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This article briefly summarizes some recent psychosocial research that describes the posture of grievance from which many young adults operate today. It then recounts three stories of classroom encounters that illustrate how this posture affects the way young adults read classic Christian texts. Next, it analyzes this “hermeneutic of grievance” itself, showing how this reading strategy both reveals aspects of classical Christian texts that are easily overlooked, and yet obscures or downplays key themes in those texts that students might benefit from attending to. Finally, it describes several writing assignments intended to help students move from a “hermeneutic of grievance” toward a “hermeneutic of gravitas.” Richard Steele is Professor of Moral and Historical Theology at Seattle Pacific University.

Recently, one of my faculty colleagues at Seattle Pacific University observed that students on our campus no longer interpret human sexuality through the lens of Christian scripture; rather, they interpret it through the lens of social justice principles. The immediate context of this observation was a campus controversy over a longstanding policy that prohibits LGBTQIA+ persons from being hired for faculty or staff positions, a policy that seems to many people to create a campus atmosphere inhospitable to those who do not align with traditional Christian norms of gender identity and sexual conduct. The present essay does not concern SPU’s human sexuality policy per se, nor is it about human sexualitymore generally, although some of what follows relates to that topic tangentially. Rather, it pertains to a wider phenomenon among SPU students to which my colleague’s remark draws attention. A generation ago, most of our students assumed that the primary point of Christian faith was to know and serve God. No doubt the knowledge and service of God entailedwork for social justice—but social justice work was just one item on a wide menu of faith commitments and activities. But a subtle perspectival shift seems to be taking place. Today, many students seem to assume that advocacy for the rights of various oppressed and marginalized social groups is the primary point of Christian faith, and that in default of such advocacy, Christian faith is largely irrelevant or even inimical to contemporary life. Additionally, they regard the apparent failure of the Christian church to engage in social justice advocacy—particularly on issues such as sexuality, gender, race, dis/ability, class, and the environment—as deeply scandalous.

I must emphasize that I am usually sympathetic with my students’ positions on these issues and with their criticisms of the church. But I have noticed that their tendency to focus on such issues—and to do so from a posture of grievance—affects how they read the Bible and other classical Christian texts. It influences the assumptions they make about these texts and the questions they pose to them. The result is equivocal. Sometimes they see things in those texts that my own literary-critical and historical-critical approach causes me to overlook—and then I very gratefully become their student! But sometimes they fail to read these texts on the texts’ own terms and in the texts’ own literary, social, historical, and religious context. Then they overlook or misunderstand key themes—and unwittingly rob themselves of knowledge that might enrich their personal faith and enhance their work on behalf of the contemporary social issues that so deeply concern them. At such times I wonder how to unlock the wisdom and beauty of these ancient texts, in order to help my students to see what they are missing, while affirming the validity and relevance of what they are seeing. This essay describes my early attempts to answer my own pedagogical question.

To begin, I must qualify my colleague’s observation about campus culture in two ways. First, not all SPU students would share this perspectival shift: but many, perhaps most, certainly do. Second, not all those students who do represent this shift would necessarily repudiate or problematize Christianity itself, though they might question or relativize its moral authority on various hot-button social issues. Thus, interest in the Bible and other classical Christian texts remains strong on our campus. What is changing is how students read these texts. Many no longer approach them reverently, as sacred resources which establish the norms of Christian faith and life. Rather, they increasingly seem to read them aggrievedly, alert for historical evidence that the church has been indifferent to or complicit in various social injustices. Instead of starting from the assumption that Scripture and church tradition provide the norms for interpreting contemporary social issues, students increasingly use the general concept of social justice to critique the Bible and the Christian heritage. Again, I have no wish to airbrush Scripture or church tradition or to prevent my students from scouting the Christian heritage for evidence of social evil. But I worry that the righteous indignation with which many of them approach theological studies sometimes obscures from their consideration themes that would help them to make theologically judicious, spiritually mature, and ethically nuanced appraisals, not only of the texts themselves, but even of those modern social evils that alarm and outrage them.

My argument has four steps. First, I briefly summarize some recent psychosocial research that describes the posture of grievance from which many young adults operate today. Second, I tell three stories of recent classroom encounters that illustrate how this posture affects the way young adults read classic Christian texts.1 Third, I analyze this “hermeneutic of grievance” itself, showing how this reading strategy both reveals aspects of classical Christian texts that are easily overlooked, and yet obscures or downplays key themes in those texts that students might benefit from attending to. Finally, I describe several writing assignments with which I have been experimenting that are intended to help my students move from a “hermeneutic of grievance” toward what I call a “hermeneutic of gravitas.”

The Posture of Grievance

Social psychologists have recently noticed two distinct but closely related cultural developments that help to explain the classroom encounters I shall describe below. The first involves a shift in the “moral culture” of the U.S., Canada, and Western Europe, especially in the universities of these countries. According to recent studies by Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning,2 by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt,3 and by Jonathan Sacks,4 the “culture of dignity,” which has prevailed among the educated classes since the time of the Enlightenment—and which, with a thickly Evangelical Christian overlay, has prevailed until recently at SPU—is giving way to a new “culture of victimhood.” In a culture of dignity, interpersonal conflicts are first addressed by face-to-face negotiation, and only then, if necessary, by legal action in the courts. But in the growing culture of victimhood, persons belonging to oppressed or marginalized groups seek reparation for the insults, slights, humiliations, and injustices they suffer at the hands of those wielding power and privilege by publicly broadcasting their victimhood in the mass and social media to secure third-party support and political leverage.

