Wednesday, August 27, 2014

When an Apology is Not an Apology

During a New Student Orientation panel on Diversity & Inclusion at Duke Divinity School last week Dean Richard Hays made some comments about homosexuality, and read a passage from the Methodist Book of Discipline, that many students found inappropriate and unwelcoming. In response, students planned a peaceful gathering at the DDS opening convocation on Tuesday, which you can read about in the Durham Herald-Sun here.

Then, yesterday evening, Hays sent a letter to the Duke Divinity School community in response. Even though I have tutored and precepted at Duke for two and a half years I don’t receive community emails, so I asked a student friend to forward the letter to me. Turns out I could have just waited, because the letter was publicly tweeted by DDS a while later. This should not have surprised me. The letter sounded more like a public statement than a personal letter to the community to begin with.

When people are writing letters to you about violating the university’s diversity policy and CC’ing President Brodhead, and when the newspaper is reporting that one of the top divinity schools in the country is not welcoming to LGBTQ students, as Dean you have a bit of a PR problem.

That letter was not an apology. That letter was an attempt to make sure Hays doesn't get in trouble for violating university policy. Dean Hays’ response during orientation was inappropriately timed, and his words poorly chosen. Then, to make matters worse, instead of simply acknowledging the pain he caused and apologizing, he wrote a letter attempting to explain it all away as a big misunderstanding. The letter was dismissive and disrespectful, not to mention a poor model of leadership for incoming students training to be pastors. His letter was a form of crisis communications, a PR document designed to set the record straight by putting, in print, publicly, his version of the story.

The irony of the situation is that he got himself into this mess in the first place. He was not even one of the faculty members speaking on the Diversity & Inclusion panel. He did not need to say anything. He did not need to insert his voice into the discussion. He did not need to take the mic and make sure his voice was heard. But he did. And no, people did not mishear him. They heard him loud and clear.

Dean Hays’ views on homosexuality are no mystery in the halls of Duke Divinity School. There was nothing surprising about what he said. What was surprising, and hurtful, was the time, the place, and the manner of delivery -- the context. People who were not there have asked for a transcript of what was said initially, but I do not personally think that makes much difference. More than simply what he said (which has been clearly communicated by the intelligent, capable students in attendance), what makes the difference here is when and where and how he chose to say it. I am choosing to trust the room full of students who shrank into their chairs when he spoke, who in a few brief moments went from feeling welcomed to feeling scared. Multiple eye-and-ear-witness testimonies.

I have always disagreed with Hays’ stance on sexuality, but I respect his work as a scholar and I believe in academic freedom. He can research and write what he wants, and I will research and write what I want. But this situation is different. This situation is not about whether or not Hays is himself welcoming in his theological position about human sexuality. This situation occurred because Hays overstepped a boundary, as Dean of a Divinity School that is part of a wider university that does not tolerate discrimination based on sexual orientation. Because he is the dean, because he can, he inserted his voice into a conversation on a topic he had not been asked to speak on -- a textbook example of the privilege of straight white men with PhDs.

When you are in a position of power, you do not get to decide what is or is not welcoming to those who are not. You cannot tell people how they should feel.

Perhaps what irked me the most about the supposed “apology,” though, was the implication that Hays is doing so much to promote inclusion in the Divinity School. It is deceptive to act as if he has ever been supportive of the Gender, Theology, and Ministry certificate program or Sacred Worth. Both of those programs are wonderful and do a lot to make DDS a safe, welcoming, thriving community for students.

Hays is not involved in them.

Other people may work hard to make the divinity school a welcoming place for LGBTQ students, but he is not one of them. To appeal to their work to absolve himself of offering a real apology is a desperate move indeed. Normally Hays walks the line between his own beliefs about sexuality and university policy, creating an atmosphere of silent unwelcome rather than this more vocal outburst. But it is frankly dishonest to imply that he is actively making DDS a welcoming place for those who identify as LGBTQ.

If Hays is serious about being supportive of the programs he name dropped, then I would suggest that he attend the GTM certificate program graduates’ final presentations every year, and learn about all of the important research they are doing. I would suggest, also, that he meet regularly with the leaders of Sacred Worth and listen to what they have to say about how to make DDS a more safe and welcoming place.

