Episode 10: Eric Barreto on why #Ferguson should be taught in seminary
In this episode of “Can These Bones,” co-host Laura Everett talks with Eric Barreto, a professor at Princeton Theological Seminary, about training students to parse Greek verbs and become wise readers of Scriptures and communities.
The Rev. Dr. Eric Barreto moved around a lot growing up. Born in Puerto Rico, he moved with his family to Louisiana, Missouri, Kansas and upstate New York -- all before he went to college in Oklahoma and then seminary in New Jersey. This experience taught him how to incorporate himself quickly into new communities as well as sharpen his own sense of identity within those communities. It’s a skill he uses -- and teaches -- as the Frederick and Margaret L. Weyerhaeuser Associate Professor of New Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary. In his conversation with “Can These Bones” co-host Laura Everett, he talks about why it’s important to bring events of the world into the classroom, what he has learned from teaching online, and why he is excited about the millennial generation.
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More from Eric Barreto
Princeton Theological Seminary
Working Preacher: Barreto bio and contributions
Sojourners: Barreto posts
Huffington Post: Barreto stories
Princeton Theological Seminary: Hispanic Theological Initiative
The #Ferguson Syllabus, by Marcia Chatelain
The Charleston Syllabus, by the African American Intellectual History Society
The Charlottesville Syllabus, by the UVa Graduate Coalition
Lemonade Syllabus, by Candice Benbow
Laura Everett: From Faith & Leadership, this is “Can These Bones,” a podcast that asks a fresh set of questions about leadership and the future of the church.
I’m Laura Everett.
Bill Lamar: And I’m Bill Lamar. This is episode 10 of a series of conversations with leaders from the church and other fields. Through this podcast, we want to share our hope in the resurrection and perhaps breathe life into leaders struggling in their own “valley of dry bones.”
You spoke with Eric Barreto, a professor of New Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary in Princeton, New Jersey. Eric has some interesting insights into his work as a scholar and a teacher, and what that means for the church.
Laura Everett: Bill, I’m so glad we get to have Eric on this program. Eric is an amazing scholar, a deeply devoted Christian who puts his teaching in service of the church. And he’s carving out an interesting space as a public theologian. He’s writing for Working Preacher, ON Scripture and the Huffington Post.
He’s also been deeply invested in bringing up a new generation of scholars through the Hispanic Theological Initiative. Eric is a Baptist pastor of Puerto Rican descent, and he’s clear that his scholarship is in service to the church and forming Christian leaders who simultaneously engage with Scripture and the world around them. I’m so glad we get to have Eric on this program.
Bill Lamar: Let’s hear your conversation.
Laura Everett: Eric Barreto is the WeyerhaeuserAssociate Professor of New Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary. There is so much to say about Eric, but I want to begin with this: Eric has what I consider my favorite Twitter bio of all time. I’m hoping that drives you all to go find him. He is a public theologian and a public Scripture scholar. He is an exceedingly good human. Eric is invested in scholarship for the sake of the church.
Eric Barreto, welcome to “Can These Bones,” a Faith & Leadership podcast.
Eric Barreto: Thanks for the gracious introduction, Laura. Thank you so much.
Laura Everett: It’s really nice to be in conversation with you, Eric.
Eric Barreto: Thank you. Looking forward to it.
Laura Everett: So you’ve claimed a very clear identity as a teacher. I’m curious about how intentional you’ve been about how to be a good teacher, and what that looks like for you.
Eric Barreto: Part of it is that I had really great teachers growing up. I had great models of what it looks like to not just teach content but to help form students into lifelong learners, to form students in figuring out what their identity is, who they are in the eyes of God.
And I think the other thing that changed my teaching experience was that I had to teach online pretty early on in my career. I had no idea how I could teach Greek to 40 to 50 students online. I didn’t know how to do the fonts. I didn’t know how this would work, because all I had seen, all I had experienced, was sitting in a classroom at a desk with a professor or a teacher at the front of the desk.
Now, there is no front of the classroom online. There is no desk, so to speak. There is no classroom, really. But still, we’re trying to educate; we’re trying to learn from one another.
