Friday, July 29, 2022

Finding Home: Retrospect and Prospect

From my plane window the trees crowded in on each other like memories in old haunts. This would be the first time in almost a decade that I would drive these North Carolina streets and breathe this muggy air. Much has changed. I have changed.

Every place we love, and even those we don’t, holds memories like bubbles trapped in sea grass. Some rise to the surface and disappear forever, while others wait. We move on, but the memories stay, holding space for our past should we ever return. Remembrances throng around me here, reawakened. They ambush me with longing.

Street names, restaurants and stores, park swings and trees—taller now—mysteriously open to worlds I had forgotten. They say the stronger the emotion, the stronger the memory. Is that why my throat is choked and tears pool unbidden?

Those were happy years, full of diapers and fingernail clippings, homemade cookies and celery sticks, neighborhood games of kickball, school buses and permission slips and piles of picture books. My tears are not regret, but knowing. I couldn’t see ahead then, though sometimes I wanted just a glimpse. Now I have more than a glimpse, and the truth is much better and much harder than I knew. This tightness in my chest is compassion for my younger self, who will have hard roads to walk and who is worried unnecessarily about things that will turn out just fine.

With children the minutes seem like hours and the years fly by. I can still hear the lilt of my toddler’s voice asking to “go wee” on the neighbor’s backyard swing; now his eyes are nearly level with mine. He and the trees never stopped growing. That early entrance to kindergarten we fought for makes this the last year of high school for his older sister. How time flies! And as for the oldest? I can hear her planning her next elaborate birthday. Ten feels so recent, though twenty has passed.

In these day-long years some dreams have turned sour while others are much sweeter than I dared hope.

Every parent you know carries heartaches hidden from public view, the hardness that won’t receive love, the seeds planted that never bloomed, and the weeds that choked them. It goes both ways, I’m sure, for I am a daughter, too. I’ve reaped the bitter fruit of trees I did not plant and felt the frustration of generational differences.

What would I tell that younger me—that young mother in Charlotte with her future ahead of her?

I’d tell her doors will open. Just learn what you need to while you can. Be faithful with little.

I’d tell her she chose well. Attempting seminary while bearing children was a risk, but it was worth every naptime spent researching and every weekend spent reading. All those seeds sown would bear abundant fruit.

I’d tell her she’s not in charge of her children and their choices and that she can’t spare them heartache. Her job is simply to love well.

I’d tell her most of all that Jesus is everything and that God will be faithful. I’d say the path watered with tears leads to sweetness and light. Why should we fear the sorrow when it wraps so many precious gifts?

As my plane lifted off a week later the chapter closed again, but this time gilded with recollections, like aged wine. We flew westward three time zones, over mountains and plains, deserts and canyons, toward the new place I call home.

On our descent I gazed over smoggy Los Angeles, crammed with houses and businesses, but empty of trees and, more poignantly, empty of memories. Like a book with blank pages, those streets meant nothing to me. I could not feel their pulse. They held nothing of my heart.

Not yet, anyway.

It won’t always be like this. In ten or twenty years the descent into LAX will grip my chest and catch in my throat. Faces and stories will crowd the smoggy air with meaning. I trust it will be so.

Right now it doesn’t happen—that homey feeling—until I’m a mile from home. My world is small here, traversed on sandaled foot—home to work and back, home to church and back, home to park and back. The memories here are thin, like a winter sunset lacking warmth. It feels right to be here, but the stories are too young to cherish, too new to offer substance. If we left now we'd soon forget.

What would future me want me to know today?

I think she’d tell me to cling to Jesus, who’s been with me in every zip code I’ve called mine. He’s the constant and the depth I’m longing for.

She’d say to treasure old friendships and make time to nurture new ones, so the years ahead will hold twice the celebration and half the despair.

And I expect she’d say to savor this beautiful life. After all, the story is only partly written. The sorrows will give way to joy in the end (perhaps sooner?). When some is lost, not all is lost, and what seems the worst is probably not.

