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Things What I Learnt at University 2: Back in the Hood

I wrote recently about my university days – lessons learned (and unlearned), people met, struggles faced (or fled). Except of course, in spite of my undergraduate malaise, those days haven't technically finished yet ... I've just moved from one university to another, switched fields, raised my qualification level, and meandered recklessly into perpetual postdoctoralism.

Still, change has this way of happening around me and at me in spite of my best efforts to avoid it. And this season is one of endings and new beginnings in the group where I work – including talk of an en masse removal from the uni building we've been based in since before I joined to some off-site offices just down the road.

In nostalgic tribute (though the latest is I'm staying put anyway), here is a poem – the first sonnet that I wrote and liked (marking my graduation from limericks to more advanced forms), as well as the first of many lyric musings inspired by the building's plenitude of maintenance issues.


           At lunch we noticed that the ceiling light
           Was ill-secured – a sword of Damocles!
           Its presence as we ate enough to blight
           Digestion and discourse with marked unease.
           Whose fate was forecast if those fixings failed?
           Some back-of-napkin trigonometry
           Suggested mine, at which one colleague railed:
           "That's fine, cos she has faith," with patent glee.
           Sufficient faith to gladly take – in place
           Of these – a heavy light blow to the head?
           Perhaps. But I'd prefer, in such a case
           To tip off building services instead.
           The danger thus forestalled, we might proceed
           To peacefully converse, and safely feed.

           Carolyn Whitnall, October 2012.

Poetry is not the only thing I've learned in this place (well, begun to learn; I've quite some way to go!) I did also manage to get a PhD. In fact, the dating of Ceiling Light Verse provides a clue to the connectedness of those two things: my viva was in November 2012, and the anxious, uncertain, jittery window between handing in my thesis and getting it all over and done with proved intriguingly fruitful from a writing perspective. I made the fun and utile discovery that it is sometimes possible to channel my nervous energy creatively so as not to become overwhelmed by it.

But, however much I enjoy poetry and am grateful for the academic opportunities I've been given, by far the biggest gains from being here have come via the scarily smart and interesting people, from all sorts of different places, that my studies and work have enabled me to meet (usually without even having to go anywhere, which suits me just fine). That especially goes for the "we" in the poem, most of whom have moved on by now, or will do soon (more of those pesky "changes that I can't avoid"! – guess I'll have to start going places after all).

This particular bunch of colleagues at this particular life juncture caught me inexpectant with their kindness and welcome. Seldom before had I felt so close to belonging (including...well, especially, really...among Christians). We'd talk in depth and breadth about all sorts – science, philosophy, literature, cinema, comedy, politics, economics, history, current affairs, gardening, cats. Building maintenance issues. There was never a conversation where I didn't learn something. And for perhaps the first time in my life I was able to talk about following Jesus, not with the kind of guilty determination into which I'd been trained to steer all conversations towards "evangelistic opportunities", but just in that way that friends talk about what's important to them. Because they're friends, and because those things are important to them.

As a result, also perhaps for the first time in my life, I was receiving meaningful feedback on my faith claims from people of different beliefs who had also thought deeply about stuff. They listened, they shared honest counter-remarks, and they respectfully but candidly interrogated me. It got harder and harder to escape the grim visage of Christianity as it appears to many on the outside: sexist, homophobic, anti-intellectual, power-mongering, manipulative, hypocritical. "You've got it all wrong!" I wanted to insist. "Jesus really honestly isn't anything like that!" On one level I was more confident of this than ever – my own relationship with God felt more real than ever: I was deepening in prayer, I was delighting in the Bible, I was finding it easier than usual to love people and to want them to be blessed. At the same time, though, problems which had never quite bothered my reclusive self enough to require answers, suddenly became very pressing when considered from the point of view of other (smart, thoughtful, principled) people whom I cared about. Assertion and anecdote would not cut it: the researcher as well as the evangelist in me was moved to begin grappling in earnest with questions and objections not necessarily my own, in pursuit of coherent and supported reasoning for "the hope that I have" (see 1 Peter 3:15).

So ... I studied, and I prayed, and I started to write – on here, mostly, where people could "take it or leave it", but I may also have sent a few more long-winded emails than perhaps were welcome. My mission initially was to follow up the various allegations I'd encountered in the hope of explaining to my skeptical friends that they were wrong about Christianity, and encouraging them to re-consider Jesus.

I wasn't quite prepared for what would happen next.

It turns out (who knew?!) that when you attempt to look at things from other people's perspectives, you see things you didn't see before. You discover (some of) your blindspots, and you get the opportunity to circumvent them. On my own, for example, it hadn't particularly occurred to me to question patriarchal interpretations of scripture. My lack of personal ambition, combined with what I would later understand as a shocking degree of internalised misogyny, made my subordination as a woman seem not that much to ask. But re-examining the Bible from the apparently rather popular point of view that maybe gender equality is quite important after all brought it to life in new and astonishing ways. I saw that the world it described was systemically stacked against women; I took a fresh look around me (with the help of feminist writers like bell hooks) and had to admit that this was a pretty accurate reflection of the prevailing state of things. I also (with the help of theologians like Phyllis Trible) saw that it wasn't how things were at the start, when men and women were created equal and in God's image. And I marveled and delighted, looking at Jesus, at the extent to which he welcomed and affirmed women, re-instating us as equals in God's Kingdom – and at the ways that he routinely subverted the status quo, resolutely rejecting all forms of power-mongering and self-promotion. In short, my prayerful, missional, scriptural pursuit of reasoned answers for the hope that I have turned me feminist.

These new convictions have had a huge subsequent impact on my study, my writing, my discipleship and witness, my vision of God's heart for humankind; they have also, though, had uncomfortable implications for my relationship with church, as the reality and scale of the problem that my colleagues helped me to recognise looms increasingly apparent. Jesus might not be sexist, but that hasn't stopped many of his followers, in many times and many places, from assimilating and theologising worldly patriarchal norms, and from enforcing these as 'authoritative'.

Likewise many of the other traits the church has gained a reputation for among its critics: I can't honestly reason these away, or pitch them as misunderstandings. As I've searched the Bible, trying to make sense of what it is we think we're playing at, I've been struck time and again by the extent to which it calls us out, if only we were listening – particularly around issues of power and complicity with oppression. I could give examples – Isaiah 58-59, Psalm 94, Micah 2-3, Matthew 23 – but to do so risks distorting away from the fact that, well, it's basically pretty much there in most of all of it ... alongside the contrasting reality of God's righteous anger and self-emptying love and merciful intervention, and all the redemptive possibilities that these imply. So, whilst almost certainly not their intention, I have my skeptical friends to thank for prompting me towards a deeper appreciation of the Bible as a resource for lamentation and a source of hope. And how glad I am that this process was already in motion by the time Trump came on the scene! I've been much more able to hold on to faith in Jesus, in the face of (white US) evangelicalism's frightening allegiances, for having already started to come to terms with the potential for church to get things, yes, even this wrong.

"As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another" (Proverbs 27:17). I'm a better person (which is not to claim that I'm a good one) for the people I have met in my extended uni days. I'm hugely grateful for the ways that they have shaped my thinking – sharpened me, enlarged my outlook. And I'm just as grateful, if not more so, for the ways that they have softened me – borne with my quirks, alleviated my social anxiety, and won my guarded heart back round to the idea of friendship after a season of resigned reclusion. I aspire to show half the same kindness to others.

They've also, as we've seen, inspired me to poetry ... but all things considered I'm sure you won't hold that against them.