54: Brandi Miller - Farewell white theology
“It took me ten years of following Jesus as a Black woman to realize that my theology was whiter than a North Dakota snowstorm.” Nate and Tim talk with writer and minister Brandi Miller about pursuing racial justice within evangelicalism, what the gospel really is, how American Christianity trains people to be controlled, and much more. She's a former Op-Ed Columnist for the Huffington Post and current campus minister at the University of Oregon with Inter Varsity. You can follow her on twitter @BrandiNico.
Nate: Welcome to Almost Heretical. I’m so excited to introduce our guest to you today, but right before I do that, I just wanted to quickly thank you all who support this show financially on Patreon. Tim and I care so much about keeping this show going because we’ve heard back from a lot of people just sharing about how helpful these conversations have been and how they feel less alone and less crazy. So many of you have reached out, and we really, really want to keep this going. We do this all in our evenings and on weekends just trying to hustle and keep this thing going, and you can help us do that. If you want to give a couple bucks a month to help us keep making shows, just head over to almostheretical.com/give. Okay, our guest today is Brandi Miller. She’s a former op-ed columnist for the Huffington Post and current campus minister at the University of Oregon with Intervarsity. You can follow her on Twitter @brandinico. We get into stuff like, how do we actually do justice and not just tweet about it? How do we cope with and what does it feel like to have people that we used to be friends with or respect think we’re not Christians anymore? So I hope you enjoy this conversation with Brandi.
Tim: Well, Brandi, I just know you through a lot of your Huffington Post writing and then Twitter and a couple other articles of yours I found, and just really appreciated your voice. So I figured, kind of want to hear your backstory and sort of how you got to where you are. But I want to read one of my favorite quotes of yours, which is an opening line from an article you wrote for The Salt Collective. And I’ll just kind of use that as basically like an intro to explain sort of how, what your journey is, how you got here. So the quote. It’s the opening line, and the quote is, “It took me 10 years of following Jesus as a Black woman to realize that my theology was whiter than a North Dakota snowstorm.”
Brandi Miller: [laughing] That is accurate still. Yes.
Tim: [laughing] So, okay, if you were to give a longer version of that, tell us some of that story?
Brandi: Yeah, so I grew up in a white family. I was born of an affair and grew up in a white family in rural southern Oregon or rural spaces outside of Portland. And so insofar as I grew up in general, whiteness was my primary frame for the world. And that didn’t change when I started to do Jesus-y stuff. I didn’t grow up Christian, so I got into church because my older sister started dating a Baptist pastor’s son, so she immediately thought I was going to hell. And so all of my social awkwardness made youth group a perfect place to be, because it was a place people couldn’t judge you for being socially awkward and weird, and I made a lot of really good friends there. But I also came from a pretty unstable background in a lot of ways, so I think that there’s ways that faith creates the context for some degree of security in the midst of other types of trauma, and so I found myself really attached to the concreteness of what was a very conservative, apologetics based, rapture-oriented, there’s a right and a wrong and a black and a white, and I think that felt really good to me. And so in many ways I think the social aspects of faith allowed me to be indoctrinated into a particular type of faith that I can appreciate in many ways, because what my background taught me was a love for scripture and a reverence for scripture and a willingness to ask good questions about scripture and to study it. But what it didn’t teach me was how to think about how to interpret scripture. And because my context living in Oregon and being in various spaces that have been entirely if not extremely, predominantly white, everything has been framed through whiteness, and so it took me a long time to recognize that there were other frames to understand the world that weren’t just what I had been told was objective truth, which I now know was run through an entirely subjective lens of whiteness.
Tim: Do you have, or did you have a particular light bulb moment? Or when did you start to sort of rethink things and change?
Brandi: Yeah, so when I started to apply for college, I didn’t know anything about college because no one in my family had ever gone. And so I applied to a bunch of Christian schools, because I thought that’s what Christians did, and then I applied to a small private liberal arts college called Willamette, and for whatever reason decided to go there. And it’s not just a private liberal arts institution, it’s a liberal private liberal arts institution. And so I don’t think I knew, really, what I was getting myself into in terms of education, but I really didn’t know what I was getting myself into in terms of faith communities. So I joined a faith community there that was mostly students of color. Or at least more students of color. It seemed like that to me, even though in hindsight it may not have been because it was Willamette and that’s just not likely. But I encountered a group of students who were really into Jesus, they were really into scripture, and they applied scripture to their lives all the time in a way that made me realize that my faith was in my heart and in my head, but it didn’t do a lot. It was like a security ticket out of hell, but it didn’t do anything. And I was really intrigued by their way of doing faith, of learning how to try to hear from God, stuff that I didn’t think was possible. And the problem was that they were all really into justice, like super into justice. They talked about race and identity all the time, and I said horrible, horrible things to them. Like I said to them things like, “You all are so liberal that you’ve lost the gospel,” I told them I would never take these ethnic studies classes because they just taught people… it was like I was a Fox News prompter, I was the Twitter troll embodied, but at a private liberal arts college in 2008. And so I don’t know, it just felt like there were a lot of places where I was being confronted with a lot of ideas that I vehemently disregarded because it threatened truth for me. And then I was sitting one day with this new love for scripture that they had taught me and this sense of being able to hear from God, and I was reading Exodus, which’ll get you. I was reading Exodus 2, and it says that God hears the cry of the Israelites, He sees that their oppression and their is great, and that God hears and sees and knows. And it’s one of the only times I can say that I heard the voice of God in some way, and it was like, “If you want to be about the things I’m about, you have to care about what I care about, and this is it for you.” And so it just made me realize that God spent the rest of the story of scripture trying to liberate a people, and that I thought that their entire story was basically bogus. So that’s kind of a long version, but…
Nate: So okay, I’m just really curious. So what changed at that point? Once that light bulb went on, what kind of changed for you? Because you’re very much in the justice movement now and very vocal about a lot of these things, so this is actually cool to hear what you came from and this journey that you had. So I’m just curious, what was the first few things that changed that you started doing in light of this new way that you were viewing scripture?
