Belief, Books, Culture & Race, Women

If Jesus was brown and non-Western, shouldn’t some of our other heroes be too?

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In search of some role models of faith for my children, I recently began looking for biographies of Christians through history. I found several highly recommended series:

  • Encounter the Saints (Seton)
  • Hero Tales (Bethany House)
  • Men and Women of Faith (Bethany House)
  • Men of Faith (Bethany House)
  • Torchlighters
  • Christian Heroes: Then & Now (YWAM)

As I researched more deeply into these series, several themes stood out:

The Good

  • There are some AMAZING  people out there. The people featured in these titles were take-your-breath-away inspiring. Their examples of sacrifice, passion, commitment, and faithfulness are models for everyone. We need more people who live like they did.
  • We need to spend time hearing stories of those who have gone before us. While many lived in different times, the challenges they faced put our modern sensibilities to shame. Learning about their lives has more to teach us about our own journeys than obsessing over Justin Bieber.

The Needs-Improved

  • The majority of ‘heroes’ were white western men. Looking through the titles, I noticed a significant lack of diversity amongst the characters featured. Most, it seemed, were white men. The current state of the book publishing industry affirms the notion that history tells the story of the ones with the most power. Out of curiosity, I compiled the titles and researched each of the characters for gender, race, nationality, and marital status. Check out some of the results:

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  • Women need more equal representation. While the female figure was higher than I expected, when incorporating marital status, only 6 of the 49 (12%) women featured as the main character of a biography were married. In contrast, 70 out of 102 (69%) men were married. Only five of the biographies I reviewed had titles about men and women together. Who were the women behind the heroes? Why weren’t they featured as prominently as the men since their lives surely included equal levels of sacrifice and commitment? 
  • The Christian world extends far beyond the US, UK, and Europe. China is poised to become the world’s largest Christian country in 15 years. The church is exploding in Africa and the middle east. There is much to learn from the faithful followers in other nations and our faith would be deepened to know more of their stories.

Why does it matter?

Our children need to see that people from any background can follow God. If Revelations tells us that people from every tribe and nation will be in heaven, surely we can write a few books about them here on earth. The message behind the message when the majority of ‘heroes’ are white men is that this status is held only for a privileged few. Until our stories reflect this truth, children will subconsciously absorb this message.

Women need to see themselves as full participants in God’s story. We were not created to hide behind men but to walk beside them as equals. When we are relegated to the woman-behind-the-man, it becomes easy to shirk our own responsibility to heed God’s call on our lives, husband or not.

We need more diverse books. A popular Twitter hashtag, the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement applies in equal measure (if not more) to the Christian publishing industry. Let’s dig deep into our history and publish the stories of our brothers and sisters who have followed Christ around the world, from places of low status and persecution rather than just privilege and power. Perhaps it would give us a deeper understanding of Christ’s call to make all things new.

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Belief, Spiritual Formation

When practicing creativity doesn’t feel much like creating art

It is finally Saturday, and in the slow, I sit with these long-loved questions from Annie Dillard’s classic Holy the Firm:

What can any artist set on fire but his world? What can any people bring to the altar but all it has ever owned in the thin towns or over the desolate plains? What can an artist use but materials, such as they are? What can he light but the short string of his gut, and when that’s burnt out, any muck ready to hand?

I don’t feel much like an artist anymore – this quiet soul returning to the noise of the teenagers and desks and hallways and lunch periods. My feet feel like clay. My voice rasps. My back begs for relief.

Where is the art in the nitty-gritty day-to-day of the classroom? I wonder. The materials I’m working with are attitudes and hormones and distractedness and way-too-much-chatting. It feels reminiscent to the first time I threw clay on a wheel, feebly attempting to shape it into something useful. It had a mind of its own and my hands had no clue how to shape it. Returning to the adolescent classroom after a decade away feels much the same way.