And after he listens, he should listen some more.

The use of the word "reconciliation" in that letter disgusts me. You do not get to use that word unless you are willing to do the work. You do not get to jump to reconciliation if you are not also willing to repent for the pain you inflicted, purposefully or not. Deploying the word “reconciliation” as a weapon in a letter meant not to apologize but to placate, to dismiss, is not reconciliation. It is a reminder of who controls the PR machine, of who narrates the events that take place within Duke Divinity School walls, of who decides which stories matter.

It is not the students. They do not get to tell their own stories.

They will be told what they heard, how they should feel, and that, apparently, as leaders they never have to admit that they were wrong.

Most days I am proud to be a graduate of Duke Divinity School. Studying with Amy Laura Hall, Willie Jennings, J. Kameron Carter, and others (not to mention the many doctoral students who precepted my classes and have now moved on to other institutions) has formed me as scholar and as a Christian. Many of my closest friends are people I met within the walls of Duke Divinity School. But make no mistake: those hallways do not always feel safe and welcoming, not even to me.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

#Ferguson

I don't usually do "link round up" posts, but given the shoddy reporting the mainstream media has been doing in Ferguson, I want to share some links to good commentary, as well as places to find ongoing, on-the-ground updates in the wake of Michael Brown's death.

For the Sake of Michael Brown, from the St. Louis American

The Front Lines of Ferguson, by Rembert Browne, for Grantland

Black Kids Don't Have to Be College Bound for Their Deaths to Be Tragic, by Jasmine Banks, for The Root

Reparations for Ferguson, by Ta-Nehisi Coates, for The Atlantic

A Movement Grows in Ferguson, by Jelani Cobb for The New Yorker

How to Deal With Friends' Racist Reactions to Ferguson, by Jenée Desmond-Harris for The Root

fergu(losta)son: mourning michael brown, by J. Kameron Carter, for The Marginalia Review of Books

What Will I Do? A Call to Theologians, by Brian Bantum

For ongoing news updates from Ferguson, head to Twitter and follow:
@AntonioFrench
@WesleyLowery
@elonjames
@jelani9
@chrislhayes
@TheRoot

Finally, if you're not already following @tanehisicoates and @AntheaButler, what are you waiting for?

Educate yourself. Keep paying attention. And get involved in your own city.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Voices in the Streets

A sermon for Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship, August 17, 2014. Lectionary texts: Matthew 15:21-28, Romans 11:1-2a, 29-31, Psalm 133, Genesis 45:1-5.

This week I was glued to Twitter on more than one evening, watching the events in Ferguson, Missouri unfold in the wake of Mike Brown’s murder. In light of these events, today’s gospel passage, one that always frustrates and challenges me, has mostly saddened me. Here we are again. Mourning another life cut short, yearning for a gospel that can make sense of the senseless.

In Matthew 15, we read that Jesus is with his disciples when a Canaanite woman approaches him, shouting for mercy, asking for help, for healing for her demon tormented daughter.

And Jesus? At first, he doesn’t even answer her. His disciples urge him to send her away, and he responds that he was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel. He uses a kind of insider/outsider language that seems to tell only half the story of who he is and why he has come.

Why, Jesus? Why do you blow off this child of God who wants nothing more from you than the healing you have offered so many others? Why do you call her an outsider?

I imagine the story going down so much differently. I imagine Jesus listening to the woman immediately, rather than waiting for her to call him out. I love it when eventually she does, though, this Canaanite woman who supposedly has no place bringing her request to Jesus. She challenges him, even as she restates what she knows others think of her: that she is no better than a dog, eating scraps from the master’s table. And he listens, albeit belatedly.

I thought of this passage this week, as I watched horrific footage from CNN of an officer in Ferguson referring to the largely peaceful protesters as “animals.” I thought of it again and again as we saw proof in hateful language and violent images of all the things that have not changed in the last fifty years. I thought of it while reading about the history of race, class, and education policy in Ferguson, about the series of choices and laws over long periods of time that shaped this city to be what it is today: a town where a police officer killed an unarmed boy with his hands in the air, asking for mercy he should not even have had to ask for in the first place.