Brandi: Yeah, so I wish that I could say from that moment that I was just so teachable and humble and kind and whatever, but really I just did a lot of apologizing right away. A lot of my first steps were saying, “Hey, I didn’t know what I… I don’t know what I don’t know.” I did a lot of going back and just listening, being more quiet in spaces instead of just being antagonistic. I think a lot of times when our antagonism is rooted in our ideas of truth, it seems noble or holy. And so for me to stop and to listen and to learn felt really, really important. And part of that meant that I had said before to all of my friends when I was being terrible that I would never take ethnic studies classes, or from this particular professor I would never do it. And the next quarter or next semester I was in two classes in the department I said I would never be in from the professor I said I would never take classes from. And I think it was the first time in my life where it became clear to me that I could both believe that the Bible was true and that the things that were tangible and happening in real life were also true, and that there was a place where those would intersect. That it wasn’t just, “The Bible’s true, therefore reality for people is not true,” as I had been kind of taught to engage. But rather like, “Oh, how do I take scripture and actually intersect it with people’s real lives like Jesus did?”
Nate: So this is like, this is the thing that parents worry about when their kid goes away to a liberal school, Christian parents, it actually happened to you, right!? [laughing]
Brandi: [laughing] It did, yeah. I always joke, because I’m a campus minister now, I always joke when parents say that I made their kids liberal, I’m like, “I didn’t make your kids liberal, I just helped them love Jesus and they became liberal!”
Tim: [laughing] Okay, so I’m really fascinated. This might end up being a couple questions in one, and you can just do what you want with it. So the first part is you actually tweeted something recently that a part of it really struck me as something difficult to hear, which is always a good sign that I needed to hear something. You said, “White people need to have an operating knowledge of the history of whiteness and its implications on power and privilege. Then they need to do something with that knowledge, and that something isn’t to either be defensive, live in guilt, be uppity about being woke,” and I think after those first three, I was like, “Yeah, sure.” And then it was the fourth one you said, “Leave other white people behind.” And I read that and I was like, “Oh, yeah.” That’s a really strong point, and was pretty convicting for me. I think actually our stories in terms of even timeline of how long we did the Christian thing where it was all white theology and then turning point in twenties; it was probably pretty similar. But rural southern Oregon is pretty wild, for those of you listening that don’t know Oregon, rural southern Oregon is a wild world in terms of race, racism, Trump politics, all that sort of deal. So how have you not left that world behind, I guess? And what was it like? You started apologizing to your friends that you had been trolling for a while, but then once you started moving into justice and writing about race and politics and Christianity, a lot of strong critiques on evangelicalism, what has your relationship now been with back home and how have you navigated that?
Brandi: Yeah. So it feels complicated for me in a lot of ways, one because I’m not a white person, and so the degree to which I do or do not leave people behind is relative to trauma. For me, there’s ways that racial micro- and macroagressions play out in a different way in race conversations because the cost is higher for me. So as I speak to white folks, I’m not always speaking to myself in that way, but I am a person who, I think I want to be careful how I talk about this because there’s various frames that people come to this conversation with. There’s hyper-left, hyper-progressive folks who have or have not experienced a lot of racial trauma, folks of color in particular, who are like, “It’s not my job to educate, I don’t have the capacity for that, I’m not going to do that.” And I think that there’s a time for that to be fine. And I think in secular spaces, there’s not really a good incentive to educate white people. For me as a person who identifies as a Christian, I don’t think I have the same option of leaving people behind. I also don’t think that it means it is primarily my job to deal with the most vitriolic, problematic aspects of white supremacy and racism for white folks. So all of that said, as I think about Grants Pass and Merlin and this city space I grew up in in Oregon, I call it the Confederate South of the Northwest. It’s bad. I have had so many problematic interactions that while I have not personally chosen out of many relationships in that context, most of them have chosen out of relationship with me, believing that I have abandoned the gospel to liberal politics. So one example: I had been supported by a church. I fundraise for my ministry, and I’d been supported by a church for five years. And when they had a pastoral shift the pastor had asked me for a meeting, and the day before I went to drive down to have the meeting, he called me telling me that I shouldn’t come. I asked him why that was. I knew already, I’m not stupid, I know the church and I know the theology and I know that in many ways, love can only take people so far when our politics have become our god. And so I don’t know. I knew what was going on, but he was like, “I found one of your articles.” Basically disagreed with me having a black student Bible study on campus, he saw one of my articles critiquing white evangelicalism just post-Trump’s election and said, “We believe all lives matter, and the stuff that you espouse is…” Well I basically asked why and they said, “Because of your stance on Black Lives Matter,” which is that I do believe that they do. And all the political implications of that, God forbid. And then he critiqued the, “Liberation theology bent of my writing,” which isn’t the frame that I write from, which tells you how little he knows about that. But it was interesting that that was kind of the critique. And so I started to get a series of emails or letters or passive aggressive things from my support base down there that was basically just like, “Nope, we’re not doing this anymore.” And so it was less that I left people behind and more that they left me behind when I chose into a different way of being. All of that said, to go full circle, I’m a campus minister at a predominantly white university in a city that’s 87% white. I have a ton of white networks, and that means that I am constantly doing the work of engaging, educating, and befriending white folks and hoping for a more liberative way of being together. So part of that is just believing that people can be different than they are. I say often, I haven’t always been saved and I haven’t always been woke. And those are both such subjective terms that it’s kind of silly, but it is to say that I can’t just—I don’t know how this any other way—I can’t just shit on people for being somewhere that I was and expect that they can’t make the journey that I’ve made. And I knew people and had people in my life who were willing to come alongside me, so I am motivated in some ways by being that person who comes alongside particularly my white students and then helps them to have the tools to better reach white people so I don’t have to anymore.
