The Foreign Country of Evangelicalism…

It has been a while since I’ve written much of anything lately. When I left my last job as a cell phone salesperson, I looked forward to the increased amount of free time to read and write, but whenever I sit down to do so I get hit with a ton of emotions about a ton of different things. I want to write about it all because I believe it’s important to do so; writing has been a form of therapy for me. But trying to tackle them all at once is exhausting.

If I had to pick just one topic, though, it’d be the weird feeling I get when I think about how invested into evangelicalism I used to be.

Every now and then a Facebook memory pops up from when I was in college, or I read through my journal entries from my days in the dorms, or I simply glance at what used to be my favorite books now sitting a box designated for Goodwill, and I get this weird feeling that I’m looking at someone else’s life – someone else’s hopes and dreams, wonders and worries.

I see a guy who believed that Jesus was everything and that no matter what happened in his life, Jesus was going to take care of him. I see a guy who believed he’d live in a nice house in some small town with his wife and three kids. Both he and her would work full-time jobs while being part of a ministry on the weekends. They’d wear the trendy clothes and cook all the trendy meals, complete with Instagram photos of every one. Once or twice a month, he’d hit up the local golf course with a few friends from church or work, enjoy a beer or two afterword, and then head home to a movie night with his family. I see a guy who didn’t worry about healthcare, rent, car payments, having a decent credit score, etc., etc.

Essentially, I see a guy who believed he could live a white male life where every one and every thing around him was simply a prop that celebrated him.

When I went to seminary, this vision for my life was still sort of there. I saw myself becoming a professor of theology at a small college somewhere back east, complete with several published books and annual trips to SBL/AAR. Every class I had taken was another means of honing my academic skills toward this vision. But then Michael Brown Jr. was murdered by a white police officer and I felt compelled to call it an injustice via my Facebook and Twitter profiles.

That was when I lost my honorary white male status.

I had quickly lost track of the number of white guys – both evangelical and non-believer – popping into my comments or Twitter mentions to tell me how wrong I was about police brutality overwhelmingly impacting people of color, or how racism no longer existed. Twitter mentions from random white guys don’t really matter to me at all; I can block or mute and move on. But the folks commenting on Facebook posts were people I had known, people I had talked to in person, people I had been in physical community with – holding hands together in prayer, or slapping high fives after an Oregon Duck touchdown. We barbecued together, golfed together, and had deep conversations about God together. So when I pointed out an injustice that primarily targets people of color – myself included – and then received such silencing comments from people I had been so close to, the life I had envisioned for myself disappeared.

To say that I was hurt or burned by the church or by former friends would be an understatement.

What came next was not a response out of fear of losing more people from my life, though. Instead, I felt it was my purpose to explore my Cherokee heritage – something that I had once convinced myself was not worth doing simply because Jesus was the way, truth, and life, so all other perspectives were fruitless endeavors. After all, police brutality – amongst other institutionalized abuses on behalf of the state – largely impacted Indigenous communities as much as black communities, so when white evangelicals would say, “All lives matter,” they were silencing my voice, too. When I chose to learn the histories of Indigenous communities broadly, and Cherokee communities in particular, I saw nothing but blood on the hands of Christians both past and present. Bringing these findings to light, however, was yet another point at which white evangelicals told me to be quiet. Or they were quick to point out the violence of the Indigenous communities, too – as if “both sides” were equally violent.

It was then that I realized these “friendships” were nominal at best. I was only accepted into the fold of white evangelicals if I kept my mouth shut about race – if I believed police departments, courtrooms, legislative agendas, etc., were all impartial entities not controlled by white supremacist ideologies. If I dared to question these empire-produced institutions, I was made to feel as though I was no longer a Christian. However, in retrospect, if being Christian meant accepting the life experiences of the white male as the norm, then I was never destined to be Christian at all. It would be impossible given that I am, as I have always been, a consequence of colonialism.

It is no surprise, then, that evangelicalism feels so foreign to me. At least it shouldn’t be. It is a contextual theology founded on an understanding of itself as universally true – that there is no other way to commune with Creator than through the patriarchal, US-exceptionalistic, hyper-capitalistic, white supremacist lens which had been so divinely bestowed upon the Reformers roughly 500 years ago (as opposed to, you know, when Jesus walked the earth) and preserved through the thousands of different Protestant denominations since. Any other type of theological framework is inherently flawed because it does not deduce theology from a “plain text” reading, but instead “constructs” one through an ideological framework (e.g. queer readings, feminist readings, liberationist readings, etc.). But it does not evaluate its own framework for these same contextual influences – that western culture has influenced western theology (e.g. “debts have been paid”). Thus, it is a belief system that is inherently hypocritical producing almost nothing but hypocrites.

