By Brittney Cooper
“This is my story.” Those are the beginning words of the chorus to one of my favorite hymns, “Blessed Assurance.” When we come together in collective worship to sing this song, Christians are supposed to walk away believing that our faith lies in our investment in a singular story. As a rule, Christians are supposed to be invested in telling the same story, the same way, every time. A little creativity is welcomed in the sermonic moment, but too much deviation gets folks undies in a bunch. Words like “heresy” and “blasphemy,” begin floating in the word clouds above the heads of people of faith, if anyone dares to try to tell the story anew.
How many of us have been hustled into the church equivalent of the principal’s officer or pulled to the side and scolded by a persnickety lady with a dog-eared Bible because we asked one too many questions in Sunday School or Bible Study? For so many of us, this is our story. Our story has been about giving up surety and certainty, to find the blessing in our questions. What if the true foretaste of glory comes at the moment that we let go of everything we thought we knew? What if it comes when we ask the questions we have really been wanting to ask, but feared asking? It seemed to be that way for Sarah, mother of the skeptical, when she asked, “Shall I have pleasure?” It seemed to be that way for suffering Job, when he begged, “What strength do I have, that I should still hope?” It was even that way for Jesus, when he finally gave in and asked, “My God, why have you left me here among these terrible people without any help?”
Surely that is a question that some of you have wanted to ask at one time or another. Surely you have asked God where your help was coming from. I know I have. And frankly, if one more person tells me, “the Bible is clear,” they might get a tongue-lashing that would impress even the once rogue Apostle Peter.
Melvin Bray’s BETTER: Waking Up to Who We Could Be has arrived to help us. He challenges us to imagine the stories—our personal stories, our collective stories, and our national stories—differently. Bray’s book gives us the agency to come to the stories that have anchored us with fresh eyes and all the questions we have. Stories of faith and possibility are meant to free us, not to hold us hostage. We can hold onto our stories without letting our stories have a death grip on us.
Author Brian McLaren has written about how the Bible is a kind of library, a collection of stories that invite our engagement. Melvin Bray shows up here as the beloved, contrarian, radical librarian, who helps you move through the space finding all the great stories and hidden gems you never expected to see. BETTERoffers fresh tools to help people of faith (or not of faith, for that matter) read and tell better the stories that shape us, first and foremost by reminding us, that our stories should always be in service of building beloved community and never about excluding people from it.
For a radical feminist, Southern, country, Black girl professor like me, the story has to be told differently in order for me to see myself in it, because our collective and national stories were intentionally told for so long to exclude people like me. But I can see myself in Bray’s telling of the story of the Syrophoenician woman in chapter two who trades barbs with Jesus, because he had something she needed. I hear her snarky “boy bye,” when Jesus tries to dismiss her. By being able to tell the story differently, in what Bray calls a COMPOSTable way, by opening up to the possibility that the women in Jesus’ community, challenged him and questioned him, a story of the faithful emerges that embraces and encourages the curious and skeptical ones among us. That’s fresh air—good news—for women like me for sure!
Bray’s book is unique, too, because it takes on topics that even progressive Christians handle in a clunky manner. In our communities of radical Jesus lovers, we have gotten progressively better at rejecting homophobia, embracing queer folks, and creating a theological discourse that acknowledges the import and value of LGBTQIA people in our communities. To be clear, there is no Christianity without queer folks, who have always been among us. In the Black Christian churches from which I come, we have always relied on the ministry and worship labor of people whose silence we demanded when it came to their intimate lives. Those are hard truths that progressive Christians of all stripes are getting better at telling.
But race is a different matter entirely. Sometimes I wonder if all the progressive Christians are white. This whiteness is overwhelming when I read the books of my faves, and those books deal well with questions of queer identity, gender politics, and the problem of poverty, while struggling to take on the question of racism. Bray doesn’t let progressive Christianity off the hook on matters of race. He assumes that his Blackness has a place in the story, that acknowledging the myriad ways it shows up can make the stories of beloved community better. But he does intuitively understand something that really matters—that for so many who want our faith stories to be better, there isn’t an absence of interest, but rather a lack of tools.
This book is chock full of tools and models for reimagining that allow us to go back to our sacred stories and see them differently. Each chapter sparked and inspired me to turn again to texts that have long frustrated me, to recognize that I have agency too. I can put my sanctified thinking cap on and seek different kinds of possibilities in the texts before me. We all can.
What I love most about this book is its invitation to a kind of courageous curiosity. Sometimes it’s hard to admit to ourselves that the old ways of telling the story just don’t do it for us anymore. We are tired of stories that vilify, condemn, and exclude. We are tired of using “God’s love” as a weapon to corral and punish everyone who doesn’t resolve the story the way we think they should. We are tired of stories that cram us into boxes rather than pull us out of them.
We want to be better, but we don’t always know how to get better. In these distressing times, I often beg for answers. But then I remember that to get better answers, I have to ask better questions. The promise of this book is in the reminder that if we will turn our attention again to the stories that we love, better is available to us.