Tim: Did you need to take a break, though? In terms of from when your light bulb went on and you started to rethink things and your college years to then jumping into doing campus ministry where having hard conversations that were probably triggering somewhat often? Did you need to go sort of collect yourself and then charge in there, or was it pretty easy for you to just jump into doing that work?
Brandi: I don’t think it was either of those things, because I went straight from my experiences in my undergrad into full time ministry and I’ve been doing that for seven years, so I did just go straight into it. But it’s also, there’s no easiness to collectedness to the work? I moved to a city that’s 87% white to weeks before Michael Brown Jr. was killed, and so in the midst of that I acquired this predominantly white chapter of students, thirty or forty mostly white students, most with no sense of their whiteness or identity development. And the first few months all the way up until the non-indictment of Darren Wilson and beyond, there was just—it was awful. It was so terrible. You know, it was a time when it was a video of a black man being killed by the police was every 2-5 days. It was basically constant mourning, but I think there is some degree of privilege to being able to stop thinking about it or stop engaging with it or stop engaging with people, because to be frank, this is my job. It’s my job to love and care for students, and how I choose to do that is one thing, but it wasn’t really an option to just opt out and stop. And so I learned some degree of character resilience and love for students and love for folks who aren’t as far along in that, but it’s not a process I would recommend most people following.
Nate: I’m curious, I wanted to come back to something you said a bit ago. You mentioned liberation theology. You also mentioned this separation between the gospel and what we’re actually doing with our life and what’s true to our feet, and what are we actually living out? I’ve just seen so much the ability to separate the gospel from social justice and so there’s churches that are all about, “We should just preach the gospel! We’re not going to get into politics, we’re not going to do politics or whatever from the pulpit. We just want to preach the gospel, it’s all about the gospel.” And it sounds like this noble, “We’re just going to stay focused,” but I wonder how you have processed that.
Nate: How does that hit you?
Brandi: Well, there’s a campus minister on campus who says something to the effect of that to me probably once or twice a quarter. Like, “Y’all are justice and identity, and we’re gospel centered,” and I’m like, “What are you trying to communicate about what I think about Jesus and the gospel?” For me I think that there is a certain level of, like you’re saying, noble charge. Like, “We’re just focused on the gospel! We’re just focused on salvation!” And one, most of us don’t even know what we think salvation means, we can’t imagine a heaven or hell, we have no concept of that. And so we seem really preoccupied with a thing that we have no concept for and we call that faith, which doesn’t make any sense to me. And if we really loved people, if we really believed in the gospel, if we really believed in a salvific need for people to engage with Jesus, then we would do anything that we could to protect their lives and their livelihood long enough to hear the gospel we say we want to tell them. And I think that with justice things, we counter our, people who believe that counter their own goals by not protecting the livelihood of people that they think need to be saved. Like, if you love people and want them to be saved, you would care about their well-being, their day-to-day housing, food, shelter, oppression. You would care about that. So I think that’s one piece. I also think that to say you just care about the gospel and everything else is like a side project is theologically irresponsible in two foundational ways. One is that that ideology is almost entirely rooted in Paul’s writings, in Paul’s Romans writings, in salvation and eternal life as being completely over there, as other, as far away, and not as Jesus talked about it. Right, Mark 1, it’s Jesus’s first line on the scene, His version of the gospel is the Kingdom is available right now. So I think you take the gospel according to Paul, or you take the gospel according to your interpretation of a book of Paul, and then ignore the rest of what Paul actually seems to say about identity and the need to deal with identity issues in the community. It was his primary thing, especially in Romans, the golden calf of all evangelical theology. So you take all of that, you bastardize Paul over and over and over again, you call it the gospel, and then you say that’s what you’re focused on. But what you inevitably do is erase all of the story of Jesus that was inherently practical and on the ground. And so you not only Paul’s work and then make a false gospel and then worship it and push it out, but you take the true gospel and you erase it in the name of a guy who wrote about the gospel later. So I don’t know, I think that’s probably what I would, that’s think about that.
Tim: Sure. I remember we did a series on gender a while back, and when I was kind of diving into a bunch of study, I encountered this debate between Bible scholars, mostly all white dudes.
Tim: Right. And we did this whole discussion on what Paul means when he’s talking about women being saved through childbirth, and that conversation is for another time, but I reached one of these moments where I wanted to put my head through a wall. There’s a whole world of Bible scholars, and some of them I had to take classes with at seminary, that literally their argument was Paul could never use the word “save” in a way that doesn’t mean spiritually getting into heaven. So they literally took a word—which is just a normal word, to save somebody, to be saved from dying—and then abstracted that so much to this point of basically protestant theology, that it can only mean some sort of spiritual salvation event. And then that was of course how they were justifying not taking a pragmatic interpretation of this passage, that women don’t want to die giving birth to children. But I realized it’s the same thing extrapolated to the entire Bible, is basically, “Lift everything up to this atmospheric level where it means really big cosmic salvation, but it doesn’t have anything to do with real life right now and people that might die tomorrow. It doesn’t affect those things.” And I was just like, “Whoa, we’re so far down a rabbit hole. Where is the good news?” I think it’s lost at this point in Bible scholarship world. And I just remember seeing, it’s so frustrating. So maybe to throw a question on the end of that. Student walks up to you on campus and asks you, “What is the gospel?” How do you answer that question?