The second development involves the religious and moral psychology of Generation Z (or iGen), namely, persons born between 1995 and 2012 and now entering adolescence or young adulthood. Jean Twenge notes the general decline in interest among this generation in conventional “religious” commitments and in “spirituality” more generally.5More recently, Katherine Douglass has qualified Twenge’s findings by showing “that young adulthood is a time when interest in matters of faith and spirituality are increasing despite the lack of religiosity according to traditional measures.”6 Yet Twenge and Douglass agree that for the rising generation the church has lost much of the moral authority it once wielded. Christian Smith and his colleagues have gone so far as to describe the rising genera-tion as “morally adrift,” that is, increasingly given to “moral individualism” (the view that morality is “a personal choice, entirely a matter of individual decision”) and “moral relativism” (the view that morality “has no real, objective, natural, or universal basis outside of people’s heads”).7 This may be true with respect to “private matters,” such as sex and partying. But the stories told below indicate a countervailing tendency, namely the presence of a high degree of moral certainty on public issues, or more precisely, a high degree of moral outrage at the failure of the church to address social injustice.

The upshot of these developments seems to be that although many members of Generation Z still self-identify as Christians, those who do are increasingly vocal in criticizing the church’s failures and hypocrisies. With these considerations in mind, let us now turn to the classroom encounters in which these wider cultural developments came into play.

Encounter 1: Docetism and the Baby Jesus

One of the goals of my church history courses is to explain doctrinal views that were ultimately deemed heretical by the church and to show that despite the formal condemnation of these heresies, many recur repeatedly over the centuries and continue to attract adherents. Among the earliest Christian heresies was Docetism (literally “Seemism,” from the Greek dokeō= “I seem”), which held that Jesus Christ only seemed to be human. For if he were truly divine and immortal, how could he have been subject to the bodily needs and sufferings and the inevitability of death that mark human life? To exempt Jesus from such putatively shameful earthiness, the Docetists postulated that his body was a kind of theatrical costume, worn to render him approachable to those he came to save, but ultimately shuffled off. The New Testament rebukes this view sharply,8 and early in the second century St. Ignatius of Antioch continues the attack. In his letter to the Christians of Smyrna (modern Izmir, on the Aegean coast of Anatolia), Ignatius commends their staunch opposition to this heresy:

You hold the firmest convictions about our Lord; believing Him to be truly of David’s line in His manhood, yet Son of God by the Divine will and power; truly born of a Virgin; baptized by John for His fulfilling of all righteousness; and in the days of Pontius Pilate and Herod the Tetrarch truly pierced by nails in His human flesh (a Fruit imparting life to us from His most blessed Passion), so that by His resurrection He might set up a beacon for all time to call together His saints and believers, whether Jews or Gentiles, in the one body of His Church. All this He submitted to for our sakes, that salvation might be ours. And suffer He did, verily and indeed; just as He did verily and indeed raise Himself again. His Passion was no unreal illusion, as some skeptics aver who are all unreality themselves.9

Despite its formal condemnation by the church, Docetism continues to crop up in popular piety. I once tried to illustrate this by citing the second verse of the Christmas carol, “Away in a Manger,” which runs, “The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes. But little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.” I said that the idea that Jesus would not have flinched if a cow mooed in his ear was pious sentimentality at best, and implicitly docetic: “The lack of a startle reflex in a newborn child is not a sign of deity; it’s a sign of brain damage.” This remark upset one student, who felt that I had just insulted all persons with brain injuries, including her own sister. This student had previously taken another of my courses on ministry to and with persons with disabilities, during which she had shared about her family experience, and she had a right to expect better of me. I conceded the point and apologized for my insensitivity. And I now refrain from using this example of neo-Docetism as a teaching trope.

Yet in objecting to my remark about brain injury, this student missed my point about Christology. I was not saying that neurodiverse or neurodivergent persons are defective or subhuman, even if they may be classified as statistically abnormal from a medical standpoint. But for that very reason, if Jesus had been born with a diminished startle reflex, we would neither regard him as less than fully human nor assume that he was thereby disqualified from being fully divine. What got lost in the shuffle was the doctrinal claim that being the Son of God did not render Jesus “above” such earthy things as crying at loud noises, or nursing at his mother’s breast—or injury, or death. My student’s admirable sensitivity to ableist language incapacitated her from understanding a fundamental theological truth.

Yet it is that very truth upon which the church’s advocacy of the needs, rights, interests, and full inclusion of persons with disabilities ultimately depends. St. Paul writes:

Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, in order that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”10

We human beings often establish “standards” of strength, wisdom, rank, beauty, ability, and performance, and then use those standards to evaluate each other’s personal merit and social worth. And it is this twofold assumption—that such invidious standards are valid, and that people have the right to judge each other by them—that causes the alienation and stigmatization of those who are said to fall short. But what Paul here insists is that in Christ, such human standards of value are utterly relativized. Hence, any professing Christian who wishes to challenge the validity of human standards of value or to expose the sinfulness of using them to injure or exclude others should cherish the “orthodox” doctrine of the incarnation of Christ.

Encounter 2: The “Machismo” of St. Polycarp

Another objective of my church history courses is to explore the theological aims and literary characteristics of Christian hagiographies, stories of exemplary Christians who bore faithful witness to Christ in times of danger or temptation. One of the texts I assign is The Martyrdom of Polycarp.11

About the year 155 CE, a persecution broke out against the church in Smyrna (the same church to which the letter of Ignatius, quoted above, had been addressed some 50 years earlier). In the aftermath, the surviving members of “the colony of God’s church at Smyrna” wrote an account of their ordeal “to the colony of God’s church at Philomelium and to all colonies of the Holy Catholic church everywhere.”12 The Smyrnaeans explain, with a mixture of sorrow and pride, that several members of their congregation, having refused to swear allegiance to the emperor and make sacrifice to the Roman gods, had been tortured and executed:

No one could fail to admire their high-hearted endurance, and the love they showed for their Master. Some of them were so cut to pieces by the scourges that their very vitals were plainly exposed to view, down to the inmost veins and arteries; and yet they still bore up, until even the bystanders were moved to tears of pity for them. Others displayed such heroism that not a cry or a groan escaped from any of them; which seemed a clear proof to us all that in that hour of anguish those martyr-heroes of Christ were not present in the body at all—or better still, that the Lord was standing at their side and holding them in talk. So it was that, with all their thoughts absorbed in the grace of Christ, they made light of the cruelties of this world, and at the cost of a single hour purchased for themselves life everlasting.13

This account of the martyrs’ fearless endurance is followed by the cautionary tale of Quintus, a newcomer to the Smyrnaean church from neighboring Phrygia. Quintus “compelled himself and some others to surrender themselves voluntarily” to the Roman authorities, only to apostatize shortly thereafter when faced with torture and execution.14 Thus, the story of Quintus underscores the church’s teaching that Christians must avoid martyrdom, if at all possible, but must endure it courageously rather than deny Christ. In his swing from fanatical rashness to frightened capitulation, Quintus illustrates how Christians are not to face persecution. The story of his fall thus sets us up to meet the true hero of this work, St. Polycarp, the venerable bishop of the church of Smyrna. 