And I think it was that experience of having to basically start over -- strip teaching down to its essential parts and figure out, what does this look like? What is it that we’re trying to do, besides just communicating a whole bunch of data or getting people to be able to parrot back all the things that I spoke to them? I think that opened up a lot of possibilities for me.
Especially because these students were doing seminary usually in the midst of full-time jobs, full-time ministry. And the question was, if they’re willing to take time away from their family, from their work, and invest in this, what is it that I’m going to give them besides the ability to parse these verbs -- as important as that is? What’s that for?
I think that was really transformative for my teaching, to think in that kind of backward design idea: what is it that we’re doing this for?
Laura Everett: One of the things we’ve seen of late is that there’s been a proliferation of online syllabi created to help folks get the deeper context after an event. There’s been the Ferguson Syllabus or the Charleston Syllabus -- or even Candice Benbow’s Lemonade Syllabus, to help unpack all that’s within Beyonce’s latest album.
How has your engagement with social media shifted how you think about what comes into your classroom?
Eric Barreto: That’s a great question. A couple of academic years ago, this really came into sharp relief for me, because it was the summer of Ferguson and bracketed at the other end by a whole litany of other events around racial justice, including, at the end, the protests in Baltimore.
What I was struck by was that I first heard about Michael Brown on Twitter from African-American friends who I was following. I went to church that Sunday in a church that wasn’t an African-American church, and therefore I didn’t hear a word about Michael Brown that Sunday.
But I knew that there were other communities elsewhere that this was the primary thing on people’s hearts. This is what they were thinking about; this is what they were praying about; this is what they were worrying about.
And it struck me what different worlds these different ecclesial communities live in. And that it was important for my students to know that there was a bigger world beyond their congregations. It includes their congregation -- their congregation is important -- but that’s within a larger context of what God’s people are going through and what God is up to in the world.
So for me, part of teaching is to just spark people’s curiosity, imagination. When it comes to Scripture, for example, how [important] is it not just that I read, and have a full sense of my identity and how my identity shapes how and why I read, but also to know that there are other communities, other people, who read very differently than I do. And that their different readings aren’t just curiosities for me to collect and for me to kind of stare at, but there are these different readings that encounter me, that open up new possibilities, that maybe force me to think about the ways in which my vision is too narrow.
That, by itself -- the way that social media opens up other communities where you can kind of be a curious bystander, where you’re hearing other people’s conversations, you’re hearing other people’s stories, and you never take ownership over them, but you are a faithful witness to the things that other communities are going through -- I’ve realized that I want to inculcate that kind of curiosity, that kind of wisdom, that kind of listening, in the ways that my students read Scripture, and in the ways that they read other communities’ readings of Scripture as well.
Laura Everett: Let’s talk about those events, because I think you and I both started seminary in September 2001. So 9/11 shaped our seminary formation and what was at stake in that. And your students now, their semesters are framed by things like the presidency of Donald Trump or white supremacists on parade in Charlottesville and other catastrophic natural and human disasters.
I want to read to you something you wrote about theology in Ferguson. So I’m reading Eric Barreto back to Eric Barreto.
Eric Barreto: Let’s see if I recognize it.
Laura Everett: So Eric, this is what you wrote: “If our theology cannot speak in Ferguson, then I can’t help but wonder if our theology is worthy of its name and even more importantly worthy of the God we yearn to follow. And if we teachers don’t equip our students to speak in places like Ferguson and if we don’t invite them to do so even now, then our pedagogies will leave us poorer as a people and a church. In short then, Ferguson is revelatory. It betrays pedagogies that are not up to the task and belies theologies merely posing as God’s living word. Are we up to the task? Can we teach in such moments?”
That’s what you wrote. And so I want to know how, just at a very personal level, how do you teach after a tragedy? How do you teach about ethnicity in Acts a day after DACA is rescinded? Or how do you go back into the classroom to teach a new declension after Ferguson?
There is what is going on in the world around you and what’s going on in your classroom. What do you do before you step into that classroom at Princeton or go onto that online space?
Eric Barreto: I think that’s maybe the greatest teaching challenge we face in theological education when it comes to pedagogy, that the nature of social media and who our students are and their curiosity about the world means that I can’t just show up the day after anything happens and say, “Well, today we’re going to do the aorist tense.”