Brandi: That more full life and healing is available right now because God loves you exactly as you are and has more for you than you maybe expect for your life. I do very little talking about what happens when a person dies, because frankly Jesus talked very little about what happens when a person dies. And when his disciples asked him, when people asked Jesus what it meant to be saved or how to be saved, his responses were almost always practical. They were never ethereal. It was like, “Sell all your stuff and give it to the poor.” It was, “Come follow me,” which is not—can you imagine if they were like, “I’m just going to follow you in my heart and my mind”? If they had said that to Jesus he would have been like, “That is some bullshit!” Honestly! And so people are like, “What’s the good news? What’s the gospel?” I’m like, “Well, the kingdom is available right now, and the kingdom is where what God wants to have happen happens.” And God wants to have happen through the model of Jesus and, to sound very Christian, the testimony of scripture is that for people to have their bodies and their relationships and their experiences healed. That’s what it is. And so if scripture is not going to be clear about something, I am not going to be clear about that thing, and the afterlife does not seem to be something that it’s clear about, so it’s not a part of my gospel presentation or whatever they would say, whatever language that would be used for that.
Tim: Well and that’s got to present a radical deviation from the norm in a pretty conservative campus ministry world, right? Where for so long it just meant gospel tracts, evangelism and trying to get people to pray the prayer and that kind of thing. So how has that changed your ministry? Obviously you’re still passionate about what you do, you still are doing the work, but how has it changed what ministry is to you?
Brandi: Yeah, so a lot of it is just that I put a lot less pressure on my students and staff to get a quote, unquote “conversion” out of something. I think that that becomes a numeric metric that doesn’t end up meaning much. Because I think a lot of people stand up at a conference and never follow Jesus, and that’s not conversion, that’s a moment. A single moment. And I think that conversion itself is converting over and over and over again, it’s a process, not a single moment, so my hope in my ministry is to create opportunities every day for conversion for students, conversion to the way of Jesus in their relationships, in their mental health, in their sex lives, in how they think about food and exercise, in how they think about justice and the poor and all of those things. I think that every day is an opportunity to convert. Which is very liturgical, you know, that’s a very old way of thinking about conversion, and so I think that’s changed a lot of what I’m about. I will say that I think that decisions do matter. Decisions to follow Jesus and hallmarked moments of baptism or eucharist, those matter. I’ve been reading the story, that very weird story in Acts 8 where Philip goes and encounters the Ethiopian eunuch, and the eunuch’s response is like, “Why shouldn’t I be baptized right now?” Something about decisions matter, but it’s not a decision so that you transactionally are close to God again, it’s decisions and symbols because decisions and symbols matter in every part of our lives, any relationship has those kind of moments. Yeah. I just think that I feel way less pressure as a minister to make things happen and more freedom to, instead of telling students who I think they should be, help students see the best in who they are and follow that, because at the end of the day I’m not going to be in their life pastoring them forever, but they will always have to live in their own bodies, and so I want them to know themselves really well and to call out the best in them and not just what I think the best of what a Christian should or should not look like is.
Nate: I love that, though, because it’s actually helping them be a better version of themself, be a better human being. These are things that I never really thought. This sounds so bad, but as a pastor and a Christian my whole life, that wasn’t really what I—it was so much focused on what happens at this moment after this life is over that, is it C.S. Lewis that says you basically become ineffective in this life? So I love that, I love your focus there. Maybe this is shifting gears just a little bit, but I noticed some of your tweets, you’re kind of calling out this feeling of needing to have certainty, and there’s so much focus on certainty as a Christian. I’m just curious, these last few years has been a process for me, and Tim to an extent, of leaving a circle that we were pretty firmly established in where everything is safe and comfortable and everyone agrees that you’re going to heaven and that you’re a Christian, and that you love Jesus and the Bible and all that. And even though a lot of those things are still true, we still love Jesus, God, the Bible, and that’s why we have a show where we talk about those things, there’s a lot of people that would say we’re essentially not Christian, we’re hurting the church, we’re whatever just by raising questions and talking about stuff and calling out things. Anyway, okay, there is a question here. So when you leave that circle or you’re forced out of that circle, you’re pushed out of that circle, whatever the circumstances are for not being in that circle anymore, I’ve found that it’s liberating but it’s also really scary and sometimes frustrating and sad. And I’m just curious what that experience has been like for you. I’m sure that there are people that do not think you are a Christian or do not think you are the epitome of what a Christian should be, and I’m just curious what that experience has been like for you to have this thing that you care so much about and have other people who think you’re doing a bad job at that?
Brandi: Yeah, you know, it’s a little hard to say because I think the first things that come to mind are practical. Like the main impact has been financial, it’s that I’ve lost probably five or six thousand dollars a year in ministry support by people who don’t think that I believe in the gospel anymore. Which is fine. I feel like a lot of ministry contexts are people buying their own values and then investing those values in other people, hoping that their ideas will become everyone else’s ideas through the ministry who they pay. So I don’t know that I feel, I don’t know how I feel, I obviously feel something about that. I don’t totally know what. But I think that what has been grounding for me in people not thinking I’m a Christian is that I think I love Jesus more than most people do. I have come to the conclusion, I think it’s Rachel Held Evans who says that the story of Jesus is a story she’s willing to be wrong about, the story she’s most willing to be wrong about.