I come back to sit again with Annie’s words:

[The artists’s] face is flame like a seraph’s, lighting the kingdom of God for the people to see; his life goes up in the works; his feet are waxen and salt. He is holy and he is firm, spanning all the long gap with the length of his love, in flawed imitation of Christ on the cross stretched both ways unbroken and thorned. So must the work be also, in touch with, in touch with, in touch with; spanning the gap, from here to eternity, home.

My life – it is aflame, I muse. It is certainly ‘up in the works’. This artist’s waxen and oh-so-flawed feet are on the move once again, stumbling over themselves as they learn a new way. I miss my kind and grateful immigrant-students. I do not yet understand these loud teenager-ones.

I breathe deep and slow, knowing that these steps, too, are holy and firm, spanning long gaps filled with depths of flawed, broken, but redeemed love. This, too, in all of its gritty mundane, is the kingdom of God, needing lit for the people to see. The raw material in this new phase is no less than any other path I have walked. It may, in fact, be even more given the nature of adolescents.

“You’re better than this,” I say to the boy-too-cool-for-school quietly in the hall. “I see so much more than what you let on. You’re a leader, talented and overflowing with potential. Don’t hide it just to impress others. That’s no way to live.”

I know he hears me. I don’t know if it will change him for today, but I can only hope it sinks in by tomorrow. I realize as I speak to him that he’s not the only raw material I’m working with.

The creativity needed to span the gap of my own flaws shows up far more than I’d like in times of transition. It calls me to be an artist with my own self, to bring my thin and desolate places to the altar and lay them down, trusting that even in the gaps, there is a holy and firm place to stand.


Related Posts

 

Miscellany

Reflections on a writing life

“Many words do not satisfy the soul;
but a good life comforts the mind,
and a pure conscience gives great confidence toward God.”
– Thomas A Kempis
 

Today I’m participating in a blog hop started by Ellen Barone about the writing life. I was invited by Rachel Pieh Jones and invited three writers I enjoy to participate next week. I’m excited to introduce Between Worlds readers to these amazing women, in case you are looking for new reading material, be sure to check out their bios and work.

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What am I writing or working on? 

I’ve spent a lot of time writing about developing a global perspective, deepening understanding of race relations and living the historic Christian spiritual disciplines.  My writing pace ebbs and flows, depending on how much space other parts of my life consume. I’m currently in a slower writing season as other commitments have taken up more of my time.

While I’m prone to agree with À Kempis that ‘many words don’t satisfy the soul’, I’d also add that a few really good ones definitely influence me toward a better life. Even when the words are less frequent, they remain quietly present in the pursuit and formation of a ‘good life’ that leads toward ‘a pure conscious and great confidence toward God’.

How does my work differ from others of its genre? 

I grew up in a cornfield and then married someone from halfway around the world. I’ve spent my days teaching new languages to both immigrants and native speakers. I’m raising children with one set of grandparents in Midwestern cornfields and the other set on an island in the Indian Ocean. These clashing realities significantly influence my writing. They allow me to hear from, understand and respect people from many perspectives who might not be able to easily understand each other.

Why do I write what I do? 

Every so often, the lack of mass-popularity tempts me toward trashing the whole writing-thing. If it’s not the hottest-thing that everyone’s reading, I muse, it must not be valuable.  Perhaps this is the case, but I also must entertain the idea that there’s another option. What if mass-readership doesn’t matter? Would the internet-friends turned real-life-pals exist? Would the real-life friends have turned toward more honest and vulnerable conversations without the starting point of that-one-particular-post? Would the meaningful conversations and connections I’ve made have occurred otherwise?

These questions remind me of the reasons why I write, the least of which is to become a New York Times bestseller or actually make some money (though I do admit that would be nice!).  Primarily, I write to connect to others, to hold out a hand that says this is where I am, any chance you’ve been there before?  It’s my way of keeping myself honest and vulnerable.

Recently, I’ve realized that I also write because I believe deeply that ideas should be accessible. Working in academia, I come across plenty of ideas that only make sense to academics, and I love the challenge of taking some of these ideas and translating them to language where everyone else lives. I do this in my paycheck-job by teaching immigrants to speak English and find so many other areas of overlap where my heart longs to help bridge in disconnected spaces.

