The Danger of a Single Voice

VoicesA few days ago I came across a TedTalk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie called “The Danger of a Single Story.” If you have twenty minutes, I encourage you to give it a listen. If you don’t have twenty minutes, find two segments of ten or four segments of five. Whatever you have to do, listen to it. As I listened to her narrate her journey of transformation, I realized that her story felt true for me as well. I too have had to work to open my heart to newness and nuance and grant people opportunities to blow my mind regarding the previously deeply held notions about who I thought they were.

As I reflected on “the danger of a single story” it struck me that I have spent much of my life nuancing what people think of black men, queer people, Christians, or priests. People often think they know, but they (and I) more often have no idea. If you pay attention to popular media, black men are depicted as violent and shiftless and Christians as loud and hateful. If you pay attention to popular religion, queer people are depicted as inherently disordered and degenerate possessing some sinister, empire-toppling “Gay Agenda” (my copy of which I am still waiting to receive in the mail). And if you watch too much Law and Order: SVU, priests are often depicted as pedophilic and aloof. Navigating nuance is decidedly more difficult than simply settling on a simplistic narrative. Navigating nuance means that we open ourselves to the possibility that we could be resoundingly wrong. Navigating nuance is living life on the edge knowing that at any moment we could be surprised and astounded by something or someone we meet right around the corner or even someone we encounter each and every day.

Writing on this subject in his #1 New York Times Bestseller, Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates reflects on the nature of nuance and it’s capacity to transform our worldview. He writes, “Hates give identity… We name the hated strangers and are thus confirmed in the tribe.” We’re often so good at drawing boundaries of safety and security around our fragile selves. But life doesn’t work that way. We cannot hermetically seal ourselves away from the risk of relationship. Living is risk and life is relationship.

And then there is faith.

A few years ago I departed one community of Christians for another. It was a decision I made after much soul searching. I couldn’t quite name the reason then, aside from being “captured” by the mystery of the Blessed Sacrament and the overwhelming sense of welcome I encountered. I have wrestled ever since that day to find out what it was that spoke to me and called me into a renewed relationship with God. It could be that what spoke to me was the multitude of voices speaking about God in perfectly imperfect words. Like that eavesdroppers on the Day of Pentecost, I was hearing about the mighty deeds of God in a variety of languages and dialects and these voices spoke life to me, even if I thought the speakers were filled with new wine.

Faith, when spoken about in one voice, is dangerous. Scripture, when read in one voice, is violent. Praise, when sung in one voice, is small. One of the strengths of Christian witness throughout the two millennia of Christian history is the multitude of voices who have attempted to speak about that which is unspeakable – God. Apostles, martyrs, Patristics, Desert Fathers and Mothers, priests, popes, prophets, kings and queens, reformers, monastics, slaves, immigrants – millions of voices speaking hundreds of languages and countless dialects reflecting an untold number of experiences have spoken about God and God’s transforming and salvific work both in Incarnation and Resurrection. We might do well to heed the Great Cloud of Witnesses intoning their stories of God in every key and language imaginable.

A few months into my first stint in seminary, as I was wrestling with having everything I knew of God and faith stripped and laid bare before me, I heard one professor describe Holy Scripture as the strings on a violin – they only work when they are held in tension.

Scripture does not agree on many things. The four Gospels don’t agree on exactly who Jesus was, where he came from, and what he came to do. The Apostles don’t agree about what whether we are saved by faith, or works, or a combination of both. The Testaments don’t agree about whether God lives in a temple, or in heaven, or in our hearts. The Law and the Prophets don’t agree about why Sabbath ought to be kept. The Creation stories in Genesis don’t even agree about whether God created humans or animals first. It’s no wonder there are countless Christian denominations – we aren’t supposed to all agree, but we are all supposed to be in communion with one another. “Love one another (or your neighbor – depending on the Gospel you’re reading),” Jesus says. Love.

I probably ought to give this disclaimer for all those readers who feel me catapulting towards heresy. Put your Title IV complaint form away. I solemnly declare that I do believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God, and to contain all things necessary to salvation. That being said, I also believe God to eternally complex. The minute we think we have figured God out we can rest assured that it is not God. God is not an equation to be solved, but an experience and a relationship to be entered into. Religion is not supposed to give us all the answers to life’s most challenging questions; rather, religion is a time-tested compendium of language and experiences of God that give us a framework within which we are called, like Joseph, to wrestle with holy things until that encounter changes our lives, our walk, and even our names.

We wrestle with the tension between Old and New Testaments, between the Markan and Johannine Gospels, between the Law and the Prophets because we are strengthened through the struggle. We ask questions, we go deeper, we search our hearts, we reflect, we repent for thinking too small and pray for guidance knowing that somewhere out there, or in there, or down, or somewhere there God is listening and holding us as we grapple with holy truths, fumbling these precious jewels in our too-small hands. That God trusts us to hold them at all is no small miracle.

The consequence of the single story, at least in scripture, is this: it robs the ordinary communities of women and men who made scripture of their dignity. It silences them. It ignores them. It says that they do not matter. The danger of the single voice is that by collapsing the rich tapestry of scripture into one voice, even if we attach that voice to “God,” we miss the varieties of hues and shades, the patterns and textures. We miss the beauty that is only revealed in the tension between lamentation and praise or the openness that is created between Good Friday and Easter Sunday.

It is interesting to note that faithful communities existed for centuries without written tomes of scripture. They sat around campfires, recounting the stories of God and those faithful women and men who walked with God. They added some parts and they surely forgot others, but they still kept speaking about God and what it means to walk faithfully and humbly. The fluid, organic nature of what would become scripture doesn’t make it any less holy anymore than Christ, the very Word of the Father, becoming flesh and dwelling among us could not possibly make him less holy. It could be that the living and breathing, fluid and organic, pulsating nature of scripture is what makes it holy in the first place, for indeed God created this organic and terrestrial ball, baptized it with a liquid mist, named her “Earth,” and called her “Good.”

But what do I know? I’m just one voice.

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