There were a couple of moments this last academic year where even in my Greek class I said, “Let’s talk about the things that are happening. Let’s talk about what the presidential election means for communities of faith. What does it mean for communities of color? What does it mean for undocumented folk?”
And I would create that space because I’m not sure people can learn a Greek tense if their hearts are burdened in that way. So you create that space, and then you say, “We’ve created that space. We’ve heard each other; we’ve learned something about each other. And now we’re going to study the aorist, not as a distraction, but because this will equip you to read Scripture in a faithful way that will equip you to answer whatever it is -- that moment of crisis, that moment of tragedy, that moment of joy, whatever it is -- when that community that you’re leading faces the heights or depths.”
There’s something about learning the stuff that matters, not because the aorist is the end to which we are striving, but because it’s a means toward a faithful reading of Scripture.
Same thing in my class on race. That was taught in the fall of last year. There were other events around racial justice. There was the election. And it was a weekly reminder that we were not just engaging an academic question that doesn’t reach out and touch the lives of everyday people all the time. We’re not just reading stuff, these ancient texts that are dusty and old. We are reading these living texts that are still with us and that people still need so, so desperately.
One of the challenges for us, of course, is we can’t respond to everything. And we are living in a media culture where everything is breaking news now, so that nothing is breaking news anymore. So part of what I hope my classes help inculcate is a wisdom to know something about history, to know something about theology, to know something about Scripture, to know something about where we’ve been and where we’re going, so that you know when to respond and how, and not in any kind of automatic way.
I can’t give students rules for how to preach after tragedy. What I can say is, “Here is a bunch of wisdom that we have in these Scriptures, that we have in the traditions that have interpreted these Scriptures. And now you have to go figure it out. And I need you to come back and teach me what you’ve learned in doing so, so that I can help the students who are coming in after you as well.”
It’s an extraordinary set of challenges, but it also feels like an honor that God would call us to this moment. It feels humbling and exciting. And every once in a while, it even encourages my courage along the way.
Laura Everett: You’re making both a pastoral and a pedagogical decision right there.
Eric Barreto: The pedagogical -- the decision that I think teachers are making at that moment is that our students aren’t just brains to be filled. Our students are embodied children of God who suffer, who rejoice. And don’t just know stuff -- they feel stuff. And that feeling stuff is as important as any of the knowledge stuff that we do. So how do we bridge those two?
I haven’t figured that out quite yet. I think our educational system is really good at filling our brains. We’re still trying to figure out what it looks like to be thoughtful, embodied, feeling students for a long time -- for a lifetime. And I think we’re still trying to figure that out.
Laura Everett: You know, one of the questions that we’re asking with “Can These Bones” is, are the bones of our historic institutions able to have life breathed into them? You know, you could be teaching in a high school; you could be teaching in many places. You have chosen theological education as the venue for your teaching vocation.
What is it about theological education that is worth giving your life to?
Eric Barreto: I think primarily, it’s because theological education shapes the church. Theological education shapes the church’s leaders, both ordained and not ordained. It shapes people’s imaginations of who they are, of who we are as God’s people, who we are as Jesus’ followers.
So the challenge of theological education -- I think the joy of it, too -- is that I don’t know what the church is going to look like. And yet I’m educating students to lead a church that we can’t quite see, because God is already running ahead of us, already shaping that church, already planting that church, already nurturing that church.
So that’s why I think theological education is so exciting right now. I think these old bones can live. We’ve seen this before; we’ve experienced this before. The church has learned from moments like this, or moments that are kind of like this but not quite like this. There are things that we can learn from our past. And I think there’s much to lean on in the wisdom of the people that have gone before us. They made a number of mistakes, but I’m sure people who follow after us will be able to point out our mistakes as well.
And unless we trust in God’s grace, [we’ll miss] that even in the midst of all those mistakes, we’ll do something that is for the sake of the church, because God is involved in the midst of all this.
So yeah, I do think these bones can live. And there’s no other place I’d rather be teaching.
Laura Everett: So let’s dig deep into that. The idea that theological education now is preparing leaders for a church that’s coming, that we do not yet know -- in some ways that seems less about content and more about a kind of formation, and maybe even a set of skills. Do you have a sense of what you think some of those skills are our church leaders are going to need for that church that’s coming?