How does my writing process work? 

While I’ve always written, it’s taken me some time to grow comfortable with the title of ‘writer’.  Somehow, I feel like to legitimately use the term for myself, I need to actually make money writing or publish a book or write a monthly column for a well-known magazine or website. If I were a real writer, I tell myself, I’d sit alone in a cabin for a week working feverishly on a book or typing away on my laptop into the wee hours of the night.  

The problem is, this couldn’t be farther from reality. My primary jobs right now are teacher, mother, wife (and for the sake of full disclosure, over-enthusiastic-beach-goer). Writing exists in the margins of my life – sometimes regular, sometimes not-so-much – on a quiet blog with a small but steady readership and an occasional kinda-popular post.  While for some writers, writing is their primary endeavor, for me it is a secondary outcome that stems from my primary work and other life commitments. I wouldn’t have anything to write about if I weren’t also living a life full of so many other things.

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Check out these great women!

Part of the blog hop is featuring other writers I’ve enjoyed.  I’m delighted to share the three women below with you. They’ll be answering the same questions next week on their blogs and sharing their own favorite writers as well.

Marilyn Gardner is an adult third culture kid who grew up in Pakistan and then lived as an adult in Pakistan and Egypt. She currently lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts 15 minutes from the international terminal where she flies to the Middle East & Pakistan as often as possible. Marilyn’s writing appears in the book What a Woman is Worth Civitas Press published 2014, Among Worlds Magazine, and A Life Overseas – The Missions Conversation . You can find her blogging at http://communicatingacrossboundariesblog.com/ and on Twitter at https://twitter.com/marilyngard

Bringing a lifetime of wisdom and diverse experience to the table, Marilyn brings a wise and valuable voice to the blogging world.  I deeply appreciate her willingness to process her ideas in the public sphere so that the rest of us can learn from her perspectives. Some of my favorite posts include her simple reflections about change and growth like this one, Restoration and Return.

bronlea outlineBronwyn Lea is a writer-mama, latte-sipper, laughter-seeker and Jesus-junkie. Once upon a time she dabbled in law and studied theology, but these days her claims to fame include speed-diapering and bad puns. She has an unnatural love for excavators and the color teal. She writes about all things holy and hilarious at her blog and various other online publications. She’d be tickled pink if you stopped by to say hello at her www.bronlea.com, on facebook or on twitter.

I’m particularly found of Bronwyn’s honesty and willingness to consider other perspectives. She’s thoughtful, fair-handed, and wise, tackling a wide range of topics from gay marriage to honest reflections about ‘average epiphanies’.

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A few other writers you’ll enjoy as well…

These writers aren’t participating in the bloghop, but I can’t pass on the opportunity to also recommend their work. 

Kathy Khang: More than Serving Tea. Director of Intervarsity’s Multiethnic Ministries, Kathy brings a bold and vibrant perspective to the Christian world. The perspective she shares is both bold and humble, strong and vulnerable and we would all do well to listen closely to her heart. She is a contributing author to the book More than Serving Tea: Asian American women on Expectations, Relationships, Leadership and Faith.

Osheta Moore: Shalom in the City.  A church planter, Osheta writes with candor, humor, and grace. She tackles tough topics with wit and honesty, leaving readers feeling both prodded and hugged all at the same time.  Speaking fear, praying shalom is one of my favorite posts of hers.

Ruthie Johnson: Embracing Hybrity.   Ruthie is an Indian adoptee who grew up with white parents amongst Cubans in Miami. She writes about multiethnic identity and navigating cross-cultural worlds. This is one of her recent insightful posts about how diversity in church is essential to God’s mission.

Christena Cleveland: A social psychologist and new professor at Bethel University, Christena is a leading Christian voice today. Her most recent book Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces that keep us apart was a winner of the Leadership Journal book award and her blog includes a vast array of resources for people seeking to understand the gaps that exist in the Western evangelical church.

 

Social & Political Issues

The evils of blogging?