You might think my language here is harsh, but look where we are. We have a Donald Trump presidency largely due to white evangelicals’ obsession with appearances over impact – they have allowed their western civilization to influence their theological framework so much so that they have ignored massive amounts of the biblical text, which they supposedly hold so dear to their hearts. They further displace the homeless, remove access to healthcare from the sick, and exploit the black and brown inmates rather than helping them rehabilitate into society. Their actions do not exemplify their faith.

And before it gets thrown at me, I am not creating divisions where there were none. I’m not inventing an “us and them” mentality; I’m merely pointing it out. I have long operated within evangelicalism as a foreigner – as someone who doesn’t naturally fit in so they have to learn to acclimate (or rather, assimilate) to the norms of the dominant culture. I had to learn how to talk and act civilized well before I became a Christian, but especially after. And I am simply done with it.

It is too much work.

Instead, I’m going where Creator leads me. Right now, that means exploring Cherokee history, culture, and spirituality even more than I already have. Because I have found that at the crossroads of cultures – of being both white and Cherokee – there are plenty of people like me seeking to restore what was ripped away from our ancestors. And I’m going to do this right, I cannot try to rely on anything evangelical. Since I’ve started to discuss racism from my own experience, I have been silenced and criticized, and all of this tells me one thing: white evangelicals were never my community anyway.

If my experiences have no place in their hearts, then my existence has no place in their church. If they are not willing to exercise compassion upon the marginalized and displaced of western society, then I have no reason to believe that Jesus is there among them.

So why should I be?

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Work, bills, and personal health…

Not having a regular job is strange.

About nine months ago I realized that my fiancé and I were not going to be able to raise the funds to move to Texas for the 2016-17 school year. That is when I contacted Brite Divinity to defer my enrollment to this fall in the hopes that we would be able to move there after a year of saving money. At the same time, I landed a job as a salesperson inside Costco, where I would be selling cell phones.

Believe me, I do not belong in sales.

When I worked for the Duck Store, it was a completely different retail environment. Everyone coming into the store was already looking for something (or maybe they weren’t), and it was not my job to make sure they bought more than they intended to buy, nor to buy from the Duck Store (though we were instructed to emphasize the value of shopping with us, of course). For the most part, I would help customers find the items they were already looking for, bag it up, and wish them a fun time at the Duck game for whichever sport was in season. It had its bad days, but it was fun for the most part.

Costco is a different environment altogether. Most customers coming in are there for a myriad of reasons, but mostly they are there for better prices. And when they are looking for a new phone, they usually pop in to their local corporate store for their carrier and/or the nearest Best Buy just to have a price point in mind when they come to see our deals. What this meant for me was constantly having to be ready to persuade someone to shop from me – on top of helping them find a suitable phone. But on top of all this, we had to hit our sales goals, which included more than just phones: tablets, protection plans, and accessories had to be pitched with every phone sale. Lastly, instead of simply greeting customers as they walked up to our kiosk, we were asked to be out in the aisles, telling people about the deals we have for phones, tablets, etc. (even when we did not have great deals).

For an introvert, this is an extremely exhausting environment. Not only was I among hundreds of people inside a building, but I had to engage almost every one of them who came by our kiosk. And when our kiosk is positioned close to the front door, that means we talked to practically everyone. Greeting customers at the Duck Store was easy; I would say hello and let them know that I was available to help them find what they were looking for. But at the kiosk, I had to force conversations with customers – even when it was clear via their body language that they were not interested in having a conversation. They just wanted to look at the phones.

With all the extroverted energy required for this job, I realized that I could not work much longer there. So, at the tail end of October, I bought a new car (2016 Kia Soul that I am very happy with) and applied to become a Lyft driver. And a little more than a week ago, I finally left the kiosk.

Having been away for about ten days, I now realize just how toxic of an environment that really was. All of the social energy spent during even a slow work day would often leave me mentally and physically drained when I got off. Any reading or writing that I had wanted to do at the beginning of the day would definitely not get done at the end of it. Instead, I would come home, eat food, and binge-watch a show on Netflix until I was tired enough to sleep. For someone who desires to continue school, having a job that cultivates creative energy is important. At this job, my creative energy had to be manipulated to get customers to buy from me so that I would receive a better paycheck. So not only was my creativity already being spent, it was being spent for something that only really benefitted me (sometimes the customer also).

When I think back on all or most of my blog writing, I did it with the hope that someone somewhere would find something relatable in it. That is how I would like my creative energy to be used; to connect with other people – and maybe even help them. And this is why I could not work much longer at that kiosk; any and all energy had to be used for my own personal gain. It just was not healthy for me.

These past ten days have been freeing, though. Sure, our financial situation is still weighing on me; we have about three months to raise a budget for our wedding in July on top of all the other monthly bills we have (totaling close to $3,000). But I am in a far better position to handle these stresses since I am no longer in a job that only added more stress. Even if we are unable to move to Texas this summer, I know that I am in a much healthier place.