When Polycarp learns that the Roman governor has ordered his arrest, he is quite unfazed. But his worried congregation presses him to flee to a back country estate. When the police finally track him down, he welcomes them cordially, has them served a meal, and asks for time to prepare himself in prayer for his coming ordeal. Eventually he is brought before the Governor, who orders him to affirm that “Caesar is Lord,” to swear “by the Luck [= Fortuna] of Caesar,”15 and to perform the requisite sacrifices. Polycarp refuses. The Governor tries to change his mind, promising to release him if he does, but threatening to throw him to wild beasts or burn him at the stake if he doesn’t. Polycarp remains intransigent, and for two reasons. First, he is unwaveringly committed to the lordship of Christ, as opposed to that of Caesar: “Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He has done me no wrong. How then can I blaspheme my King and my Saviour?”16 Second, he believes that God’s providential designs are unfolding during his ordeal and rejects the pagan idea that the world is governed by Fortuna. The authors of the Martyrdom summarize their bishop’s conviction: “We must be careful to ascribe all things to [God’s] governance.”17

By now the Governor’s patience has run out, and he orders Polycarp’s execution. As the prisoner is brought into the arena, a voice from heaven is heard: “Be strong, Polycarp, and play the man.” Several scenes follow in which the elderly bishop does just that: his fervent piety and unconquerable spirit are juxtaposed against the brutality and incompetence of his persecutors. Signs and wonders occur, revealing the hand of God at work behind the terrible events. When Polycarp is finally dispatched, a quarrel between the Roman authorities and the local Jews over the disposition of the body breaks out. But the Smyrnaean church eventually gains possession of his remains and buries him. Thereafter they gather annually at his grave to celebrate his “birthday,” that is, the anniversary of his martyrdom.

Whenever I teach this text, I expect my students to be moved and inspired by it. I also expect them to be suspicious of how often echoes of the New Testament occur in the narrative, and I am primed to explain that earlier generations of Christians were less interested in “historical accuracy” than in spiritual truth and moral exemplarity. But on one occasion, two students heatedly denounced the story. They objected to the fact that the Smyrnaeans regarded themselves as “a colony of God’s church”—for colonialism was anathema to them. They balked at the words, “play the man,” which struck them as sheer machismo.18 And they disliked the story’s valorization of violence in the name of divine providence: to them this was a story of the judicial murder of dissident citizens by an imperialist state. Both students were males in their mid-twenties. Both were persons of color, who had witnessed the devastating effects of Euro-American colonialism on their cultures of origin, and the equally devastating effects of the domineering behavior of men toward women. Both rejected the idea that God’s hand might be secretly at work behind the sins and crimes of human beings. And although their objections initially took me aback, I could see why, from their perspective, this martyrology was morally obnoxious. I am grateful to them for teaching me to read this text from the “underside.” Yet it was my job to teach them to read it from the “inside.” But how?

By insisting that they pay closer attention to its literary cues and historical context. The authors describe themselves as “the colony of God’s church at Smyrna,” or to translate this more literally, “the church of God sojourning at Smyrna.” But what precisely does that self-description connote? The Greek verb translated as “sojourning” is a participial form of paroikéō (“to inhabit a place as a stranger”). Its cognate noun, paroikía (“a place for sojourners”), is often used in early Christian writings to designate a congregation.19 Now, an early Christian “colony” was quite unlike two other kinds of colonies common in the ancient Mediterranean world: the Greek apoikía and the Roman colonia. A Greek city-state, when faced with overpopulation, might send some of its citizens to a remote and previously uninhabited territory to ease living conditions at home. Of course, the new apoikía (“a place far from home”) was located at a site deemed strategically important and economically advantageous to itself and to the mother city.20 Romans in the late Republic and early Principate had somewhat different reasons for establishing coloniae. In order both to pacify recently conquered territories and to pension off retiring legionnaires, they often settled the veterans and their families in towns or lands in the provinces, where they could establish farms, set up trading networks, introduce Roman civic institutions, and keep a watchful eye on the locals.21 In contrast to both types of ancient colonies, early Christian paroikíae were small house churches, with a few dozen members, who had to keep their existence as unobtrusive as possible for fear of mob violence or state persecution.22 They were not engaged in military settlement, territorial expansion, or commerce. They were “sojourners” in their own hometowns, seeking to consecrate their sufferings by identifying themselves with the Crucified Christ and by detecting signs of divine providence behind the grim experience of imperial persecution.

When the Martyrdom of Polycarp is read in its historical context, on its own terms, and for its original audience, its key themes have an entirely different resonance from that inferred by my students. The work was composed by and for small groups of persecuted Christians to promote non-violent resistance against a hostile empire. There is no endorsement of “colonialism” (either in its ancient or modern forms), no touting of aggressive masculinity. On the contrary, the text was meant to encourage tiny minority groups to face public humiliation, torture, and execution, trusting only in divine vindication. Nor does the text valorize sufferings as such; rather, it valorizes a cause for which its devotees must be willing to suffer. These themes certainly seem apropos to Christian advocates of social justice in our time and might nerve them for the daunting struggles they will face.23

Encounter 3: The Victimology of St. Mary the Harlot

Another text I use in my church history classes is The Life of St Mary the Harlot by St. Ephraem of Edessa.24 Ephraem (c. 306–373) was a leading Syriac theologian and a personal acquaintance of his story’s protagonists. And his Life of Mary, though written with edifying intent,vividly illuminates the social world of the Eastern Mediterranean in the middle of the 4th century, particularly the tensions that existed between the prevalent cultural attitudes toward sexuality and gender identity and the values of early Christian monasticism.25 Helping my students to understand how Christians of that time negotiated that tension is one of my aims in assigning this story.

