Better (Melvin Bray) -- A Review

BETTER: Waking Up to Who We Could Be. By Melvin Bray. Foreword by Brittney Cooper. St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2017. Xiv + 169 pages.

Christians—and people of faith in general—live by our stories. For Christians and Jews, these include the biblical story. We also have other stories that describe and define our identities. Some of these stories are good and some are not. Some empower, and others disempower. The way we tell and retell the stories have implications for our lives and for our world. Melvin Bray invites us to tell “better” stories. He invites us to deconstruct many of our stories, taking them apart, but not leaving them in that state. Moving beyond deconstruction, he invites us to reconstruct our stories so that our lives and the world itself might be transformed.

Melvin Bray is an African American man who grew up in a very conservative church. You might call it fundamentalist. Although this congregation was ethnically diverse, its theology was narrow and confining. Bray would break free of that theology, because the way it told the Christian story was not constructive. As to who he is, Bray is married, has children, served in para-church organizations including Young Life, and has spent time as a teacher. Each of these experiences, and many others, including encounters with the police that were less than friendly, contribute to his ability to tell and retell important stories. Sometimes the way he retells biblical stories can make one uncomfortable (at least if you are a white heterosexual male, who is used to having the power to construct and tell the stories of the faith). Bray writes of his project: "What I am arguing for is reimagining the way we tell our faith stories---which for me, a follower of Jesus, is the biblical narrative---so that they point to beloved community and beyond."

Bray uses the word reimagine throughout the book to signal that he doesn’t wish to reject stories previously told, rather he wants to help us improve the way we tell stories so that we might move toward becoming the Beloved Community. (p. 2). With the Beloved Community ever in mind, Bray suggests that the way we have been telling the Christian story is proving to be off-putting to many. Thus, we need to find new ways of passing on the stories, especially to the children. As a pastor I understand the challenges and the importance of the task, which is why I was disappointed, but perhaps not surprised, at Bray's confession that he and his wife, both of whom grew up in the church, have chosen not to expose their children to much of church life. That they have chosen this path is a reminder that we need to figure out how to better to tell the stories, not so that the church will survive, but so the church can become an expression of the Beloved Community. 

The ten chapters that form this book, which I found compelling and challenging and provocative share a process of story-telling that Bray refers to as "COMPOST." By that he means that in telling the story of faith, we take that which is dead and broken (the way we may have told the biblical story that are dehumanizing of others) and taking them down to their "constituent parts and used as nutrient for the next generative organism emerging." He takes stories, like that of Jesus' encounter with the Syro-Phoenician woman and shows how it might speak of those who serve as champions for human dignity. He tackles the Ezra-Nehemiah stories to help us recognize the importance of letting others tell their own story. The Esther story helps us recognize the importance of context. The Ruth and Hagar stories speak of shared ownership of the Beloved Community, for both are outsiders. The Zacchaeus story speaks to the possibility of leveraging privilege on behalf of others. The woman who washes Jesus' feet speaks to the need to move beyond reform to transformation and liberation. Moses' story can help us honor the past, even as we improve upon it. Heritage and tradition are not bad or evil, but sometimes we honor it, Bray suggests, by improving upon what has taken place in the past. We're not prisoners to the past, even as we carry it with us.

Bray’s goal, once again, is to help us tell stories that lead toward the creation of the Beloved Community. He speaks from his own experience and that of others who have been marginalized by those in power (and in the United States that has generally been white males). By retelling the stories, taking that which seems dead, and retelling them in ways that are life-giving we move toward the Beloved Community. The goal is inclusion, but not in a way that simply assimilates people into the majority culture (read white), but creation of a community that celebrates all who inhabit and empowers all. For instance, in hearing anew the Zacchaeus story, we see the blessing that comes when one leverages privilege to be a blessing to others. At the same time, as Bray reads between the lines (we see Zacchaeus ordering around his servants), we’re reminded that change is not instantaneous. As we hear the stories, we will be challenged, but Bray laces them with grace. That is important if we are to move together into the Beloved Community.

I need to say something about the design of the book, which helps with the composting process. The publisher has used a larger book layout, using the margins for notes and annotations. It is filled with pictures and images as well as quotes in sidebars. Bray notes that the images “not only corroborates what’s written, but that also expands, interrogates, or challenges the ideas put forth” (p. xi). The images were provided by Nikole Lim and Carlton Mackey. The form helps remind us that we're doing something different.

In addition to the unique form the book takes, Bray’s vision for the book reflects, in his mind, a piece of wisdom taken from Ecclesiastes. Thus, the COMPOST process weaves together three ideas in a form that is not be easily broken. The first strand focuses on the "significance of story." He writes that "faith stories have the power to change the way we see and choose to be in the world" (p. 163). The second strand speaks to the "right to reimagine," He reminds us that not only do stories change over time, but they must change with time. Our stories evolve as we move through life and beyond. Finally, the third strand is that "the ends matter." That is, there is a desired end, and for him it is the Beloved Community. Stories are told with purpose. That is a good lesson for preachers, but not just for preachers.

Bray is concerned about and committed to social justice, and that theme runs throughout the book. The stories chosen illustrate the importance of social justice, and the way they are reimagined and retold communicates that vision. We must tell better stories, because the stories we have told and the way we have told them is insufficient. He notes that Martin Luther King declared that "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." While he agrees with that conclusion, he isn’t willing to let that quote stand unexamined. Yes, the moral arc does bend toward justice, but not without our involvement. He writes: “God made humanity the catalyst toward this moral end. Unless people of good will act in good faith toward a just end, justice will not be found" (p. 168). Toward that end, we make use of stories that envision a different and better reality, one that Jesus spoke of and lived into. For that reason, this is a book that really needs to be read and savored, so that stories can be reimagined and retold. 

                As a white male who understands that the way we have told stories has privileged me, I want to thank the author, Melvin Bray, for challenging me to tell better stories, and to live into those stories. I need to acknowledge a critical point the author makes in the book, and that is, we cannot tell the stories of others for them. We must let each person tell their own story. Yes, there is much wisdom to be found within these pages, so that we might "wake up to who we could be." .

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