And the academic itch has been rekindled, too. I have a lot more time to read with a fully engaged mind, work on my Hebrew/Greek, and/or write stuff I want to write (like this post). There is quite a long road ahead of me to get ready for Brite, so I am quite thankful to have a little more time and energy at home. But I think what I am most excited about is being able to be my creative self.

Being a Lyft driver full time requires a greater amount of self-discipline, too. Sure, most of the days I have taken off lately were to get other things done and/or caught up. But some days, like yesterday, were because I was procrastinating. This will not work for the long haul, but the thing I keep in mind is that eight hours of driving people around is not nearly as toxic as working at that kiosk. I can drive from 8 to noon, come home for a two hour lunch, and then cap off the work shift from 2 to 6 – all with plenty of time in the evening for whatever I would like – like wedding planning and book reading with the fiancé. And if this does not produce the needed income, I can drive Friday and Saturday nights, too.

For all of my life, I have worked jobs that I believed I could manage without ever considering whether or not that job was healthy for me. And my definition of “manage” was basically being able to survive a work shift and still have some physical energy when I came home. Emotional and mental factors were hardly ever considered. So I feel a little uncomfortable leaving a job mostly for emotional/mental factors, but I think it is because I never learned to care for myself in a work environment.

I suppose this means that wise decisions are not always comfortable.

Thank you for reading.

 

P.S. For those who would like to help my fiancé and I with our wedding and move to Texas, we have a fundraiser to which you can donate here. Any little bit will help. Thank you!

Abandoning Caution for Chaos…

“You have burned the bridges to naïveté, and there is no more turning back.”[1]

This quotation was shared with me and 20-some other seminarians my first night of classes at Fox in 2013. At the time, reading this quote was relieving. I had spent several years either remaining silent in church over “controversial” issues out of fear of being ostracized or picked small things to challenge because I felt safe enough to get a point across without being labeled a “heretic” or “false teacher.” The only places I found where I could truly express my thoughts were with a couple people who had similar experiences with evangelical churches. Knowing that at seminary, I’d not only be free to ask questions and explore the theological fringes, but in fact it was a necessity, was comforting.

Honestly, I think seminary provided a space where my faith could breathe.

In the month I’ve been out of seminary, though, it hasn’t quite been the same. In a lot of ways, it feels like the world I left behind when I went to seminary – a world of unhealthy boundaries where you can ask questions insofar as you don’t disrupt the structure. Theological discussions regarding male headship are allowed, only if they’re led by men and everyone comes to agreement with the previously established hierarchy. Change is a curse word in this world. Justice is something that describes God, but strangely not those who bear God’s image. It’s a world that sings “Come as you are,” but closes its doors to entire LGTBQ communities. It prays for the safety of police officers, but not for the healing of or the justice for Tamir Rice’s family. It’s a world of long sermons, but minimal action.

When I encountered my first “controversy” with the evangelical world, I encountered a particular phrase again and again. My question was something like, “Can we still be Christians without believing the Bible is perfect?” Compared to the questions I encountered in seminary, this was harmless. But it rocked the boat too much for many people, so, in the attempt to sound “engaged” (it’s one of those “relevant” buzzwords, right?), they often said, “Well, I would rather err on the side of caution.”

This is one of the key phrases used to guard communities from unbelief, from falling away from Christ – as if one is incapable of asking questions that challenge hierarchical systems and remain a devout follower of Christ; as if Christ wasn’t already doing that when he quoted Isaiah 61 and declared that he was setting the captives free.[2] This phrase is used in a world that believes as long as it operates “by what the Bible says,” it can never take part in the oppression of others. What this world would learn if it ventured across that proverbial bridge is that the church has a long and terrible history of being on the side of the oppressor. And that this little phrase is often used to justify oppression against women, blacks, Indians, gays, lesbians, queers, bisexuals, transgender people, Muslims, or basically anyone who isn’t a cishet, white, male Christian.[3]

What happens, though, when these “other” identities get labeled as “heretical” is that the humanity of those who bear the same amount of God’s image as the cishet, white, male Christians gets erased. Look at the way many white Christians have reacted to Muhammad Ali’s death. Instead of saying that he was a powerful figure for black and Muslim communities, they say he “transcended race.” We’re still waiting for this to be said regarding any white celebrity.

My point is simply that remaining on the side of caution when it comes to “controversial issues” is not good news for the marginalized. It’s deadly. Suicide, genocide, and outright murder have faced and still face many marginalized groups – precisely because it is believed that helping them wouldn’t be erring on the side of caution. It would risk something. But when I read what Jesus does, it seems apparent to me that risk is part of the deal – part of considering the cost of following him.

“Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him and he sat down and began to teach them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before them all, they said to him, ‘Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?’ They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, ‘Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.’ And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus straightened up and said to her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ She said, ‘No one, sir.’ And Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.’”[4]

Your Bible probably has a footnote for this passage because it actually doesn’t appear in a lot of the early Greek manuscripts that scholars have today. The footnote in the beloved ESV Study Bible even says it “should not be considered as part of Scripture,” (pg. 2039). But it certainly gets treated as Scripture when Christians want to focus on the “sinful woman.” Notice how they don’t bring the man with whom the woman was caught in adultery before Jesus. They only brought her. Notice also Jesus using his status – his privilege – to dispense her accusers. The text doesn’t say so, but it seems likely that they had stones in hand when they brought her to Jesus. By not erring on the side of caution by following Moses’s command, Jesus may very well have been risking his life.

Jesus’s gospel gets treated as the most exciting thing ever. Sure, it is good news. But in certain contexts, one has to ask, “Good news for whom?” If embracing the gospel of Jesus means rejecting one’s sexuality, gender identity, or cultural expression, then it is not good news for everyone. If it means not calling out the white supremacist undertone in governmental structures, then it is not good news for everyone. And if it means not questioning the theological justification of “discovering” America (rather than embracing the Logos – the expression of God’s presence – within the Indigenous cultures already here), then it is not good news for everyone.

Following Jesus’s teachings is risky business. And nothing is risked when one “errs on the side of caution.” Instead, oppressive systems already in place simply continue on. Martin Luther King Jr.’s biggest enemy to equality wasn’t the KKK; it was the moderate whites who wanted to err on the side of caution. Their silence meant his imprisonment. In what areas are we being cautious? In what areas are we dehumanizing marginalized groups? Following Jesus means asking these questions because it is in the answers that we discover how the gospel can truly be for everyone.

In these post-seminary days, I’m encountering the challenge of abandoning naïveté by taking a risk with God. In some ways, my life might not be at stake. But someone else’s might be.

I think Jesus would want me to make sure they don’t feel alone.


[1] David Scholer. I wrote a post close to when seminary began, which you can read here.

[2] Luke 4:16-21.

[3] “cis” is an abbreviation of “cisgender,” which merely means that one identifies with the gender they were assigned at birth; “het” is an abbreviation for heterosexual.

[4] John 8: 2-11.

Rezurrection…

It wasn’t until I was ten or eleven when I stopped daydreaming I was a white kid. I have always been aware of my tan skin, but I haven’t always understood my tan skin as evidence of my Cherokee heritage. I had always thought I was just a really tan white kid and that some day I’d revert back to that white skin and start to match the kid I daydreamed myself to be.

That day will never come.

Doing my master’s thesis on Native American Christologies brought about a ton of challenges. (Re-)Learning the history of the relationship between American Indians and the U.S., deciphering where within postcolonial studies such a project fits despite there being nothing “post” about colonialism to Indigenous contexts, etc., etc. While academic challenges stretched my mind, emotional challenges made the project seem unbearable.

With nearly every page of material I read, I could see a connection between myself and colonialism. I could see exactly how my father’s parents were ripped from their traditions when they were probably sent to boarding schools, and how this left my father devoid of direction and a sense of responsibility. I could see how he was deprived of traditional values, which led to him feeling wayward. I could see why he chose to get high and steal. And I could see how this painful history was almost completely erased my identity when I was incorrectly labeled “white.”

Talking about Indigenous studies of almost any kind (theological, anthropological – though for me there really isn’t a separation) has become incredibly personal. Not only does it re-open wounds I had thought were healed, but it brings about a direct indictment of my Christian faith. Christianity played a major role in the dehumanization of countless tribes in both the U.S. and Canada (as well as other continents wherein indigenous peoples were forcibly removed from their families and sacred land – sound familiar?). And sure, as many white Christians like to chime in, modern day Christians had nothing to do with that, so why bother bringing it up? Believe it or not, this question has come my way plenty of times. Answering it has often been frustrating and painful because a single answer does not do this topic justice. But here are a few of my reasons:

I bring it up because Christian missionaries were often the agents acting on behalf of the state to delegitimize Indigenous religious practices – leading to genocide of both life and culture.

I bring it up because Christianity’s marriage to colonialism orphaned countless Indian kids like me, forcing us to grow up without knowing one or both of our parents.

I bring it up because I am so sick and tired of being referenced to passages in the bible about forgiveness and loving one’s enemy, but not to the points where Jesus is directly addressing what we would call systemic racism.[1]

I bring it up because I have never encountered such opposition as when I started posting and sharing things online that discuss race and police brutality – and that the predominant group of people hopping into my mentions and comment sections were white, Christian men.

I bring it up because I am so painfully exhausted that so many white Christians believe the Logos has only enlightened Christians rather than everyone, as John 1:9 tells us. This means that traditional Native stories that are often written off as “myths” (which depends on a skewed definition of “myth”) are actually speaking of the Creator.

I bring this all up because past pain has present realities.