Brandi: And for me that is true, I don’t know how much I care, apart from my very fragile existential moments, about what is later. If it was just about right now, if it was just this present moment, if it was just this life and that was all there was to following Jesus, I think that following Jesus is worth it now. And so I don’t know that I can say that about a lot of the people who don’t call me a Christian, or who say I’m not a Christian. I don’t think a lot of those folks, if were just about following Jesus with nothing to gain on the other side, that they would continue following Jesus. And so maybe that’s egocentric or something, but I don’t need anything from Jesus to want to follow Jesus other than Jesus. And so I don’t know that I think that much about other people not thinking I’m Christian beyond the day-to-day impacts of that, because for every person that doesn’t think I’m a Christian there is a student on my campus or there is a friend that I have who’s been alienated and thought that God would never love them or could never love them for whatever reason, and I get to be there for those people. So to be honest, I don’t think that much about those people who don’t think I’m Christian, because it doesn’t matter to me.
Tim: Uh, I got two questions. Gotta decide which one. Well, kind of jumping back and forth. I really appreciate what you said about ministry being way more low pressure. I don’t know if I’ve really reflected on this much, but I was a pastor for a bit, Nate was a pastor for a bit, and looking back, in protestant white evangelical world where ministry is about controlling people’s doctrinal certainty, it makes you a pretty neurotic person, you know? To think that what you’re supposed to do is control everybody’s brains to keep believing a thing with no distractions and to ignore the constant stream of doubt and alternative information, whatever. I almost think it’s malformative for people. I mean, there’s all sorts of side conversations we could get into on how many lead pastors and pastor-folk are just emotional wrecks, essentially.
Tim: But I guess I just want to say for anybody listening who is in ministry of some sort, working in church world or parachurch world, whatever it takes for you to get to a place where you can feel like you actually don’t have pressure on you to control people, get there. For us, at least for me, it took leaving it to kind of realize, oh my gosh, regardless of what I do with the rest of my life, I never want to feel like it’s my job to control what people believe. Have you felt, moving in that direction, has it felt relieving and refreshing for you?
Brandi: I don’t know if it’s felt relieving or refreshing. I still work for the same community I’ve worked for for a long time, so I’ve changed even though the community that I’m working for has not necessarily. And so I still sit in the institutional expectations of what I do in my own personal transformation in the midst of that. I think what feels, I don’t know if it’s refreshing or more just sobering and realistic, is that I’ve done ministry long enough now—and it’s not very long, in the context of ministry it’s not a very long time and I understand that. I’ve seen enough people, like I’ve hit the crest in ministry where I’ve seen people decide to follow Jesus or not follow Jesus after they graduate from the things that I do. And I think there are two spectrum ends of what happens when ministers teach people. Because it’s not just that we control people as ministers, it’s that other people learn how to be controlled. Like, you can’t just control people who have not learned to be controlled. And so I think part of the danger of the ways evangelicalism works right now is that it teaches people through guilt and shame, through false certainty, how to be controlled. And it is a temptation of every minister to have a clean kind of ministry where control is at the center because it makes sense. But what I’ve seen happen over the last few years, particularly in our political environment, is that when we teach people how to be controlled, two things tend to happen in their extremes. I think one is that we end up in this cultish faith experience where we see what’s happening with the religious right right now, a politicized faith that is so embedded in power and privilege and control that it seems normal, that we’ve made what is explicitly immoral moral because we have so tied ourselves to the idea of control being what we need. Or we abandon it completely where people have no faith at all because they don’t know how to have faith when their life experiences don’t line up with the thing that they’ve been taught by their authority figures. And I think that’s where some of the deconstruction movement has picked up so much steam, is that when people find themselves unable to sit in either camp, we don’t know what to do. And I have a lot of thoughts about the deconstruction, like the movement of deconstruction right now, but I think that there is something about that it’s not as much refreshing as it is sobering to go, oh, actually a lot of people have only been taught how to be controlled and haven’t been taught how to encounter Jesus for themselves, which is a bummer, to say the least.
Nate: I’d love to hear your hot take on the deconstruction movement and your thoughts around that. I mean, the word for me is, I’m over the word, for sure. So I’m just curious of your thoughts.
Brandi: My experience with the deconstruction movement is that it is largely a white, liberal, intellectual movement that does a lot for people’s inner lives but kind of traps people there, and if it doesn’t, the overflow is usually a really mean, uninviting progressivism. I don’t know if that’s a word, but a progressive ideology that is so progressive it’s exclusive, which doesn’t make any sense, so we become the versions of the things that we say that we hate. Like, “Oh we hate fundamentalists, but now we’re being fundamentalist about how much we hate fundamentalists.” And that just seems weird to me to sit in the irony of all of that. So deconstruction for me feels hard because I think that some level of deconstruction is natural and good, and we should all be in deconstructing processes. I think that when students lose their faith for the first time, they find they have the opportunity to actually find their faith for the first time. But I think that oftentimes with deconstruction, we give people a lot of tools to deconstruct but nothing to reconstruct, and so we send people kind of curtailing into emotional, relational, spiritual fracturing, and don’t give people anything to hold onto in the midst of it. It ends up being pretty dark, and I know a lot of people who have gone through deconstruction as they would call it can say that dark space was really good for them, but I don’t think it has to be that way. I think that there’s a way to hold onto a few things in the midst of deconstructing to be more responsible, I think community and maybe one thing you like about Jesus. I don’t know, it doesn’t have to be very intense, but I think deconstruction puts everything on the table and makes everything subjective. And maybe everything is subjective, but I don’t think I can, as a person who likes the Bible and likes Jesus, be like, “Yeah, everything’s just subjective and do whatever you want!” And I can’t, as a person who sees oppression, believe that. And so I think deconstruction makes everything so subjective that no one’s ever grounded very fully. And it’s just kind of sad. So I don’t know, I feel like I have a lot of thoughts about deconstruction that are good and healthy, but I think my general take is, we help people deconstruct really well right now, but if people don’t have anything to reconstruct or rebuild on it just leaves people feeling exiled or destitute without anything to hold onto.