When people ask me what I do, I never say I write.  It’s a little secret I’ve kept mostly tucked away from those who know me because saying I’m a teacher draws fewer suspicious looks, and it’s easier to stick to the safe conversations.  In fact, if one of my posts hadn’t gone viral a few months ago, I’d still be quite contentedly writing in the shadows without anyone I know but my husband knowing about my words here.  (I even get all-worked-up when he tells people we know that I have a blog.)

It took a long time for me to come to grips with being a writer even though I have been writing nearly my entire life, won writing awards, served as a school newspaper and literary magazine editor and been published in a variety of publications. Somewhere in my adjustment to the adult world, I determined that ‘real adults’ are private, composed, and don’t put their thoughts out there for the world to critique.  As a result, I’ve got all the arguments against writing publicly on a blog down cold:

  • It’s egotistical to put your own thoughts out there.  Who really wants to read all about someone else’s life?
  • Why spend all that time in the virtual world when there are real people out there?
  • Self-promotion and ambition are obnoxious (especially for women).  Why not just live quietly and well without the pursuit of a ‘platform‘?
  • All anyone does is fling words at each other.  Everyone has an opinion and no one really listens to anyone else.

All these reasons make perfect sense to me, and I even agree with them on occasion.  One of my favorite authors, Jan Johnson, has written about how she doesn’t self-promote much as a spiritual discipline.  I totally get and even respect her thinking.  The expectations of self-promotion and slick-marketing tactics for writers in the current publishing market are downright ugly at times.  As a result, you rarely find her books in bookstores or libraries – not many people have heard of her.  It’s a sad reality of voice and power that the squeaky (or pretty or best-packaged or most-connected) wheel really does get the grease, one that tempts my typing fingers toward complete stillness.

However, when I found myself living lonely in the middle of a cornfield in an interracial/intercultural family, I desperately needed to find others in similar situations and started a blog just to remember that I wasn’t really alone.  Over the years, I’ve found a variety of others just like me, and their simple presence in the world gave me courage to live as I was created, even when it was so very different from those around me.

I first found Idelette in Vancouver in the early stages of SheLoves.  Then I found a like-minded TCK in Australia, Kathy in Chicago, and the ever-brilliant Rachel Held Evans in Tennesee.  I also stumbled upon a whole host of intercultural blogs through the DesiLink Blogs and Multicultural Bloggers networks.  Most recently, I’ve been learning from Marilyn in Boston and Christena in Minneapolis and Rachel in Djbouti.  Connecting to this virtual world was like someone entered a very dark room and turned on the light.

So in spite of my hesitancies, I’ve written here sporadically for over six years now, with a short shut down to contemplate if it was worth continuing at all.  (In the midst of processing some intense anger, I wasn’t sure it would be healthy to have access to a public outlet for my voice.) When a friend asked me to write for a new blog discussing women’s issues, a part of me awoke. Reluctantly, I reopened Between Worlds.  While the above critiques still hold regarding the blogging world, since I’ve been writing again, I’ve also discovered some positive surprises about this brave new digital arena.

Similar to Eric Liddell from Chariots of Fire, practicing a craft that I was made for feels purposeful and right.  In short, I feel God’s pleasure when I write.  Liddell’s deeper explanation of his own purpose challenges me when I consider what to do with the skills God has given me:

You came to see a race today. To see someone win. It happened to be me. But I want you to do more than just watch a race. I want you to take part in it. I want to compare faith to running in a race. It’s hard. It requires concentration of will, energy of soul. You experience elation when the winner breaks the tape – especially if you’ve got a bet on it. But how long does that last? You go home. Maybe you’re dinner’s burnt. Maybe you haven’t got a job.

So who am I to say, “Believe, have faith,” in the face of life’s realities? I would like to give you something more permanent, but I can only point the way. I have no formula for winning the race. Everyone runs in her own way, or his own way. And where does the power come from, to see the race to its end? From within. Jesus said, “Behold, the Kingdom of God is within you. If with all your hearts, you truly seek me, you shall ever surely find me.” If you commit yourself to the love of Christ, then that is how you run a straight race.

