“Yet he dismisses without notice his own thought, because it is his.” Ralph Waldo Emerson—Self Reliance
“To rescue difference from its maledictory states seems, therefore, to be the project of the philosophy of difference.” Gilles Deleuze—Difference and Repetition
This post isn’t a book review, I’m simply writing down thoughts after reading Nancy Wadsworth’s book Ambivalent Miracles: Evangelicals and the Politics of Racial Healing. Already knowing Dr. Wadsworth affected my reading of her work, which shouldn’t be overlooked since our acquaintance brings about an understanding of the book that I wouldn’t have if I didn’t already know her. Before I get into a couple of issues the book raises, I’ll quickly glimpse at how personally knowing her affected how the book was read. This is a work that consists of scholarly research, interviews, church going (she’s a non-believer), conversations and typing, which all took her a span of time to get into final publication. One doesn’t usually pay too close attention to such details if we do not personally know the author. When I met Nancy we had a quick connection to the issue of religion, mainly the mutual acknowledgment that the conventional animosity toward religious practice—primarily Christianity—is just too limited and narrow. I shortly learned that she had been working on this book for some time before we met. It is because I have this personal connection that enabled me to have a better appreciation for the labor, empathy and patience that’s needed to write a book of this kind. That’s not to say I now know what it takes for anyone to write a book, but I do have a slightly better picture of what it takes for someone, like Dr. Wadsworth, to publish a book. I can’t help but think of these considerations, while at the same time, disallowing myself to see these personal things as unimportant, or as not meaningful. To clarify, the hard work itself, the endurance it takes to see a project through, to put something into print, is remarkable to take notice of, not only in and of itself, but for what it’s worth, as way to become. Indeed it’s a creative endeavor to think and layout a multitude of concepts in the pages of a book. That the book was an ongoing project over a period of years shows a grace with the subject matter that only she can attest to in the fullest, and that we as her readers participate with in place of her actual experiences. Though we must be ever careful to note that the actual experiences of her book are not the only reason to value the effort, what is also important to notice are the words, ideas, and connections being made. The very acts of scholarship have their own agency apart from the actions, ideas, problems and concepts depicted. These kinds of relations need to, and can be, observed in any work of art.
Wadsworth’s general thesis is surprising and eye-opening. She argues that American multi-ethnic evangelicals over the years have been slow to engage politically with the racial reconciliation they’re already doing. Although important racial work is getting done, it’s usually within the safe confines of the religion itself. Creating new racial bonds is often tinged with a deep underlying fear that politics will somehow corrupt the process. Miraculously, where a religious (Christian) mandate might require blacks, whites and other ethnicities, to forge better relationships within their multiple congregations, political gestures of ‘social justice’ are often treated with ambivalence. Social justice is mistakenly thought of as having the potential to veer out of control into progressive identity politics. Essentially, there is the misconception that if one gets too involved with politics, the church might lose sight of God. The eye-opening (miracle) part of Wadsworth’s study has to do with the reconciliation between races that is getting done, apart from the noted political ambivalence. The topic of race in the evangelical church is no longer put to the side. There are plenty of well meaning people, black, white, latinos, etc., making careful, and actionable steps to ameliorate past wrongs. Unless you’re experiencing it yourself in depth, as Wadsworth did, these steps typically go unnoticed in today’s binary, oversimplified media coverage. A misconception that evangelicals are backward, narrow minded people is a view Wadsworth stays studiously away from. Sure, there was a blatant history of racism within the evangelical practice, yet to categorize all evangelicals into fixed categories ignores the efforts that people are doing and have done to actualize racial healing today. Wadsworth deserves high praise for the compassion she demonstrates for this misunderstood cohort of the American population. She’s not an apologist for evangelicals. She tells their story as much as she sees room for improvement—namely for evangelicals to become more politically active.
I should confess now that while I read Wadsworth’s book, I was also studying Gilles Deleuze. If there is anything we should know about Deleuze is that he advocated for a philosophy of difference. After reading Deleuze we are compelled to ask: how can we displace our conventional thinking which over-prizes sameness, exemplified by identity and representation, with a philosophy that places difference as more primary than sameness, uniformity, and homogeneity? Just this line of thinking (okay, line of flight) can be contrasted/compared to C. Peter Wagner’s (and Donald McGavran’s) “Homogeneous unit principle.” HUP figures prominently in the history of the American evangelical church as detailed by Wadsworth, Wadsworth sees HUP’s vantage as possibly being the seed of ambivalence evangelicals have toward politics today. The best way to illustrate HUP would be to say that ‘separate is better.’ In other words, even though Wagner advocated HUP as not being a racist ideology, he felt that it would be easier if monoracial people congregated in churches with others who were of the same racial groups. Wagner also promulgated the above mentioned idea that politics should never come before the evangelical mission. The idea must’ve been that evangelicals need not get side-tracked with the political work it takes to fight for minority issues, and should instead focus on their missionary goals of globally spreading the word of God.
Wagner’s HUP sounds like thinly veiled racism, and it probably is. For this reason we are inclined to think that we should not embrace difference in a racial context (‘we are all the same despite skin color’ is a typical refrain) . But when we remove the overt racial problems HUP presents, we suddenly see that group uniformity is valued. It doesn’t take long to think of examples: the military, manufacturing, commercial culture, all, in some degree, value sameness over uniqueness, while at the same time these examples value the hero; the one-of-a-kind product; and the next big thing, respectively. We make the same paradoxical and contradictory shifts when we think of ourselves ‘personally’ in terms of uniqueness, ‘we are all the same underneath these differences in skin color’ while at the same time ‘we should stand apart from the crowd, if we are to truly be ourselves.’ We honestly don’t know what it would mean to establish the radical Deleuzian claim that everything (everyone) is different in the most profound sense of the word. Difference is only thought of with respect to the same. In a racial context a homogeneous kind of thinking is frightfully primary and omnipresent. Yet the news is not completely bad, since in significant ways, Deleuze’s multiplicity is coming to be more acceptable—these days it’s just better to embrace racial difference. Wadsworth’s book shows us the beautiful multiracial work that evangelicals are doing today. She makes no mention of Deleuze, still, the ideas of racial multiplicity are implicitly Deleuzian in their urgent actualization. None of these same/different problems are resolved. I’m happy to become a minority.
Another aspect of Ambivalent Miracles that is worth further consideration looks to meaning making practices. Inspired by Lisa Wedeen’s research on ethnographic meaning-making practices, Wadsworth systematically examines how evangelicals make the practice of racial reconciliation into cultural and religious reality. Taking such elements as community, prayer, ritual, “apology-forgiveness rituals,” testimony, etc. Wadsworth demonstrates how meaning happens within the context of the church. We usually do not understand, nor comprehend, how meaning happens. We just think meaning is already there, pre-given. It is only when it is drawn out in its elaborate specificity, that it becomes clear that meaning is not static. Meaning itself is creative, and we need to see this in order to make conscious the racial concepts that are beyond assumed ubiquity. Epistemology is more valuable if we are open to how it happens, and if we admit the evident pitfalls it discloses. We need to do more work, and we cannot discount the work we’ve already done. Thank you Nancy Wadsworth, I pray that your book will reach anyone who is becoming a minority, and to those who continue to deterritorialize the landscape of race in the church, the US, and beyond.