Tim: Yeah, I appreciate those thoughts. As you were saying that I kind of got this image in my head, because so much, especially pastors, authoritarian religious leaders, especially the big name, will say stuff to try to keep people from ever getting close to deconstruction world, that it feels very much to me like another form of just controlling your camp and trying to keep people in-house. And I got this picture, it kind of feels like if you picture a spaceship or a satellite in orbit, and it takes breaking through that orbit of authoritarian religious control, which just sends you flying into outer space, right? So we’ve talked to so many people that listen to the show who finding the courage to actually breakthrough is a really big deal for them because they’ve been swimming in the world of, “Don’t lose your faith! Don’t ever stop believing! Don’t question anything,” like suppress all doubt sort of deal. So I’m curious, especially with college aged students, you’re probably swimming in people who are going through major changes in what they believe, how have you found ways to allow people the freedom to change their minds and not be sure about what they believe and question everything, put it all on the table, but then not shoot off into outer space, especially alone, where they then find themselves with no support or friends or any of that?
Brandi: Yeah, well a lot of it is who I bring in to teach and to speak and to have space in our community. I think the more that students can find themselves in the stories of people who are like them, the better. My chapter’s about 55% students of color, probably 20% identify as LGBTQ, and so I can’t just bring like, white guy Jake in every week and be like, “Hey, tell us about the gospel!” Like, Brad doesn’t have anything to say to my community that they haven’t already heard. You know, it doesn’t mean that I don’t bring white guys into talk to us. It does mean I’m really careful of who I put in front of my students, and I’m careful that I am not the only or even the primary voice that they hear. I try to teach 1-2 times out of our ten meetings every quarter so that I am not the primary person they’re hearing from, because I think for me, indoctrination or the ability to be outside of doubt was because I didn’t hear many experiences outside of the one pastor who I was hearing every week at whatever community I was a part of, and it was always a white guy. And so I think there are just ways my own experience wasn’t reflected. So if I help students have their experiences reflected, then they can feel the freedom to ask the questions that those people have asked or to pursue the types of lives that those people pursue. Because I think just having faith models matters. I think there’s a reason, I think about most white men, you talked about C.S. Lewis earlier, like N.T. Wright, there’s all these people who are these models who people can attach their experiences to or like their questions, but because of the lack of access for women, folks of color, LGBTQ folks, because of the lack of access to the academy, there aren’t a lot of written models. It’s increasing now, but there weren’t that many, and so I try to help shift that by bringing in people for my students to hear from. We also do a type of Bible study that’s really based around questions. Like it’s not I ask a question and you answer it. It’s, “Hey, what are your questions about this text? What bugs you about this? What is weird about this to you? What is confusing, what is frustrating, what does this make you feel?” So making the text more accessible to a human, not a doctrinal robot, because I think that’s what we try to do with most Bible study guides. So try to help them actually bring their experience to the text, because Jesus doesn’t want to transform the fake version of them or the fronting, doctrinally savvy version of them, but the real version of them, the real them that exists in flesh and blood. So try to give a lot of space for that. And then finally, I think we do a lot of things that are really practical, like we’re doing stuff around environmental care and the ethics of the land, and we do identity development conferences or mini-trainings for folks throughout the year. We’re going to talk soon about Christians and mental health. Most of my leaders team is in therapy. It’s really practical stuff, things that the church say are marks of bad faith. Like that therapy’s the mark of bad faith because you didn’t pray your mental health crises away. I’m like, no let’s actually model a different way of us all saying, “Yeah, we’re all doing this!” Okay, cool, great. So I think just modeling different ways for people and giving people on ramps to the text and to spirituality that aren’t just white male evangelical protestant. They can look on a dumb Twitter timeline all day for that. I don’t need to give that to them.
Tim: Yeah. I think the one you mentioned, too, of just delegating voices, not being the voice all the time and not having the final say. That’s such a simple way to model the Christian way of power that I basically begged our church to embody for years until I just realized it was never going to happen. The control over pulpit, the control over decision making, the control over a small, limited group of people. I just realized we had different Christianities. Mine was a Christianity of giving away your power and privilege and finding ways to practice that and recognize when it’s hard. And most of the people around me, both like you were saying, the people who had been controlled, or sorry, had been taught to be controlled, and the people who had embodied this way of controlling for so long, actually I realized neither of them wanted to break free from the mold. There were a lot of people that really wanted authoritarian religion and one strong figure who was going to captain the ship, where they didn’t actually want delegation. And I just kind of had to break away. For me, the thing I’ve reconstructed with is seeing that simple acts like that of sharing leadership power is profoundly beautiful and is a way that we can all follow Jesus without any doctrinal arguments or whatever, and makes a legitimate change in people’s lives and in the way we do community.
Brandi: Yeah, totally. It’s not that hard. It’s just not that hard. Churches do not trust their congregants. Communities do not trust the people who engage with them. Because if your congregation can’t handle one person talking about something and having to discern truth for themselves or having to pay attention to something, you’ve done a terrible job shepherding your community. All that that reveals to me, like when people are like, “I won’t share the pulpit,” is that they are fragile. It’s that they’re fragile and their work is fragile. It just is.
Tim: I feel like you know the church I used to work for. [laughing]
Brandi: [laughing] I might.
Nate: Okay, can we do a segment where I read a few of your tweets and you give us more information. More than 280 characters, you can keep talking, how about that?