His words force me to consider if a part of my ‘race’ might be writing – not for fame or riches or reputation, but for faithfulness.  For others, the race may be caring for a disabled child or researching or single-parenting or song-writing or dancing or coaching.  What more can any of us do ‘in the face of life’s realities’ except run the race we were given as straight as we can?

Brené Brown rocked all of our worlds with her research on vulnerability and shame.  A data driven researcher, she faced a personal breakdown when her data showed that “whole-hearted people” live well because of their ability to be vulnerable.  To be honest, there are more than a few moments when I sit behind the screen with shaking fingers, wondering if I should really hit ‘publish’ (especially the provocative viral post), but as I both share and listen to others, I learn time and again that vulnerability has a healing power.

In addition to vulnerability, I have a firm conviction that gut-level honesty must have a place in the church.  Somewhere along the way, we’ve adjusted the message that Jesus came to heal broken people to expecting perfection to walk through the church doors.  While some may criticize that it’s not attractive to air our dirty laundry, I have found it far more damaging to pretend I’m something that I’m not.  Perhaps my thoughts here aren’t perfect or spiritual or positive enough.  Perhaps there are times when I complain or whine or get too cynical.  If I do, please know that it’s somewhat intentional for the reality is that I am far more dirty-handkerchief than pristine-snowfall.  If mothering’s taught me anything, it’s that nothing comes clean if we simply pretend it’s not dirty.

I must admit that while I’ve never read Thomas Merton’s book No Man is an Island, the title alone haunts me.  I can be quite an independent soul, so that may explain why this phrase is jars me.  Writing in the public sphere forces me to walk boldly in the truth that I am not an island, that I need others to be part of my story.

Finally, one of the most fascinating outcomes of the always-connected technological revolution is the ability to form a collective voice without anyone’s express permission.  While this isn’t always a positive thing, there are times when it’s astoundingly moving.  The collective voice matters because it gives public voice to those who have traditionally not had access to one.  When large groups begin to voice dissent on an issue those in power have conveniently ignored, social norms change.  A few examples include the Arab Spring, the growing protest of patriarchal leadership models in the church, the reframing of stereotypes regarding sexuality, and the growing attention to global injustices like human trafficking and AIDs.

As we consider the impact of the ever-expanding world of social media and digital connectedness, we can either decry the shallowness, running the other way with the luddites or we can engage and push it to dig deeper.  Perhaps there’s some value in both responses to the megabytes, but for those of us wading in their fray, let’s lead the way with a few extra shovels.

Further Reading

Restoration & Reconciliation, Spiritual Formation

Remembering the human in the age of digital mud-slinging

remember the human

“Words are, in my not so humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic, capable of both inflicting injury and remedying it.” – Albus Dumbledore

I knew a man once who grew up watching his alcoholic father beat the life out of his mother.  A friend whispered to me that, as a little boy, he would run to her house in tears to hide, afraid of his own home.  Over the years, the violence hardened him.  By the time I knew him, he was no different than his father, filled only with rage and alcohol. Sadly, I watched his children repeat his boyhood story of hiding their tears in neighbors’ homes.

Before I learned about the pain of his childhood, it was easy to label this man idiot and asshole and abuser.  While his rage scared me, I also knew different.  Though he appeared a violent and ruthless man, I could not help but also see a teary, scared little boy hiding from his father in a neighbor’s house.  This one fact changed the way I thought about, prayed for, and responded to him.

Sometimes, I muse that there are corners of the North American church that reflect the life of an alcoholic like this man.  We come from so many places and perspectives and experiences.  We have different needs and hurts and hopes and dreams that shape how we understand The Story God left for us.  For some, the Bible has proved no better than an abusive father, having been used to beat us down and send us hiding in neighbor’s houses, tears streaming down our hearts.  For others, it has been the authority of life, a testament to be revered,  followed-to-a-T and never challenged.  Still for others, it has been a life-changing, restorative and hope-filled new way.

