Dr. Melanie Mock strode into the classroom with a diet Coke in hand and what looked to be a slight scowl etched on her face. It was Understanding Literature, a 200 level English course at George Fox University. She didn’t smile right away, which exacerbated my anxiety as a history major and baseball player who was feeling vulnerable. I sensed other students eyeing me as an impostor, somehow knowing I hadn’t read all of Faulkner or Hemingway or Tolstoy; I feared Dr. Mock divined my ignorance and would highlight this for the whole class to observe.
This was my first English class, and I didn’t know if I had the intelligence or skills to identify symbols and themes, to note synecdoche, and to dissect the significance of syntax. By the end of the semester, Professor Mock instilled a confidence in me, and over the next four years, I took every class she offered. Through her skillful pacing of lessons, her expertise, and her specific feedback, I emerged from college believing I was a writer. I added a writing minor to my studies and, largely because of Professor’s Mock influence, went back to school, earning an MFA in creative writing.
Reading her book, Worthy: Finding Yourself in a World Expecting Someone Else, felt like I was back in class with Dr. Mock. With humility, authenticity, and generosity, she takes on a variety of issues that plague individual self-efficacy. Mock explores gender equality, singleness, body image, and other cultural expectations that manifest inequity, courageously advocating for a world that embraces all people. Moreover, her audience is Christians who populate spaces that are supportive if people subscribe to a strict set of beliefs and love others but also want them to change their ways. These ifs and buts are precisely the problem, according to Mock. She writes,
“There are other ways to contend with Christian tradition that seems too limiting, too divisive: that is, to remake the church from within, doing the hard work necessary to let others know that all are worthy of sitting at God’s expansive table, just as they are.”
This is the heart of Worthy, a book calling upon Christians to “remake the church from within,” to remove the obstacles to acceptance, to proclaim that all people are worthy—no matter what.
To change the world, Mock begins with herself and how she fabricated her own testimony as a new Christian to fit in with the evangelical sinner to saint narrative arc. She explains her own maturation to access larger societal issues within the culture and church. Through personal narrative and cultural commentary, Mock balances her critique by offering self-deprecating anecdotes and backstory for readers to understand her point of view. She isn’t heavy handed nor does she hold back.
Care for language is often paired with care for others and this is clearly illustrated when exploring how language can perpetuate inequality. She recounts eating dinner with friends when a server repeatedly called the group of women, “you guys.” Finally, a friend spoke up and asked not to be referred to by the masculine identifier. Mock admits there was a time when she would have been embarrassed by her friend’s insistence, but not any longer. Language matters, she asserts, and how we define people will influence how people interact.
This chapter was immediately relevant in my experience; I was reading Mock’s book in the airport and over the next hour, I caught myself texting “you guys” to three different people, all of whom were women. I was guilty, and I revised my language. As a college student, Professor Mock was the first person to explain to me that writers shouldn’t default to masculine pronouns. If the subject is singular, then the pronouns should be he or she, not only he. This was news to me, and I secretly fought it, until Mock convinced me that how we refer to people does shape the way we act. Furthermore, Mock argues that person first language has the same behavioral implications. “I’m met with defensiveness,” Mock writes, “when I ask others to consider using person-first language—that is, language that describes a person first, followed by that person’s identifies (calling someone a person with physical disabilities for example, rather than a ‘disabled person’ or a ‘handicapped person.’”
One of the most important and ambitious chapters focuses on what Mock calls the “church’s big but problem.” That is, the Christian church’s struggle to “believe some people deserve to be part of the church and some do not.” Mock cites a passage from Bob Jones’ sermon delivered in support of racial segregation during the 1960s to draw parallels to the current rhetoric that bars people of the LGBT community from feeling affirmed at church’s today. The argument is ambitious, but also necessary and persuasive. It’s hard to argue with Mock when she writes, “we should say enough to the many expectations that tell us… Love the sinner but hate the sin. You are worthy just as you are, but you need to change. You are fearfully, individually made, but you must conform to be accepted.” Mock is right; we have a big but problem in the church, one she is working to ameliorate.
One day during my first English class with Dr. Mock she said how she despised a text in the canon. It was an aside, not the point, but it is something I’ve never forgotten. I’m sure she doesn’t remember this, but she gave me permission to not adore all literature. She gave me permission to be myself. This, I now realize, was her goal all along. While I thought it was a byproduct of her teaching, it was her objective. Because of her, I spend my days teaching writing and studying English with high school students, and I hope I can pass along her lessons. Her new book has added new course goals for my life and my role in the church. Professor Mock gave me a gift she describes perfectly near the end of Worthy, when she writes of her students:
“Their stories testify to the grace we all need and receive, moment by moment, as we seek to become who God created us to be. I want them to know that their stories—and their lives—are worthy.
Mark Putney is a writer and teacher. His writing has appeared in Oregon Humanities, Sport-Literate and Oregon English Journal. Mark earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Ashland University in Ashland, Ohio. Mark was born in New York, grew up in Alaska, and now lives in Oregon with his wife and two sons.
Did you miss for the love of lowly things (for mary)?
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