Privilege and Happenstance: My career in a nutshell

I’ve been watching — and pretty overcome by — the discussion following the publication last Friday of an interview with a woman who went out with comedian, actor and writer Aziz Ansari and suffered “the worst night of [her] life.”  It’s a surprisingly triggering story for me, but so is the conversation about the event and its meaning.  The #metoo moment is so critically important, so long overdue — but the discussion around it continues to manifest all the brokenness of our culture: the racism, the patriarchy, the generational bias, the class and racial privilege, the absolutely horrible ways we socialize folks around sex.  I’m grateful to so many of those offering wise reflection in the morass, especially because I’m kind of a mess.

So, this post isn’t really about that: I mention is only to say that I wish I had something to add, but I don’t, not yet. Though surely all of this has implications for Christians, not just #metoo, but the dynamics of coupling.  Rather than sexual ethics, I’ve been working lately on questions of privilege — especially economic privilege —  for a book to be published by Westminster John Knox in 2019.  I got an amazing grant from the Louisville Institute to do the research, and I’ve been spending time trying to set up travel and interviews.


But my Facebook timeline offered up a memory today, one I hadn’t marked, but seemed important to the consideration of how privilege works; how folks access opportunity.  Or, more to the point, how I’ve been privileged.

My career is not amazing by any stretch of the imagination, but I enjoy my full-time work, live in a nice house (that I will not own for another 27 years), have a wonderful spouse and three kids, and will have published three books — with contributions to several others — by right around my 40th birthday.  I’ve been on a nationally syndicated radio show, published in some cool places, and spoken at colleges and universities.  I am not even remotely the hardest working person I know, though to be fair, I know a lot of people.

Six years ago today, I had a short piece run on the Christian Century blog about a new edition of Huck Finn and the decision of the publisher to change the two-hundred-plus instances of the n-word to “slave.”

Four years before that, I had my first piece run on what was then known as Theolog, after I’d met the editor at an ordination retreat and bonded over my Outer Banks sweatshirt. (He was a North Carolinian; our extended family vacations there together, not an altogether common destination for Chicagoans.) I’d mentioned that I knew who he was; that I’d recently done a writing workshop I saw advertised in the Century’s pages, with Barbara Brown Taylor and Nora Gallagher and he asked if I’d like to write something sometime.  I’ve never written all that frequently for them; but it was the first large-ish platform I’d had. It was the first publication I’d had since graduating.

After the Huck Finn article, someone on staff at the Alban Institute sent me an e-mail, reflecting on changing language in religious texts and hymns in his work. Lee and I had been shopping the proposal for Hopes and Fears for a few months by then, and not really getting anywhere (or rather, getting rejected everywhere). It occurred to me, reading this guy’s e-mail, that Alban had a publishing wing.  “Since I’ve got your ear… do you think anyone over there might be interested in a project like this?”  He passed me along to their Director of Publishing and we went from there.

The following year, I was serving a church that needed to eliminate my position as Associate Pastor for financial reasons and so I was job hunting. A friend I’d met at a different writer’s workshop (which I also saw advertised in the Century) recommended me for an editorial position at our denominational press.  I didn’t get the gig, but while interviewing, I sent a few chapters of Hopes and Fears, and the Director of Publishing there later sent them on to one of his in-house Acquisitions Editors. She liked what she saw and reached out to me to pitch her something else: a second book. She helped me with the proposal and was instrumental in bringing that book into being.

I wrote Good Christian Sex for that publisher, and they hired a well-known writer to edit the manuscript. As we neared publication, they broke the contract, but let me retain the rights to the edited book. The editor was supportive of the project and disappointed to hear it wouldn’t be published, so she connected me with her agent, who took me on, and subsequently sold the book to HarperOne. Because of the HarperOne tie, I could pitch articles to some bigger or more well-known presses that I might have otherwise accessed.

A year after Good Christian Sex was published, my agent shopped and sold the privilege book for me.


Everything about this process — of breaking in, of getting an agent — is usually far harder and more time consuming than it was for me.  I’m ambivalent writing all this down, though I tell this story all the time to anyone interested. I tell it like this for a couple reasons. Not to dissuade anyone who hasn’t had their happenstance moments. Not to suggest that I didn’t have to produce the work: we refined proposals; I try not to publish anything I’m not really proud of. I had stuff ready when opportunities arose.  I applied to all those workshops.

But everything about my schooling and my cultural upbringing taught me to see and take advantage of opportunities that presented themselves. And, given, in particular, my schooling and my cultural upbringing, I’ve had a lot of opportunities. (Malcolm Gladwell offers some sociological research on this phenomenon in Outliers.)

My career is neither dumb-luck nor proof of divine favor, nor simply about nepotism and privilege.  Whatever success I’ve seen so far is not the result of my intelligence or resilience or opportunism or work ethic. But is is a little bit of all those things. Untangling how I got here will, I hope, provide some insight, some meat for reflection  for white Christians in the US in particular to think about our privilege and the ways it affects the church and the ways we understand and shape our society.

All that from a Facebook timeline post. Happy January 19th to me, I guess.




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My twitter tagline is "Fiercely interested in most things." Writer, mom, pastor, spouse, daughter, sister, citizen -- not in any order, and usually all at once. Nearly life-long resident of Cook County, IL, for better and for worse.

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