On Diverse Reading Lists: A Friendly Response to Denny Burk

Disclaimer: During my time in Louisville, Denny Burk was the associate pastor of the church where I was a member. We maintain a friendly relationship to this day, and this post should be read as no exception to that.

I spent some time yesterday reading and thinking about Denny Burk’s recent reflections posted on his blog entitled “The Dead-end of Research Justice.” Burk can always be relied upon to interrogate the demands of an ever-secularizing culture on Christians. Secularizing is perhaps not strong enough a word for the idealogical conformity demanded by some sectors of the American left. In this case, Burk is concerned by “research justice”, also known as decolonizing, approach to academia. I share his concern.

Just this past week I saw a completely absurd post from a student attempting to put her professor on notice publicly for failing to meet whatever arbitrary standard the student thought was acceptable. This is a real problem in academia and in our culture writ large. It needs to end.

Burk writes, “Research justice requires racial preferences for authors from marginalized groups and racial discrimination against authors from privileged groups. When you add to this standpoint epistemology (which is also a favored tool of Critical Theory), it’s not difficult to see why the racial identity of the author outweighs reason and evidence as a criterion for excellence.”

So what then? What should professors do? For Burk’s part, he says that he has never screened potential textbook authors with consideration to race. He only screens them for excellence of content and assumes all person of any race or culture can produce such work. Burk writes, “Racial identity just doesn’t figure into that calculus, nor do I see why it should. It is certainly no failure of justice to leave it out of the calculus.”

This is where I want to push back on Burk. First, let me agree with him. I do not think it is wise, correct, or helpful to label Burk’s standard as racist, xenophobic, or unjust. I asked Denny for clarification on this on twitter and he gave it: “Racial identity is not a category that either commends or condemns a prospective text.” It would be fair to say that he takes a “colorblind” approach to text selection.

I want to put forward disagreement with Burk here. While I do not believe racial identity or cultural identity condemn a prospective text (e.g. “no white male authors!”), I do want to offer some reasons that I believe they may commend a text. In sum, I want to argue for the inclusion of diverse voices in theological reading. I believe it would be good for theological educators and Southern Baptist ones in particular to strive towards this sort of intentionality.

The lack of diversity in reading for theological education is a real issue of debate. During my time in seminary, countless students of colors expressed their dismay and frustration to me that in 3-4 years of theological education, every single author without exception was a white man of European descent with the possible exception of Augustine. How can this be possible?

Why Does This Matter?

First, we have to ask: does this even matter? Yes, it matters. Diverse perspectives are meaningful and worth intentionally including in our theological work. For this part of the discussion, I want to draw off of David Clark’s excellent book To Know and Love God: Method for Theology. This is one of the standard texts in Evangelical theological method. In his book, Clark makes a distinction between the sort of postmodern deconstructionism that Burk is concerned about and the value of different perspectives for doing theology. Clark writes, “One’s perspective always forms the grid out of which the world is interpreted and life is lived” (100). To borrow the old phrase, to a hammer everything looks like a nail.

Clark wants to balance the importance of diverse perspectives with evangelical truth. Culture can not determine truth. He says that Christians must adhere to the universality of the gospel as true for all people and totalizing as a worldview. He writes, “The gospel is true for all peoples in every culture… perspectivalism, however, must deny this is so. Therefore…evangelical theology must reject the current rampant perspectivalism.” This perspectivalism is the belief that cultural/racial/social perspective determines meaning, and therefore, truth itself. This is what Burk is rejecting as well, and rightly so.

However, we should not suggest that we are utterly objective in how we approach theology or exegesis. We all come to the text with presuppositions, both conscious and unconscious, which shape our views. Clark writes, “Evangelical theology at its best will acknowledge that perspective influences all thinking. And a modest deconstruction of overly assertive modernist claims is all to the good. But proper evangelical theology also realizes the need for deliberate strategies to prevent cultural and historical location from imprisoning theology in the though of a particular time” (144). What should we do then? We should a) interrogate our own assumptions, and fight their influence over our interpretation and theological method and b) refuse to allow our culture to imprison our theology.

We are people who are not inherently objective working to interpret Scripture which is absolute. This is a difficult task. D.A. Carson tells us that there is something to learn from this view of different perspectives. He says, “…gently applied [this] rightly questions the arrogance of modernism… ruthlessly applied [this] nurtures a new hubris and deifies agnosticism.”

Clark is insistent that we not give into these cultural forces. What Burk, and the sources he cites, calls “standpoint epistemology”, Clark calls “epistemic relativism” and says it is “deeply flawed” and self-defeating. He says that this view is that “all truth depends on the knower’s viewpoint” and that this is utterly inconsistent with Christian belief.

