Theo-cultural Amnesia

african lords supperIn response to my recent post, Disputing About the Body, one my friends commented, “you cannot separate theology from history.”  I wholeheartedly agree.  If theology can be characterised as ‘faith seeking understanding’, history is the study of that which has come to shape both the faith and the understanding of the one who is seeking it.  Both the historical and theological enterprise are shaping and defining endeavours and the one necessarily includes the other.  The historian who refuses to account for God loses the thread of meaning that ties all of history together and this results in its own perversions. History takes its full meaning only within the framework of Gods’ action in the affairs of men. For the moment however I will confine myself to the theological side of things. The theologian who fails to come to terms with his history, and the history of his community cannot truly do theology.  The term ‘his history’ is key here, because the theologizing task is not a disinterested study of whys and wherefores, but is an intensely personal endeavour wherein man and God stand, as it were, face to face in dialogue; a dialogue that necessarily includes all that is in, of, and about the past of the theologian.  It is an ongoing engagement and not an antiseptic analysis.  In fact, theology without this history collapses into ultimately meaningless philosophy; a fate I suspect far too often befalls both students and faculty of theology schools.

When the separation of theology from history is translated into preaching, pastoring, and liturgy, it begets all manner of deformities of practice and ultimately fails to address the real essence of the human person in his socio-historical, cultural and spiritual reality.  It is this failure that I term, ‘theo-cultural amnesia’; a term by which I intend to capture the notion that Gods’ action in the particular affairs of this that or the other cultural group has been forgotten.  This theo-cultural amnesia is particularly potent in religious communities that have, through choice or force, been alienated from their theological and historical heritage.  Such alienation occurred by choice in the case of American Evangelicalism, which is at least part of the reason for its current crisis, for Americans generally, in seeking to carve out their own way and new identity, have always disdained and dishonoured history.  Consequently the American church has been simultaneously innovative and faddish (which is perhaps two ways of saying the same thing), and is now increasingly becoming irrelevant to the population at large.

This alienation has been particularly pronounced in the Black American church which has, because of the legacy of slavery and segregation, been more or less forcibly cut off from its pre-American roots.  While there is an exceedingly rich legacy of theological engagement with the cultural realities of Black life in America, much of that legacy is handicapped by the lack of a pre-slavery historical consciousness on the part of Black peoples.  This is not to say that pre-slavery (i.e. African) cultural modes were entirely extinguished by slavery and racial oppression.  Certainly not.  There is still a substantial, though often unacknowledged and even unconscious, continuation of African cultural ‘DNA’ within the practices of the Black church.  What I mean to suggest is that most of the formal theologizing of the Black church is dominated by the discourses arising from the social, economic, and political consequences of slavery and post-slavery America.    This is true to a lesser extent in other post-colonial contexts where, at least from a Euro-Western perspective, the prime contributions to theology are ‘Liberationist’, a term that implicates the realities of colonial and neo-colonial political and economic systems.  However valuable this contribution to the global theological conversation, it is necessarily deficient because it is still theology done in the context of modern, Euro-Western frames of reference, albeit negative ones and does not deal effectively enough with the divine-human engagement prior to the European encounter.

The Black American case is worse though, for while Asian, African, and South American theologians still have access in most cases to their pre-European theo-cultural experience, Black Americans are almost entirely cut off from their own pre-slavery history.  Efforts to revive that connection have been limited mostly to secular academics and thus of little theological consequence.  Others, seeing Euro-Western Christianity as complicit in the destruction of African peoples and cultures, have rejected Christianity entirely as inimical to the interests of Black peoples and a barrier to cultural reconnection and have consequently embraced other religious / spiritual practices perceived to be more compatible with their Black identity.  Still others, the vast majority in fact, ignore the need for exploration of the connection, instead clinging to a very ‘Bible focused’ theology with roots no deeper than the modern era while continuing to half-embarrassedly retain some pre-slavery African derived and influenced cultural practices.  In other words, we’ll shout, jump, and dance, but lack the theological language and historical self-consciousness or cultural confidence to talk about it.  Those who attempt to do so often fail embarrassingly.

I will add that a similar dynamic seems to obtain within the Asian American church which is dominated by a very conservative Protestant theology that has left little room for extensive engagement with the history of the divine-human encounter in the Asian past, except to reject it as ungodly and idolatrous.  Unlike the Black church however, the existence and continual engagement with broad, diverse, and well established non-Christian religious and philosophical traditions means that the Asian American church cannot as easily import Asian cultural practices into the church without seeming to threaten compromise of the faith itself.  When the demands of culture do intrude, as with certain holiday observances,  the ‘culture’ is forced to stand alone, and separated from its full religious and philosophical foundations – such dichotomization itself a modern Euro-Western phenomenon foreign to Asian cultural consciousness.  So while the Black church exists in a theological universe where the Black man as homo-religiosus did not exist prior to slavery, the Asian American church lives with her religious past locked shamefully away as one would an elderly racist relative – invited to join the family during the holidays but forbidden from talking about certain topics.