Eric Barreto: I would say it this way, too: that it’s not skills versus content but content that leads toward the nurturing of a certain kind of formation identity and set of skills. Content is still really vital, but it’s not the end of the theological education we’re doing.
I think at least one skill is this online wisdom -- that’s not quite the right word. I always joke, there’s a website called Literally Unbelievable. I don’t know if you’ve seen it; it’s -- I think it’s a Tumblr page, where all they do is they take Facebook posts when people post stuff from [sites like] The Onion and think it’s true. It’s just this constant mockery of people thinking this satirical article is actually true, and their outrage and their frustration.
So what kind of wisdom can you nurture in someone, and how they read both text and communities, to be able to tell what’s real and what’s not, what’s true or what’s not true? I think that’s a key set of wisdom, and I hope that reading Scripture well nurtures that kind of wisdom.
And part of what makes the reading of Scripture faithful is that we realize that there’s not just a text in front of us; there’s a whole tradition of reading that has gone before us, and there are many communities right now reading the text very differently than we do. So what does it look like to listen, to be critical, to be generous -- all at the same time? I think that’s one of the key skills that I hope I’m teaching.
Certainly, I want students to know what’s in the Gospel of Luke. I want students to be able to parse a verb. But in the end, it’s about being wise readers of Scriptures and communities. And to be able to then name the ways in which Scripture has formed these communities and the ways in which God is doing something new that God has done before, in a way. It’s that imagination, that God is doing new stuff all the time that actually God has done before, so it’s new but not new. Can you nurture that kind of imagination and help communities nurture that kind of imagination and lean into the realities of a changing world?
Laura Everett: Let’s talk about that that skill you mentioned about being wise readers of communities.
Eric Barreto: Part of the story, too, is that I moved from Puerto Rico when I was 9 years old. We moved to Louisiana and Missouri and to Kansas and upstate New York, and then I went to college in Oklahoma and seminary in New Jersey and then on and on and on -- all these moves.
Especially being usually, along with my sister, one of the only Latino, Latina, Latinx kids in these schools, you learn right away, especially as a teenager -- I learned how to fit in. I learned how to listen. I learned how to change my dialogue, to pick up new slang, to pick up a new accent, just to fit in. There’s that skill of learning how you incorporate yourself into new communities, especially communities that maybe aren’t particularly friendly to your own culture.
But I think that’s only half the lesson. More recently, what I’ve learned is you learn not just how to incorporate yourself; you learn how to sharpen your own sense of identity within these communities. So not just incorporate, not just fit in, but be the person that God has called you to be in this particular place. To say, “For whatever reason, God has brought me to this place. There are certain things that this community can teach me. There are certain things that hopefully I can teach this community.”
So what you do then -- at first, you listen very carefully. You think about history, you think about all the subtext underneath the arguments that go on in a faculty meeting or that drive theological debate. There’s always a long history behind that. And behind that, then, there are a lot of stories about people and relationships.
So you don’t just learn the ideas. You learn about the stories of the people and who they were and what might have driven them. It’s that same skill that I’m asking my students to inculcate. To listen to communities, to listen to stories, and listen how those stories shape identity and the reading of Scriptures.
I think also what I do in these new communities, as I’m moving from place to place, [is to come] with the expectation that God has brought me here for a particular purpose -- not sure what that is, not sure I’ll ever be able to really know, to pinpoint it -- but to know that God has brought me to this place and that there’s something in my story, something in the ways that God has shaped me that this community needs, and that’s why I’m here. That’s why the community brought me, and that’s why God has drawn me to this place.
Laura Everett: Eric, I’m struck by the humility of the way you talk about a classroom. I’m curious about how you think about mutuality and power in education.
Eric Barreto: It’s a great question. I think one of the things is that as a teacher, you eventually learn to lean into all these years of studying you did. I remember early in my years of teaching, I was going to teach a course, and I was worried that I hadn’t prepared enough. And one of my colleagues very helpfully reminded me, she said, “You know, you’ve been studying this stuff for a long time. You probably know a bit more than the students do right now.” So that’s part of it -- that you’ve been preparing for this one classroom session for more than that week and more than that month. It’s a lifetime of study and reflection.