The Life opens when the saintly hermit Abraham becomes the guardian of his orphaned, seven-year-old niece, Mary. Abraham installs Mary in the outer room of his cell and raises her in accordance with his own ascetic practices. It was common in those days for a hermit to live with a disciple, and in such cases the disciple would usually serve as the intermediary between the elder and the outer world. But it would have been unusual and disreputable for two monastics living like this to be of different genders.26 It only worked in this case because Mary was an orphaned relative of a holy man.27 Still, the stage is set for disaster. Abraham gives religious instruction to his ward and prays ceaselessly for her spiritual welfare, but he does not alert her to the ways of the world or the changes and challenges that one faces in growing to adulthood. Twenty years go by in apparent bliss, but eventually “a certain monk, but a monk in profession only,” catches sight of Mary, and by “enervating her imagination by the softness of his words” succeeds in seducing her.28 Afterwards, she is overwhelmed with guilt and shame, abandons her uncle’s hermitage without saying a word to him, and winds up in a brothel in a distant city.

It takes Abraham two days—and two nights disturbed by portentous dreams—to realize that she has fled, and two full years to learn where she has gone. Resolving to rescue her, he dresses as an old soldier, rides to the city where Mary is living, enters the brothel, and pays the owner for a meal and overnight “accommodations.” When he is finally alone with her, he gently reveals his identity, takes her “guilt” upon himself, and persuades her to return with him to their former life. The sincerity of his love overcomes the intensity of her self-loathing. Ephraem’s description of this encounter is a literary masterpiece, wrought with delicate sensitivity to the feelings of both characters, and avoiding both lurid sensationalism and pious sentimentality. He concludes the scene in a passage of great stylistic charm and spiritual power:

And they rose up and went away. And he set her upon his horse and led it, going before, even as the good shepherd when he has found his lost sheep, carries it with joy upon his shoulder: and so the blessed Abraham, with joy in his heart, journeyed along the road with his niece. And when he had come home, he set her in the inner cell which had been his own, and himself remained in the outer. And she, clad in her hair shift, did there abide in humility of soul and in tears from the heart and the eyes, discipline herself with vigils and stern travail of abstinence, in quiet and modesty unweariedly calling upon God, bewailing her sin but with sure hope of pardon, with supplication so moving that no man, even were he without bowels of compassion, could hear her sorrowful crying and not be stirred. For who is so hard-hearted as to know her weeping, and himself not weep? And who but gave God thanks for the true repentance, which, compared with such prayers as ours, surpassed all measure of grief? So urgently did she pray God to pardon the thing she had done that she obtained from on high a sign that her penitence was accepted. And God the compassionate, who will have no man perish but that all should come to repentance, so accepted her atonement that after three full years He restored health to many at her prayer. For crowds flocked to her, and she would pray to God for their healing, and it was granted her.

I classify this story as a “narrative icon,” that is, an exemplary tale, told for edifying effect. Yet Ephraem informs us that he knew the characters personally, and we have every reason to believe that he depicted them faithfully, even if a bit of hagiographical embroidery creeps in here and there. Moreover, the plausibility of the story’s religious message hinges on the verisimilitude of his description of the social world of mid-fourth-century Roman Syria. A narrative icon it may be. Fiction it is not.

But does the story have its intended effect on modern readers? Here again, some of my students find it problematic, insofar as it reflects the tight control exerted over women’s lives by the patriarchal social structure of late antiquity. Both male and female students of all ages object to the ways in which women’s sexuality was rigidly regulated at that time, and to the sufferings imposed on women when they deviated from conventional norms. They regard as sexist prudery the discreet way that Ephraem depicts Mary’s sexual awakening in response to the advances of her seducer and her shyly alluring behavior in the bedroom before she realizes that her customer is her uncle in disguise. They are aghast that after her rescue, Mary lives a life of seclusion and penance. In short, they see her as a “victim”—not of defilement by a lecher, but of oppression by a patriarchal social system.

I certainly concur with my students’ commitment to the modern ideal of gender equality, but I also want them to appreciate the complex and subtle ways in which the text critiques the evils of its own social world, while offering examples of Christian resistance to those evils. For example, Mary’s seducer is described as “a monk in profession only,” which indicates that Ephraem recognizes the dangers posed to a Christian society by sexual predators masquerading as holy men. Conversely, when Abraham finally learns of Mary’s situation, he gains access to the brothel by exchanging his monastic habit for a soldier’s uniform, eating flesh meat, and drinking wine. He thus demonstrates his true holiness in the very act of suspending his lifelong ascetic practices—practices which conventionally represent monastic virtue—in order to rescue a loved one from disgrace and danger. Moreover, in giving Mary the inner room of their cell and taking the outer room for himself, he was not simply insulating her from further temptation, but placing her in the role of “elder” and himself in the role of disciple. 

My students’ insistence on defining Mary as a victim also overlooks the fact that she refuses to define herself that way. Perhaps from our perspective she blames herself too severely for succumbing to sexual temptation, and surely her feeling that the loss of her virginity condemned her to a lifetime of prostitution indicates the stifling constraints within which young unmarried women of her time lived. But even if Mary’s sense of personal responsibility for her plight seems to us exaggerated, it is also what ultimately enables her to accept her uncle’s invitation to return to the hermitage—sadder and wiser, to be sure, but more truly holy for being more truly penitent. For the act of repentance presupposes the capacity of moral volition. To fixate on her “victimhood” is to ignore the agency that she continued to exercise. Without such agency, Mary’s acceptance of her uncle’s invitation to return home would not have been a free decision on her part to begin life anew, but simply one more instance of her powerlessness in the face of overbearing male authority. Thus, while it is important to note the ways in which the patriarchal social order of the time shapes the story, it is equally important to note the spiritual themes the story illustrates: the inexhaustible mercy of God, the transformative power of self-giving love, and the duty of subordinating the cultivation of personal piety to the service of one’s neighbor. To profit from the story, we might ask how these themes relate to our own efforts to challenge the gender inequities and forms of sexual oppression that exist today.

