The Gospels, Hidden Figures, and Strength in Diversity
During January of each year, our church brings in a biblical scholar to teach through a book. This year is Matthew. In the first adult Bible Study last week, Tom Yoder Neufeld covered many introductory topics, including his explanation of the layers that go into each Gospel: Jesus, the oral history, the compiler, and so on. He also talked about how there was an effort in the early church to compile into one Gospel, which was soundly rejected. That left me thinking: Why? If the goal is strictly to convey the story of Jesus, doing it as a single story would have made a lot of sense. I don’t think that’s the whole goal, though.
This weekend, we went to see Hidden Figures. It is a fantastic movie from any objective measure, now picking up some Academy Award nominations, but one particular theme stood out to me and two scenes that really captured this theme.
Right after the Soviets successfully put a man into orbit, putting them even farther ahead of the U.S. in the space race, Al – in charge of the project – gives a frustrated motivational speech of sorts. He questions why they are losing. Is it that the Russians are smarter, or work harder, or have more resources? None of these seem completely believable to him. Throughout this whole scene, in the very centre of the room with everyone standing a “safe” few feet away is Katherine, the black woman who despite being a genius was not given similar voice to all the white men in the room. The phrase “elephant in the room” captured this scene – the answer to the question of what they’re missing is literally right there and nobody sees it. If they listened to her, they probably wouldn’t be so far behind the Soviets.
Throughout this whole thing, there has been a running gag, and by running gag I mean a gag with Katherine constantly having to run across NASA campus to get to the one coloured bathroom, costing her about 40 minutes per day. Al eventually gets upset that he’s losing her productivity for so much time, without ever considering that it was because of the systemic oppression upon her, not Katherine’s choice. Katherine, soaked from the rain that day, finally lets out her frustration at that oppression, explaining the bathroom trips and other issues she faces every day.
Al’s response is a perfect demonstration of how those of us with privilege should act when we are made aware of this injustice: he gets several people together and tears down the racialized signs on the bathrooms, declaring anybody can use whichever bathroom they want… preferably, he says specifically to Katherine, one that is closer to her desk.
Given the choice between “winning” – which could mean something like NASA putting a man in orbit or could be your business making more money or something else – and maintaining a racist status quo, many of us for maintaining the status quo. In many scenarios we excuse racism out of capitalist self-preservation (usually not true, but we fall for it), but there are other times where we would rather be racist than “win”.
I think of Donald’s Trump wall with Mexico. It will accomplish little to nothing. Most undocumented people didn’t sneak across the border; they came in with a student visa or work visa and then didn’t leave when they were supposed to. Plus, as Trump even said in one of his campaign speeches, it’s not like technology to get over a wall doesn’t exist. A rope would do the trick. This wall is going to cost American taxpayers a lot of money and gain nothing except a monument to white supremacy. My point is not another post about the foolishness of a Trump idea – there’s no shortage of those available. I use this simply to demonstrate that a lot of people are going to be completely ok with cost to themselves simply to avoid questioning their racist assumptions.
Back to the Gospels
Let’s get back to the Gospels. Why are there four of them? Why didn’t we accept combining them into one coherent purely-factual text? Or even better, why didn’t God just give us all the precise answers themself instead of relying on human memories? I think it is because diversity makes us stronger. One Gospel on its own is insufficient. We need to see Jesus through different lenses of different people in different contexts. It’s messy, but we are stronger for it in much the same way NASA would not have succeeded without Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson.
The same is true for the contemporary Church. If we only listen to one view – one race, one gender, one socio-economic class, one nationality, one denominational tradition, and so on – we see at best part of the picture and at worst a completely distorted one. Diversity isn’t just something we should do because everybody is an image-bearer of God worthy of equal dignity – although that’s always the starting point for Christians – but also because it makes us stronger.