In the margins: We follow roadmaps of well-intentioned scribbles

In the margins: We follow roadmaps of well-intentioned scribbles

September 30, 2008
Written by Daniel Hazard

Introducing the editor

When I first entered college I was thrilled with the entire experience. Selecting classes, meeting classmates and professors, navigating the different departments, and best of all — a trip to the campus bookstore. However expensive that last activity turned out to be, I was determined to buy new books when possible.

Carefully handling these pristine volumes in preparation for their first reading, I can recall the decisive 'snap' heard when the binding glue of these books was exercised the first time. (Trivia: That sound is the origin of the phrase "cracking the books.") These new tomes, solely mine and unsullied by other students, would be my gateway to years of formal education.

But as I made my way through two colleges, graduate school and seminary, both my budget and learning process began to have a fuller appreciation of used books. Not only were these "experienced" texts significantly cheaper, they held the untold secret knowledge of previous owners.

Anonymous learners had scribbled, drawn, underlined, highlighted and charted the most useful information I would need as a student. They provided a roadmap to the important facts and insights needed to succeed in each class. They introduced viewpoints from other professors who may have used the same text, brought clarity to confusing concepts and regularly injected humor into otherwise unexciting topics.

Margin notes also play an interesting role in the Christian tradition. Monastic scribes often inserted margin notes when transcribing or translating documents. Some notes referenced grammar or comparisons with earlier versions of a document. Other notes were of a more reflective or interpretive nature. A monk's observation on contemporary meaning or application to spiritual life might even make its way into new versions of the document. On occasion these marginal comments conveyed jokes for the reader or the next monk sitting at the copying table.

I also keep close at hand the fuller meaning of the word "margin." It denotes something outside of the main context, something less important than the primary or something easily discarded. When we say Jesus' ministry was most often with those who lived in the margins of society, it informs our purpose. Movement into the margins is quite possibly the most challenging call for today's church — to identify, serve and include those who have been marginalized.

Just as I learned to appreciate the scribbles in used textbooks — and as centuries of Christian tradition was transmitted, explained or embellished by monastic margin notes — so, too, our identity as Christians in culture is clarified by our frequent and intentional excursions (or total immersion) into the margins. Without insights from the margins of society, our experience would be like the new textbook — a little too clean, overly sanitized and ultimately empty of context.

As I begin my editorial responsibilities at United Church News, margin notes are constantly informing my efforts. The Revs. W. Evan Golder and J. Bennett Guess have nurtured a rich journalistic tradition at United Church News that has been a voice for the church and a source of introspection. We in the UCC must find joy in our identity and celebrate our achievements. Yet we realize there are times when the task of a denominational newspaper is more difficult, when it must ask uncomfortable and unpopular questions in order to preserve its position of objectivity.

Thank you for calling me to serve as your editor. It is my prayer that the editorial content of United Church News will continue to provide margin notes for your journey and that our experiences in the margins will drive us to action and bring us closer to answering the most important questions of our faith.

This month's exploration of faith and politics is an exciting start to discovery of the margins. Jim Wallis notes in his book "God's Politics" that the real question for people of faith is not whether but how we bring God into politics.

Each of us is challenged in this election season to allow our faith to inform our politics and not just hold a party line — to act upon the biblical calls for justice, equity, peace and hope. As we embark, may we find clarity, inspiration and joy in the margins. 

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