Ferguson’s story, and Mike Brown’s story, is an American story. This is not the story the dominant voices in this country like to tell -- it’s not the story of American exceptionalism, of a “City on a Hill.” It’s a story of sin, of brokenness, and in response to that sin and brokenness, of a deep need for healing and hope in the face of despair, anger, and violence.

Returning to our text from Matthew, my frustration with Jesus eventually turns back onto myself, as I wonder how many cries, like the Canaanite woman’s, we close our ears to. Why does it take a cold blooded murder, a body bleeding in the street, to capture my attention like this? This event wasn’t isolated; this story isn’t new. Perhaps what is most frustrating in Jesus’ behavior is how easy it is to act similarly, to play the insider/outsider game, or to simply believe the lie that we’ve moved on. We would have listened, wouldn’t we? Yet a headline this morning described how images from Ferguson bring up “memories” of historic racism -- when in fact, they reveal our racist present.

Even the language police and news reports used this week tried to turn a blind eye to moral responsibility, stating that “bullets were fired,” and “violence escalated,” as if the gun somehow fired itself, as if a person -- a white police officer -- did not make the decision to execute a black boy for walking down the street. “Who did what?” I would write in red ink next to that sentence, if any of my students were to write it, trying to help them see why passive voice matters, why they need to clarify who is responsible for the action in their narrative.

Though Mike Brown was shot over a week ago, it took several days for the story to make its way into national news -- and even then, much of what was reported was grossly skewed, if not downright wrong. But the stories from tweeting reporters and online news outlets were plentiful, and I have tried if nothing else this week, to listen: to be a sponge, soaking up as many words from as many sources as I could, such that I didn’t know when I would ever stop and write, what words I could add to the chorus on social media, what truths scripture might speak to what we’ve seen and heard.

Roxane Gay uses the language of this Matthew passage (whether intending the connection or not) in an essay where she describe the kinds of representation black folks are expected to settle for in movies, literature, media -- scraps from the table, she says. And when I look at Ferguson, I can’t help but think that perhaps, if I were to have the audacity to make any sort of statement about what it is to be black in America, perhaps part of it is that one is expected to settle for the crumbs, for the scraps from the master’s table. Things are better, people will say -- so much better than slavery, so much better than Jim Crow -- look how far we’ve come! We even have a black president!

Settle for the crumbs. Don’t ask for a seat at the table.

I’m still not sure what it means to try to compare a Canaanite woman kneeling before Jesus, saying “Have mercy on me!” to a boy in 2014 St. Louis kneeling with his hands up, saying “Don’t Shoot!” -- a posture of surrender, a posture that should have been more than enough to save an innocent young man, but was not, and never has been.

If I’m honest, sometimes Jesus’ response in this passage doesn’t seem like enough. There will be no instant healing here, as there was for the daughter in this passage. Yet this is only part of the story. Just a few verses later Jesus is healing everyone who comes to him, and turning a few small loaves and fish into a meal for thousands. There is enough for all.

Romans 11 asks, “Has God rejected [God’s] people?” No, as Jesus said, he is sent for the lost sheep of Israel, and in God’s acceptance of Israel we -- we Gentiles who are not God’s chosen people -- we are grafted in, their salvation a salvation for the rest of us. We become kin. The Canaanite woman is not an outsider; we are not outsiders; the people of Ferguson are not outsiders.

As our Psalm declares, it is good to dwell together in unity.

But the world we live in today is one in which that unity is unrealized, and the cries of many go unanswered, at best, and at worst, are answered with bullets and tear gas and riot gear.

It’s tempting to talk of unity in order escape the evil in front of us, to say that Jesus is the answer, as if that were the end of the conversation instead of the beginning.

