In the conclusion to her new book, Tongue-Tied, Sara Wenger Shenk, who served nine years as president of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, sums up her message: “We talk about what we love.” This leads to the question: If we are unable to talk about our faith in God, is that because we are not experiencing the love of God we say we believe in?
The tone of that question may feel harsh, but Shenk is far from harsh. In her introduction, she says it this way: “When we are honestly vulnerable about what we grieve, what we long for and what we are elated about, vital faith is awakened, and we find ourselves in need of a language that will free us to speak truthfully, humbly and sometimes with moral authority about a God who so loves the world that God became one-with-us — in Jesus Christ.”
Clarity, humility and theological acuity run through the book. Shenk is passionate about helping Christians talk about their faith, but she does not try to hit her readers over the head with her message.
Most of us, I imagine, have encountered someone who talks assuredly about God in a way that feels arrogant, as if they have an inside track on divine things, and we don’t. Or maybe we’ve been that person. Such experiences may have contributed to our own refusal to engage in God-talk, not wanting to come across as a blowhard. This book is for us.
Shenk calls such people her peers and names them as part of her intended audience — “moderately progressive and relatively comfortable North Americans who grew up with faith language that we largely jettisoned upon becoming educated professionals.”
In the first part of the book, “Losing Fluency,” Shenk explores this reticence to talk about faith. She looks at the disillusionment many feel with people who call themselves Christian yet participate in actions that go against our understanding of what it means to follow Christ’s teachings. She discusses the superficiality of much Christian talk. For example, we identify ourselves with the Jews fleeing Egypt while our treatment of Native and Black people makes us more like Egypt. She notes how our failure to trust the power of God leads us “to build defensive castles of certainty.” She uncovers our inability to talk honestly about our bodies and the harm this leads to.
She warns against us-versus-them default thinking and how many Christians weaponize faith language against people they don’t consider part of their tribe. She critiques her own tribe, Mennonites, offering stories to illustrate her points. She then calls us to learn community-based language that we pass on to our children. “Formation in the language of faith,” she writes, “is about the quality and consistency with which we talk to each other and do small, everyday things.”
In the book’s second part, “Learning Fluency — Step by Step,” Shenk outlines how we can discover freedom, honesty and resolve when talking about faith. A key to this is learning to listen to others and submit to mystery. Again, she writes out of her experience, noting that “the less I presume to know for certain, the more a quiet assurance that I am known and loved grows within — along with a readiness to speak what I believe about God.”
Learning to talk about faith, Shenk writes, “will mean figuring out how talking about God is like telling our own love story.” Telling that story, however, must be balanced with holding our convictions in tension with others’ convictions, recognizing “our shared humanity and desire to know and be known by God.”
Shenk discusses rediscovering the power of sacred words, the importance of talking about bodies and how faith gains life force in hard times. She shows how our language of faith is bolstered by stories of Woman Wisdom (Proverbs 1:20, for example), Scripture and Christian tradition. She celebrates curiosity, nature and beauty as ways to discover new facets of God’s face.
Shenk’s humble wisdom comes through. She’s unafraid to address issues that have led to divisions, such as LGBTQ inclusion, expressing her own convictions yet calling for a mature approach of patient listening. She remains alert to those who feel excluded by much of the God-talk that’s occurred. She writes: “What we need are hospitable spaces for playing with God stuff — not in a careless, irreverent kind of way — but with inquiry that is animated by wonder, exploration that carries a good compass, experimentation that is guided by a generational wisdom and artistic design that takes its blueprint from the sages and Jesus.”
We need Shenk’s wise voice to help us talk about the love we’ve experienced through God’s grace.
Gordon Houser is author of Present Tense: A Mennonite Spirituality.