Day 20: The Problem with the Wordless Book {31 Days of #WOKE}

“The black represents sin, red is the blood of Jesus, which brings us to the next bead—white, when we are washed clean of our sin.”

We sat in pairs and prepared to share the gospel by color. I was 16 and going on my first mission trip to Costa Rica. Our church youth group had practiced our mime for months—an allegory of the story of Jesus–and our bags were loaded with extra Bibles in Spanish. We all memorized some basic Spanish so we could share the gospel as we gave away bracelets with colored beads, called “Power Bands.”

This method of evangelism, a bracelet version of the “Wordless Book” has been an evangelistic tool since the end of the nineteenth century. It is said to have been invented by the famous English preacher, Charles Spurgeon. In this method, each color represents an aspect of the gospel. The Teen Missions website gives the following guide:

Each color of the Wordless Book / Wordless Bracelet represents an important Bible truth about Salvation

BLACKSin  Romans 3:23 | All have sinned

RED Blood  I John 1:7 | Jesus’ blood covers all sin

WHITE Pure Psalm 51:7 | Jesus washes away confessed sin

YELLOW Heaven John 14:2 | Believe on Jesus and receive Eternal Life

GREEN Grow 2 Peter 3:18 | Grow in the knowledge of the Lord

In a sermon delivered in 1866, Spurgeon read the verse : “Wash me and I shall be whiter than snow.” (Ps. 51:7), then shared:

“There is something about this in the text, for the person who used this prayer said, “Wash me,” so he was black and needed to be washed; and the blackness was of such a peculiar kind that a miracle was needed to cleanse it away, so that the one who had been black would become white, and so white that he would be “whiter than snow.”

If I were in the presence of an African American as this sermon was delivered, I would certainly be cringing every time the word “black” was spoken.

The imagery of purity being associated with the color white and sin or evil being associated with the color black is commonplace in western culture. But what is happening at the level of our subconscious when we associate “black” with sin and “white” with purity and then turn around and categorize one another as “white” and “black”?

I can hear the naysayers now:

“Don’t be so touchy.”

“Does everything have to be about race?”

But as a mother, I have to wonder what my children internalize when they are taught that black is sin and white is purity.  Which color would you rather be?

Perhaps it is time to abandon the Wordless Book.

If you were (or are) a person of color, how would it make you feel to sing the following song (as is recommended by websites advocating the Wordless Book):

“Wordless Book” Song by Frances M. Johnston

(Show the colors as you sing.) 

(Black) My heart was dark with sin until the Savior came in.

(Red) His precious blood I know

(White) Has washed it white as snow.

(Gold) And in His Word I’m told I’ll walk the streets of gold.

(Green) To grow in Christ each day I read the Bible and pray.

Along with the fact that this method implies that black is bad and white is good, another problem with the Wordless Book is that our associations with color are not universal. When I lived in China, for example, I learned that white is the color of death and used in funerals and red symbolizes good fortune. In this regard, short term missionaries can sometimes do more harm than good when they fail to study language and culture before trying to share Christ in a foreign land.

We can do damage when we assume our western symbols are universal. Using the Wordless Book in a place like China would be nothing more than confusing (which is interesting since according to Wikipedia at least, it was used by China Inland Mission and missionary Hudson Taylor in China).

Open-air preaching in China using the Wordless Book

So what are some alternatives?

Rather than using colors, some people use the metaphors of being “dirty” and “clean,” utilizing object lessons like a dirty T-shirt washed clean to present the truth of salvation. Another alternative is to use the more biblical language of “light” and “darkness” when talking about sin and salvation. Though the Bible uses the word “white” in reference to purity, it never uses the word “black” to describe sin. The closest the Bible comes to color-coding sin is in Isaiah 1:18 that says “Though your sins be like scarlet, they shall be white as snow.”

God can and does use even our faulty methods to share His love. But if there is any chance that our methods offend, confuse, belittle or perpetuate stereotypes, then perhaps we should abandon them for the sake of unity.

New to the Series? Start HERE (though you can jump in at any point!).

A 31 Day Series Exploring Whiteness and Racial Perspectives

During the month of March, 2017, I will be sharing a series called 31 Days of #Woke. I’ll be doing some personal excavating of views of race I’ve developed through being in schools that were under court order to be integrated, teaching in an all black school as well as in diverse classrooms in Chicago and my experiences of whiteness living in Uganda and China. I’ll also have some people of color share their views and experiences of race in the United States (I still have some open spots, so contact me if you are a person of color who wants to share). So check back and join in the conversation. You are welcome in this space.

 

Images: 1) Bracelets  2) Open-air preaching in China

4 Replies to “Day 20: The Problem with the Wordless Book {31 Days of #WOKE}”

  1. Thank you for doing the research and having the courage to make these points about a very popular method for sharing the gospel. I am definitely going to be more thoughtful about the words I use when sharing the gospel with my children and others. It makes sense to use the words “light” and “darkness” since those are the words the Bible uses!

    1. Hey Cam! Thanks for commenting! This was a recent threat in a racial reconciliation group I am in and after numerous people of color commented that it makes them feel uncomfortable, I felt it needed to be addressed in this series! Glad you’re following along. It helps to have friends along when you are thinking through hard topics in a public space;-)

  2. Camilla-I totally agree. I had never thought of it in this way, and it does make more sense to use scripture’s words.
    And Leslie-as usual, thank you. I am really grateful for this series. I have never really understood this concept of “white privilege“ and have found myself being honestly offended at the accusation that I was being racist by simply going along with my white privilege (and then offended even more when I was told that being offended by having my white privilege challenged was racist too!). Thanks to your passionate and clear posts on this topic, I am finally beginning to understand. I have a lot to learn and a long way to go. Thanks for your thoughtfulness and hard work in sharing your thoughts this month! I needed a lot of explaining and convincing to open my eyes to this problem. Keep it up. This topic needs a lot of light.

    1. Cari, Thanks for your honesty. I’m so glad you are following along and getting something out of this. I feel like I’m bumbling along! I don’t think it’s helpful to point fingers at each other and cry “white privilege!” I think it’s better to comb back through our own lives with a fine-toothed comb and see if there’s anything we’ve been missing all along. As a teacher, it’s always better to let the student discover the subject on their own. I’m forcing myself to be a student again;-) Glad you’re with me on the journey!

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