What glimmers of hope I saw this week came from people who, like the woman in Matthew’s gospel, refused to settle for same old stuff. People who refused to be overlooked. Parents and children singing and dancing in the streets in memory of Mike Brown, and others continuing their protest into the night, asserting their right to gather. Reporters on the ground in a city where they knew full well they might be shot, where some were arrested, enveloped in tear gas, nonetheless committed to making sure the rest of us saw the truth of what was happening, committed to revealing the harsh reality, the new normal of militarized police, committed to telling the story of racism in America that isn’t over -- not nearly. And then there was a St. Louis alderman tirelessly working in the streets with legitimately angry young black folks fed up with the world they’ve been handed, not trying to placate them, but trying, rather, to redirect anger into constructive action -- to refuse violence, yes, but not to stand down. Haven’t we all settled for long enough?

These voices calling out from the streets of Ferguson remind me that the unity Christ calls us to is reached by a long and winding road that we must tread together. Our feet have many more miles to walk -- some in protest, some in penance, none of them easy -- before we will see our sons and daughters healed, and truly dwell together in peace.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Party of One

Note: Last fall I attended the Collegeville Institute's "Writing Spirit, Writing Faith" workshop with Mary Potter. Before we arrived at the workshop Mary instructed each of us to prepare a 1-page "self portrait" to share with the group, to introduce ourselves. This was mine.

When I returned from a solo train trip to Chicago to visit the Art Institute one summer while I was in college, in Michigan, I told my roommate Mackenzie that I’d had an epiphany at Giordano’s Pizza. The place was packed when I went there for lunch, but because it is my favorite I put my name on the list. It couldn’t take that long to get a seat at the bar. Sure enough, twenty minutes later the hostess called out, “Meghan, party of one!”

“Yeah,” I told Mackenzie, “I am my own party.” It became a running joke between us, but it comes to mind often as I travel or even when I go places by myself in Durham, where I live. I used to avoid going anywhere without “armor” -- a magazine or something to occupy me if I ended up stuck by myself in a restaurant. But a couple weeks ago I sat at the bar at my favorite brewery on Friday evening, no armor, waiting for my friend Ruthan for nearly an hour while she sent apologetic texts about waiting for a pie to finish baking. I was almost done with my first beer by the time she arrived, but I didn’t really mind, especially since she brought me a piece of the pie. After a long week I enjoyed the time alone with my thoughts. Besides, as Ruthan likes to remind me, if the bartender knows your name it’s not drinking alone. It felt good to sit there, by myself.

I don’t ever want to choose not to do something I really want to do simply because I might have to do it alone. One of my favorite bands played a show in Richmond, VA recently and no one would go with me because, well, it was Hanson -- the blonde heartthrobs of the 90s hit “Mmmbop,” though they’ve made a lot of music since then, most of which I own. I wasn’t about to let some teasing or the lack of company stop me from seeing the band I have followed for fifteen years, in whose songs I can trace my life from junior high to the present. So I bought a bus ticket, found a room on AirBnB, and took a mid-week 24 hour vacation. I danced my heart out. I sang along. I regret nothing.

It feels like a peculiar, small act of feminist rebellion, proclaiming I have a right to sit at a bar alone or take myself out for dinner and concert. Not to mention that I love music that hardly anyone else of my generation would be caught dead listening to, unless they’re being ironic.

A party of one is small, but it is still a party.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Bad Feminist

I have been waiting for this book since I first encountered Roxane Gay on Twitter (@rgay). I was drawn to her words immediately, glad to have found a feminist willing and able to apply her sharp mind and biting wit to serious issues like sexual violence as well as to questions like why we watch reality television. I finally admitted that I sometimes watch The Bachelorette after realizing that Roxane Gay not only watches it, but live tweets it. Her commentary is both gleeful in its enjoyment and cutting in its analysis.

Have I mentioned that I adore Roxane Gay?

Under most circumstances I refuse to write gushy reviews. Gushy reviews are not helpful to the potential reader, I tell myself. Besides that, I am difficult to impress; I rarely want to gush. The critic in me enjoys finding diplomatic ways to point out flaws. There is no perfect book, and my job as reviewer is not to pretend there is by giving either a thumbs up or thumbs down to a book, as if it were that simple: good book, bad book, end of story. I want to get at the nuance; I want to explore how even the flaws in a book are part of what drives it forward, part of what keeps the literary conversation moving forward. I like flawed books as much as I like criticizing them. “Good” and “bad” are complicated, after all.