Grievance as a Reading Strategy

What conclusions can we draw from these three encounters about the way increasing numbers of Christian students are reading classical Christian texts? Why do they often seem to approach them aggrievedly, with the assumption that these texts reflect, mask, culpably ignore, or unwittingly promote social evils, and that their protagonists are not exemplars of Christian virtue but unwitting tools or helpless victims of such evils? We may dismiss the possibility that contemporary students lack basic academic skills or simply take malicious pleasure in picayune fault-finding or classroom disruptiveness. I see no evidence of such things. Something deeper is afoot. As the sociological literature surveyed above suggests, a shift in campus moral culture is taking place, one symptom of which is the “hermeneutic of grievance” with which many contemporary Christian students are engaging their religious heritage and interpreting its literary artifacts.29 This reading strategy has the great merit of exposing the sins and mistakes of the heritage, which are all too easily glossed over when classroom instruction in church history involves little more than nostalgia, antiquarianism, or hero-worship. But assuming the worst can easily lead one to ignore the best. Something more than a hermeneutic of grievance is needed. This I call a hermeneutic of gravitas. 

The English words “grievance” and “gravitas,” along with the word “grief,” are etymologically related. Now, the meaning of a word is determined by its uses in ordinary discourse, not by its ancestry.30 Yet the ancestry of a word or set of etymologically related words can sometimes yield surprising and instructive insights, and that is true here. All three of these words derive from the Proto-Indo-European root gwere, meaning “heavy.” This passed into Latin as gravare, meaning “to burden” (transitive) or “to weigh” (intransitive). Gravare evolved into the medieval French gref, from which our three English terms arose, each of which maintains the original notion of heaviness in some way.31 Grief is a deep emotion, a “heaviness of heart.” It is the anguish one feels after sustaining an injury, making a mistake, or committing a sin. In contrast, a grievance (or gravamen) is a negative moral judgment, an indignant reaction to some offense that “weighs on one’s mind.” The aggrieved person may be the victim of the offense—but need not be, for one can be aggrieved for an injured third party. In either case, a grievance may be nursed secretly or expressed directly and privately to the offender or via a public protest or lawsuit. Finally, gravitas is a virtuous disposition, entailing “weightiness” of judgment, “balanced” deliberation, “even-handedness” in speech and action, and moral “heft.”

For Christians, the natural human emotion of grief is modified by the consciousness of the subtle but powerful operation of divine grace in human affairs, even the most tragic or deplorable. This is just the point of many classical Christian texts, which are intended to train their readers in how to feel and express grief Christianly, that is, how to mourn a loss or repent of a sin in a way that acknowledges the “heaviness” of the situation and honors those who have thereby been “burdened,” while nevertheless placing the situation and the sufferers into the hands of a loving God. The Bible forbids us to trivialize evil and suffering—but also commands us not to despair when they befall us.32 The Martyrdom of St. Polycarp sorrowfully records the sufferings of the persecuted Smyrnaean bishop—but also joyfully celebrates his martyrdom as his “birthday.” The heroine of The Life of St. Mary bewails her “harlotry”—but also becomes a powerful intercessor for others. Christian readers of these exemplary texts are expected to learn from them how to face their own sufferings and sins with fearless honesty and sublime confidence in the redemptive action of God.

Without such confidence, however, the gradual accumulation of life’s sorrows and injuries can produce a mindset of generalized resentment and outrage at the brokenness of the world—a postureof aggrievedness. The problem with this posture is not that it frankly acknowledges the reality of evil. That is its great merit. The problem is that in its determination to protest the countless evils and injustices that beset humanity, it can fail to discern the quiet, mysterious operation of God in the hearts and lives of individuals, in the hurly-burly of historic events, and in the subtle interplay of social forces. This seems to be happening to many of my students. They are not only acutely sensitive to human sufferings and wrongs, but prone to regard sufferers primarily as helpless victims of oppressive political, economic, and cultural structures—lacking agency and abandoned by God. Exactly why students have taken that posture is detailed in the sociological studies cited above. What matters for the present purpose is how they view the world. In one of his children’s novels, C. S. Lewis remarks, “[W]hat you see and hear depends a good deal on where you are standing: it also depends on what sort of person you are.”33 Well, today’s students are “standing” square in the middle of political chaos, economic disparity, racial-ethnic prejudice, street violence, a global health crisis, and widespread environmental degradation. And they have become “the sort of people” who are outraged at what they see and impatient to effect change, and who are disgusted at the general failure of time-honored institutions, including the church, to address these evils.

As we have seen, this posture effects not only how students see the contemporary world, but also how they read classical Christian texts. They may interpret an offhand remark about brain injury as an indication of the instructor’s—or society’s—implicit bias against neurodiverse persons. It may be that, and they are right to challenge bias wherever they suspect it. But their indignation at an offhand remark can obscure what the remark was meant to illustrate, because they are more predisposed to criticize social evils than to contemplate the mysteries of Christian doctrine. They may read a text that glorifies the endurance of the ancient martyrs, not for signs of the operation of that divine power which enabled the martyrs to endure persecution for their faith, but for evidence that the text is somehow sponsoring colonialism or machismo. But without sensitivity to the semantics of ancient languages, and without careful study of the history and cultures of antiquity, what looks like deeply insightful social critique may be little more than eisegesis and anachronism. They may read a story about the seduction of an innocent girl and her subsequent rescue from the self-inflicted consequences of her lapse, not as an inspiring testimony to the redemptive power of love, but as proof of the evils of patriarchy. And in looking for evils in the cultural background of the story, they may fail to attend sufficiently to its plotline and character development. Social evils may well be detectable behind a classical Christian exemplary text, and if so, they are fair game for academic inquiry. But the detection of those social evils can only enrich the interpretation of the text itself, if it helps to elucidate the text’s literary features, its religious message, and the human qualities and existential predicaments of its characters.

