I have never been a good scholar. Oh, sure, I’ve written scholarly essays that gave me the grades I needed to pass the classes that I was in, but when it comes to scholarly concepts (especially when it comes to the human condition), I fail. I fail at getting the words right. I fail at being the person that the other social justice scholars think I should be. I even tried writing a book that talked about all of these concepts of privilege, oppression, intersectionality, and all of the other concepts that I’m supposed to know as an educated feminist. Even in that, I failed, because I know that there are other people out there who can explain them much better than I can.
Yet, here I am, after reading essays by bell hooks, in the middle of the night, writing an essay about my failures as a social justice scholar. Or, to be more accurate, my failure to be a scholarly social justice writer. My wife, who is as much my priest as she is my wife, suggested to me that I read those authors who write passionately. My mind thought of all the Womanist theologians who inspired me through seminary (and while I am not black myself, I found Womanist theology a breath of fresh air after reading the droning that is white feminist theology in my seminary days), and my brain connected “bell hooks” with “you should read her work.” So I fired up my Kindle, downloaded several of her works, and started reading “remembered rapture: the writer at work.”
And here I am, writing, in the middle of the night about my failure as a scholarly writer.
I’m still a theologian, though. I think about religion and spiritual matters all the time. It makes me hope that even though I won’t be scholarly in my writing, with mounds of footnotes that reference Rahner, or Tillich, or Spong, or any of the other classical or modern theologians, that the theology police won’t come and confiscate my theologian card. Frankly, regular, scholarly theology can be incredibly dull to me. They have the same conversations over and over again about the same few topics using twenty-five dollar words in 1100 pages, when, in my mind, they could have edited it down to about 100 pages and moved on with more important things. I felt this especially true when I was reading white feminist theologians (although, I think I can forgive them for it since in the misogynistic world of academia, women are forced to go above and beyond to prove their sincerity).
I could go on about my gripes with modern scholarly theology, but that’s not really why I’m up in the middle of the night writing this essay.
No, I’m up in the middle of the night because I’ve had an epiphany about my own writing.
I am just not a scholarly writer, hence the talk about my failure as a scholarly writer. You see, I wrote a book about radical inclusion. It was filled with explanations about the concepts I mentioned earlier: privilege, intersectionality, etc. All of that stuff about social justice that I’ve learned over the years and talked with many people about on my podcast. This book goes into very specific details about what I think is wrong in the Pagan community, and my ideas about how to bring in radical inclusion, or, at least, a set of questions one can use to bring radical inclusion from the head to the heart (as Bishop Flunder of City of Refuge would say). I poured out 25000 words into a document that I then sent to others to read.
But if I’m honest with myself, there was something about it, even in my excitement of having written it (or really, having written 25000 words on anything at all). I knew in the back of my mind that it was a failure. I could feel that there was something missing, something not quite right. I wasn’t seeing something in it that I felt should have been obvious. I thought that maybe I was too close to the writing and that I needed others to read it to help me find out what I was missing.
When the first comments came in, especially the more pointed and honest ones, imposter syndrome and depression hit me really hard. At first I was defensive. When I talked with my wife about the comments, she helped me put them in perspective, since many of them were very valid commentary about my own privilege and knowledge. I took a look at my own defensiveness, did some work around my depression and imposter syndrome, and left the commentary to sit for awhile. When I looked at it again, I realized that it was all true. It wasn’t the fault of the people giving me their comments, far from it, it was my own. And tonight, the epiphany is that I tried to write something “how to” and scholarly, which I’m not good at. As I said, there are many people who can, and do, write about these topics in a scholarly and explanatory way much better than I can.
The second half of this epiphany came earlier today when I asked my wife about which writing she thought was my best. She told me that it was the writing I did when I Spirit was coming through and when I wrote about the things I’m most passionate about. When I thought about it, I knew she was right. All of my blog rants, prose pieces about deities and spiritual experiences, human stories around my faith and belief, those were the things that always felt “right” when I wrote them. They were the pieces that felt the most satisfying to me when I put them out into the world.
If I really think about it, I’m more of a works versus faith type of theologian. I’m more interested in how spirit moves through us. In how people use spirit for good and in observing the ways humans interact with each other. For example: I could explain radical inclusion by citing scholars and theologians in a massive tome, or I could tell you a story about a young autistic boy who gave me a hug at the doctor’s office and the mother’s profound relief that I not only accepted that hug, but treated him like a human being instead of a freak. The first I’m miserable at. The second, however, still tugs at my emotions and makes me want to write.
I’m a scholarly failure, and I’m actually rather OK with that.
It only took 25000 words, my wife, some beta readers, and a bell hooks essay for me to figure this out.
And one late night (or early morning) essay writing session for me to really believe it.