In a senior-level course, I require students to read primary texts that many find a stretch in a conservative Christian university. Texts include articles and chapters by a scholar promoting Marxism—James Berlin; a radical black lesbian feminist—bell hooks; a leading voice of post-structuralism—Michel Foucault, and a French academic who was a friend of Derrida and advocate of the social construction of gender—Hélène Cixous.
Because many students were taught only to criticize texts written by overtly anti-Christian authors, I ask them not only to “resist” but also “resonate.” “Find common ground,” I say, “even if a simple desire or value.”
I inform them that I expect them to treat every author in the course as made in the image of God. If we believe in the image of God of all humans, then these writers have something to offer, even if a fragment of truth.
In talks about Christian approaches to diversity, I see another kind of reference to the image of God. This language focuses on the image of God as being reflected in the diversity of humans. It is aptly said by Roger Nam, dean of Portland Seminary, in the CCCU Magazine: “If we believe the theology of Genesis 1:26-28, then we must also commit to a deep reimaging of the ‘image of God.’ We must intentionally seek to learn how other communities can teach us about God and our relationship with him.”1
Whereas I had assumed that secular authors share universal themes with which my students could resonate before they criticize the authors’ ideas, this second view of the image of God focuses on differences. I’m not a theologian by trade, but I can speculate that these two focuses for the image of God are a both/and situation. This fall I began in the same course to include photos of the authors on my slide deck so that students would have a visual awareness of the embodied differences.
However, I’m beginning to suspect that some antiracist pedagogy denies the first focus–the universality of the image of God–while affirming the second focus—God’s image being reflected by human diversity. If Christ is the perfect image of God and “in him all things hold together” (Col. 1:17 NIV), the particulars of embodied diversity radiate from him as the source of our universality.
But the universality of humans can be denied in public calls for teachers to be antiracist by “centering people of color” in the curriculum in order to “decenter whiteness.” The implication is that the center cannot be shared.
An example in English studies is that some voices are concluding that Shakespeare cannot be taught as universal. The writers of the #DisruptTexts movement, which has gained a column in the secondary English Journal, claim that teaching Shakespearean texts as universal hurts “societal collective consciousness” of young people. Those who argue for Shakespeare’s universality are promoting “white supremacy and colonization.”2
I agree with #DisruptTexts that Shakespeare’s works must be looked at with a critical lens to show “violence, misogyny, racism,” but it’s the emphasis put on the negative critical lens that concerns me. Shakespeare was made in the image of God and does have something to offer contemporary readers. Instead, #DisruptTexts seems to focus on the disagreement: “If you must teach him due to school policies and lack of autonomy, or choose to do so autonomously, the only responsible way to do so is by disrupting his plays.”
If the focus becomes criticizing white male authors, rather than seeking universals and also critiquing, the approach is opposite to the one I outlined at the beginning. Whereas I’ve worked to come alongside students to treat radical critical theorists with respect, English teachers would treat Shakespeare with disdain by focusing on criticizing him for his racism and misogyny. A major implication of the doctrine of the image of God on humans, according to theologian Millard J. Erickson, is that “we should not be disdainful of any human being. . . .They are all something beautiful.”3
As a believer, I don’t want to urge my students to put on the lens of disdain. May they affirm the timeless themes of the classics while critiquing them for flaws such as embedded racism. May they read a diversity of authors, resonating with what rings true, while also critiquing thought. This is the centering of all authors—the image of God both as universal and reflective of embodied diversity.
- Roger Nam, “Reimagining the Imago Dei,” CCCU Magazine, Spring 2020, https://www.cccu.org/magazine/reimagining-the-imago-dei/ .
- Lorena German, “Chat: Disrupting Shakespeare,” #DisruptTexts, accessed October 14, https://disrupttexts.org/2018/10/25/5-disrupting-shakespeare/
- Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013), 473.