I already know well that what seems permanent may not be, and what feels tenuous may prove to endure. So as the strong California sun drops behind palm trees in the evening sky, I am thankful. However fragile it is, I am home.

Thursday, March 31, 2022

Who's Telling the Old, Old Story?: Women in the Story of Redemption

Our sense of the biblical story is shaped by who has told us the story. Our narrators have lingered over particular details. They've skipped over others. We see what they tell us to see. As a consequence, sometimes the truth is right under our noses, but we've missed it entirely.

I know this because my students tell me so. Last night at an event on campus, a few of my students told me what a huge difference it makes to have a Bible class with a woman. They are hearing different things. The text is framed in fresh ways. 

It's the same text, of course. The truth is still the truth. I bring nothing new to the Bible except a new set of questions to investigate what has always been there. The text yields different answers when we ask different questions. 

Is the Bible good for women? Whose has power in this story? Who is doing the telling? Where are the women?

I have not always asked these questions. I was already in my 40s the first time someone asked me to read the Bible as a woman. I'm not new to biblical studies. I attended a private, Christian school with regular Bible classes from Kindergarten through high school graduation. Then I headed to Bible college for four years of robust training in engaging the biblical text, followed by five years (part-time) in seminary and five more years (full-time) in graduate school, where I earned a PhD in Biblical Theology with a concentration in Old Testament. I had a grand total of one female instructor for a Bible class, a grad student who worked under the male professor of record (both of whom were wonderful). I was blessed to have two female Bible scholars on my dissertation committee, but I never had a class with either of them. I have never studied theology with a woman professor. Only once in all these years of school (that I can recall) did a Bible or theology professor ask me to read a book written by a woman. 

Then suddenly at 43 years of age in the space of a few weeks not one but two Christian publishers asked me to contribute textual notes for women's study Bibles. I have never read a woman's study Bible. I wondered whether women even need their own Bibles. But as I prayerfully considered these opportunities, I felt the Spirit of God nudge me to say "yes" to both projects. I'm so very glad I did.

Both projects -- one for Tyndale House and one for Lifeway -- envisioned a Bible that would meet women where they are, addressing their questions and concerns and helping them encounter God in a fresh way. It was a powerful experience for me to return to the pages of Scripture with this goal in mind. What will women wonder when they read this text? What will bother them? What will encourage them? How do women contribute to the storyline of the Bible? How does this text call women in particular to respond faithfully?

I have always held a high view of Scripture. I believe it is the word of God for the people of God. I believe it is inspired and authoritative. I believe the Spirit of God works through Scripture as we read and helps us to respond to it. I even believe that the meaning of the Bible is tethered to the author's intent. However, as I read Genesis and Exodus with these new questions in mind, I noticed things I had never seen before. I encountered God in powerful ways. I wrestled more deeply, and as a result I came away with a deep conviction that the Bible is good for women. When we only ever hear the Bible taught by men, whose questions and contexts are in some ways different than those of women, we risk not seeing the whole picture.

Intentionally reading the Bible as a woman and for women felt like finally slipping into an outfit that fit after a lifetime of hand-me-downs that were too tight in some places and baggy in others and which didn't quite match the rest of my outfit. I began to wonder if I needed to write a whole book about the experience. After all, since most pastors are men and most sermons are by men and most Bible teachers are men, a lot of other women (and men!!) might be missing out on these insights, too. 

About that time, I sat down to read Kat Armas' book Abuelita Faith: What Women on the Margins Teach Us About Wisdom, Persistence, and Strength. I read it because not only do we have a lot to learn from women, we have a lot to learn from the global church. 

As her website explains, 

"Kat Armas, a second-generation Cuban American, grew up on the outskirts of Miami's famed Little Havana neighborhood. Her earliest theological formation came from her grandmother, her abuelita, who fled Cuba during the height of political unrest and raised three children alone after her husband passed away. Combining personal storytelling with biblical reflection, Armas shows us how voices on the margins--those often dismissed, isolated, and oppressed because of their race, gender, socioeconomic status, or lack of education--have more to teach us about following God than we realize."

