A Highly Curated Spirituality
by Thandazani Mhlanga | 2 March 2021 |
I understand that art, like anchovies or blue cheese, can be an acquired taste. I realize that some wouldn’t schedule art museums on their holiday itinerary.
Yet as I reminisce on the half day I spent among ancient Egyptian, Sudanese, and Nubian works at the British Museum, I struggle for words to describe the euphoria I experienced browsing this great art. The best words I can come up with are exhilarating, educational, and informative.
Notwithstanding my verbal bankruptcy on this point, this was definitely an illuminating indulgence, and highly recommended.
A magnificently curated display can articulate a story and invoke an emotional reaction, all while engraving a historical narrative and a particular understanding of reality into your consciousness. Those of us who are art lovers are also alert to the possibility that it may even introduce historical revisionism—it may change the very meaning of things.
If indeed curating is in its essence story-telling and history-shaping, then there is much curating outside the museum setting. We live in a highly curated world. So many of our everyday choices are influenced by curated versions of reality.
Consider the pictures you post online. It is unlikely that you post every photo you take. You choose to make public the ones that support the version of yourself you desire the world to embrace.
We not only practice this craft on our social media platforms, we also use it in marketing to convince people how good their lives will be should they buy into a given product. Peter Nivio Zarlenga is credited with saying, “In our factory, we make lipstick. But in our advertising, we sell hope.”
We live in a highly curated society. Waging a war of ideas and morality against the countless curators in every aspect of our existence can be as difficult as counting the grains of sand on the beach. Fortunately, we can choose to look beyond the curator’s version of reality to get a clearer and more comprehensive understanding of reality.
Let us for a minute consider our highly curated understanding of prophets and religious leaders. As a third-generation Seventh-day Adventist Christian, none is more applicable to me than Ellen G. White.
As a child, the version of Ellen Gould Harmon that I was exposed to was impossible to relate to. Besides her health struggles, her curators always made her embody all the moral and social attributes I lacked. As far as my young mind could tell, she never climbed trees, played in mud puddles, got angry with her friends, or stole the occasional cookie. She had the kind of character that God could use, and I had to learn from her example if I desired to do anything for God.
In my youth and adulthood, the curated version of Ellen G. White that I was exposed to had an immaculate dating life and marriage. Her marriage with James White was almost a fairy tale, the embodiment of “happily ever after.” Her ministry was flawless, and everything she wrote accurately captured Divine dictation. In my mind, Ellen White dipped her pen always in the ink of inspiration, and every word came straight from the mind of God.
This curated version of Ellen White—applied equally to our canonical writers, and even sometimes our contemporary spiritual leaders—still forms the theological foundation of many.
What do we lose when our prophets are unrelatable? What do we lose if all we have regarding what it means to be a human being in the service of God happens to be a highly curated version?
A grounding in reality
When we look at the scriptures without the curator’s lens, it’s surprising to see how grounded in reality the Bible is. We read that Abraham was a man of faith, but we also read about his marital challenges and failures. The Bible records Moses as a phenomenal but humble leader—who also happened to be a murderer, and not infrequently angry and irascible.
The characters we meet in the scriptures, when they aren’t curated for us, aren’t one-dimensional, which makes them relatable because we can see ourselves in them. With all their rough edges, the Bible’s characters tend to mirror the rest of us, which could be one reason why the Bible is a timeless book.
God has a way of working with people, regardless of their rough edges; He desires us to come to Him with all our imperfections so He can make out of us, Kingdom citizens and His ambassadors.
Whenever we opt for a highly curated version of religious figures, we intellectually negate the power of God and deprive ourselves of a positively uplifting spiritual encounter.
It is a miraculously life-changing event whenever Divinity does Its work through frail humanity. We often refer to this process as Divine inspiration. Seeing and understanding how a perfect God can accomplish His will through imperfect people can be a spiritually edifying encounter.
So, maybe what we need in our religious narratives is not more curated versions of reality but a more relatable understanding of reality. So that many who are aware of their limitations will know beyond a doubt that in God, they belong.
In an interview, Daniel Martin, a curator for Derby Museums, described a curator’s job as one that “is all about people.” “It’s people’s stories and complexity that really make collections pop,” he says.
I think Martin’s thoughts are also applicable to religious figures, too: it’s their stories and complexities that make God’s character pop out at us. And that character is one of love.
We ought not to lose sleep trying to gloss over ours and our leaders’ embarrassing and sometimes shameful human struggles. We are frail human beings in the hands of a loyal, loving, and patient God who has never been known to fail.
Thandazani Mhlanga is a pastor, educator, speaker and author serving the Osoyoos Church in the British Columbia Conference. Pastor Thandazani and his wife, Matilda, have been blessed with three daughters, who are the joy of their lives and their highest calling. His website is themscproject.com.