Difference, Subjectivity, & Repainting White MaleStream Protestantism
Last week was spring break, and I decided to take the opportunity to read books from my bookshelves that I had owned for a few years, but had only glanced at a few pages. In my early seminary/grad school years, I had vested interest in reading up on the Emergent/Emerging Church. A number of my peers and acquaintances (of the liberal Wesleyan & conservative Reformed traditions) had read Brian McLaren and challenged me to do the same. It all started with me reading Jesus Creed by Scot McKnight, a fairly influential book on my faith journey. I may get to blogging about influential books, but for now, I turn to Rob Bell’s Velvet Elvis.
My Deep Appreciation For This Book
Having been made familiar with Emerging/Emergent Christian literature, I was not surprised by many of the questions that Rob Bell was asking. Contrary to popular summaries of Rob Bell’s work, he is actually very traditionalist in his theology; no where does he states that “tradition” or “orthodoxy” in and of itself is “bad.” He sees himself as part of the tradition of Martin Luther (though not Lutheran) but Protestantism, forever reforming and changing Christianity, repainting it is what he calls it. “Orthodoxy” should lead us on a path in search of mystery; it is paradox left unconquered that is part of the life of faith. Bell even refers to Gregory of Nyssa’s explanation of Exodus 19, that Moses’ encounter with the mystery of God on Sinai means the beginning of a new journey. It is this mystery that draws the community of faith together, and Christians have generally trusted their forebears with providing the appropriate “springs” to talk about the divine.
I was also very impressed with Bell’s mentioning of segregationist Christians’ use of scripture to justify their racist beliefs: “It is possible to make the Bible say whatever we want it to, isn’t it? […] Nazis, cult leaders, televangelists who promise that God will bless you if you just get out your checkbook, racists, people who oppress minorities and the poor and anyone not like them- they can all find verses in the Bible to back up their agendas.” Unlike MacLaren’s earliest works, Bell was honest about racial injustice in the U.S. Really, this is all anti-racist Christians want; a truthful conversation where racial injustice is not hidden. I also enjoyed the comments Bell had to say about the Bible: that the Bible HAD to be interpreted, while fundamentalist (Protestant) Christians claim they are only relying on the word of God, no what they really mean, as Bell and others persuasively argue, is that fundamentalists rely on what other people have said about God’s word given to human beings. Bell stresses that subjectivity is everything, and everything is subjective.
Now that Rob Bell has opened up this conversation, the debate continues, who are the most trustworthy interpreters of Scripture? Whose interpretation is valued? Why is she an authority?
Accepting Bell’s Invitation To Criticize Velvet Elvis
In Velvet Elvis, Rob Bell makes it clear that he is open to criticism, and that because this is a conversation, he doesn’t have a final say. I readily accept this invitation, a kind, critical response in dialogue with Womanist Theologians. In Womanist theology, much like Rob Bell’s Velvet Elvis, subjectivity is highly valued. The moral principle of Radical Subjectivity is described as a defiant posture and audaciousness, that come with habits of serving inquiries about oppression and that aid black women to rise above their circumstances as marginalized; it is the Spirit-filled boldness of black women of all ages to challenge racism, sexism, and classism. Radical Subjectivity then, just is not about freedom, it is about the creation of social spaces that will affirm difference. Difference is something that Rob Bell tends to avoid talking about. In fact, to make Scripture relevant for people of faith today in the here and now, Bell’s choice of hermeneutic is one in which we look for similarities with characters in Scripture over and against difference. “The ancient Jewish prophets had these same kinds of spiritual experiences that we do, and they had the same sense that something holds it all together.” In another work, Sex/God, Rob Bell remarks, “What we often do is reverse the creative process that God initiated. We start with different cultural backgrounds and skin colors and nationalities, and its only when we look past these things that we are able to get to what we have in common- that we are fellow image bearers with the shared task of caring for God’s creation. We get it all backwards. We see all of the differences first, only maybe later, maybe do we begin to see the similarities. The new humanity is about seeing people as God sees them.”
He continues, “Moments when all of the ways that we divide ourselves and rank each other and convince ourselves of how different, better, and unalike we are disappear, and we are faced with the fact that first and foremost, we are humans. In this together. And not that much different from each other.”
Variation in the human experience is vilified in Rob Bell’s texts. He is willing to admit that everything is subjective, but is he being honest about his own white male liberal Protestant subjectivity? Yes, I agree, consenting to the doctrine of the imago Dei means that we affirm the humanity of everyone. But let me ask you something, what does it mean to be human? And this is where the rubber hits the road, where the studies of race and religion collide like electricity to the insides of a light bulb. Similarly, attributing difference between God and humanity does not work for Rob Bell; God’s experience is our experience: “They aren’t two different things: God’s joy over here and our joy over there. They are the same. God takes great pleasure in us living as we were made to live” (Velvet Elvis). Womanist understandings of human subjectivity, from writers like bell hooks and Jacqueline Jones Royster, teach us that acknowledging, affirming, and celebrating difference is essential to embracing the Stranger’s humanity. Trinitarian theologies of creation and the Womanist moral principle of Radical Subjectivity go hand in hand: there is difference- in- unity in the Godhead just as there is a freedom to create space to love the Other, that which transcends our experience.
Jacqueline Jones Royster wrote of her experiences in the classroom, having heard that everything is subjective, that place matters, only to learn that when it came to the final authority on history and everything that matters, white voices were placed above all others. Royster puts it this way, “I have come to recognize, however, when the subject matter is me and the voice is not mine, my sense of order and rightness is disrupted. In metaphoric fashion, these ‘authorities’ let me know, once again, that Columbus has discovered America, and claims it now, claims it still for a European crown.” As I mentioned before, radical subjectivity is about freedom for difference. The recognition of difference is not only difference of skin color, gender, or class, but also one of place. If place remains hidden to the audience, certain voices remain privileged over and against those on the margins. Rob Bell begins Velvet Elvis with “Around 500 years ago, a man named Martin Luther raised a whole series of questions about the painting the church was presenting to the world. He insisted that God’s grace could not be purchased with money or good deeds.” This is all good and true, but without acknowledging where Luther proclaimed “Here I stand,” is not this just another reminder for Christians of racial minority communities that white Christians still own Christianity, that Columbus discovered America?
With this seeming aversion to particularity, Rob Bell denies his own whiteness, his own story as a Gentile Christian in the redemption history of YHWH. But this is how white privilege functions: emerging/emergent Christians can write about the Jewishness of Jesus and a whole host of other rabbis but never once talk about their/ our Gentile place in the story. Without a conversation about the Gentile place in the story, we fail to understand Jesus’ mission in the New Testament, as well as our own places in the story of the Jews. The story of the Gentiles, as Paul puts it in Romans, is engrafted into the story of God’s people, the Judeans. The differences between the Jews & Gentiles are not eradicated, they are reconciled; these differences (these bodies, these histories and these cultures) still exist, but they are made one in the life, death, and Resurrection of Christ.
 Womanism is to feminism as purple is to lavender.
 Taken from the book, Black Church Studies: An Introduction, and the definition may or may not have been written by the author of this post. 😉
Quote taken from Jacqueline Jones Royster’s essay “When The First Voice You Hear Is Not Your Own.” I am indebted to blogger JK Gayle for sharing this article with me.
- Rob Bell to Return to Grand Rapids on Book Tour (fox17online.com)