Is My Version of the Gospel Exclusionary?

I spent a lot of time sitting quietly in the woods this weekend, waiting to shoot a wild turkey who never arrived — he just gobbled at me from behind some trees, mocking my attempt to plate him. So I had a lot of time to think.

Then, I ran my ideas for a blog response to last week’s kerfuffle by Courtney, who had been out of town all weekend, and she gently told me that they were all bad ideas.

As an Enneagram 8, my overriding desire is always always always for justice. Justice for others, justice for me. In years past, I became incredibly morose over the injustices in the Family Court System during my divorce — in fact, in Minnesota it’s called the “Family Justice System,” but my therapist told me to stop calling it that because it’s not really about justice, at least not in the sense that I understand it. (That therapist also refers to me as the “Big Boy Scout” for some of the same reasons.)

What felt unjust to me last week and over the weekend is that I felt unjustly accused, and I felt that I was not heard. David Miller, a frequent critic of mine, wonders the same thing in a less-than-totally-affirming post (that I nevertheless encourage you to read). But Courtney convinced me that spilling more pixels trying to make everyone understand that I really am quite aware of my privilege and my social location won’t help.

So, I am instead going to respond to the heart of Dr. Cleveland’s objection to my talk in Springfield last month: that claiming one version of the gospel is preferable to another version is necessarily exclusionary of diverse voices.

For years I have refused to answer the question, What is the gospel? I’ve been asked that question hundreds of times, since my first book came out. Back in those days, evangelical youth pastors would become absolutely apoplectic when I’d say, “I don’t need to answer that question; just read your Bible,” or, “If Jesus didn’t feel the need to sum up the gospel in a pithy maxim, then I don’t either.”

To answer that question is to foreclose dialogue, and my entire theological career is bent on opening dialogue whenever possible — even catalyzing dialogue through provocation.

Nevertheless, some have asked if I assumed too much when, at Subverting the Norm 2, I asserted, “We have a better version of the gospel than the regnant view in the West.” So, later this week (on Wednesday and Thursday), I will post on the two major themes in my understanding of the gospel: liberation and reconciliation. These two ideas, I am convinced, lie at the heart of the gospel.

But before I write those posts, some prolegomena:

The Medium Matters: A blog post is not a book. They are different media, and should be understood and interpreted differently (just as a talk at a conference should). This is why I sometimes ask my fiercest critics on Twitter which books of mine they’ve read. In a book-length work, an author has the opportunity to work through an idea much more thoroughly. My books also tend to be written with a different voice — one that is more circumspect and less, um, prickly.

I will be painting in broad strokes. I’m reticent to write definitively about the gospel for the reasons above. Nevertheless, I’m going to attempt it, and to attempt it in a way that will create openings for others to debate my thoughts on their merits. If you have a stake in the argument about What Is the Gospel? — which most readers of this blog undoubtedly do — then I hope you will be involved in the ensuing conversation.

I am writing a book on the heart of the gospel. My current book project is on the reason for and efficacy of the crucifixion of Jesus — what theologians call the “atonement.” It’s going to be about 85,000 words. The blog posts are going to be about 1,000 words each. See the difference?

Finally, I appreciate much of the commentary around last week’s post. Did I communicate my thoughts perfectly? No. Was I too defensive, or too aggressive? Probably. But please know that there are private channels of communication, too, so reading a couple blog posts and the related commentary is not the entirety of the picture. And please know that, even when I push back on your comments and ideas, I am always listening and learning — debating is how I learn.

As always, thanks for reading.

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  • Liberation and Reconciliation — will you be drawing on J. Deotis Robert’s work? He has a book titled exactly that.

    • I don’t know that book, Jim. I’ll actually be writing only from my experience and my thoughts. No new reading this week…

      • When you’re looking for some new reading I’d love to hear your thoughts on it, especially how Robert’s Black Theology fits with your working theology.

  • Sarah

    I would like to be part of a blogosphere where these sorts of posts, which reflect a little more vulnerability and flecks of personal-ness than might be typical of an 8, were the ones that drove mad traffic to a blog. But since we all know this approach won’t draw nearly as many comments as a more antagonistic angle, I’ll just say, I liked it. For today: Traffic, shmaffic.

  • kursonis

    I’m deeply saddened Tony that you open with saying “I really am quite aware of my privilege”. If there’s anything your speech, your post and your comment replies point out, it is exactly that you are not aware of your privilege within the context of systemic racism. You may know those words, you may have heard people talking about them and read a few articles…but if you really understood any of this, when an amazing voice from a community of color called you out, you would have responded so very very differently. You would have been thrilled to receive her self expanding criticism, both personally and as a developing theologian. You can’t pay money for that kind of valuable comment. It’s like a gift floating down from heaven upon your lucky white bum…you just don’t get it yet…and the only way for you to get from where you are to where you need to be is to find some people of color to mentor you over time. It’s the only way. You can’t read your way out of this one, you can’t think your way out of it. I was looking for a way to tell you exactly this long before this post came out…and so it became time to go public.

    I know you, I know where you live, I know where you waited to plate the turkey…you are amongst the most ensconced in affluent white privilege who has ever roamed this earth. And beyond your environment, you just happen to have a personality prone to thinking it’s right, rather than one who longs for constructive criticism leading to self introspection and change. So more than anyone, you need on the ground, real time human mentoring to change. And change you do so desperately need to do, for yourself, and for this broader emergence movement in which you have a voice.