As I participate in the conversation emerging in our digitized world, I’ve observed that social media has become a great venue for our alcoholic traits to rear their ugly heads.  From the safety of our computer screens, we rant and rage, accuse and deny, promise and fail, stereotype and namecall.

Paul’s words from 1 Corinthians 1 haunt me every time I smugly disdain or praise the public voices who I find either ridiculous or brilliant.  We might as well just substitute new names for our Big Fight: “One of you says, “I follow John Piper”; another, “I follow Rob Bell”; another, “I follow Joyce Meyer”; still another, “I follow Jesus.”

His words haunt me primarily because I do this very thing. Paul is talking about me.

[Gulp.]

I recover quickly from my conviction because, let’s face it, folks: some people are wrong.

There are racist people out there, people who are prejudiced and mean-spirited and divisive, all in the name of Jesus.  There are people who preach that following Jesus will make you rich.  There are people who put on a good show just for the money and the fame, using Jesus like a trick-or-treat costume to reach the ranks of the kid-with-the-most-candy.  There are people who preach a beautiful grace from the pulpit but can’t manage to apply an ounce of it to one single person in their life.

I judge them, flinging my mental rants at them because I don’t want them messing up the life-giving message of the gospel that Jesus came to save us at our worst.

The very-sticky-problem is that the very people I deem ‘wrong’ may well think the same of me.  So we polarize, mudsling, stake our ground, call for schisms, and tweet and post our disagreements with furor.  It is perhaps one of the most complexly sad sights of the American protestant church today.

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One of the most potent lessons that living between worlds has taught me is that people have many sides.  As I’ve lived among both rural and urban poor,  wealthy coastal elites, perseverant immigrants, powerful politicians, awe-inspiring performers, stodgy academics, consumeristic metropolitans, shallow surbanites and simple minded small-town folk, I’ve rarely seen any of them live up completely to the stereotype their namecallers hold them to.  The media shouts that red-states-hate-blue states and vice versa, but the story that we’re slower to remember is that everyone – regardless of ideology – loves, wants to love or be loved.

In the age of opinions becoming digital sound bytes, it has become far too easy to fling our anger at each other and forget that we are humans, not screens.  “The person-who-disagrees-with-me deserves my wrath because he is WRONG,” we chant.

I get it.  I’ve been on the receiving end of threatening phone calls, of bigoted teenagers in pick-up-trucks, of name-calling and assumption making.  It wounds.  It infuriates. It keeps me awake at night.  It sends me running to my neighbor’s house in tears. But as much as my gut reacts otherwise, it is not the way of Jesus, even when “they” are wrong.  

Father, forgive them, he said as they took his very life.  Seventy times seven, he’d told his followers.

Turn the other cheek.

If someone wants your shirt, give him your coat as well.

I nearly walked away from Jesus once, but one of the primary things that drew me back was learning more about the ‘other way’ of which Jesus speaks.

Love your enemies.  Pray for those who persecute you.  

Don’t do your righteous acts for others to see.

If possible, live peaceably with all men.  

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Whenever I hear people from one region of the country disparage the ‘crazies’ in another region, I find myself getting strangely defensive regarding traits that drive me equally crazy, You don’t understand, I want to explain. They’re more than just red and blue, conservative and liberal.  They’re humans, just like you. In the words of my witty Grandpa John, “Everyone puts their pants on one leg at a time.”

We are one in the spirit, we like to sing but struggle to live.  I recently heard Michelle Bloom, a singer-songwriter, point out how we often overlook the words at the end of the second verse, We will work with each other, we will work side by side. And we’ll guard each man’s dignity and save each man’s pride.

As we navigate this topsy turvy path of our new digital world, let’s practice a new way of talking to and about each other as we stumble along the path toward unity.  When we remember the human behind the screen, we echo the very words of Jesus as we seek to protect every man’s dignity.  While this does not mean we will all come to the same conclusions, it does mean that we commit to walk alongside one another in our humanity with respect for the God-given dignity of all our fellow sojourners, not just the ones with whom we agree.

Further Reading