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Divergent and the Gospel: Manifestos on Difference

03/17/2014 04:27 pm ET | Updated May 17, 2014

On March 21st droves of teenagers -- and no small number of adults -- will pour into theaters across the country to celebrate the first film installment of Veronica Roth's Divergent Trilogy.

I will be among them.

Through my doctoral program, I confess that I have developed an affinity for young adult fiction. Nothing soothes the beleaguered mind like unrequited teenage love, relentless hope against impossible odds or the fight to discover one's authentic self amidst countless pressures to conform. Divergent features all three.

Divergent chronicles the struggles of Beatrice Prior, a thoughtful sixteen-year-old girl who is fighting to find her place in a post-apocalyptic Chicago. In her world, people are divided into factions. Each of these factions nurtures a particular quality to the exclusion of all others. The Amity faction fosters peacefulness. Erudite cultivates intelligence. Candor promotes truthfulness. Dauntless abets bravery. And Beatrice's native faction, Abnegation, encourages selflessness. The story opens on the day of Beatrice's aptitude test, whereby she will discover which faction will be best suited for her particular disposition. When Beatrice's aptitude test results prove inconclusive, the test administrator warns her that she might be divergent.

In a world where everyone must belong to one faction, divergence is unacceptable.

When the time comes to select a faction, Beatrice choses to leave the faction of her birth and join the Dauntless faction. She takes the name Tris, a powerful reminder that she has left her old life of self-abnegation behind. All the while Tris must conceal her divergence from those who would like to eradicate all forms of otherness to protect the imagined purity of the system. Through harrowing plot twists and emotionally effusive narration, Roth charts Tris's existential struggles to live fully into her own divergence. It's a hell of a ride!

When I read Divergent, I couldn't help but identify with Tris. Her fight reflects my own fight. In fact, this is the genius of Roth's story: we are all divergent.

We understand ourselves in relation to others, to the manner in which we diverge or conform to established conventions of thought and behavior. The difference between Tris and us is that we live in a world that mostly honors the particular affinities and temperaments that make us who we are. Who among us wants to choose between courage and wisdom, between honesty and peacefulness? The factions in Divergent and the ever-present fear of becoming factionless, which is thought to be a fate worse than death, militate against difference. For the most part, our modern democratic society in America honors difference.

But is this the case in most of our churches?

As a Baptist minister serving at an affluent church in the Buckhead neighborhood in Atlanta, I experienced something akin to Tris's struggles. When I graduated from seminary, my heart and mind were centered upon those least likely to attend church. Thus, I began a ministry in the Little Five Points neighborhood, a progressive, bohemian enclave of Atlanta with a large homeless population. When I accepted the call to serve in Buckhead, I continued my ministry in Little Five Points, which took place mainly in pubs and coffee shops. As a tattooed, pierced, long-haired Baptist pastor, I defied the stereotypes, and I loved who I was and what I was doing. I felt like I was living out my calling to the fullest extent.

Unfortunately, many in my congregation did not appreciate my appearance or the folks with whom I hung out in Little Five Points. The pressures to conform, to look and act the way a Baptist pastor should, were stifling. Through those deeply personal trials, I learned something about the gospel, something that Divergent helps us to understand.

The gospel is a manifesto in support of difference.

If we turn our attention to the Book of Acts, we find Luke chronicling the emergence of the Jesus movement into a realm of radical difference: "to the ends of the earth" (1:8). In spite of the all-too-human pressure to eradicate otherness, the Holy Spirit triumphs over our impulse toward xenophobia and ethnic intolerance. From the movement of the Spirit at Pentecost (2:1-47) to Philip's encounter with the Ethiopian Eunuch (8:26-40), from Peter's rooftop vision (10:9-15) to Paul's impassioned debate with the Jerusalem Council about circumcision (15:1-21), Luke crafts a theological argument in support of difference.

Scholars have tended to view ethnic difference as an obstacle that the gospel overcomes; however, such a reading fails to account for the ways in which the Book of Acts works to preserve otherness. In his illuminating book, Ethnic Negotiations: The Function of Race and Ethnicity in Acts 16, New Testament scholar Eric Barreto provides a helpful framework for understanding difference vis-à-vis the gospel. He puts it well when he writes, "As a constructed social reality, ethnicity is a projection of our own anxieties and hopes, an inclusive impulse to identify who we are but also an exclusive effort to distinguish between 'us' and 'them'" (183). Barreto is right. Difference binds us together but it can also tear us apart. Ethnic difference, like all expressions of difference, can militate against unity in the church; it can divide between us-es and thems.

We are all divergent in some ways and the gospel honors our diversity. God revels in our difference in community -- this wild, challenging, beautiful, and messy faction we call church. Difference is the tendon connecting muscle to bone. The gospel, along with Divergent, celebrates the gift of difference that binds us together. With Tris, we must fight against totalizing systems that also imperil the church. Prejudice, sexism, racism, heterosexism, ablism, and classism threaten to sever the tendon of difference that binds us together under God's Spirit.

Divergent has much to teach us about the gospel. For we with ears to hear and eyes to see, let us enjoy the journey of divergence together.