But you’re right that these spaces are not democratic, in a way. I’m still giving grades at the end of the semester. I still get to write the syllabus. I still get to decide what we’re going to read together. I still get to steer where the class goes. So there is a lot of power I wield.
At the same time, for a lot of us, we carry these embodied -- or perceived embodied -- deficits. For those of us who are people of color, we walk into a classroom and we’re going to be, often, thought of differently than our white colleagues are going to be thought of. For my female colleagues, their body itself, for some students, is an obstacle, a deficit, that they need to work through.
Knowing those dynamics -- both that I hold a lot of power because I can shape what we do in the class and also that students hold a lot of power because how they perceive me, how they see me, will shape what we’re able to accomplish together -- thinking about [those dynamics] proves really important, really vital. It’s one of those things I don’t think I have figured out quite yet, but at least naming it is an important step in the midst of all this.
And I wonder, for those of us who don’t have a career in teaching, we spend a lot of time learning at the feet of other people. For us to think about the dynamics of these classroom spaces strikes me as a really important spiritual discipline for us to engage.
Laura Everett: You know, it was my Greek professor who, as I was struggling -- and Greek was not a strength -- Ellen [Bradshaw] Aitken of blessed memory said to me, “The attentiveness you give to these words is a learned attentiveness you give to your people.” That learning to pay attention with that kind of closeness and intimacy is part of what I can learn to do as a pastor.
Eric Barreto: And [knowing] that the people who wrote these words and the people who are still reading these words today really care about what they mean. And it intersects with their lives in the most intimate spaces and the most treacherous places, and the places that people are most afraid to show other people. That when we are leading congregations, inviting them to read Scripture with us, it’s a dangerous but vital thing that we’re doing. It’s inviting people to be really vulnerable. So yeah, even if you’re learning the Greek alphabet, it’s a vulnerable space for us.
Laura Everett: Eric, as we finish our conversation, I want to hear from you from the vantage point of a professor in theological education who looks out on the wide range of students that are coming to study with you -- and really, the other places in the church where you serve as a public scholar. Where are the places where you’re seeing bone connected to bone, and sinew connect, and life start to find some hope? Because the dominant narrative has often been about scarcity.
Eric Barreto: I think the first thing that pops into my mind is I think about all the students that I’ve gotten to meet. I think of two sets of students. I think about students who came back after a long career to a call they’d been feeling for a long time. That takes courage; that takes some gumption. I admire students who do that. And it’s extraordinary, then, how their life and their experiences -- whether it’s in business or doing other kinds of work -- how that feeds into ministry that’s faithful and needed today. That’s one set of students, ones that show this courage and say, “I’ve been running away from this call, and I’m not running away anymore.”
The other set of students -- despite all the things we read online, I am really excited about what this upcoming millennial generation is up to. I see so much hope. I see the future of the church embedded in them. I see so much talent and skill, so much generosity, so much empathy. All these things that are really hard to teach, they’re already carrying within them.
And I think in particular of -- and I’ve got to think of a better word for this -- but when I think about my younger students, I think about their “worldliness.” And not in a negative sense. What I mean by “worldliness” in that case is that they see themselves as members of local communities but connected to a bigger world. And I wonder if that kind of imagination is what the church might look like.
These local communities realize that we’re doing vital things right here. We’re doing vital things on Sunday mornings. But we’re connected to Christians and to people of other faiths around the world doing many of the same things that we’re doing. Asking sometimes the same questions we're asking, and sometimes very different questions than we’re asking. But that imagination that goes, “I’m deeply rooted in this place, and I’m reaching out beyond this community to the wider world,” I think is an imagination that can lead the church.
Laura Everett: Eric, that word of hope is a beautiful place to end.
Eric Barreto: Thank you, Laura.
Bill Lamar: That was my co-host Laura Everett’s conversation with Eric Barreto.
Indeed, it’s a breath of fresh air to hear a scholar who is very clear that his service is to and for and with the church -- and Eric embodies that.