If we wish to understand why there are states of emergency being declared among the First Nations of Canada, why countless tribes like the Navajo people are having their culture appropriated and ripped from them with no share in the profits, or why countless reservations are experiencing worse water conditions than Flint, Michigan (another example of systemic racism at work, considering Flint’s demographics) – we better understand how whiteness has manipulated the brown-skinned Jesus of Nazareth to justify mass destruction.

And we better not listen to white voices to learn these realities either. That only perpetuates the problem. Many whites have counter-argued that listening to only Native voices is “biased” and we should strive for objectivity. But those who make this argument don’t understand that their perspective has been socialized just as much as any Indigenous perspective – the only difference being their white opinion in a white-dominant society is treated as the “norm.” There is no such thing as true objectivity.

The near genocide of both Native peoples and cultures has led me to where I am now: only knowing half of my heritage. Unlike my white friends and family, I have to learn about my other heritage from books[2] – which is antithetical to Indigenous world views because the written word is not trustworthy. In a manner of speaking, this process has been a rezurrection[3] of sorts; bringing back to life Keetoowah traditions and values that were once dead to me.

And like blood returning to an uncirculated limb or oxygen to a constricted lung, the process has been painful.

Christianity often portrays Jesus’s resurrection as devoid of pain and understandably so – there is no play-by-play of Jesus coming out of the grave in Scripture. But after this experience of re-engaging Native traditions and values, it makes me wonder if, perhaps, it was a painful experience for Jesus, too. It makes me wonder that in the act of returning to his Creator nature, the knowledge of the events that would take place “in his name” brought him again to his knees, pleading that this cup of suffering would pass over him. Yes, his resurrection was and is glorious, but that does not necessarily mean it did not hurt.

Seeing Jesus through these new lenses of American Indian traditions and stories has been painful because of the realities they bring. But it doesn’t mean they are devoid of hope and healing. It simply means I am free to daydream as a Cherokee descendant, as I truly am.

It means I am free to be brown-skinned and normal.

[1] See “the Good Samaritan.”

[2] My advisor, Randy Woodley, is the only Keetoowah (“Cherokee”) I have ever met who has guided me through a lot of Keetoowah history and traditions. For 26 years of my life, I had to read books to find out about my heritage.

[3] Many Indigenous folks talk about “life on the rez,” so this spelling is intentional.

A Change of Location…

Hello. It’s me.

It’s been awhile since I last sat down to punch out a blog post and quite a few things have happened in that time span. I finished writing my master’s thesis (which I defend on Thursday), I got engaged to my brilliant girlfriend fiancé of nearly two years, and, pending a criminal background check, I have been admitted to Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth, Texas. And oh yeah, I graduate from George Fox Seminary in a couple weeks.

On one hand, it is unbelievable that so much has happened within a short amount of time. It feels as though it had been a little over a year ago since I was first accepted into George Fox, but that was nearly three years ago. It feels like last summer when I flew over to Oxford, England on my first trip outside of the country, but that was two summers ago. And it feels as though Jenna and I have been dating for only a few months, but here we are approaching the two year mark and planning our wedding.

And yet on the other hand, there is this feeling of familiarity with every “new” thing that comes. When Jenna and I started dating, we had a few awkward moments. Neither of us were raised in feminist environments (quite the opposite, really), but we both hold to feminist values (which is why I wear an engagement ring, too). Oftentimes working against our upbringings, we navigated our relationship trying to be as aware as we possibly could of patriarchally-influenced practices that might cause harm to the other (more of an imperative for me than Jenna). Obviously we I have made mistakes. But at no point have I ever felt as though I could not be my normal weird self – the self that I often have to hide in other contexts.

In a similar vein, this is how seminary has felt for me: A place where I can explore tough questions that I have often tried to ignore without the fear of judgment. It’s a place where I can throw myself into a subject without having to worry about its marketable value in the job realm (although sometimes I do consider what it might look like to potential schools if I pursued certain academic fields; for example, I don’t think academia needs another cisgender, heterosexual male writing about homosexuality in the bible – if anything, we need to lift up queer voices and/or step out of the way). There are plenty of times during certain semesters with certain classes where I have to do research on particular topics that I am not really passionate about in any way, but yet again, I don’t feel out of place. Reading books and articles, taking notes, constructing essays, etc., all strangely feel like normal activities – not as burdensome as they often are for others. Even though I haven’t been pursuing an academic career for very long, I have always felt “at home” in the pursuit.

When it came to deciding on whether or not to accept Brite Divinity’s offer for this coming fall, which will likely mean taking on a little more debt in addition to amplifying regular-life stresses, it honestly came down to the fact that I have a tough time seeing what I would do outside of academic studies. Sure, working retail or in the food industry is always an option based upon my experiences in both categories. But these jobs feel like my trip to England two summers ago: temporary.

Means of survival.

What I am really after, though, is a cause – something that has no marketable value and probably no monetary payout. But it involves daily dedication to something greater than the self, something intended to improve the community. When I consider what my experiences within seminary have taught me, it is that this is bringing me closer to that cause. No, not every assignment is going to directly shape what that purpose looks like. But every piece of homework, no matter how tedious, furthers my preparation to discover not only what that cause looks like, but precisely how it will be accomplished.