I like flawed books, but I LOVE Bad Feminist. Don't get me wrong, the book isn't perfect, but how could it be? A central premise of this essay collection seems to me to be that we would all do well to say "To hell with 'getting it right'" and embrace the fact that our feminisms are all failed feminisms because we are imperfect people.

Gay gets right to the heart of the matter, and the reason for what some might consider a provocative title, in the introduction:
How do we reconcile the imperfections of feminism with all the good it can do? In truth, feminism is flawed because it is a movement powered by people and people are inherently flawed. For whatever reason, we hold feminism to an unreasonable standard where the movement must be everything we want and must always make the best choices. When feminism falls short of our expectations, we decide the problem is with feminism rather than with the flawed people who act in the name of the movement. (x)
She goes on to critique the way in which we tend to fixate on the most visible feminist figures, what she calls "Professional Feminists," blurring the distinctions between feminism as a movement and feminism’s most famous representatives. "I openly embrace the label of bad feminist," Gay writes. "I do so because I am flawed and human. I am not terribly well versed in feminist history. I am not as well read in key feminist texts as I would like to be. I have certain...interests and personality traits and opinions that may not fall in line with mainstream feminism, but I am still a feminist" (xi).

In embracing the messiness of feminism as a lived, embodied thing, rather than stopping short with an abstract concept or ideology, Gay creates space to embark on a wider conversation, multivocal and multifocused, and always, always, always deeply human. She is honest, and she is brave with her words, even when there is much at stake, even when she is laying herself bare before us. She writes like a person who cannot help but do so, and she does so with both brilliance and heart.

As with any collection, Bad Feminist has some essays I like more than others. And yet, this is one of very few times I have read such a collection and at the end of it realized I did not dislike a single one. There were many I would love to mull over more, to discuss in detail and perhaps build on, or to ask Gay, "What did you mean by ______?" But there we others that hit on intersections and ideas I have been trying to put together, struggling to make sense of on my own, about which finally Gay's words turned on the proverbial light bulb in my mind.

In "The Solace of Preparing Fried Foods and Other Quaint Remembrances from 1960s Mississippi: Thoughts on The Help" Gay teases out the problems with Kathryn Stockett's depiction of race in the south, her use of the "magical negro" trope, and the challenges of writing across difference. Gay illuminates the problems of the book while going one step further to discuss whether and how and why one can ever write across such differences. Gay challenges the reader intellectually, yet she also induces laughter, as in “The Alienable Rights of Women” when she discusses birth control options and the fact that the responsibilities of contraception continue to fall solely to women, and the reality that none of those options are particularly good (though better than the alternative):
I will take a pill every day when when men have that same option. We should all be in this together, right? One of my favorite moments is when a guy, at a certain point in a relationship, says something desperately hopeful like, “Are you on the pill?” I simply say, “No, are you?” (277)
And then there are the moments Gay delves into gut wrenching tragedy, and there too her words sing, albeit songs of lament. In "The Illusion of Safety/The Safety of Illusion" and "The Careless Language of Sexual Violence," Gay writes some of the most important pieces I've read on sexual violence, on safety and triggers and protection and the lack thereof, and the horrible ways the media discusses these tragedies. In "What We Hunger For," Gay explores trauma and its effects through personal narrative and her own love of The Hunger Games, in order to consider what it means to endure "the unendurable" (146). All of these essays are in the section of the book dedicated to Gender & Sexuality, and it is telling that so much of a section with that subject heading deals, necessarily, with violence. This, too, is one of Gay's gifts to us as a writer, in days when the language used to discuss rape and abuse is, as she says, so careless. Gay is not careless; she is careful, she is honest, and she is as blunt as she needs to be. If we are going to talk about gender, and about sex, we have to talk about violence. We cannot look away. Roxane Gay is one writer who will not let us.

