rare resolve not to look away from the text, even when it dismays us, or ought to.”

It’s very likely that this “Bible” falls short in many Christian communities in a number of ways. First of all, when the pastor says, “turn in your Bibles,” you might be the idiot who has to fumble with the buckle of their book-strap before they even find the appropriate book. Something about having all the books “between two covers” (as Beal put it above) is important for the social practice of Bible-study. Also, there are certainly books missing. Robert Alter does not seem to respect the opinion that the Bible is often a package deal– “buy one, get 65” as the saying goes. Perhaps the biggest hang-up people may find with Alter’s books even being included in this list of “Bibles” is that he failed to include the texts held by virtually every Christianity (maybe the singular works here, just this once!) — what we have come to call “The New Testament.” I wouldn’t hold my breath, however,  for Alter’s translation of Romans. It doesn’t seem to fit with his project, and that may be a deal-breaker for some.

So again, I pose the question. Will Robert Alter’s translations and commentaries bible biblically enough for your community? What about its bibling is or is not biblical? How could it bible better?

Conclusion

Much harder than picturing a Bible is picturing The Bible. I can point to five Bibles on my kitchen table right now. Which of those is The Bible? What would even go into answering that question?

. . . The Bible? . . .  

Maybe the question is absurd; maybe you would say there is no The Bible. Or maybe, all bibles are The Bible. Or maybe a couple bibles are close enough to The Bible. Brian Malley (2004), who conducted an anthropological study on evangelical Biblicism, looked carefully at what the Bible meant for different Christians.

For some the Bible does not need to be anything more complicated than the black leather-bound book that is without question the Word of God. No need to get scholarly, no need to dig deeper.   

For others the Bible is the physical artifact that once existed, of which we now have physical copies, some more accurate than others. In this case, the Bible is a text, which means “The Bible must be made out of words. These words may be inscribed in any medium or any encoding scheme whatsoever, but it must be words that are so encoded” (p. 61). And these words are precious and need to be preserved through the generations (cue the R.C. Sproul video).

For others, the Bible is more than a text: it is meaning. The text and the words may vary from copy to copy, but the meaning obtains. Genesis 1:1 may say, “In the beginning God created,” or “When God created in the beginning”– but the meaning is what matters, and the meaning at times is mysterious. And oftentimes for some Christians this meaning can only be accessed when looking at the scriptures; for others this meaning is also available on a long walk through the woods with a psalm in mind. Some argue that no scripture is necessary in those moments, and that in fact, language only gets in the way of Christ’s ultimate meaning.

I think all of these perspectives (maybe more?) on The Bible probably exist in any one Christian community. I would even imagine our perspectives change over time and certain perspectives make more sense in some seasons than others. Engaging other Christians in dialogue, then, may involve holding our Biblical ideologies (Bibleologies?) with “a grain of salt”, allowing our spiritual siblings to be honest about how they see the Bible in a given moment without our jumping to conclusions about their spiritual well-being, their intelligence, or their impending damnation. One of the two bottom lines in this blog is that it couldn’t hurt to talk honestly about it; but that requires patience and thinking the best in each other. We’ll have plenty of time after we hear each other out to believe the worst. 

I have to thank you readers for allowing me to talk honestly about what a bibling bible means in different Christian contexts. I’m looking forward to hearing about your bibling bibles. I’m certain the answers are nothing less than rich, complex, and dialogic. Share comments below to get the discussion going!