“He can no longer have God for his father, who has not the Church for his mother.”
— Cyprian of Carthage
I got an email from her the first week of classes. Her complaint, in short, was that the content of the assigned readings was offensive. Not a surprising complaint, considering. It was a 200-level fiction writing course, one that draws equally from my college’s small pool of English majors and from the general student body. For one of the first readings, I had assigned Denis Johnson’s “Emergency,” in which two deadbeats stumble around rural Iowa, stoned to the edge of consciousness on whatever pills they’d managed to steal from the small town emergency room where they both work. Besides the drugs, there’s domestic violence, dead bunnies, draft dodging: lots of things to offend a conservative kid from North Idaho, where I teach. It probably didn’t help that the protagonist—technically unnamed in Johnson’s book—is usually referred to as Fuckhead, and that was how we referred to him in class.
She wrote, “My family and I have fairly strict standards in regards to what we want to expose ourselves to especially through books.” As this is Idaho, it was a definite possibility that she was from some fringe religious sect, and I held onto that hope. The reference to her family would fit: I pictured a strong patriarch here, lots of flannel and gingham, a moderately armed compound, maybe a neck beard or two among the menfolk. Had she been from a fringe sect, I could have dismissed the objection without much more thought. That was my initial impulse. I teach college, not high school. My first reaction was to send back a terse email that said, “If you can’t handle the course material, you should probably drop the class.”
But something about the tone, the quietness, the concern about the dangers of—“especially”—books, also sounded to me a little like a further-Right, farther-West version of the Evangelicalism I grew up with. We set up a time to meet in my office.
In his first letter to the Corinthian church, the Apostle Paul introduces an idea that is known in Evangelicalism as the principle of the weaker brother. The gist of the argument is that, in a situation where a believer with a broader view of what is permissible Christian behavior (think drinking here, or cursing, or reading fiction about stoned guys named Fuckhead) encounters a believer with a narrower view, the broadminded believer should yield her liberty to the sensitive conscience of the weaker brother.
At heart, this is about love, about love for the weaker brother. It is about gentleness with those of tender conscience, about not placing unnecessary impediments between them and their attempts to follow God. For Evangelicals like me, who curse, and drink, and read Denis Johnson, it is a reminder that my first concern ought to be not for my freedoms, but for the wellbeing of my brothers and sisters in the faith. Paul’s assumption, here, is not that Christianity does not involve any moral imperatives but that there will always be a subset of Christians who supplement the actual moral imperatives of the faith with extraneous ones. This was the case in the first century congregations to which he was writing, and it is certainly the case now. Paul reframes the conversation about permissible behavior, taking for granted that, while many controversial behaviors are perfectly permissible, that permissibility is beside the point. He presses us to ask the larger questions of love for those who, like I am, are striving to live faithfully.
The trouble is: I don’t have much patience for the weaker brother. I frequently find myself frustrated with those corners of the Church, with their small-minded love of rules. I am frustrated with the superficial reading of the scriptures that leads them to embrace this litany of extra-biblical regulations and to miss the larger and more beautiful picture that is drawn there. I am frustrated and, as such, I am inclined to dismiss as naïve earnest struggles that burden the consciences of my brothers and sisters.
Once she was in my office, seated across from me, it was harder to dismiss her. The first thing that struck me was that she was young, younger than she had seemed sitting in the back of the classroom. She was, as it turned out, a high-schooler, taking my class for dual credit. The second thing that struck me, as we spoke, was that she was smart. I encouraged her to speak first, and she articulated herself well. These were her family’s ideas, yes, but they were also her own.
She had large eyes behind glasses, long hair braided. She sat across from me as one seated in enemy territory, hands folded in her lap, back straight. She hoped to escape without a fight, but she was ready for whatever might come.
I remembered being eighteen and Evangelical, in a position not at all unlike hers. I remembered sitting in the office of a professor, telling her that I was uncomfortable with the course material for reasons that were different from my student’s but fundamentally the same. I remembered my professor, who was Buddhist and had her spiked hair dyed pink, listening to me patiently, taking my concerns seriously even though she had had the very same conversation about the very same course material with a friend of mine the year previous.
My professor didn’t change anything about her course materials. She didn’t make any exceptions, but she did listen. She took my concerns seriously, didn’t belittle my beliefs. She was patient with me even though she had far less reason for it than I had to be patient with my own student.
Sitting across from my student, I was not a representative of the academy, or of my rights as a faculty member. I was not a defender of Denis Johnson. When I was sitting across from this young woman whom I had offended, I was—I must be—first a member with her of the Church, a child of God like her. I must, first, be her brother.
The day after our conversation, my student dropped the class. This was a few years ago, and in the years since, I have had many conversations like the one I had with her. I still teach Denis Johnson and all sorts of other potentially offensive stuff. Maybe I should change that, but I haven’t yet. In all my conversations with these brothers and sisters, I say the same sorts of things. I try to establish that my first loyalty, like theirs, is to our shared Lord, to our shared Church. They do not believe this, I think. I always seem to talk about Flannery O’Connor, and I usually bring up Ezekiel. I talk about how provocative our scriptures are, how offensive our beliefs to those uncomfortable acknowledging the darkness at the heart of humanity, how frank we must be about that darkness if we hope to make any difference standing, as we do, in the midst of it with our small lights.
I always begin the conversations saying, “I am your brother,” and I always end up feeling I have failed to be. When they leave my office and—often—my class, I end up feeling like I have failed. I end up feeling like, in the final tally, I am the weaker brother. Not in Paul’s sense, certainly, but in the sense that matters. I end up feeling like I am the one who has failed at the larger task of love. I hope that, someday, my student will read Flannery O’Connor or Ezekiel and will see, not that I was right necessarily, but that in my own weak and broken way, I was trying to love her.