Living and Leading Change for Good: Meet the Disruptors
The Forum for Theological Exploration series, Living and Leading Change for Good,invites you to meet the disruptors – theological explorers and visionary architects inspired by their Christian faith and fueled by courage. These leaders are actively addressing civil and human rights issues and the anxiety about the rising tide of color in the U.S., along with creating social entrepreneurial ventures that respond to issues our communities face today. Our hope is that their voices and stories toward peace and justice might inspire you to be the disruptive change you’ve been waiting for. You can find the full series, here.
Logos Without Words
by Julian DeShazier
The genius of John’s gospel is its poetry. Somehow – in a world where God was either a product of the rational mind (Greece), or was found in nature, sometimes in actual humans (Mesopotamia) – John figures out a way to unite these two ideas in one word: Logos. Others had done this before, sure, but none with the simplicity or staying power of John’s configuration of divine wisdom made incarnate. It is brilliant, and one of the few examples of competing ideas being able to live without destroying each other. A political lesson, no doubt, and a poetic one as well: the cadence and repetition of John 1:1 is so perfect that even King James, who wanted England to have a more rhythmic, fragrant text, decided in this case to not change a word. The logos was perfect…
…until the English language and its “bastardized tongue” (a John McWhorter phrase) got hold of it. After that, a logos became a word and we began to worship actual words. That is, we lost both wisdom and art: a decision upheld by the courts of Reformation, Puritanism, and the Enlightenment.
Churches followed this mistake in everything from liturgy (words) to church design (speaker of words closest to God, high above us) to convincing ourselves that a “Good Word” is the best path to a divine Logos. I lament these decisions because they helped to condemn a less literate, more evocative expression of God, and more importantly, the African people that practiced it. In other words (of course, more words), most Christian churches – even the progressive ones, even the Black ones – participate in systemic racism just about every Sunday. When we heighten the spoken and written word above other possibilities for experiencing God, we make a value judgement against people and cultures that have made those possibilities their distinct reality.
I’d like to disrupt that.
I’m not sure when I first noticed the flattening of the word “logos,” but now it’s all I see. Even as a pastor having led 300+ worship services, in my silence before most of them I apologize to God for how many words I’m about to use, even as I pray they are acceptable in God’s sight. Most prayers contain irony, I guess, in that what would probably be most acceptable sometimes is to not use words at all.
I’ve carried this tension, as a musician, for many years, but it wasn’t until I felt myself judging a fellow church leader who was deciding on a dance based on what I was preaching (“Why am I the center? Why can’t I support you?”) that I realized how ingrained this “vanilla” paradigm is. People believe an omnipotent God lives only in words and thus commit the mutually egregious sins of being both racist and boring.
I’ve begun to dream, not of a church without walls but a church without words – one where the liturgy both emphasizes and destabilizes the importance of good words spoken well. While far from monolithic, the Black Church has made an art form of preaching for centuries, and most congregations have some social justice or charity vehicle by which to proclaim, “Actions speak louder…” But what multisensory experiences can people have with church that will deepen and strengthen their faith?
University Church (where I pastor) is a Sanctuary congregation, and when immigrants live here while fighting to remain with their families, what does that communicate to people who see this?
Let’s go further…
Artist Lucy Slivinski installed a series called, “Rebirth,” which included a phoenix sculpture made of recycled materials. When we placed it above our pulpit, many found it a nice sermon illustration. The truth is: as long as it was in the sanctuary, “Rebirth” was more profound than any sermon preached there. We keep thinking of our art as an aid to our words – we use movies and songs as openers and closers – but we need to start trusting these media to minister on their own terms.
The project I’m most interested in now is called “Sanctuary Café,” which is a partnership between the church and a group of artists called Stories Connect. Our shared vision is to use space to create conversations between people, to help usher marginalized voices into becoming moderators of those conversations, using provocative art and delicious food to create those experiences…and doing it all inside a church. If the food is locally-sourced, and the employees all come from underserved neighborhoods and are all well-paid, and all the materials are composted, and the artists keep all the proceeds of what they sell, then it may be hard work to sustain all these spinning plates at once (you could also say, “This café is no picnic”: add more in the comments), but instead of hearing about justice on Sunday, what if you could taste it Monday thru Saturday?
What if a piece of art, or food, could change our commitments to self, God, and neighbor? It would require a deep intention on behalf of those presenting that art to us – something more than “Art for Art’s Sake” and less than the thousands of white theologians that have convinced us art only exists to serve the word.
I know this sounds crazy, but what if the Word of God could reach us without words? We talk about “diversity” but won’t reach out to the myriad ways of experiencing God, proving the pervasiveness of prejudice and racism every single Sunday.
I’d like to disrupt that.
Julian DeShazier joined University Church as Senior Pastor in November 2010. He is a Chicago native, and a graduate of Morehouse College and the University of Chicago Divinity School. Prior to beginning here, Julian served as Teen Pastor at Covenant United Church of Christ, and has also worked extensively with the Coca-Cola Leadership Program and Fund for Theological Education.
Pastor Julian is also an award-winning hip hop musician and songwriter, known to many as “J.Kwest.” In 2015, he won an EMMY Award for his role in the short film, Strange Fruit. He has also been featured on FOX, CBS, and NPR; on the late Dr. Maya Angelou’s Sirius XM radio program; and on the cover of the Chicago Reader. In 2016, Julian began serving as the inaugural chair of the Community Advisory Council of the University of Chicago Medical Center, focused on optimizing population health outcomes on the Southside of Chicago. He is also the associate director of the Office of Field Studies and Experiential Education and a former adjunct professor at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
Julian is a regular contributor to Sojourners, On Scripture, and Huffington Post publications. He and his wife, Mallorie, have two fierce daughters, Dania and Genevieve.