Gay's essay on Orange is the New Black is another high point of the book. She criticizes the show, while acknowledging why one might think she "should" love it, and pointing out some ways it does succeed, perhaps in spite of itself. Yet as people laud the show's diversity as if she ought to love it just for that, she says, "Time and again, people of color are supposed to be grateful for scraps from the table. There is a strange implication that we should enjoy certain movies and television just because they exist" (250). She goes on to detail all the ways OITNB is "diverse in the shallowest, most tokenistic ways," along with the implication that people of color should simply be grateful to be represented at all. She writes, "I am tired of feeling like I should be grateful when popular culture deigns to acknowledge the experience of people who are not white, middle class, or wealthy, and heterosexual." The bar is set so low, according to Gay, that such shows seem smarter than they are. "The conversation," she writes, "is how much we are forced to settle or, perhaps, how much we're willing to settle" (253). Gay refuses to settle. She refuses to settle for so little from others, and she has given us a book that shows she refuses to settle herself.

I flew through Bad Feminist, but when I reached the final two essays, “Bad Feminist: Take One,” and “Bad Feminist: Take Two” I slowed down to savor these last words. I am glad that I did, because it was “Take Two” that I most needed to read, not as a reviewer, but as a person, as a feminist who tries and fails and is all too aware of the many ways I do not live up to my own expectations for what a feminist looks like.

As Gay begins the essay listing the reasons she feels that she fails as a woman and a feminist, I saw my own list between the lines. I am too soft spoken. I cry so easily, about so many things. I am so shy. I am afraid to ask men out on dates. I tried to quit shaving, but my hairy armpits drove me crazy. I am uncomfortable wearing a swimsuit in public. I subscribe to Vogue. I love to cook, and knit, and though I am not particularly sure that I want a child of my own there are few bad days not improved by the chance to hold one of my friends’ babies. For much of my young adult life I made my living as a nanny. I am an educated white woman and struggle to learn right ways to engage with feminism beyond the white neoliberal version I most often come across. I am a Christian. And, perhaps most notably, I love theology written by dead white guys. I am a bad feminist.

I was glad to read this last essay in the safety of my own home, because in the final paragraphs I wept.
At some point I got it into my head that a feminist was a certain kind of woman...bad feminism seems like the only way I can both embrace myself as a feminist and be myself, and so I write. I chatter away on Twitter about everything that makes me angry and all the small things that bring me joy. I write blog posts about the meals I cook as I try to take better care of myself, and with each new entry I realize that I’m undestroying myself after years of allowing myself to be damaged. The more I write, the more I put myself out into the world as a bad feminist but, I hope, a good woman -- I am being open about who I am and who I was and where I have faltered and who I would like to become. (318)
Gay’s life and my life are different. Her story is not mine, and I do not want to pretend that it is. I am grateful for her writing for many reasons, but one of them is that her words here speak to a tension I have felt for much of my adult life, wherein by claiming feminism I have felt a new set of ideals and a new set of pressures that at times feel no less damning than the ideals of a submissive, modest Christian woman, the “Proverbs 31 woman,” that I spent the first 20 or so years of my life trying to be. At some point I started claiming feminism anyway, and I stand by it: I am a feminist, for more reasons than I can count. But there are perhaps more ways of being a feminist than any of us imagine.

“Like most people,” Roxane Gay concludes, “I am full of contradictions, but I also don’t want to be treated  like shit for being a woman. I am a bad feminist. I would rather be a bad feminist than no feminist at all.”

Monday, July 28, 2014

Swallowing the Sea

Last semester I read Swallowing the Sea by Lee Upton, and it challenged me to think about the importance of being multi-genre in my work as a writer. I write nonfiction, with some slight variation in the style and content, depending whether I am writing for a journalistic setting, or working on a personal narrative, or this blog where I can do whatever the heck I want. But nonfiction is my genre. The occasional sloppy poem in my journal, while worth writing for my own sake, is not for public consumption, and is not meant to be.

As I read Upton’s book and thought about genre, and about my own work, the conclusion I came to is that theology is, in fact, my other genre.