This opportunity at Brite Divinity School, then, is a chance to extend that preparation.

This isn’t a blind pursuit, either. While the cause itself may not be clear, there have been glimpses. Every time someone needs help on their essay, I get a glimpse. Every time I spend hours translating a small passage of Greek or Hebrew, I get a glimpse. And every time I ask a question, suggest an approach to an answer, or listen to the ideas of my peers, I get a glimpse of what that cause is. And between my five years of undergraduate studies at the University of Oregon and my three years of graduate studies at George Fox Seminary, I can assure you that I have only seen these glimpses in the classroom.

Thus – and I may be tempting fate with this – until God slaps me around to point me in a different direction, I need to keep going. There is quite a lot riding on this move not only for myself, but for my fiancé and the life we wish to live. And it is because I’m not the only person involved that makes me even more terrified. Because to step away from this academic world is to undo much of what I’ve done thus far. Those two years in between college and seminary taught me that much. So until further notice, I’m going to continue.

And if the glimpses mentioned above mean what I think they mean, then all I’m really doing is staying “home” by moving to Texas.

 

I can write and talk all I want to about moving to new places, but the reality is that this costs money – more than Jenna and I can muster in a single summer. Frankly speaking, we’re broke. If you wish to help us with our moving expenses, please click here.

On Being a “Half-breed” Seminarian…

IMG_4928
Courtyard at Trinity Episcopal Church in Portland, Oregon.

A chill went through my spine as I heard several tribal songs yesterday morning at an event at the Trinity Episcopal Church in Portland. It was a Collins Lecture on “The Gospel of Conquest” with several Native speakers: George “Tink” Tinker (Osage Nation), Robert J. Miller (Eastern Shawnee), and Kim Recalma-Clutesi (Kwagiulth/Pentlatch). Since I had to be in Newberg for a Hebrew class by 6pm, I could only stay for the first two lectures by George and Robert. But I am glad that I did. I had never imagined that I would ever hear traditional tribal songs in church.

On my way home, I started thinking of how I had never expected to be studying just as much about Indigenous spirituality as I am Christian theology. Nor did I ever expect, when I left Eugene, to even meet a Native American professor teaching at a seminary. But yet here I am on the eve of turning in a writing sample of my thesis on Native Christologies, which will be turned in to the very same Native professor, Randy Woodley (Keetoowah Cherokee).

Back in March, when I had first started to consider potential thesis topics, I had a different idea in mind than studying Native Christologies. I had more of a desire to study Native theology more broadly or maybe study the book of Joshua from the postcolonial[1] perspective of Native peoples. Whichever topic I would decide to pursue, though, I knew that it would be an extremely personal endeavor. I knew that I would be unraveling my previous way of understanding my identity as I studied more on Native traditions, history, and spirituality.

My Cherokee half is the half that I have had to study on my own throughout my entire life. Since I have never known my Cherokee father, I have had to lean on white historians and euro-centric textbooks to teach me. You can probably see why this might be problematic.

In college I got a different look at Native identity. I took a Native American literature class and we read Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko (Laguna Pueblo). It was the first time I learned about “half-breeds” from a non-white perspective. There was a great amount that I could finally identify with.

But the bridge between Native American literature to Christian theology was never really envisioned for me. Although my church settings had never dealt with Native teachings directly, there was always the assumption that because they were not “sound doctrine,” they were not worth looking into – certainly not worth joining any local Native community.

Yet as I have studied Native traditions and as I have considered the world these Native authors describe, I see a world more suitable for Christianity than the West will ever be able to establish. Why do I think this way? While I’m saving the longer discussions for my thesis, there are three areas in Western Christianity that are significantly different in Native spirituality.

Material-based.

Western culture in general is obsessed with material goods – clothes, technology, buildings, cars, etc. And Western Christianity doesn’t really shy away from this. Consider the places of worship for a minute: usually a nicely designed and decorated worship hall, maybe some professional stage lighting with a sweet stereo system, and probably either a couple of giant TV screens or projector screens to display the PowerPoint slides that go along with the sermon (and the handouts). Native places of worship involve very little – if any – human-created things. In the sweat lodges I have experienced, the only materials were the tarps that covered over the branches that connect to create the dome of the lodge with a few mats on the inside for people to sit on. Apart from those, there was nothing else. It was people, songs and prayers, and the earth.[2]

Text based.