From Grievance to Gravitas

We have seen that students who adopt a posture of grievance tend to scrutinize classical Christian texts for evidence of social evils lurking behind those texts and to censure characters who hold views or exhibit traits that perpetuate or capitalize on those evils. This approach has clear benefits: it helps to identify the historical analogues and antecedents of the social evils of our own time, and it prevents the idealization and glamorization of the Christian heritage. But it has dangers as well. It assumes that modern social ideals are self-evidently valid, such that our forebears in the faith, who did not hold those ideals, should have known better. It assumes that modern social ideals are of universal applicability, such that our forebears could have put them into direct effect, if only they had held them. And it can blind us to the ways in which the values of Christian antiquity and the virtues of our forebears might benefit the contemporary church. What I am proposing is the cultivation of a hermeneutic of gravitas, a reading strategy that would incorporate the benefits of the hermeneutic of grievance, but in a way that would avoid its dangers. It would practice true catholicity and generosity of spirit, aware of the possibility that Christians of other ages and cultures understood aspects of the gospel that we post-moderns have overlooked, ignored, or rejected. It would ask how the revival, adaptation, and recontextualization of these now-suppressed aspects might enrich contemporary Christian ministry and mission. And it would operate on the assumption that the pursuit of personal holiness—so strongly emphasized in the exemplary texts of the Christian heritage—and the pursuit of social justice—the dominant concern of Generation Z Christians—are equally necessary and mutually reinforcing elements of theological wisdom and spiritual maturity.

How might Christian educators help contemporary students to master such a strategy? First, as I have learned from my students, an expanded list of Christian texts is needed, a list that includes African, Asian, and Latin-American sources, as well as European and North American works. Second, as I have learned from my colleagues, the application of newer scholarly methods, such as cultural anthropology and social psychology, can help to expose those features of classical texts that are easily overlooked when literary-critical and historical-critical reading strategies dominate classroom inquiry. But third, as I constantly remind my students and colleagues, these older literary-critical and historical-critical methods, which discipline readers to take each text on its own terms, remain indispensable. Students must learn to give careful attention to the semantic nuances of a text’s language, to the literary conventions of its genre, to the subtle details of its plot and setting, to the vices and virtues of its characters, to the theological agenda of its author, to the symbolic world of its original audience, and to the historical, cultural, and religious background against which it was written. This means that readers must suspend their theological, moral, and political judgment of older texts long enough to ponder how they have been “received” by the Christian tradition as a whole and how they might speak powerfully and relevantly to us today, despite the very different circumstances under which we live.34

Let me close by describing four writing assignments that I have devised to help my students practice a hermeneutic of gravity.

1. The “cloud of witnesses” sermon: The student writes a sermon for All Saints’ Day, describing the character and contributions of a faithful Christian from a time and place different from that of its intended or imagined congregation. The student submits both a copy of the sermon manuscript and a videotape of himself or herself delivering it. The manuscript must contain both a verbatim transcript of the sermon as it was preached and, for the instructor’s eyes only, copious notes displaying the exegetical and historical research “behind” the sermon. The student’s task is to hold two key principles in creative tension as he or she prepares and delivers the sermon: First, the church in each time and place has something spiritually beneficial to say to the church in every time and place. Thus, St. Polycarp and St. Mary become virtual “contemporaries” of the faithful who hear their exploits narrated from the pulpit.35 But second, and conversely, such contemporaneity is by no means self-evident, either to the student or to the congregation. Accordingly, the student’s homiletical task is to narrate the saint’s story in a way that will render it intelligible to and edifying for the audience, explaining those historical and biographical details that might otherwise be incomprehensible to them, and applying the spiritual message of the story in a way that is relevant to the specific spiritual and missional challenges facing the congregation. 

2.The letter of spiritual counsel: The student is given the text of a letter from a fictitious parishioner, asking advice on a specific religious question, moral conundrum, or personal problem. The student then writes a detailed pastoral response, using wisdom gleaned from one or more classical theological texts that address a situation analogous to—but also, of course, significantly different from—that of the parishioner. As with the cloud-of-witnesses sermon, the letter of spiritual counsel must include notes mapping both the similarities and the differences between the issue raised by the parishioner and the situation addressed in the classical text and explaining how the views expressed by the classical author might be creatively adapted to the felt needs of the parishioner. The notes, of course, would not be included in the version of the letter that the student would send to the parishioner, but they are weighted equally in the grading of the assignment. The letter of spiritual counsel thus tests both the student’s pastoral sensitivity (as shown in the warmth and wisdom of the letter proper) and his or her academic competence and hermeneutical dexterity (as shown in the extensiveness of the notes).

3. The gravamina inventory with reform proposal: The student writes a letter to the pastor(s) and chief decision-making body of his or her home congregation or the congregation that he or she is currently serving. The student identifies certain problems in that congregation—doctrinal error, ethical misconduct, spiritual malaise, programmatic inadequacy, liturgical aberration, cultural insensitivity, and so on—that require immediate attention and decisive response. The student is prohibited, however, from writing an angry rant or a threatening ultimatum, and from publicly shaming or privately guilt-tripping the offending parties. Rather, he or she must write a graciously worded, biblically grounded, and theologically argued critique of the identified problems, and then offer detailed, concrete, and measurable proposals for congregational reform and spiritual renewal. Once again, critical apparatus is required, showing both thematic and rhetorical parallels between the student’s gravamina inventory/reform proposal and such classical Christian grievance literature as Augustine’s Letter 211, John Calvin’s Necessity of Reforming the Churches, and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Why We Can’t Wait.