One of the things he mentioned as a teacher -- and I think that this resonates for pastors and institutional leaders; it’s the kind of work I try to do at Metropolitan and you try to do at the Massachusetts Council -- is that students, in Eric’s case, or the persons that we serve, in our cases, are not just brains to be filled, but they are embodied children of God. That embodiedness, that understanding that the people before us are not just empty pitchers for us to fill with our stuff -- that was such a strong ethical and, for me, leadership statement.
Laura Everett: I agree. I’ve watched Eric teach in a number of settings, and he really does embody that awareness that the content is not the sole intellectual and formational good that happens in a classroom. That we are humans, we are people who come in with stories, we come from very clear communities as well, and we are accountable to specific communities.
I have such a strong sense that Eric has this mindset of giftedness, that the students he is in conversation with have something to teach him, and that he has something to teach them as well.
Bill Lamar: I broke into my theological happy dance on multiple occasions during this interview. But one, he talked about God being ahead of us, nurturing the church. Now, fundamental to my theology is that the church is not necessarily innovating, but that we are following God’s innovation, that we are following.
The work of the church is to prayerfully discern where God is at work in the world, changing, overthrowing, building, destroying -- all the things that God is doing in the world. And it is for us to find out where that work is happening -- well, really not to find out, but for the Spirit to lead us into those places.
And I was really, really refreshed to hear Eric say that that really is his pedagogical philosophy and the way that he lives. That we are to prepare the next generation to be able to discern where God is at work and to catch up to God where God is working. That was breathtaking.
Laura Everett: Wasn’t that beautiful? That sense that he is shaping students for a future we can’t yet see, but he’s got that foundational trust in that future.
You know this: I get a little antsy when all I’m doing is studying the church to try to figure out how to do this work. And one of the places that I’ve found some interesting parallels is thinking about architecture. Resilient design is the core concept -- the idea that architecture, especially in places that are prone to earthquakes, is designed for tremors.
Part of what Eric is saying is that there’s a future we cannot yet see, and so we cannot design our formation experience for a particular vocation that’s going to shape out to 40 hours as a full-time senior pastor in a stable community that meets in its majority form on every given Sunday, but that you design for a world that’s emerging. You sort of factor in the instability. That conversation has been giving me life.
And Eric puts it in a different way, about the kind of classroom that he is trying to cultivate, and what the boundaries of that classroom are. I really appreciate that Eric didn’t act as if his classroom is sort of a hermetically sealed bubble, and the news and the push announcements from the Washington Post and New York Times don’t show up on your phone, and Ferguson doesn’t happen, but we’re just here to study Greek. Instead, he has a real sense that people bring in the wholeness of their lives and the wholeness of who they are into the classroom, and that that is shaping how he’s teaching.
I wonder, Bill, as you’ve led in your congregation at Metropolitan, how do you do that balance of like, “OK, we’ve got administration and finance committee meeting, and there’s just been another tragedy that has taken our hearts and minds.” What do you do in situations like that?
Bill Lamar: I try to remember the three reasons that Metropolitan exists. We exist to worship. We exist to liberate. We exist to serve.
So when the tremors occur, worship is foundational, because fundamentally we exist because God has created us, and we have a longing for God. We come together as a community because that gathering as a community is not just us communing with ourselves, but as we commune one with another, we commune with the God who has called us into service.
So we struggle to look Godward. Now, the Godward glance is not just a vertical glance, but it’s also horizontal. So we are trying to remember that God is calling and then that God is also enlisting us to do the work of liberation wherever there is any kind of bondage in our community. That’s economic, that’s political, that’s racial, that’s gender -- whatever kind of bondage.
And then also from that impulse of worshipping God and being community and working toward liberation -- because we think that that’s what God does in the world -- then we are called to serve.
So what I try to do is what you mentioned when we were talking with Marty St. George about returning to principles and values. We worship, we liberate, we serve. And not like it’s some religious mantra, but it helps us to focus. It helps to keep us grounded in the midst of the vicissitudes of life. But also, Laura, just plain and simply, it helps to keep us grounded in the midst of the distractions that are all around us. The internal personal distractions and the distractions that our community can get caught up in that keep us from what’s fundamental and why we exist in the first place.
