As we concluded our first year of the remarkable STARS program, one of the things that several of us remarked upon was the children’s desire to read aloud to a group—especially peers or parents. Reading aloud was a moment of pride at the Monday night family dinners where the children showcased their progress. In the classroom, the children also read aloud with their teachers and with each other. In those instances they received coaching and help as they sounded out words and sought to understand what they were reading. Without the coaching, correcting, and encouragement that comes in reading with others in the classroom, the progress we saw over those six weeks would not have occurred. And the Monday night presentations by the children would not have been possible.
I thought about this as I read an article in “The Christian Century” this week about the Mennonite theologian, John Howard Yoder. I realize that this is not a name that many of you would immediately recognize. His book, The Politics of Jesus, remains a theological classic decades after it was first published. Yoder died 15 years ago after a noteworthy career as a theologian who taught for many years at Eastern Mennonite and Notre Dame Universities.
But Yoder was also a serial abuser who took advantage of and sought to initiate inappropriate relationships with female students and colleagues for years. Reports first came to light almost 30 years ago but the appropriate disciplinary steps were repeatedly stymied by Yoder, whose status and prodigious intellect successfully delayed action. Many of his tactics clearly sought to circumvent the very disciplinary procedures within the Mennonite church that Yoder himself helped to shape. And clearly his abuses of power, particularly in his relationships with women, contradicted his theological commitment to non-violence and protections for the vulnerable.
The article asked about the place of Yoder’s work in light of his abuse. It’s a difficult question. One thing I noted, however, is that Yoder’s academic theological work was read widely, challenged, scrutinized and questioned openly. Like children reading in the classroom, his reading (and writing) of theology benefitted from the coaching, correcting and encouragement of his peers. And it has stood the test of time. In contrast, when his behavior was questioned and his church’s disciplinary process was implemented, Yoder insisted that he was not subject to the same accountability process that he helped to shape and which helped to clarify his own academic work. He insisted on reading that part of his life alone.
When I heard the children reading in the STARS program, I know they made mistakes. But they were growing because they were not reading alone. Like Yoder, we get into trouble when we assume that we know better and do not allow for the kind of shaping and discipline that comes from reading together.
Reading together has a long history among God’s people. In the synagogues, students and teachers read, questioned, challenged and grew in their faith and in their understanding of God. The church has continued this practice through to the modern era when classes like Disciple Bible Study were specifically shaped to engage the reading of scripture in community.
In the weeks ahead, we begin our fall classes. Bible Studies, prayer groups and other small group studies will us an opportunity to continue this long and faithful tradition of reading together, helping us to learn from one another, to coach and to encourage. In reading together, may we see the kind of growth in our church and in spiritual lives as the children did as they read together this Summer.