Writing as a Cuban-American woman prompts Kat to ask a different set of questions of the biblical text. She invites us to listen in and pay attention to a broader range of voices and experiences in the biblical text. Her book is magnificent. I closed it and said, "I don't need to write the book. Kat has already done it!"

Armas amasses mountains of evidence that God calls and equips women. God honors women. God commissions women to participate in kingdom work. For Armas, the biblical narrative disrupts the status quo and points to women on the margins as a source of wisdom, persistence, and strength. Not only does Kat write beautifully, she exegetes Scripture faithfully and calls the church boldly to turn our gaze outward and learn from new voices. I'm so grateful for her work and  I'm excited to share it with my students. 

The Bible is good for women. I'm finally learning to articulate how and why.

Mary Comforts Eve,
by Elizabeth Rubio (prints available
by contacting the artist directly)
I'll leave you with an image painted by one of my Latina colleagues. Elizabeth Rubio reinvisioned the famous painting by Sister Grace Remington. She was selling prints at the event yesterday evening on campus, an event to celebrate Women's History Month. How appropriate!

Women are an integral part of the story of redemption. Eve's partnership with Adam in tending the garden of Eden illustrates one of the roles to which women are called. Eve's subsequent rebellion, for which she was personally held accountable, affirms the agency of women and underscores that our choices matter. Mary's willing submission to God's work suggests that women have not been written out of the story. God chose a woman to birth and nurture the Savior. From the cradle to the cross and from the ascension to the pouring out of the Spirit, Mary stands as a model for all believers, inviting us as participants in the kingdom of God.* 

Gender isn't everything, but it's something. We can rush past these women and many more, but if we do, we're missing out on part of God's beautiful story of redemption. Let's listen to new retellings of the old, old story and see what we might have missed.

*For more on Mary from an Evangelical perspective, see Amy Beverage Peeler's impressive new book, Women and the Gender of God (Eerdmans, Fall 2022).

Friday, February 11, 2022

Becoming Human: My Visit to an SBC Seminary

It was an unlikely invitation. 

Would I travel to Wake Forest, NC to speak on personhood at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary? 

I, who am neither a member of the SBC nor the daughter of a member of the SBC. 

I, a woman who teaches Bible and even preaches on occasion.

It was not my first SBC connection. First, my book appeared in the book store at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, where Al Mohler is president back in early 2020. (Unexpected!) Then, the same book was a finalist for an award from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City. (Who knew?!) The next thing I knew, Lifeway Publishing asked me to contribute to a women's study Bible. (Huh.) And then Southern invited me to present my research to their PhD students and faculty over Zoom in 2021. (!!)

And then this. A plenary address at an SBC seminary. What did I have to lose? Plenty, actually.

As I said, I'm not a member of the SBC. But I am SBC-adjacent. I'm close enough to the movement to know that all is not well. I watched Beth Moore walk away (gulp!). I watched Russell Moore make his exit (wow.). I saw the troubling statement released by the six white SBC seminary presidents on Critical Race Theory -- a statement crafted without the input of any people of color or anyone who had even studied CRT (um...). I watched talented African American leaders cut ties with the denomination. I waited on pins and needles while the delegates voted for a new president at last year's convention, and while they decided how to handle allegations of sexual abuse and how to care for survivors. I groaned a few months later when the Executive Committee waffled over whether to submit to outside investigation.

I care very much where things go in the SBC because the denomination wields enormous influence. People's faith and health are at stake. And so is the witness of the church at large.

Here was my conundrum: attending the conference would allow me to learn from the other presenters and work on issues related to my current book project and get feedback. But would taking the stage at an SBC seminary somehow align me with the denomination and its problems? Would it make me complicit? (If you think I'm overreacting, consider that the invitation was issued from a building named after Paige and Dorothy Patterson, the seminary's notorious former president and his wife.)

I concluded that I could not participate without addressing the problems as I see them. I refuse to pretend that all is well. It would be irresponsible to talk about the biblical doctrine of the image of God without pointing to the myriads of ways that evangelicals as a whole and the SBC in particular have failed to live these truths. That would compromise my integrity.

