The following is a review of the book Unsettling the Word: Biblical Experiments in Decolonization, edited by Steve Heinrichs with over 60 contributors and art by Jonathan Dyck. Copies of the book are available at CommonWord.ca or at New Leaf events. A study guide is also avaiable.
I first heard about the book, Unsettling the Word: Biblical Experiments in Decolonization, in an online group for Christians of colour in Canada. Resources that speak to the visible minority experience in this country are few and far between. Learning about a project that sought mostly indigenous and Canadian settler voices piqued my interest. After spending a number of months working through its pages, I was not left disappointed.
Unsettling the Word, is a compilation of short stories, essays, and poems edited by Steve Heinrichs and wonderfully illustrated by Jonathan Dyck. Mennonite Church Canada’s Indigenous-Settler relations project spearheaded the initiative. Within are contributions from over 60 authors from indigenous and settler backgrounds. The format follows a sequential trip through scripture, starting from Genesis and ending in Revelation. The purpose is to re-imagine key stories through a lens of “decolonization.” Given Canadian history, along with the complicit church, portraying stories in defiance to colonization from the view of the marginalized is a perspective many are unfamiliar with. It’s both new and disturbing.
Most Catholic and Protestant Christians are unfamiliar with both indigenous histories in this country, and Christian formation outside of White European theology. These paradigms, and their accompanying assumptions, are challenged throughout the book. With this in mind, all Canadian Christians should take time to broach at least some of the vignettes within. Church leaders would benefit from borrowing chapters to use as discussion or devotional resources. Fair warning, the content is hard to process, especially for church traditions that have difficulty entertaining theological ideas that are not their own. Some traditions are barely broaching a conversation about colonial underpinnings to cherished theologies. So why bother going through the trouble?
It’s the duty of the church to be co-participants in righting systemic wrongs. That’s part of kingdom work to usher in heaven now in an age where the church seems to struggle with announcing Good News. It helps when we are alerted to our social and theological blindness. Unsettling the Word cuts to the heart of our cultural foundations and assumptions. It rattles the cage of political ideologies. It makes us question the dominant values of the faith. It pressures us to re-consider the source of our own spiritual formation, and it forces us to question “why” things are the way they are. Why is it a “left-wing liberal agenda” to talk about the environment? Why is “right-wing” capitalism regarded in the pejorative? Why are “conservatives” the villains who don’t care about the land and seek to oppress minorities? What are we to do with biblical stories that read like a manual condoning colonization?
Canadian culture has a dubious distinction of compartmentalizing faith, politics, work, and the like. Yet a holistic faith seeks to see connections between them all. After all, shouldn’t your faith impact the entirety of your life and decision making? Or is faith reserved for “church activities” only? That wasn’t the central thesis of the book, it’s my reflection, but it does point to a central challenge within. What sources contribute to your spiritual identity? Do your politics come into play? Are you Canadian first? Christian? Both at the same time?What sources contribute to your spiritual identity? Do your politics come into play? Are you Canadian first? Christian? Both at the same time? Click To Tweet
These are some of the questions we need to sit in tension with, and that this book will bring front and centre. Ignoring this challenge is a step in ignoring the vastly different yet important stories from peoples sharing the land we all call home. Admittedly, in my own reading, there were chapters where I had to stop and walk away from the book (you can’t read this in one or two sittings). Although every scripture is not presented as a re-interpretation (but some no doubt are), there is a push in this book to re-imagine scriptures in a new light. And it’s often hard to make sense of new revelation, especially when it’s negative.
Nonetheless, despite the unresolved tensions, there is a calling for a renewal of sorts. An applicable of faith to our Canadian landscape that seeks justice in the spaces where injustice has long defined existence. For that to happen we need to take serious the journey of re-education to our core identity. We’re used to hearing about individual identity, but we need to add the spaces and places in which we dwell. For example, do we possess a connection to the land and the stories of those who have gone before us? This, and others like it, are critical questions of faith to ask in a colonized Canada. Unsettling the Word will articulate many more, and grants additional perspectives from a cross-section of people groups. Albeit, I would have appreciated more indigenous voices in this book rather than settler ones. (I think there are more settler accounts than indigenous within.)
For a taste of the Biblical experiements in Unsettling the Word, read “What about Orpah?” by Vivian Ketchem