4.The cross-cultural or trans-historical theological dialogue. The student first writes a sympathetic and detailed exposition of a Christian text which comes from a time and/or place different from the student’s own and which addresses a key Christian doctrine (such as the saving work of the Christ or the meaning of the Eucharist). The student next writes an equally sympathetic and detailed exposition of a modern Christian text that addresses that same doctrine but takes a significantly different position on it. Then the student critiques each text from the point of view of the other. An ideal but optional approach to this assignment would be for the student to cast this in the form of a Platonic dialogue, in which the respective positions emerge in the give and take of lively, informal conversation. The student is welcome to insert himself or herself into the script, either as the “referee” between the other two characters or as the eager pupil of both. The student is free to express a preference for either position or to stake out an alternative or mediating position. But regardless of whether the student chooses to write a standard compare-and-contrast essay or the script of an imaginary conversation, straw man arguments, in which the losing position is obvious at the outset, are expressly prohibited. Pedagogically, what matters is the student’s ability to understand both positions thoroughly and fairly before opting for one or working out an alternative. Extensive annotations to the essay or script are required to show that the student has fairly represented the actual views and contextual particularities of the interlocutors.

What are the results of these assignments? How well do students like them and what do they learn from them? I have not yet collected enough formal outcomes assessment data to answer these questions conclusively and must restrict myself to offering three rather general observations: First, tackling any of these assignments will require some soul-searching and perhaps the disclosure of some very personal information. Because I cannot assume that every student has the requisite level of trust in me to do so without undue discomfort, I always give students the option of writing a more conventional kind of academic essay instead (such as an analysis of some doctrinal or church-historical issue covered in the course). But those who choose one of these riskier assignments gain an awareness of how their own assumptions and convictions can limit or skew their reading of classical texts. Second, students who undertake one of these assignments learn the meaning of the old proverb, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” Times do change, and these assignments require students to pay close attention to the details of stories that come from social worlds very different from their own before passing judgment. They gain a greater appreciation for the complexities and subtleties of classical texts and historical contexts and a deeper understanding of why Christians of other eras thought and acted as they did. This renders their judgments more cautious, nuanced, and sympathetic, and enables them to discover unsuspected commonalities with the ancients. Third, the mandate to bear in mind the needs and feelings of a congregation, or a correspondent, or the recipients of a gravamina inventory proves surprisingly challenging—and surprisingly edifying—to the students. Tact and courtesy are not skills that aggrieved persons are apt to practice under any circumstances, especially in this era of social media “flaming” and vitriolic political discourse. Practicing those skills has a gentling effect on their rhetoric and fosters a more reconciliatory approach to their ideological adversaries. Results of this sort—however modest they may be for any given student on any given assignment—move students toward that “weightiness of judgment, balanced deliberation, even-handedness in speech and action, and moral heft” that I am calling gravitas.

Concluding Remarks

G. K. Chesterton once remarked:

Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to [people] being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death.36

I certainly do not regard contemporary university and seminary students as an “arrogant oligarchy” bent on a kind of academic voter suppression. But their acute sensitivity to social injustice can sometimes lead to a narrowing of vision and a sharpness of temper, which can limit their understanding of the Christian heritage, and which may ultimately diminish the effectiveness of their Christian witness. My hope is to develop pedagogical strategies that invite students to appreciate the riches of the Christian heritage, while learning how to apply those riches creatively to the great social and spiritual challenges of our time.

Cite this article
Richard Steele, “Toward a Hermeneutic of Gravitas”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 51:2 , 201-219