Following along with the material focus, much of our Western world is text-based. Something that is written down has more authority in day-to-day life than something that is spoken. When we buy something, we receive a receipt to prove that we purchased that item. And yes this plays a major factor in land claims, which still happen today![3] When disputes arise, the U.S. points to the written contracts as official, mutually binding laws. But many Native traditions see written words as even more untrustworthy than spoken words. Spoken words demand relationship. Spoken words demand that the other listens – and not listen solely for the purpose of responding. When it comes to Christianity, especially Protestantism, our worship revolves around the Bible. This is precisely what “authority of Scripture” even means: that it is binding for our lives as we follow God. Native traditions involve something much more intimate, much more communal, and much more heart-driven (rather than doctrine-driven).

Celebration of diversity.

And the mention of doctrines leads to the third, but certainly not the final point: Western Christianity, being a product of Western culture, is inherently hegemonic. Western culture sees itself as inherently superior to all other cultures. In the wars that the U.S. has fought in the Middle East, part of the narrative was that we were spreading the gospel of democracy – as if our country did not experience comparable problems to those of the Middle East (they may have ISIS and Boko Haram, but we have Neo-Nazis and the KKK; there isn’t much of a difference). Western Christianity follows a similar path. There are thousands upon thousands upon thousands of denominations in Christianity and most of which were formed because someone somewhere disagreed with someone else and started their own church. But in Native traditions, diverse ways of understanding the world are actually expected. So something like creation narratives are going to differ – not unlike the two creation stories in Genesis.

Take all of this as you will, but over the last five or six years, Western Christianity has really exhausted my faith because of all these issues. Some church worship services are little different than concerts. Some discussions about the Bible only serve the purpose of proving someone else wrong. And some communities are so uniform both theologically and demographically speaking that I oftentimes do not feel welcomed simply by having brown skin and believing the Bible to be imperfect. In a way, this exploration into the other half of my heritage has saved and healed the half I grew up with.

So in a way, this seminary exploration is not at all what I had intended, but precisely what I needed.

Ah-ho.

[1] George Tinker joked about this word during his talk. He said, “When someone says ‘postcolonial,’ Natives say ‘When did it end?’”

[2] Powwows are worth mentioning here simply because they have the appearance of being material-based. But they really aren’t, at least not in the way Western culture is. Everything that Natives wear and use in Powwows is made from Natives themselves; not store bought from somewhere else. It is either that or they are handed down from generation to generation, which doesn’t really happen much in Western culture. But I have only been to one Powwow, so there are certainly other voices who could speak more accurately to how they function.

[3] Both Robert Miller and George Tinker shared with us that all U.S. laws pertaining to property rights are based upon the Doctrine of Discovery, which is the ridiculous belief that Europeans “discovered” the continents of North and South America before the Natives did (and thereby set the precedent for whoever “discovers” and then occupies a land gets to keep that land). Even right now, there are tribes that are still fighting both the U.S. government and the Canadian government for land disputes.

Rocking the Boat: Random Thoughts on Faith, Church, and the Bible…

It has been months since I last blogged and since I am still near the beginning of the semester, I figured I could spare a few words here before my life becomes almost utter chaos (between my thesis research, internship, and three part-time jobs [TA, writing consultant, student life leader], I will be hard-pressed to find any free time).

It is my last year of seminary. I’ve said that several times and it still hasn’t quite sunk in yet. I guess I’m not sure it’s really supposed to until I graduate, right? It’s like in the movie Amazing Grace where William Wilberforce asks William Pitt after they’ve raced through Wilberforce’s garden, “Why is it when you stop running you always feel the splinters?” and Pitt replies, “It’s a lesson: we must keep going.” The reality of seminary ending will not likely hit until I have stopped writing the papers and reading the books.

But more on that later.

What has come to mind lately has been where I was when I started this journey. And no, it is not when I began seminary, actually. It goes much farther back than that.

When I met with my internship supervisor (Brian Doak at the Newberg campus of George Fox) right before the first Hebrew class, we talked a bit about where things had begun for me. He had asked me who my professor had been at U of O and I said it was Daniel Falk (now at Penn State). And then I told him how I even got started into Falk’s classes: by way of frustration with my Math 112 class.

Only the Lord knows how I even passed Math 111 when I failed the final (I think I received roughly a 56%), but somehow I found myself two weeks into Math 112 drawing countless circles that weren’t doodles, but instead serious attempts at calculations. Unlike any other math class that I had taken up to that point, I had even met with the professor in her office hours twice in the first week. And by the Thursday of the second week, I was ready to call it quits.

But I needed something to replace it; financial aid would not allow me to take 8 credits at the undergraduate level since “full time” was considered 12. So, at around 3 am (so technically Friday), I started browsing the course catalogues and stumbled upon the Religious Studies section. I knew at least one of my friends was in an Intro to the Bible class, so I thought I’d check it out.

It was completely full.

Yet I knew that the end of Friday was the latest anyone could drop classes and receive a 90% refund. And since I had just eaten an entire box of those Little Debbie Oatmeal Crème Pies, which are loaded with sugar, I figured I’d be up awhile. My math homework was certainly not getting done. So I sat there hitting “Refresh” for maybe ten minutes when, lo and behold, the Red Sea parted and the Intro to the Bible class had an opening!