So I took a deep breath, said yes, and submitted this title:

The Rise and Fall of the Imago Dei?: Assessing Evangelical Theology and Practice

My title intentionally evoked the long-form journalistic podcast produced by Christianity Today that investigated a particularly egregious form of "evangelical" ministry with a narcissistic leader. I took my cues from Mike Cosper, who demonstrated the value of evangelical self-critique. Here is my abstract:

Evangelicals all agree that human identity and vocation are rooted in the creation accounts of Genesis, but the particulars are often a matter of debate. We’ll consider the recent work of several evangelical scholars on the imago Dei—Ryan Peterson, John Kilner, Catherine McDowell, and Richard Middleton—each of whom has clarified Old Testament teaching in profound ways. Building on their work, we will reassess the priorities of the contemporary evangelical church and suggest ways of embodying practices that align with Scripture’s clear teaching on the imago Dei.

Carmen Imes speaking at the Exploring
Personhood Conference sponsored by
the Bush Center for Faith and Culture
(Photo: Chip Hardy)
The first half of my presentation drew out insights from the four scholars named above, with a bit of extra nuance from me in the area of gender. But then came the scary part -- I addressed head on the ways that evangelicals have failed in three broad areas: sanctity of human life (ahem, after birth), partnership of men and women, and creation care.

My talk will be posted soon on the Bush Center for Faith and Culture's website, so there's no need for me to repeat the litany here. It's enough to say that I pointed to examples of racism, ableism, sexism, LGBTQ-related issues, inhospitality to singles, failure to protect and advocate for victims of abuse, and neglect of creation care. I hit all these hot topics, issued a clear call for change, and cast a vision for a different way of living out what we say we believe. With my integrity intact, the question became 'would I lose my voice?' Would this be the first and last opportunity to speak on this campus?

I've been mulling over all of this for months, reading widely, and imagining how this might go. I asked people to pray and I prayed about it myself. I sought advice and wondered if this was career suicide. In the end, I said what I felt I must be said with as much love and empathy as I could muster. One thing is true -- of all the possible reactions I imagined, a standing ovation was not one of them. Everyone clapped, and more than half a dozen stood in solidarity.

Conference Panel Discussion
(Photo: Bush Center for Faith and Culture) 
This message struck a chord with so many, who thanked me with tears in their eyes. Faculty, students, and guests alike shook my hand and new friendships were born. To be clear, the warm reception is not a sign that all is well, of course. It's a sign that the problems I listed truly are problems. On that we agree.

And this is what gives me hope.

Because agreeing on the problem is the first essential step toward finding solutions.

So now the real work begins. Now we must invest our energies into the work of listening to new voices, reexamining how we do things, building new alliances, and prayerfully finding new ways forward. Change takes time, but the road is not so lonely as it seemed.

This conference taught me something about human personhood that was not on the stated agenda: Caricatures are difficult to maintain in person. I'm under no illusion that 48 hours on campus gave me an accurate picture of the SBC as a whole, or even SEBTS in particular. But it reminded me of the value of embodied community and courageous conversations. It showed me that the loudest voices on Twitter do not always (or even usually?) represent the majority. I found far more allies than I dared to hope. I'm relieved that a bridge has been built, rather than burned.

As we learned from Dr. Justin Barrett, compared to animals, humans are immensely social creatures capable of shared attention, mental space, expertise, and cooperation across a remarkably large group of unrelated humans. I saw this in action at Southeastern. 

Father John Behr and Dr. Jeff Schloss both talked about the telos of love, helping us think about the uniquely human capability of self-sacrifice for another. According to Behr, it is in laying down our lives for another that we truly become human. I felt this in the way people thanked me for saying hard things, and in the way Dr. John Hammett offered loving pushback to each of us.

If Behr is right, then all of us who participated in this exchange became a bit more human this week.

For that I am profoundly grateful.

Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Best Books of 2021

As usual, I've compiled a list of the most important books I read this year. The only criteria are that I read them in full and found them well written, helpful, and worth sharing. I read 42 books this year, ranging from youth fiction to published dissertations. Many of them were very good! These are the ten books I recommend most highly across several genres. (You can find brief reviews of all the books I read on GoodReads).

Children's Picture Book

The Story of God with Us is luminous and profound, grounded yet winsome. This is a children's book for a new generation of discerning parents and grandparents. Today more than ever, our world craves a unifying narrative and yet expects excellence. Aedan Peterson's illustrations bring delight to the biblical narrative so thoughtfully retold by Kenneth Padgett and Shay Gregorie. The Story of God with Us is a gift to behold! Best of all, this book is the first of many from a brand new publisher, Wolfbane Books. I love their Bible Project-esque vision of teaching biblical theology to kids in a captivating way.

Young Adult Fiction

Everything Sad is Untrue (A True Story) is the well-told true story of a 12-year-old Iranian refugee in Oklahoma. It's a gift to see the world through his eyes. You'll discover the beauty of Persian culture and become more aware of aspects of your own culture that you take for granted. Reading this book will help you develop empathy for the plight of those who are forced to leave their homes because of religious persecution. We listened to the audio book narrated by the author on a long drive. The book has won multiple awards, and it's no wonder why!

Adult Fiction

All the Light We Cannot See is a Pulitzer Prize winning work of historical fiction set in France during WWII. I listened to the audio book on our move from Canada to Southern California, and it made the hours fly by. Such an intricate plot and compelling characters!

Books in Biblical Studies

Abraham's Silence is the most important book I read this year in biblical studies, and I was so honored to have been able to endorse it. Richard Middleton revisits a familiar Old Testament story -- the binding of Isaac in Genesis 22 -- and turns it on its head. What if Abraham is not the hero of this story? What if this story demonstrates his failure rather than his faith? Middleton pairs a close reading of Genesis 22 with the book of Job and the lament psalms, suggesting that Abraham fell short of truly knowing Yahweh and what he desires. God invites prayers of protest, not silent and unquestioning obedience. I will never read this story the same way again!

Who Shall Ascend the Mountain of the Lord? was a rich read from one of my favorite Old Testament scholars. Michael Morales unlocks the book of Leviticus, showing its literary design and tracing its themes. I'm so grateful for his careful work.

Books on Christian History

Kristin Kobes Du Mez' Jesus and John Wayne ought to come with a gift certificate for therapy. As a child, I had a book by Ann Jonas called Round Trip. It is a picture book that you read from start to finish, then flip over and read upside down back to the beginning. All the images in the book work right-side up as well as upside down. Jesus and John Wayne turned my childhood narrative upside down. Du Mez resituated household names like James Dobson and Ronald Reagan -- even Billy Graham -- in a wider field of view to show me the shadows they cast. Christian retail, "family values," "law and order," homeschool networks, and men's retreats all changed shape, too, under Du Mez' careful scrutiny. For those (like me) who thought that Evangelical support for Donald Trump was a puzzling anomaly, Du Mez demonstrates that it fits squarely in the Evangelical narrative as it has developed over the past 50 years. She guides readers through decades of religious and political leadership to highlight the emergence of a militant, masculine version of Christianity that has captured the imagination of white Evangelicals. I'm thankful for Du Mez' careful work to expose the abuses and imbalances of white Evangelicalism. Her voice contributes to a collective day of reckoning. I pray it's not too late.

Robert Chao Romero's Brown Church approached the history of Christianity from a different angle, outlining centuries of Latina/o Christian social engagement and theological reflection. For Latinos who feel there is little room for them in the brand of evangelicalism described by Du Mez in Jesus and John Wayne and for others who long for authentic Christianity, Romero recovers a rich heritage. For those of us who have thought only of Latin America as a mission field rather than a model and source of inspiration, this book offers an invitation to flip the script and begin learning.

Books for Academics

The Flourishing Teacher was my companion through a year of teaching. I've written about it before, but it bears repeating. Christina Bieber Lake has an uncanny knack for knowing just how I'm going to feel at any given point in the academic year. She offers sage advice for professors with lots of grace. In this book, I gained a mentor and friend.