Commending Diverse Perspectives

Why then would I argue against Burk’s point? Simply put, it’s because there are significant benefits that commend diverse perspectives in curriculum without giving an inch to critical theory, intersectionality, epistemic relativism, or any other secular theory that contradicts the gospel as a totalizing worldview. As such, we should consider works by scholars from the majority world, as well as minorities in our own spheres when we decide which resources to use.

Clark gives an example of why this is valuable. One day, teaching a 90 minute class on divorce and remarriage a student approached him to tell him how the lecture did not relate to his needs. Why? Because he is the eldest son of his father’s fourth wife. His father is a polygamist. In that moment Clark realized that culture had affected his approach to theology, his emphasis on teaching, and his application of Scriptural truth.

I am decidedly NOT saying that there is truth that is inaccessible to white men and therefore we need BIPOC to interpret Scripture in a way that we can not understand as white men. That is some weird form of ethnic gnosticism. I am purposefully NOT saying that culture should determine theology.

What I am saying is that we should read diverse perspectives to prevent undue influence from one culture over a theology or exegetical task that should speak universally. The issue is not the Scripture. The issue is us.

The church is diverse. Evangelicalism and the Southern Baptist Convention are diverse. We need each other. We need to hear each other and balance each other. So then I want to conclude with a list of reasons that commend an intentional effort to include diverse voices and perspectives that are not beholden to worldly approaches. Every point below assumes that diverse perspectives and cultures does not mean divergent views about the gospel and assume a refusal of secular worldview; diversity in perspective and background, unity in common confession and a common gospel: “One Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all.”

  1. Preventing bias. We need diverse readings to prevent a single culture from having unchecked cultural influence over our study of theology. We have blind spots. By their very nature, we can not see them. Diverse perspectives will challenge us on our assumptions, some of which we may find to be less biblical and more cultural.
  2. It’s who we are. We need diverse perspectives because we are diverse. The SBC repented of racism in 1995. Since then, the number of black churches in the SBC has increased significantly. It should not be the case that our nearly 4,000 black SBC churches can send their students to seminaries that they fund and their students basically never read a scholar that looks like them or shares their background. Their tradition is loaded with great resources. That is not even to speak of contributions from Asian scholars, Latin American scholars, and others. Why are we not drawing from them? This brings me to the next point.
  3. There’s no good reason not to. We should intentionally consider diverse perspective because they are not hard to find and countless minority scholars are producing excellent work. It speaks to our blind spots that this requires effort! There are many, many faithful scholars of color who far surpass our standard of excellence in Christian scholarship. Sometimes we saying we are only choosing the “best stuff”. What are we communicating to students who are non-white if the “best stuff” is always from white scholars? This does not reflect the reality of many scholars from diverse backgrounds producing great work. Unintentionally we may be communicating that only we are capable, or that all are capable but culturally we are simply better. Representation matters for precisely this reason.

    (I do not believe Burk, or other scholars believe this. I am speaking here of the kind of communication between a husband and a wife when she is sharing about her day, and he won’t look up from his phone. He may be listening, but is communicating something different. This may not be conveyed in one class, but perhaps over the course of a whole theological education without any minority authors.)
  4. We would benefit. We need to include diverse perspectives because it would be beneficial to us. Diverse perspectives have given us countless insights about honor-shame culture, sacrifice, etc. Asian and African Christians do not help us read the Bible by eisegeting their culture into the text. They have helped us see things we otherwise might not notice, because of the assumptions we bring to the text without realizing it.
  5. It’s another way to show how we have been reconciled to one another. Diverse reading is a picture of the gospel ministry of reconciliation. I am hesitant to put this only because I know of how some may represent it. What I am not saying is that those who assign reading from authors of a single cultural perspective are denying the gospel. I am not saying that the gospel requires my view here. What I am saying is that God in Christ has reconciled people from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation to himself. Diverse readings train students to see how God is working throughout all the world and all people so that we are not unintentionally convinced that God is only leading us to produce theology that is up to the standard of excellence.

I want to close by saying that I am grateful for Denny Burk. I don’t see him saying everything I’m pressing against here. We don’t always agree, but I have always found him to be willing to engage in a charitable conversation with me. I hope this brings far more light than heat to this conversation. I think Denny would agree with a lot of what I say here. I do not think he is guilty of intentionally excluding any authors, and he explicitly encouraged reading widely. I just wanted to go a step further and say that these reasons listed above commend diverse readings and should encourage us to intentionally shape our reading lists, within our confessional standards, in such a way. I am not condemning “colorblind” reading selection; I am attempting to affirm intentionally diverse reading as a better way.

Now, go read widely.