Laura Everett: I think that’s right. And I think one of the ways that I’ve tried to be mindful of that as a preacher -- I mean, part of my vocation with the [Massachusetts] Council of Churches is that I’m an itinerant preacher, so I’m somewhere around Massachusetts every Sunday, and it is super tempting to turn that into an infomercial for why a local church should support the Council of Churches.
But I’m always mindful as a preacher that there’s somebody in that congregation who just learned that their spouse is cheating on them. There’s someone in that congregation who just lost their parent. There’s someone in that congregation who just found out that their kid’s got an addiction problem, and they don’t know where to begin on that.
And so the awareness that we all bring the complexities of our lives into worship, into administration, into service -- that in no setting are we just brains here to work and to learn, but the fullness of who we are is present with us at every moment, whether we acknowledge it or not. That sort of fullness and the awareness of a wider world is part of what I heard in Eric’s conversation about social media and the ways that he listens to communities of which he is not a part -- different ecclesial communities -- through social media.
And he said, and I’m quoting him on this, that those stories are stories that he strives “never to take ownership” of but to be “a faithful witness” of these stories. And I wonder, Bill, do you have an experience of how social media is changing how you lead as a pastor?
Bill Lamar: I pretty much am interested in everything, very curious. So I listen to everything. I listen to right-wing political podcasts every now and then. I listen to people whose theology is definitely to the right of my own. I listen to “A Prairie Home Companion,” and I learn so much about Lutherans in the far reaches of the Midwest.
So I do my best to keep an ear open to other communities. I think part of the challenge historically in this nation and other nations that essentially have been empires, as the United States is, is the assumption that you can take control of bodies and that you can take control of cultures, that you can exorcise out of them the things that you think are not good or not normal. And [the challenge is] to refuse to take ownership, to listen graciously, and to know that there is not a culture or a human being, regardless of how difficult you find their perspectives, from whom you cannot learn.
What you may learn is, “I really don’t want to be like this person.”
Laura Everett: That’s right.
Bill Lamar: What we call a lack of civil discourse is because people are insular and in echo chambers. But also, fundamentally -- I mean, to me, everything is a theological problem -- it’s that we do not see that all persons are created in the imago Dei. From that basic theological understanding, then conversation and respect is necessary.
So can you imagine -- this is a world where you have a highly trained teacher like Eric who respects his students not coming in tabula rasa that he must fill with all of his stuff, but they are learning together. And he learns from his students and teaches what he learns from them to the next group of students that comes in.
That hope of behaving that way ethically in the world is the reason why I don’t stay in the bed every morning.
Laura Everett: Eric is one of the people that I listen to and observe to watch how people make theological sense of some of the massive tremors that our country is experiencing now. And that beautiful way he wants to listen to stories from other communities without taking ownership of them, and take very seriously that stories from other communities are important perspectives on how we read Scripture.
So, for example, one of the things that’s happened since I interviewed Eric is the utter destruction and devastation of Hurricane Maria to Puerto Rico, and the unbelievably ineffectual response of our national resources and collective consciousness. And so Eric has been a really helpful voice for me to listen to as someone who was formed by that community, who can speak of what life is like in Puerto Rico and amplify those voices.
So he is sharing, “What does good news look like when there is utter devastation? What does the light of Christ look like when 90 percent, 80 percent of the island does not have power?” I really aspire to that care and ethical consideration of listening to voices from communities that are not my own and amplifying without taking ownership.
Bill Lamar: Eric said quite a bit about formation. And I think now often about formation and culture together, because as persons are being formed, we’re thinking about an ultimate cultural, theological, communal outcome. So how do you think about formation as an institutional leader? How do you help persons and local churches think about it?
Because everyone in the door -- whether we call it formation or not -- people are being formed when they come into the space. And Eric thinks richly, robustly about formation.
Laura Everett: I think we form people whether we are intentional about it or not. We form people to think they are unworthy, that they do not have things to say, or that their perspective on the gospel of what it means to be a human fully alive is of value and worth, either by how we invite their conversation or by how we ignore it.