Another treasure this year was a book Lake recommends, The Courage To Teach by Parker Palmer. Palmer goes beyond technique to nourish the soul of educators. I read through it with a group of colleagues and found it inspiring and practically helpful.

BONUS: New Reference Tool

I must admit that I have not read all 1000+ pages of Gary Schnittjer's new exegetical resource, but I expect to keep turning back to it for years to come. The first of its kind, The Old Testament Use of Old Testament catalogues and discusses exegetical allusions, that is, places where the Old Testament unpacks or develops other passages from the Old Testament. Schnittjer has carefully assessed the strength of each potential passage and highlighted key issues for busy professors, pastors, and students.  

I have a tall stack of books I'm hoping to read in 2022. What's on your list to read?

Monday, December 6, 2021

Best Books on Historical and Cultural Backgrounds of the Bible

Although I had already been through four years of Bible College, in seminary a whole new world opened up to me. As an undergrad I developed a deep committment to reading the Bible as literature and on its own terms, without the potential distortion of outside sources. This was a wonderful season of training for me as I became sensitive to the literary contours of biblical stories.

In seminary, under the guidance of different professors, I discovered the value of studying the historical and cultural backgrounds of the Bible. Here's why: the Bible did not drop from the sky, leather bound, with our names embossed on the cover. Reading the Bible is a cross-cultural experience. We are guests in an ancient context, where people speak other languages, where people's hopes and dreams are profoundly shaped by their own contexts, and where society as a whole operates under different values and assumptions. 

In order to be competent readers of Scripture, we must attend to the contexts in which is was written. Every passage has a literary context, a historical context, and a theological context. Neglect of any of these dimensions results in a "flat" reading. In particular, if we ignore the historical context of a passage we run the risk of distorting it. Without interrogating our own cultural lenses, we are likely to impose modern values and assumptions on the text. I see this happen all the time in class, as students encounter stories that strike them as strange.

This is why I'm particularly passionate about training students to attend to both the literary and historical dimensions of the text. We practice developing skills in narrative and poetry analysis and we also consider the historical and cultural contexts of the Bible. We live in a wonderful era in which resources are more readily available than ever before! 

Here are five resources that I find myself repeatedly recommending:

The Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible - Available in the NIV, NRSV, and NKJV translations, this full-color study Bible includes a wealth of information at your fingertips, right where you need it when reading the Bible. It is not designed as a devotionally inspiring study Bible, but a reference tool to help readers understand the cultural context of Scripture. I require it for my Bible classes so that students have a solid resource for a lifetime of study.

The Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary - This is a more extensive (and of course, more expensive) resource than the study Bible above, with full-color photographs, charts, and insightful notes on every book of the Bible. Every church library should have this resource on hand for Bible studies and sermon prep.

The Dictionary of Daily Life - This gem is a more recent addition to my library that I've already used many times. It contains an alphabetized collection of articles on aspects of daily life in ancient Israel (and the Greco-Roman world). For example, if you're studying Exodus 2, you could read articles on Bathing, Midwifery, Infanticide, and Adoption. The articles are well researched and written.

The Dictionary of Biblical Imagery - This tool is more on the literary side of things (rather than historical/cultural), but it helps with precisely those images that are unfamiliar to modern readers. For example, if you're reading along in Daniel and want to know the significance of the beasts with horns, you could read the article on "horns" in the Bible. Each article traces the use and development of a particular image across the biblical canon, with sensitivity to cultural context.

Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament - I read this book in graduate school while taking a class on ancient Near Eastern Backgrounds with John Walton. It was immensely helpful in reshaping my imagination so that I could see what ancient people cared about. It's written for graduate students read, but even if you're not in school, if you're serious about understanding Bible backgrounds, it is well-worth your time.

If this list is two long for you, then I'd recommend this dynamic duo which should prove helpful no matter what part of the Bible you are studying: The Dictionary of Daily Life and The Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible. Both are well worth the sticker price, and both are currently on sale.

