Beauty in borderlands: My family and Malcolm Gladwell

Aug 12, 2016 by

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When I called my parents on their 72nd wedding anniversary in early July, mother told me dad had brought her a bouquet from his garden. “A thing of beauty is a joy forever,” she said, quoting John Keats. Dad, who at 98 still grows vegetables, grapes and flowers, had brought mother, whose mobility is limited after multiple strokes, a gift of beauty that brightened her spirits. My eyes welled up. I was about to set off on a two-week walk in the borderlands of Scotland and England on St. Cuthbert’s Way from Melrose to Lindisfarne. Brexit had just set the Scots and the English at odds again across a border that for centuries saw horrific violence. I’d chosen beauty in borderlands for a theme to guide my pilgrimage. It’s a theme that informs my leadership in conflicted times.

Beauty in borderlands came to mind this week as I reflected on our family’s brush with the limelight. When Malcolm Gladwell contacted me in December 2015 requesting a conversation with my father, I was cautious and asked for more information about his intent. I knew about Gladwell’s family connections to Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary and read stories about his return to faith while writing David and Goliath, yet one doesn’t engage such a consequential interview lightly. After consulting with my parents and others, we agreed to the interview provided my brother Phil and I could be present. Gladwell was unpretentious, lighthearted and warm. There were tears and laughter in my parents’ living room. Then the long wait: would he use the interview at all? What would he make of it?

It’s not every day that one’s family is spotlighted by a bestselling author whose podcast Revisionist History has been at the top of the iTunes chart almost since its beginning on June 16. On top of that, Gladwell said on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert last week that there’s a moment in the podcast’s ninth episode — “Generous Orthodoxy,” featuring a 98-year-old Mennonite pastor — that makes the entire 10-episode series worthwhile. Wow!

I have long associated the concept “generous orthodoxy” with my father. In fact I wrote about it in a May 1, 2007, “Real Families” column in The Mennonite that was reprinted in Eastern Mennonite University’s Crossroads that fall. I am thrilled that Gladwell chose to use the concept as a framework through which to examine not only my father’s story but also stories of institutional loyalty and change more broadly.

“You have to respect the institution you’re trying to change and maintain a balance between loyalty and openness,” Gladwell said this week in an interview with The Mennonite. “That is the hardest balance of all, but that’s the truest way to bring about transformation.” And in the podcast episode itself he says, “You must respect the body you are trying to heal”; Chester Wenger “makes plain not just how beautiful generous orthodoxy is, but how powerful, which is something that everyone who stands up and protests needs to remember.”

I’m not here to advocate for one or another perspective on same-sex marriage. I’m a middle child, after all, in a family and a church that have dramatically varying perspectives on the matter. I’m also president of a school whose mission is to serve the whole church. AMBS invites everyone to learn to read the Bible prayerfully, humbly and skillfully — with integrity. Our new tagline is “Rooted in the Word. Growing in Christ.” People of genuine faith who carefully study the Scriptures come to different conclusions about same-sex marriage and much more. At AMBS, we provide opportunities for everyone to grow, as Brian Zahnd says, into the infinite beauty of God, expressed in Jesus: welcoming the poor in spirit, comforting those who mourn, esteeming the meek, hungering for justice, extending mercy, having a pure heart, being peacemakers, enduring persecution. The beatitudes, Zahnd said, reveal the beauty of Jesus.

I am here to advocate for changing institutions, however, “by respecting the body we are trying to heal.” In my book Anabaptist Ways of Knowing and elsewhere, I have long said it is precisely those who are most deeply immersed in the beauty and wisdom of the tradition who have the best capacity to change it in ways that ring true with its core convictions.

“Scolds and do-gooders we have aplenty, on both left and right,” writes Gregory Wolfe in his book Beauty Will Save the World: Recovering the human in an ideological age. Who are the leaders who are “less interested in manning the ideological battlements and more interested in cultivating the spiritual and imaginative sources of our common life”?

Rather than draw up defensive battle lines, we should honestly confess that most of our congregations have failed abysmally to be good news for sexual minorities, our sons and daughters who, as today’s New York Times reports, are “at far greater risk for depression, bullying and many types of violence than their straight peers.” But we also have failed our many children who grow up biblically illiterate, without knowing how to pray or experience the beautiful story and call of Jesus Christ.

Together in the borderlands, we should forthrightly acknowledge that most of our ways of being church have failed to be good news for the sorts of people Jesus often hung out with. Rather than censoring courageous, generous pastors who discern alternative ways to be church and to keep covenant, why can’t we encourage them and learn from them? Rather than maligning more orthodox pastors who want to make sure we keep faith with the tradition, why can’t we genuinely listen to what they intensely desire to conserve, rooting our generosity in the rich soil of ancestral wisdom? We need each other!

Gladwell says my father “offers us a master class in the art of dissent” because he manages to “balance loyalty and conscience,” which is “about the hardest thing to do.” And he does that by pointing to Jesus, the Master himself who showed just how costly and how beautiful it is to walk in the borderlands, holding together the deepest wisdom of the tradition with a fierce prophetic love for those shut out by the institutions of his day.

Chester Wenger’s “An open letter to my beloved Mennonite Church” can be read here.

Sara Wenger Shenk is president of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Ind. This post first appeared on her blog, Practicing Reconciliation.


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