Brandi: Yeah, sure. [laughing]
Nate: Okay, cool. These are all recent ones, too. So on the topic of power, you said, “Instead of subverting power structures in the places that we go, the church frequently either gets in bed with power structures or creates oppressive power structures of our own.”
Brandi: Yeah, so I think in the midst of being in a country that calls itself Christian but doesn’t model or value Christ at all, we become like the people in power that we most attribute Christlikeness or what we think Christ would want. So if we can say that Donald Trump is like Jesus because he’s hypothetically pro-life, which is really just anti-abortion in his case and in most pro-life people’s cases, then we can say that if we think Jesus would fight for that and Trump’s fighting for that, then Trump is like Jesus and therefore the power that he has is from Jesus. And we would rather protect that power, engage with that power, institutionalize and systematize that power than follow the downward mobility of Jesus that didn’t do anything like that. And it’s true that… So Luke is my core text, it’s the book that I most sit in. And in Luke 10 Jesus sends out the ten. Er, he sends out the twelve. In Luke 10. He sends out twelve.. He gives them power and authority. They go and they apparently succeed in the mission, and then they come back having been stripped of all of their conventional power. Jesus says, “I give you power and authority,” and then he takes away their bag, their capacity to literally carry anything, their food, their staff, so their weapon and their walking stick, and their clothes. He leaves them completely vulnerable! He gives them power and authority and then strips them of all conventional power. But when those guys come back, the rest of Luke 10 is them being just idiots. It’s where they ask which one of them is the greatest, it’s where they ask, or it’s where James and John go to a town that rejects them and they want to call down fire on the city. There’s all this nonsense that’s happening, which tells me that the church’s vying for power institutionally and within church spaces is normal and natural if these guys were doing it. And what surprises me is that in the midst of that, that Jesus still gives away power and authority, but it always looks different. Because right afterward he sends 72 more people, so I don’t know. I’ve been thinking about power and power structures a lot, and I can’t ignore the just utter nonsense of our current political and therefore church life that just vies for the same thing as the disciples vied for in the time of Jesus.
Tim: Can I ask you a nerdy Bible interpretation question as a follow up to your reflections on Luke?
Tim: How do you interpret, “I see Satan fall like lightning”?
Brandi: I—I am not super sure, because I have to undo. Like, I can tell that there’s all these things that I haven’t undone from my really deep, Tim LaHaye was the theologian of the times, kind of work. But I think that there’s something that when Jesus sees the way of the kingdom happening, it would make sense that Satan would fall like lightning. That a fast swoop of the kingdom coming in would have a dramatic cosmic effect. So people, when Jesus’ followers go in vulnerably and invite other people to the life that is truly life, I think that has some kind of cosmic implications. So maybe that. I don’t know.
Nate: Okay, next tweet. “Many white folks will quote King saying that they too long for a world ‘where [people] will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character’ while also embodying white supremacy both in character and color. What they really want is no judgment.” Dot dot dot… I’m doing the Stephen Colbert doing Donald Trump.
Brandi: [laughing] Yeah. Uh, no one wants to look like a racist! And the easiest way to—well, okay, I think that lots of people think that the easiest way to not look like a racist is to quote people who people think are racial heroes. But quote those people entirely outside of the context of how they live out the thing that they’re talking about. So people can say, “Hey, I want us all to be judged equally,” and then we’re like, “Okay, you know what would make it equal for black people? There not being police brutality! Or like, let’s deal with mass incarceration.” And people are like, “Hold on there! No, no, no! That’s too much!” And I’m like, “Okay, you actually don’t believe in equality, you don’t believe in equity, because that requires laying down of power. But then simultaneously you don’t want to have the character implications put on you of the thing that you choose.” So we can choose to maintain power structures and oppression all the time, and then when we’re told that we’re doing it, we’re like, “No, no, no, no, no! Dr. King!” You cannot have both. So I think it’s probably that.
Tim: I think that last line, the last thing you said in your tweet—sorry to be reading yourself to yourself so much, but that people just want to get out of judgment. I think that actually is a broad swath indictment on American evangelicalism. That for so much of it, what the gospel is is—
Nate: [thick redneck accent] “I’m not perfect, I’m just forgiven!”
Tim: Yeah! Nate, you’re doing too many accents right now. No, but it is that! And this is where I got into my, I won’t say deconstruction, but I think that is what it was, where I started questioning everything and I got really dissatisfied psychologically and emotionally with evangelical interpretations of Christianity. Because I started to realize what we were saying was good news is that people can go on being evil, but if they think the right things then they won’t deal with the ramifications of that. I actually started to realize, which I should have seen a long time ago, that’s terrible news to the world! And it goes against the entire basic principle of the Hebrew scriptures and Jewish faith, which is that God will one day come and enact justice and vindicate the victims!
Brandi: Yes. That’s why you have prophets. Yeah, that’s not good news. It just is not.
Nate: Okay, next tweet. Let me just do one or two more. “White evangelicals have rushed to take a tainted gospel to black and brown children overseas but have been quick to demonize Black and Brown bodies in front of them. We goin in.”
Brandi: I think it’s still always about perception. We want to seem like we’re living out the gospel to all nations while hating the people closest to us. It is much, much harder to love your black neighbor than it is to sponsor a child in Africa whose picture you can put up on your refrigerator. Evangelical Christianity in so many ways has trained people to be entirely focused on credit and self-perception, not about impact. It’s always about intention, it’s always about what you think that your impact is, and the impact is never about what the people you’re impacting think that it is. It’s why we have thousands of people going to Mexico bringing materials that people don’t need to paint orphanages that have been painted every year, because it’s about perception. It’s about us siphoning our holiness or our spirituality in image off of the rest of the world while betraying all of our integrity by doing nothing while we are here.