Sunday, November 14, 2021

Reflections on The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill

It's likely that I'll remember 2021 in part as the year in which Mike Cosper narrated my solo drives and weekend walks. Often I wondered if I could take yet another heart-sickening story of the abuse of power in the church, but I kept coming back, like a moth to the flame. 

If you're not familiar with it, The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill is an audio documentary sponsored by Christianity Today about the Seattle mega-Church called Mars Hill pastored by Mark Driscoll -- its origins, rapid growth, M.O., and the toxic culture of leadership that lead to its messy end. 

I have never met Mark Driscoll, never listened to one of his sermons, and never read one of his books, so why did I invest over a dozen hours listening to this podcast?

In the first place, it's well produced and well articulated. The sound design is fantastic and the stories are compelling. Christianity Today set a high bar with this one.

More importantly, it helps to explain a movement I could not understand at the time -- among other things, how a conservative pastor could say such crass things about sex, gender roles, and manhood from the pulpit and get away with it. Like most evangelicals with an ear to the ground, I had seen and heard clips of inflammatory things that Mark Driscoll said from the stage (around 2012), and I was deeply concerned. I later learned about his highly unethical ploy to get one of his books on the New York Times bestseller list. It was hard to miss the news about the raft of plaigiarism found in his books. And I knew that in spite of his church elders' attempt to lead him through a disciplinary process, Mark had resigned and headed to Arizona . . . where he planted a new church.

The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill shines a spotlight on abusive power dynamics that are too-often operative in Christian churches and institutions. Cosper traces various threads to help us see the origins of unhealthy ideas and the ways that they hurt people. At the same time, he highlights the stories of those who experienced radical transformation in their lives in the early days of Mars Hill. 

I believe God calls the church to bear his name with honor. In the case of Mars Hill, the quest for growth-at-all-costs was paired with Mark Driscoll's growing refusal to be accountable to seasoned leaders in his church network or even to his own board of elders. We can learn a lot from this story. It stands as a modern day parable of sorts, warning of the dangers associated with a leader having too much power, too fast, without godly character and life experience to prevent that leader from going off the rails. Unlike a parable, this one has real collatoral damage. So many former members are still trying to pick up the pieces and make sense of what happened.

Ironically, the podcast has been a sensation of its own. Today it's ranked #2 in religion podcasts in the US. This probably says something about our our collective desire to hear grizzly tales of others' demise. It probably also points to how widespread these problems are in the church. I'm guessing it appeals to a lot of people who would like to understand a conservative brand of Christianity that prides itself on fidelity to Scripture but puts up with a bully in the pulpit. Probably all of these reasons. (As a side note, it's in very interesting company on the top 5!)

I've listened to The Rise and Fall in part because of its popularity. As an educator and lover of the church, I want to be in the loop about what people are hearing and how they are processing. If you've listened to at least part of the series, how has it personally challenged you? Leave me a note in the comments below.

Personally, I've been sobered by what well-meaning people will tolerate when a strong personality is at the helm. The podcast has given us much to lament. It renews my appreciation for institutional structures that have rigorous checks and balances in place. It's also a reminder that character matters a whole lot. For Driscoll, his popularity became the "proof" of his effectiveness and the "fruit" of "his ministry" -- but how many of those metrics could be traced to people who tuned in because they were incredulous? Just because people are listening, that doesn't mean the teaching is sound. The Old Testament prophet Jeremiah warned against false prophets who told people what their itching ears wanted to hear (Jeremiah 6:14).

If the podcast series has left you disillusioned about the church, a good next step might be to read Scot McKnight and Laura Barringer's book, A Church Called Tov (tov is the Hebrew word for "good"). It's on my short list of books to read next. McKnight and Barringer write about how to cultivate a healthy church culture where stories like this one will not keep happening. May the overwhelming popularity of this podcast awaken the church to stop tolerating abuses of power and instead cultivate communities marked by faithful and humble service!

