This past November, I was sitting in a room with seventy other people at the Emergent Village Theological Conversation in Atlanta listening to Musa Dube, a New Testament scholar from Botswana. She was talking about Western scholarship, and all the unspoken rules we have about what is good and what is not good and how one can tell. As someone educated in a university and a seminary that followed these rules impeccably (even whilst attempting to sound disdained about them, which only makes it all the more prominent), Dube was saying nothing original or newly disturbing. But something about hearing it from her, in that room, made an indelible impact. It felt a little like a conscience-bomb exploding in my chest. I knew this before; but I did not know it, I did not feel it in the marrow of my bones in the way I did in that moment. I did not feel it in such a way that I felt exposed more than defensive.
So here’s my Ash Wednesday confession: I judge all theology through the lens of Western scholarship. And I judge it unfairly, and poorly, and dismissively.
I thought about this over the next number of days, rolling it over in my head like a Rubik’s cube searching for patterns of meaning. And here’s what I realized: I am addicted to Western theology (and philosophy too). I use the word “addicted” with a lot of intention. I mean to say that theology is like a drug for me, and Western theology is my drug of choice. I like the way the sentences are structured; I like the way an argument forms and then builds over a number of pages or chapters like a trail of crumbs that lead to a gingerbread house. I like that I usually know the back story, the story going on behind the pages, the little jabs to one’s fellow theologian here or there, just subtle enough to be overlooked if you aren’t paying close attention. I like that they speak my language (their language? our language?), and use words to mean primarily what I assume they mean, because “we” made up the words after all. I like all these things for the same reasons anybody likes anything: they make me feel alive and energized, they give me a feeling of home or comfort (these are “my people”) and, let’s be honest, they make me feel competent in something I care about. (And who doesn’t want to feel that way about their career of choice?)
I am not attempting to be dramatic with all of this drug language; it’s the best metaphor I have for what I mean to say. And what I mean to say is, I can read any theology and enjoy it. But the kind I enjoy the most, my drug of choice, is Western white men- and frankly, German ones, which should not come as any big surprise. (I mean Barth, too. I die over a good Barthian sentence.) That, my friends, has “Lent discipline” written all over it: something that is good and necessary and stretching, something that pushes you out of your comfort zone and forces you to work a little harder, something that will bring you some new perspective, something that makes you mindful of something that doesn’t normally even pass over your radar screen.
And let me be clear, if I haven’t been: I don’t think there’s anything wrong with my liking Western theology. Clearly, I’m a big fan. I think it’s worth reading. I have no problem whatsoever with it. What I do have a problem with, for myself, this Lent season, is that I read far too much of it for my own good, to the exclusion of other voices that I probably need to hear more often than I do. (I mean, when given the choice between reading Moltmann and ANYBODY ELSE IN THE WORLD, guess which one I’ll pick.) So I’m giving up white men for Lent. All of them. Including–pause for huge gasp that’s coming–Moltmann. That means no reading any books by them, no quoting them (sorry- Moltmann Mondays will have to wait until Eastertide), no commentaries or articles or blog posts written by them, no using their ideas in sermons, nothing. It’s cold turkey, across the board, for forty days and forty nights. Also, just to make it more interesting, I’m including my Lenten discipline to mean ALL the books I read, not just theology. So no fiction, or nonfiction, philosophy, or biographies from the white dudes either.
Dear Jurgen, see you at Easter.