Nate: Thanks for doing that. I know it’s kind of weird reading your own tweets to you.
Brandi: Eh, they all have more context, so.
Nate: I do have another question. Maybe as a way of wrapping up. I’m just curious, where do you… I think someone listening could hear a lot of, a lack of hope in a lot of the things we talk about, probably, on this show, because we’re calling out so many things that need to be called out. I’m just curious, where do you find hope? Where do you see hope and what gives you hope?
Brandi: I think I’m more relearning what hope is right now because I think sometimes hope can be kind of an opiate for engaging with reality. But that is to say that I actually am a pretty hopeful person. I think I just recognize sometimes, for some folks hearing that question it can be like, “Everything’s bad, but what keeps you going?” And I don’t know that that’s always super realistic. Because I think hope is one of the hardest calls of scripture. I think take up your cross, to go and follow, to drop everything and follow, and to hope I think are the hardest. Because hope is to believe in something that you cannot see. And so I think for me what does bring me hope in all of that is seeing people doing things that I would never think of. Trying things that I would never think of, accomplishing things I would never think of, because it’s really easy for me to get stuck in my little world of campus ministry or of justice stuff or writing or publishing. You know, it can be all of that, but when I see folks… you know, when I see the woman who just gave thousands of dollars then crowdsourced a ton of money to get hotel rooms for houseless folks in Chicago in the freezing weather? I’m like, oh, I don’t know if I have that kind of integrity, I don’t know if I would even have that creativity to do something like that. And when I see people fighting for what is right, when I see some of my students undo some of their racism, when I see students’ parents engaging with things that they would have never engaged with before. It makes me remember the fundamental reality that I have to come back to all the time, which is I haven’t always been saved and I haven’t always been woke, and if these people are being transformed, then it wasn’t just for me or it wasn’t just me. It’s a movement that could be bigger than this. And so it feels very Eat, Pray, Love to be like, “Small things over time!” But it truly is paying attention to the people who aren’t just tweeting about the work, talking about the work, theorizing about the work, but who are actually doing it on the ground. So I think those people bring me hope.
Tim: Cool. Okay, last question from my end at least. I know you’re supposed to get all the bad stuff, or negativity and anger, you do those first and then you’re supposed to end with the hope piece, but I’m going to go back. So in the stuff you’ve written, especially last year for Huffington Post, the stuff that I’ve appreciated the most, you’ve laid some pretty heavy public critiques on white evangelicalism. And I’m sure you’ve gotten a lot of the same flack that we’ve gotten and so many people get, the Rachel Held Evans of the world. This basically, “You’re just cutting down the church, you sound angry, this isn’t beneficial, this isn’t helpful.” Why is, in your mind, having tough conversations and saying things that need to be said, and specifically laying critiques on the Christian world in America, why is that worthwhile? Why is that worth for you personally giving a lot of your time to? Why is it not just swimming in negativity and so much of this stuff that people can characterize it as?
Brandi: At a very basic level, I just think we can do better. [laughing] I just think we can do better. And I think that there are a million voices out there who are railing and giving critiques who have not stayed, who have not been in it, who have not done the… it’s the prophets, it’s the late prophets who laid critique but stayed. Like Jeremiah stays for exile, he goes into exile with the people. And so I think for me, I can rail every critique that I do because I’m still here. Because I’m still doing the work, I’m not just saying stuff to stir up drama, I’m doing it because I believe in the kingdom, I believe in Jesus, I believe in my students and my friends. And so I think it’s worth it because I think that we can be better. I think that we can do better than we are and I think that people can live more full, liberated, and long lives if we do this work. I do specifically believe that the work that we do around calling out white supremacy and white evangelicalism is worth it because I cannot let us believe so easily that what we’re experiencing right now is normal. This is not business as usual. This is not Christianity as usual. This is not Jesus as usual. This is some crazy-making, and if white evangelicals were just a religious bloc, just a group of people who were white and evangelical like black evangelicals are, that’d be different. But they’re not, they’re political entity and a voting bloc, which means it’s not just about people’s personal faith preferences. It’s about people’s person faith preferences creating destructive life situations for other people. And so as long as the religious right, as long as white evangelicals are a voting bloc that’s doing the kind of nonsense that they are, I think it is worth it to engage so that people don’t feel crazy all the time. It’s the primary feedback I get from my writing apart from the horrible, horrible, horrible things people say to me, is, “Hey, you put into words a thing I felt but couldn’t say.” And so I want people to feel like the things that they’re experiencing are valid and that they are not crazy in the midst of a world, in the midst of a country that is doing everything that they can to make people feel like their lived experiences don’t matter.
Nate: I really appreciate you coming on today, Brandi. This has been really fun.
Brandi: Yeah, no problem. Thanks for having me.
Tim: Yeah, thanks for talking with us and thanks for doing that work. Honestly. I think it’s actually, the last thing you just said, trying to help people not feel crazy is one of our primary reasons for doing this podcast, and Nate and I have come more and more to believe that that’s sacred work that needs to be done, especially in these times right now. So thanks for sticking your neck out there and doing it.
Brandi: Yeah. It’s no problem. Today at least, we’ll see if it is later. [laughing]
Tim: [laughing] Serious.
Nate: Alright friends. Thanks for spending some more time with us. If you want to get notified when we publish our next episode, make sure you hit subscribe on this show in your podcast app. And remember, I say this a lot, but you are not alone. We’re on this journey with you. We’re here for you, and there are millions of others walking alongside. To connect with us, ask questions, share your story, anything else, just visit almostheretical.com. Alright, we’ll talk to you next time.