  1. All three encounters took place in first-year seminary classrooms. But the students involved were all recent college graduates, and I assume their “posture of grievance” was something they brought with them from their undergraduate studies, not something they first acquired at seminary.
  2. Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning, The Rise of Victimhood Culture: Microaggressions, Safe Spaces, and the New Culture Wars (Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018).
  3. Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure (New York: Penguin, 2018).
  4. Jonathan Sacks, Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times (New York: Basic Books, 2020), especially chapters 14–16. Sacks shares the worries expressed by Campbell and Manning and by Lukianoff and Haidt about the decline of the culture of dignity, but he is more explicit than they in describing the religious dimensions of that older moral culture.
  5. Jean M. Twenge, iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy—and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood (and What That Means for the Rest of Us) (New York: Atria, 2017), especially chapter 5.
  6. Katherine M. Douglass, Creative in the Image of God: An Aesthetic Practical Theology of Young Adult Faith (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2020), 26.
  7. Christian Smith, Kari Christofferson, Hilary Davidson, and Patricia Snell Herzog, Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 19–69.
  8. See John 1:1–18, Colossians 2:8–9, Hebrews 2:10–18, 1 Peter 4:1, 1 John 4:1–3, 2 John 7, etc.
  9. Ignatius of Antioch, Epistle to the Smyrnaeans, in Andrew Louth, Early Christian Writings: The Apostolic Fathers (London: Penguin Books, 1987), 101.
  10. 1 Corinthians 1:26–31 NRSV.
  11. The Martyrdom of Polycarp, in Louth, Early Christian Writings, 125–135. This work is the earliest surviving Christian martyrology outside of Scripture. Although it contains many echoes of the New Testament passion narratives, it makes no direct reference to the stories of the persecution of the Jews by Antiochus IV (2 Maccabees 6:18–7:42) or the stoning of Stephen (Acts 7:1–60).
  12. Ibid., 125.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Ibid., 126. It is unclear whether the mention of Quintus’ birthplace was an ethnic smear against Phrygians or an indication that he had not yet been fully incorporated into the Smyrnaean church and thus lacked the spiritually fortifying effect of in-group solidarity. Certainly, the people of Phrygia were famous in antiquity for their religious excesses. See, for example, “Attis” (Poem 63) by Catullus, which describes the frenzied worship of the Phrygian goddess, Cybele. Moreover, Montanism, the so-called “Phrygian heresy,” was gaining ground at that time. See Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, V.16.
  15. The Greek term is tuchē, which Louth takes as a reference to Fortuna, the Roman goddess of prosperity. But in J. B. Lightfoot and J. R. Harmer, The Apostolic Fathers (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1984), 206, tuchē is rendered as “genius,” a transliteration of the Latin genius. The Romans regarded the genius as the divine element in human nature, and it was to a living Emperor’s genius—not to the man himself—that they swore loyalty. See, for example, The Acts of the Scillitan Martyrs, para. 3. At the death of a “good” Emperor, his genius was expected to join the gods. One dying emperor wryly remarked, “Dear me, I must be turning into a god.” Suetonius, Life of Vespasian, in The Twelve Caesars, trans. Robert Graves (Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1969), 285.
  16. The Martyrdom of Polycarp, in Louth, 128.
  17. Ibid., 125. On the difference between the pagan concept of “fortune” and the Christian concept of “providence,” see William Chase Greene, Moira: Fate, Good, and Evil in Greek Thought (New York and Evanston: Harper & Row, 1944), 331–398.
  18. The Martyrdom of Polycarp, in Louth, 128. It is certainly true that the Greek verb andrízō means “to be manly,” and that the cognate noun, andreía, means “manliness” or “courage,” especially in sports competitions or combat situations. But the “manliness” displayed by Polycarp has nothing to do either with athletic or martial prowess or with the kind of aggressive masculinity implied by the modern term “machismo.”
  19. See Walter Bauer, William F. Arndt, and F. Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957), s.v. paroikéō and paroikía.
  20. See John Boardman, The Greeks Overseas (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1968); and Kathleen Freeman, Greek City-States (New York: W. W. Norton, 1950).
  21. See William Broadhead, “Colonization, Land Distribution, and Veteran Settlement,” in A Companion to the Roman Army, ed. Paul Erdkamp (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2007); and Christopher J. Fuhrmann, Policing the Roman Empire: Soldiers, Administration, and Public Order (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).
  22. For a thorough analysis of the earliest extant Christian building, see Michael Peppard, The World’s Oldest Church: Bible, Art, and Ritual at Dura-Europos, Syria (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016)
  23. For a moving account of how the Christians of Latin America have endured privations, humiliations, “disappearances” and executions in their quest for social justice, but have done so with “paschal joy,” see Gustavo Gutierrez, We Drink from Our Own Wells: The Spiritual Journey of a People, trans. Matthew J. O’Connell (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2000), especially chapter 8.
  24. In Helen Waddell, The Desert Fathers (New York: Random House, 1998), 197–209. See also Benedicta Ward, Harlots of the Desert: A Study of Repentance in Early Monastic Sources (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1987), chapter 6.
  25. For Patristic attitudes toward gender and sexuality, see Peter Brown, The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity, 2nd ed. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008), especially chapter 13, “‘Daughters of Jerusalem’: The Ascetic Life of Women in the Fourth Century.”
  26. “Double monasteries” are traceable to this period in the Christian East. Two famous examples were those established by St. Melania the Elder in Jerusalem, c. 376 CE, and by Sts. Jerome, Paula, and Eustochium in Bethlehem a decade or so later. See Derwas J. Chitty, The Desert a City: An Introduction to the Study of Egyptian and Palestinian Monasticism (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2020), 46–64; and Laura Swan, The Forgotten Desert Mothers: Sayings, Lives, and Stories of Early Christian Women (New York and Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2001), 114–118 and 138–141. But these were coenobitic institutions, with separate facilities for men and women. Hermitic quarters of the period might house two persons, as described above, but both would have been of the same gender, and usually men. We do have cases of female hermits in this period, but these are typically true solitaries. See, for example, “The Life of St. Pelagia the Harlot,” in Waddell, The Desert Fathers, 194–196.
  27. For background on the reputation and social role of ascetics in this period, see Peter Brown, “The Rise and Function of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity,” Journal of Roman Studies 61 (1971): 80–101
  28. Ephraem, Life of St. Mary the Harlot, 200.
  29. There is an obvious parallel between what I call a “hermeneutic of grievance” and what is often called a “hermeneutic of suspicion.” See, for example, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, 2nd rev. ed., trans. Joel Weinheimer and Donald G. Marshall (New York: Continuum, 2004); and Paul Ricoeur, Freud and Philosophy: An Essay on Interpretation, trans. Denis Savage (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977). The difference, if any, is that whereas the great “masters of suspicion”—Feuerbach, Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud—focus on the false consciousness that underlies religions and political ideologies, my students are driven by a fierce, personal protectiveness toward the victims of various social evils—whether living persons or characters in ancient stories. But perhaps a “grievance” is simply what you feel—and express—when you are convinced that your “suspicions” are true.
  30. On the notion that what we call the “meaning” of a word is usually (not always!) determined by its uses in everyday discourse, see Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, 3rded., trans. G. E. M. Anscombe (New York: Macmillan), paras. 30, 43, 138, 197, etc.
  31. See C. T. Onions, ed., The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985), s.v. “grave,” “gravity,” and “grief/grievance,” and the Online Etymology Dictionary,, s.v. “grief.” “Gravitas,” of course, is the Latin spelling for the English “gravity.” But in common English, “grav-ity” can refer either to the mutual attraction of physical objects (= “gravitation”) or to the weightiness of a person’s character (= “gravitas”). For clarity, I am here using “gravitas.”
  32. 2 Cor 4:1, 16–18, Heb 12:3–13, etc.
  33. C. S. Lewis, The Magician’s Nephew (New York: Collier Books, 1970), 125.
  34. For a splendid example of how the rigorous study of the documents of Christian antiquity can be applied to the practice of ministry in today’s world, see Gerald L. Sittser, Resilient Faith: How the Early Christian “Third Way” Changed the World (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2019).
  35. This idea is an adaptation of Søren Kierkegaard’s theory that faith renders the Christian a contemporary of Christ. See Philosophical Fragments, trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985), 55–110; and Practice in Christianity, trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991), 36–68. Of course, having saving faith in Christ is qualitatively different from imaginatively identifying oneself with a Christian saint.
  36. G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (London and Glasgow: Fontana Books, 1961), 47.

Richard Steele

Seattle Pacific University
Richard Steele is Professor of Moral and Historical Theology at Seattle Pacific University.

One Comment

  • William Tate says:

    I found this article richly thought-provoking. It combines historical depth with current cultural sensitivity, and it offers clear recommendations for practice. I’m grateful to have access to it. It has an immediate relevance for literature classes I teach regularly.