Monday, October 11, 2021

Thankful and Not-So-Thankful: Reckoning with Our North American Legacy

Imagine this: 

You are a young mother nearing her due date living just outside of Seattle, Washington, but you fear going out in public. You know that if you give birth in a hospital, the US Government will likely confiscate your newborn and put it up for adoption. You want your baby. You are prepared to love and nurture it in your family home on the land of your great grandparents.

Sound far-fetched? 

This happened with regularity in my lifetime, in the 1970s. I learned about this travesty by listening to a children's audio book as we traveled this summer. I Can Make This Promise, by Christine Day, is the story of a girl who discovers that her mother was put up for adoption at birth, even though her birth mother wanted her and was prepared to care for her. Simply being "Indian" and unmarried resulted in the confiscation of her child. Although this particular story is fictional, it is based on history.

Imagine this:

You are a young family in British Columbia, raising your children in the community where your parents and grandparents and their parents and grandparents have always lived. One day, police arrive and take your children by force, citing the need to educate them properly. They are taken to a residential school run by the Church, where they are forced to  cut their hair, wear a uniform, and speak only English. They never return home -- not for holidays or funerals. You never hear from them again. You suspect that they are dead, but you are told nothing.

Sound far-fetched?

This happened with regularity in my Dad's lifetime, throughout the 1900s as late as the 1990s. I mention my Dad because he was born in the small town of Enderby, British Columbia to recent immigrants from Europe who spoke broken English. Just 90 minutes away was one of Canada's largest residential schools, which boasted 500 students in the 1950s and operated until after I was born. You might have seen the Kamloops Indian Residential School in the news this summer, when 215 unmarked graves were discovered there, most of them children.

Before her death, my grandmother told me a story about my Dad's birth, when the nurses whisked him away to perform an elective surgery without so much as asking for her consent. She had no intention of circumcising him because in Europe only Jews practiced circumcision (keep in mind that this is on the heels of WWII, when circumcision could be a matter of life or death). That was bad enough, but if she had been a Native American, she may never have have seen him again. My own father could have grown up in a residential school. 

Stories from these schools are nauseating -- regular beatings and repeated rape by residential school staff, starving children as punishment, and a stated policy to "kill the Indian in the child." This happened in North America. This happened in living memory.

Having recently moved from Canada to the US, my holidays are still feeling jumbled. Today is Thanksgiving Day in Canada, but Indigenous Peoples Day in the US. So today, on Canadian Thanksgiving, I'm reflecting on things that I am thankful and not-so-thankful for in relation to the history of indigenous peoples.

  • I'm thankful for my students at Prairie College (Three Hills, Alberta) who studied the history of residential schools and presented their findings to our class. You can learn more about the important work of Canada's National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation on their website.
  • As painful as it was, I am thankful to have had my eyes opened to the darker side of North American history, whose effects are still felt today.
  • I'm thankful for growing awareness of this issue, which creates space to grieve together and imagine a different future.
  • I'm not thankful for the role the church played in the confiscation of "Indian" children in the US and Canada. Mostly well-meaning folks perpetrated cultural genocide, seeing their own way of life as superior and failing to recognize how the gospel is good news for every culture, not just their own.
  • I'm not thankful for how church leaders were able to abuse children with impunity for so long. Lack of accountability put thousands of children at risk, and the generational effects of that trauma on survivors are still being felt. 
  • I'm not thankful for decades of cover up in white spaces that has continued to silence the voices of indigenous people as they cry out for justice.

Reckoning with our shared history is no easy task. Both the US and Canada have a legacy of violent oppression toward indigenous peoples. Most difficult to swallow is the church's role in that legacy. I am not equipped to outline all the ways this has been expressed, but these snapshots offer a glimpse of what I've learned in recent years.

I leave you with this new song by my friend, Brian Doerksen. Brian lives in British Columbia (and worked with me at Prairie College). In the wake of this summer's discovery of unmarked graves in Kamloops, Brian wrote this song. He recognized the need for us to sit with this hard news, to feel its sorrow, and to weep with those who have been weeping for generations. I'm thankful for his courage.