The Task of Reading to Heal
Discerning with colleagues how I can create shalom through my discipline. The calling feels enormous and complicated.
Editor's Note: This article is taken from a lecture entitled "For What It's Worth: Reading and Being a Christian," given as part of the 2011 Geneva Society Lecture Series. Reprinted with permission.
Nicholas Wolterstorff, in his book Educating for Shalom, identifies three frameworks for Christian scholarship. The first framework, he writes, is more of a past historical stage, though it likely is retained in some places today. This stage is the burgeoning of evangelical colleges in the United States during the 19th century. The framework largely held by these colleges had the goal of teaching students about personal piety and evangelism. The relationship between scholarship and a Christian worldview was assumed to be neat and easy; insofar as scholarship contradicted faith, it was derided as incompetent, with the assumption that competent scholarship will support a Christian view of the world.
The second framework, he writes, is much less defensive. It has the goal of introducing students to the breadth of culture. Scholars within this second stage recognize the faith perspectives of any kind of education, and so students are taught to mine each discipline and perspective for what is useful and compatible with their faith perspective. Christian scholarship is defended on the basis of the goodness of creation and of our mandate to discover and unpack its potential. This kind of scholarship is much of what you will read in contemporary Christian perspectives on literature. I began my journey into scholarship working out of this framework: unpacking the potential of literature and trying to discern the connections and disjunctions between various literary theories and my faith.
The third stage of Christian scholarship is a sort of future stage. Wolterstorff urges Christian scholars to move from thinking about their work primarily as studying culture to thinking about their work as influencing society. Christian scholars should not simply enter the ivory tower of academic work where they attempt to make connections between what they study and their faith. Instead, Christian colleges and Christian scholars should use their knowledge of the way society works, its structures and its dynamics, in order to act responsibly.
Every discipline has unique potential for creating shalom or for breaking relationships, for serving or for becoming oppressive. Wolterstorff's desire to see a new stage of Christian scholarship unfold emerges from his conviction that "none of these [previous] models responds adequately to the wounds of humanity." We need to understand our work as scholars in light of "our calling to mercy and justice" which will lead to the inevitable conclusion that we don't want just to "understand the world but to change it" (emphasis added). Or to put it in terms of education: Christian educators teach with the goal of helping "students [to] be agents and celebrators of shalom, petitioners and mourners."
The challenge to a Christian scholar is to not only be competent with an excellent knowledge of her discipline and a well-thought out theory for how her theology fits with her discipline; but to also take care to notice the wounds of humanity and discover ways to respond to those wounds, ways to heal and change society. Discerning with colleagues how I can create shalom through my discipline? The calling feels enormous and complicated.
My current research is on church-based activism with refugees and the potential for fictional stories to be pedagogical tools for churches. So I'm asking very directly how the study of literature can be made useful for Christian communities. Let's say a group of Christians want to begin advocating for refugee issues alongside refugee communities in their city, or have refugees coming into their churches looking for community. How do Christian advocates learn to do their work more justly, more sensitively, and with a more nuanced understanding of the world?
Despite the enormity of Wolterstorff's vision for Christian scholarship, I am sold on his desire for scholarship to serve the work of justice in the world. Here are two small, specific potentials that I see for my study of literature to serve and to contribute to shalom in the world.
First, our knowledge of refugee lives in Canada often comes from personal testimonies. I've heard them from the front of a church and at fundraising banquets, and they always make me slightly uncomfortable. Emmanuel Jal, a hip hop artist and former child soldier, writes about his experience of giving personal testimonies for the sake of advocacy. He says that he began to lose respect for himself in the process because he was constantly rehearsing his trauma (what he had gone through), his lack (what he was not), and his loss (what he did not have) under the gaze of strangers. Other scholars have written about the tension between personal testimony as a marketing strategy that guarantees financial results, and the vulnerability of refugee-ed people speaking on a platform before a skeptical audience.
Personal testimony can be a dehumanizing performance. Given the ethical dilemmas inherent in asking an individual to publicly rehearse their trauma to an audience of potential donors, might fiction written by displaced people be a wiser way to produce dialogue about refugee-ed people in Canada? Reading fiction requires from the "audience" a commitment to learning and understanding, and the "audience" is not only potential donors but also refugee-ed people and citizen-ed people gathered together on the platform. "How are 'we' doing in our refugee advocacy work?" we can ask each other. Fictional refugee narratives can host mutual discussions of refugee experiences and Christian advocacy as an alternative to personal testimonies that promote a unidirectional gaze and unidirectional need. Literary fiction can provide evocative, contextualized, and nuanced narratives of refugee journeys, allowing the reader to see many sides of an individual's story—the trauma and the resilience, the losses and the lively vitality.
Second, another very specific question that demonstrates the usefulness of literary studies for shalom-making: How do the metaphors we use to speak of refugee-ed people shape our expectations and perspectives on asylum seekers coming to Canada? Take the often-used metaphors of natural disaster as they're applied to displaced people: "a new wave of asylum seekers are expected to swamp social services this year," one newspaper article puts it. All refugees are lumped together and portrayed as a faceless, nameless, fear-invoking tsunami wave. And this language is not uncommon. How ridiculous does the Christian call to hospitality look in the face of this kind of language? No one puts out a welcome mat and throws wide their arms for a tsunami wave. You do what you can to protect yourself.
In response to this language of disaster and protection, various faith-based advocates in Canada call for a renewed commitment to hospitality. But even the Christian metaphor of hospitality is limited by its contemporary connotations of tourism and of closed invite circles. Christine Pohl's book Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition makes an excellent case for this.
Imagine that I'm the host and you, the refugee, are my guest. Guests don't actually belong or have a right to their host's home—they are at the mercy of their host. So if you start breaking my things, I can kick you out. See how quickly the Christian call to care for the most vulnerable can dissolve within a contemporary understanding of this metaphor? Churches need to recover a commitment to prophetic hospitality. I use the word "prophetic" in the tradition of Walter Brueggemann, who says "the task of prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around [it]." Jacques Derrida's concept of "hostipitality" helpfully links hostility and hospitality to suggest that to be committed to hospitality is to undertake the risk of hostility and to remain committed despite any hostility we experience. How can we renew our ways of speaking in order to be communities of shalom and service? Literary theory is the study of narrative and language, and these tools of analysis can be useful to Christian communities who want to engage in discursive renewal.
If you want to participate in this piece of shalom-building, read some excellent narratives about refugee-ed people in Canada. Why not begin with Dogs at the Perimeter, a novel about the Khmer Rouge and the Canadian-Japanese internment, by Vancouver author Madeleine Thien, or Notes from the Hyena's Belly, a novel based on the life of Toronto engineer Nega Mezlekia who left Ethiopia in the '70s? If you'd prefer to watch a film, try Dirty Pretty Things, a film about non-status migrants in the UK.
What small ways do you see your area of study or expertise as healing the wounds you have come across in your communities?