Theology is a specific kind of creative act. One of my favorite seminary professors, J. Kameron Carter, used jazz as the primary metaphor for the work of theology in my introductory courses with him, and this has helped me rethink what precisely we do when we do theology. (Odd, isn’t it, that his work on this subject isn’t included in more conversations about “theology and the arts”? I have theories about that, but that is a topic for another day.)

Words about God are written within certain confines and limitations; there are certain traditions that shape the way in which we speak about the Divine. Theological traditions, but also linguistic, grammatical, epistemological, and so on. All genres have their own confines, their own limits which the artist presses up against, choosing whether and when and how to cross over, or when the work is best served by working within those confines. Variations and improvisations.

In my Creative Nonfiction (CNF) workshops at Queens we might, for example, talk about the dangers of using “we” language, while pointing out the one time in The White Album where Joan Didion does so. It’s the exception that proves the rule. I of course am terrible about this, and have had to learn to restrain my tendency toward “we” language in my CNF. I only recently figured out why I struggle with this more than others seem to: in theology and philosophy I am always trying to speak beyond myself, to interrogate the human condition, our -- not just mine, but our -- relationship to divinity, the nature of the world and humanity’s place in it, and what it all adds up to in the end. Not just, “Why am I here?” but “Why are we here?” The “we” language that, in CNF, assumes too much of the reader, that projects the author’s thoughts and inclinations and experiences onto someone else who may or may not share them, is precisely the language that drives many theological questions. When you’re trying to talk about what it means to be human, some “we” language is bound to slip in. Theology, after all, is the work of the church. It is work that takes place in and for communities (or ought to). It is work that is very concerned with “we,” the people, God’s people.

Yet my CNF training has helped me discern when I am using “we” in a useful, true way, and when I am merely projecting my own struggles onto everyone else. This does not mean I do not still draw on my experience of the world when I do theology (or that I don’t sometimes get the “we” wrong); rather it means that I work very hard to be precise about who and what I mean, what I can and cannot say, what all of that means, for us.

Theology and CNF share one thing, at least: both require precision in one’s use of language.

Friday, July 11, 2014

This Little Light of Mine

I love “This Little Light of Mine,” but I don’t like the verse that says, “Won’t let Satan blow it out.”

The five year olds in my class already know this verse, of course, and they get a little confused when I share a different version. “Don’t let anyone blow it out,” we sing (or, I sing, and hope they join in). I’m the teacher, and I am trying to teach them something here.

To an outside observer I suppose it might look as if I am hesitant to talk about Satan -- about evil, personified. It might appear as if I am distancing myself from the conversation about demons, spirits, all that complicated “woo woo” stuff that nice educated liberal Christians like me tend to avoid. I promise that is not my reason for choosing an alternate verse, though. My thoughts on angels and demons, Satan as an entity, and so on, are complicated and half-formed -- I’m simply not ready to go there, so that much is true. But that isn’t my reason for trying to teach the kids a different song.

My worry is that singing, “Won’t let Satan blow it out” forms a humorous caricature in their minds. Satan, as a concept, is one their little imaginations can run with, and I am not so much worried about that scaring them as I am about it putting them on a trajectory of theological development in which evil is compartmentalized into one cartoonish Devil.

Evil, unfortunately, is a bit more overreaching and amorphous than that. Satan is a convenient focus, a bit of a distraction, a scapegoat even. Of course, with five year olds I don’t dwell on evil -- my fellow teachers and I tend to focus on bible stories and lessons that talk about things like love, kindness, and the ways that the church is our family. But even at age five, children’s theological imaginations are already developing -- it shocks me again and again how much they remember from previous weeks of class. Their minds are story sponges. And so, when we talk about bad things that happen in the world, this caricatured form of evil is not the story I want to tell.

The simple fact of the matter is that as these children learn and grow their lights are not going to be threatened by some cartoonish character called Satan. Their ability to grow up and become faithful people will be threatened in ways more complicated than that, by evil more difficult to pin down, by broken systems and power structures, and yes, by other people.

“Won’t let anyone blow it out” is a theological statement of its own, one which I think we all need to hear from time to time.