So beyond the sort of particulars of a formation program as formalized as seminary education, one of the things I’m always mindful of when I facilitate or lead is asking, “Whose voice haven’t we heard? Are there folks who want to speak who haven’t had an opportunity to?” To keep an eye on -- look, I am a verbal processor. I am someone who speaks my ideas into being. I am the first one with my hand up. And so I know that impulse.
But I think a comprehensive formation that doesn’t just prioritize the formation of individuals for some sort of soloed, excellent, genius, lone-cowboy megapastor instead is thinking about formation in community. So how do we form communities to be polyphonic? To be places where we hear multiple voices and multiple perspectives? When I’m facilitating in that space, it’s always keeping an eye on who hasn’t spoken. Who haven’t we heard from? Who’s not even in the room? And who has gifts from other places of their life that we need to draw in?
One of the things I heard in Eric was -- you know, it’s kind of trendy to trash millennials -- but he sees a real giftedness in their global perspective. And at the same time, he sees giftedness in second-career pastors who are hungry and have a sense of urgency for their formation -- that they have to work deeply and intentionally right now, that there is an urgency in the formation work that they do.
And so the combination of the mindset of giftedness, that every person is made in the image of God and has an angle on gospel truth that I need, to see the fullness of who God is, and the sort of watchful eye to who is missing from this story.
Bill Lamar: Laura, being fully aware of my penchant to stay in the clouds, I think a lot about the fact that the culture in our churches and institutions, whether or not we name it, instantly forms or malforms people. So with how people are treated when they walk in the door, their formation/malformation already begins.
So one of the things that I do -- because I’m very aware of the fact that after a while, if there is an odor in your space, you become habituated to it; you don’t know that it exists, but someone from the outside can walk in and say, “Wow, this smells different.”
So when new people join Metropolitan, I make it a point to spend an hour with them, asking them questions to find out who they are, what they feel like God is prompting them to do. And I ask them always, “So tell me, why did you join this space? What is it about this space? What do you feel like is going well, and where do you feel like we could do things a lot better?” And I have learned a whole lot from listening to the newer persons who have a fresh insight into the culture.
It’s not that I’m not listening to persons who have been in the culture for a long time, but I get a whole lot of fresh insight from those persons. And I think it’s good for us to think about what practical things we can do. There’s some leadership guru, whose name I have forgotten, who says that culture trumps vision every time. So you’ve got this grand vision of formation, and to save the world. But if you have a culture that kills new people, kills new ideas, that rotely, rigidly ascribes some set of dogma, some outdated principles, it’ll never happen, no matter how brilliant and beautiful you think you are.
Laura Everett: You’ve articulated clearly for me the image about the smell and losing sense of that. I'm sure I have become too habituated to the smell of my institution.
Bill Lamar: Well, Laura, here is to Christian institutions and churches that smell wonderful -- that are an olfactory treat of the goodness of God.
Laura Everett: I think the next time we do this, we’re going to have to figure out how to make a smelling podcast.
Laura Everett: Next episode, Bill, next episode. Thanks for the conversation.
Bill Lamar: Thank you.
Laura Everett: Thank you for listening to “Can These Bones.” I hope you enjoyed it as much as we did. There’s more about Eric Barreto, including a link to his Twitter account and some of his writings at www.canthesebones.com.
Bill, who are you speaking to next time?
Bill Lamar: I am very, very excited to be speaking with Mr. Vernon Jordan. He’s a civil rights activist, an attorney, a close adviser to former presidents and a member of the church I’m privileged to serve, Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C.
Laura Everett: I’m looking forward to it, Bill.
“Can These Bones” is brought to you by Faith & Leadership, a learning resource for Christian leaders and their institutions from Leadership Education at Duke Divinity. It’s produced by Sally Hicks, Kelly Ryan and Dave Odom. Our theme music is by Blue Dot Sessions, and Eric Barreto’s interview was recorded at Princeton Theological Seminary. Funding is provided by Lilly Endowment Inc.
Listeners, we’d love to hear from you. Share your thoughts about this podcast and the stories we’re sharing on social media. I’m on Twitter @RevEverett, and you can find my colleague Bill @WilliamHLamarIV.
You can also find both of us through our website, www.canthesebones.com.
I’m Laura Everett, and this is “Can These Bones.”
This transcript was edited for clarity.