To this day, it was the fastest I had ever signed up for any class.

Ever.

And that was when this whole journey began. I took that class, then the subsequent Jesus and the Gospels in the following fall. And during my fifth year (or as I call it, the Victory Lap year), I took two more classes from Professor Falk because why not? It was during those final classes that I realized that while my major had been English literature, my true passion was studying the Bible. And I believed that my time studying the Bible beyond the normal weekly Bible study was not done.

Why do I bring all of this up? Well, the two afternoon coffees certainly help, but mostly because within the past two days, I have been reminded twice of a church experience that is difficult to relive. Sunday night I received an email asking about this post, which is my honest thoughts about the closure of Calvary Fellowship, my home church in Eugene for 5 of the 7 years I had lived there. And just yesterday afternoon, a fellow classmate and I chatted about Calvary Chapel and why Calvary Fellowship had split off from it (he had heard about it down in California). And like any break within a church denomination, it boiled down to a difference of opinion regarding key beliefs. This time, the two key beliefs were the doctrines of pre-tribulation (rapture) and inerrancy, the latter of which was the major one that I had experienced while at Calvary Fellowship.

Without going too far into the details of what happened that led to Calvary Fellowship’s final closure (honestly, some terminology that is used around “major doctrines” like these is triggering for me), it is enough to say that Danny believed the Bible to be God’s inspired word – the divine revelation that pointed to Jesus. Furthermore, any critique of the doctrine of inerrancy that Danny had had was not for the purpose of “bringing down inerrancy,” as he once stated in a sermon (by the way, that sermon was the one and only time Danny had addressed personal attacks on him and his family that were based off of his beliefs – I mean honestly, who should have to justify why they follow Jesus to fellow Christians?). Even in the final days of the church, we had plenty of members who disagreed with him on this belief, but loved the community that we had all helped to create.

Little did I know that, when I was listening to Danny defend himself to his own church based off of countless rumors spread about him, I would have a difficult time attending any church.

A year after we had said goodbye to Danny, who moved back down to California to take up a job that would provide for his family, I started gathering with other former members of Calvary Fellowship. I think it was only because of their presence that I was even able to sit comfortably in a church (without feeling like I didn’t belong). I haven’t been able to do so since.

In my one normal class, which is all about hermeneutics (“the art of interpretation”), we’re reading this book by Michal J. Gorman who describes the interpretation process as a spiral – we begin in one spot, circle by critique and deconstruction, and ascend upwards as we construct a new way of understanding the Biblical text. As I read those words I pictured a spiral staircase that essentially gets designed as it is being built (something akin to the staircases at Hogwarts). But I didn’t that it was an apt description of how it feels to strive toward a better understanding of the text as you both deconstruct and reconstruct along the way.

As I found out with Calvary Fellowship, deconstructing to reconstruct can feel like chaos. In fact, it can feel like a shipwreck – like a church closing its doors because a pastor dared to challenge a dominant view of the Bible, but do so in a way that was conducive to a healthy faith and spirituality. Interpreting the Bible often feels like sailing on a boat; sometimes it will be smooth and easy, but others it will be terrifyingly rough and it will feel like the boat is about to capsize.

This imagery of a ship at sea is deliberate: almost two years prior to Calvary’s closure I had written a post about why I had chosen to stay with Calvary Fellowship; because my little individualistic faith had become grafted in with the other members. Or as I had put it then, my little rowboat and been broken apart and pieced back together with the much larger ship of Calvary. So when Calvary was no longer a church, I had to reinterpret what my faith even looked like, let alone where I saw myself in the church.

Where my seminary comes into play is how it has provided a place where I can ask questions and not be afraid of not finding an answer. I can mull over things without feeling the pressure to produce a nicely-packaged response (but of course, there is always the pressure one feels right before a paper is due, but that’s a little different). The interpretive methodologies that I have learned thus far have helped redeem a text so wrapped up in religiosity (a word I often heard at Calvary; not even sure if it’s a real word). I feel more comfortable in exploring a text, especially after having learned its original languages.

As you might guess, I’m pretty excited about this hermeneutics class – not only because I might learn some new methodologies for interpretation, but also because it continues the journey that I began in a night of frustration with a college math class my freshman year. Learning more about the Biblical text is all that I really wanted to do in the first place. But now I can do so without feeling inadequate simply because I have a different method of approach or don’t have the “right” method (which is all that inerrancy really is: a method).

Because it’s okay to rock the boat.

Faith, then, seems to be a byproduct of how well we trust God when we don’t feel like we can trust anything else, like the Bible or the church. God is above and beyond all of that. In fact, no amount of prepositions accurately depicts where, when, how, or why God even is (I know, such an English major thing to say, right? Ugh.). God just is. And sometimes when we come to the Bible, that’s all we have to go on.

And that’s okay.

God bless.