    From that memorable day I first met you until now I have loved you very much…and have learned much from you…but here is your blindspot, and it is public, and so I speak these words publicly in love.

    • I too know Tony, perhaps not as well as you do, but over burgers, pizza, and beer, I’ve gotten to know a man with a HUGE heart for the gospel and others on this common journey to know how to live life as our creator intended.

      I affirm his statement, “I really am quite aware of my privilege.” I think it rings of truth.

      Peace to you and all on our common journey.

      • Rollie, you know me far better than Jeff, just for the sake of comparison.

    • Roger Saner

      I’m assuming that your advice to Tony is general advice, Jeff, regarding what a white person should do if they would like to start doing the race work to become aware of their privilege, and so start living differently. I’d like to push back on that advice.

      Firstly, on the idea that a white person should find people of colour to mentor them over time. This makes it seem that it is the responsibility of non-whites to educate white people, which puts the onus of the hard work on the wrong people (and the feedback from non-whites is that this is exhausting for them). Just like men can educate other men about patriarchy, so can (and should) white people educate other white people about racism, privilege and how those are tied to systemic oppression. (This isn’t to say that non-whites are not allowed to mentor whites, by the way). More of us should see this as our responsibility.

      Secondly, on the idea that a white person can’t learn more about this stuff by reading. While I think what you’re saying is that white people should relationally engage outside of their (socially constructed, yes) race and not keep this at a (distant) academic level, there is so much work that has been done in this area that reading is really a very good idea.

      Peggy McIntosh’s White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack is a good starting point, albeit dated and very personal to her experience (her list is meant to be a starting point of white people examining the ways in which they are privileged). Also see her talk How studying privilege can strengthen compassion. Interestingly, Sheryl Sandberg (COO of Facebook) credits Peggy with giving a talk which changed her life, but Peggy says that Sheryl only understood the first part of her talk (i.e. many women in leadership feel like frauds) but not the second half (how to become aware of the ways in which the system is skewed towards privilege i.e. fraudulence in the system).

      For someone coming from a more philosophical background, The Racial Contract by Charles W. Mills explores a global theoretical framework for situating discussions of race and white racism. He uses the social contract as his starting point, showing that the Racial Contract underpins the social contract. He also shows how various contractarians in Western philosophy (Lock, Hobbes, John Stuart Mill, Kant, John Rawls) create categories of person/sub-person, thereby creating the (racist) theoretical foundations of the modern world.

      There are plenty others, like bell hooks, Frantz Fanon (Black Skin, White Masks), Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, W. E. B. Du Bois, Paulo Freire and the Pedagogy for the Oppressed (which implies a counterpart, a Pedagogy for the Oppressor), Noel Ignatiev and Race Traitor (“A traitor to the white race is someone who is nominally classified as white but who defies white rules so strenuously as to jeopardize his or her ability to draw upon the privileges of whiteness”), David Roediger, Zeus Leonardo, Edward Said, Cornel West, and hell, I’m only scratching the surface. I also can’t recommend What Is Postcolonialism and Why Does It Matter: An African Perspective highly enough.

      [Edit: oh, sorry – all of my links to videos have the videos now showing up below my comment. Argh.]

      • kursonis

        Hey Roger, first of thanks for all the awesome resources. I’m totally with you and understand about whites teaching whites, and agree that’s the general path for most, as well as books…this post is not general advice, it’s Tony specific. I was actually worried about that exact issue, so I’m glad you brought it up.

        But Tony is a public figure and he’s read a lot of books I’m sure…but even though in so many areas he’s a premiere thinker and hard working producer of goodness…in this area, a big one, he has been in consistent fail mode for many years, and it’s my general observation of movement’s that with a person like Tony Jones – a leader and public voice of some significance, that some people of color would be happy to come around him and give him the direct person to person mentoring and influence he needs. Here’s a call out – “Are you out there? Can you spend some time with Tony? Can we get some folks to donate money to help, or can we get some mentors who have the passion to volunteer their time”?

        Maybe we should start a kickstarter campaign…Tony needs our help! Let’s do what the church does and gather around!!

        Here’s partly where my vision for this comes from…my own personal journey in this area was really jumpstarted when a group of fellow leaders I started hanging around with and working on projects with in New York City, who were all people of color, began to mentor me in these areas. There were just so many situations that my white privilege would come out that I just could not see at all and couldn’t keep up with, but they patiently continued to reflect them back to me, and to explain and show me a whole new world I had zero capacity to see on my own. And so even though for most people books and fellow whites will be the path, I actually think for leaders in our communities and faith communities, the people who influence so many others, for leaders we should go for the more effective personal mentoring.

        I would love to see an organization set up to help leaders in this regard, or at least an informal cultural movement in this direction, with most white leaders seeking this out, and communities of color stepping up to do this work. Of course there’s plenty of anti-racism weekend trainings out there as a good starting point. And of course, as I said above, I’ve heard of the exhausting nature of this work for people of color, and it is sad they have to endure oppression first, and then this work second…but the idea is this more limited and focused work with leaders, not with all white people.

        Thanks Roger, I would love to hear what others think.

  • Kien Choong

    It would not occur to me that a narrow or even exclusionary view of the gospel is racist. The fault if any lies with parochialism. We all struggle with parochialism. A good way to try to overcome parochialism is to look across time and space to other communities, other societies, other nations. Notice that the motivation in this context is not love but self awareness. We look closely at how other people live and think in order to be more aware of our own prejudice so we can improve ourselves. That said, we should also be interested in other people’s lives for their sake as well as our own.