So what are the consequences?  If, as Kwame Bediako (of blessed memory) says, conversion entails the ‘turning to Christ and turning over to Christ of all that is in us, about us, and round about us that has shaped us when Jesus meets us so that the elements of our cultural identity are brought within the orbit of discipleship’, then the conversion of Black Americans and Asian Americans may be said to be incomplete insofar as those churches live with an unconverted past.  The past cannot be turned over to Christ if that past is locked away as a relic of a shameful non-Christian past or if it is defined only in terms of the realities of slavery and post-slavery America.  It is no wonder then that Black churches and Asian American churches, while thriving in so many ways, have such struggles.  They exist theologically, without any history separable from the European encounter, thus leaving them adrift and consequently subject to the varied currents of contemporary culture and unable to effectively engage the onslaughts of post-modernity, ghetto nihilism, materialism, and cultural decay among others.  This is, as I’ve said, not unique to them for we see the same thing in the broader American church except in that case there seems to be a lack of awareness that there is anything in the past that needs converting.  The recognition that conversion is an ongoing process seems to be a lesson too frequently applied by Western theologians only to individuals and not to cultures, at least not to their own – as if the whole fabric of Euro-Western history and culture is intrinsically Christian and has thus already been turned to Christ. 

Practically speaking all of this leaves the church weaker than it might otherwise be.  To renew our strength it is necessary to seek for the old paths, to inquire more diligently into what it means that God… in ages past spoke to our ancestors through prophets, and that he speaks now to us through Christ.  What was the human – divine conversation and what does that conversation mean for us today?  Who were we, who are we, and where are we going?  If the Black church and the Asian American church in particular are to effectively fulfil their mandate of the declaration of the gospel, we cannot afford to ignore our histories and the lessons our ancestors have passed to us.

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Can I be myself?

On Sunday mornings during the offering collection at my church, we often have instrumental music or perhaps a soloist will give a special selection. Two Sundays ago was no exception. While offering was being collected, the pianist played and the soloist, obviously nervous, sang a simple Korean worship melody. It took all of two minutes to finish the collection and the solo, but it was the first time in the two years since I’ve been attending this Korean church that I’d ever heard the soloist sound at all unsure of his voice. More strikingly, it was the first time I’d ever heard any song done in Korean.

I was the soloist.

Two weeks later and I am still somewhat puzzled by this event. It was a strange moment for me and becomes even stranger upon further reflection. It is strange that I would be nervous singing in front of the congregation, when I regularly preach and have lead worship many times. Stranger still that this is the first time I’ve heard any song sung in Korean though it is a Korean church (albeit the EM). Strangest of all that it would be I, a Black American, who would be the one to sing it.

Yes, I was nervous, but not for reasons you might imagine. I knew the song through and through; I’ve sang and led it many times in front of hundreds of people. I wasn’t concerned about my pronunciation, my inflection or my accent. I know the song better in Korean than in English. When I was later approached by a visitor who expressed her thanks (and surprise) at my solo, I was taken aback. I honestly hadn’t given much thought to the fact that it was a Black man who had just sang a solo in Korean at a Korean church and that that might be surprising to some people. It isn’t that I ever forget I’m Black and at a Korean church. I’m just sometimes surprised when other people notice what has become normative for me.

What made me nervous was the question headlining this blog post: can I be myself? I don’t mean to suggest that I am somehow Korean or Korean American, or that I can ever really grasp that experience; far from it. I mean rather that my nervousness and hesitation was due to the uncertainty of whether it was okay to bring this tiny element of Korean culture into worship. This perhaps should not have been my preoccupation. Perhaps I should be worried that I’ve transgressed by taking too much liberty with a culture not my own. But in that moment of choosing to sing, my decision was not one of political or cultural calculation. It was a decision of worship. It was a moment when I momentarily let slip the studied ways I’ve avoided disturbing the cultural milieu of the English congregation and choose rather to be myself. The striking irony is that it was through the medium of a Korean worship melody.

In traditional Black preaching, the sermon is a dialogue between the minister and the congregation. It isn’t unusual for a preacher to ask as he builds into the heart of his message, “Can I be myself?” only to hear back the affirmation of the crowd. In my own preaching, it is a phrase I often use. At the heart of the question is the philosophical and even psychological posture of the Black church as a whole. The church was and remains the place where Black people could, “be themselves” without the necessary and tiring mental gymnastics, emotional resolve, and cultural contortion needed to live with peace and dignity in a world dominated by White society. At church, in worship, and in the community of God, you could simply be yourself; you could be Black.

The question that continues to haunt me from my moment of singing nervousness two weeks ago is whether church is or can be a place for Asian Americans to be themselves. It is troubling to me that singing a Korean song in Korean at a Korean church during the mostly Korean American 2nd generation worship service would be something exceptional. That it was done by the only non-Korean in attendance is merely icing on the moldy cake. The song is of course, only a symbol of the larger concern. To put it in terms of my own ethno-cultural background, if I cannot preach, pray, sing, and worship like a Black man (whatever that means) at a Black church, where else can I go? If I cannot be “Black” here, where then can I? I believe Asian Americans need to be asking and answering the same question.

Not to put too fine a point on it, or too paint too broadly with inadequate strokes, but my experiences in ministry point me to a sad observation. Often Black students (and others, but I’ll stick with Black folks for now) who have had the most difficult experiences growing up of “not being Black enough” or “trying to be White” are usually the ones most resistant to being involved in ethnic specific ministry for obvious reasons. They are the ones to most often push for multiethnicity and diversity, or who will want to join all White groups where the focus is “not on race.” They are also the ones who ultimately benefit most from being in a Black group where they are challenged to embrace both the beauty and pain of their ethnic identity and see it redeemed in light of the gospel. I suspect the same might be true for many Asian Americans for whom the grail of multiethnicity is just an easy way out.

There Goes the Neighborhood

Today I saw something that confirmed what I’ve been suspecting for a while… my neighborhood is changing.

I’ve been seeing the signs here and there, but bravely have tried to ignore them in hopes that perhaps I was wrong. You know how it is; just little things: A white woman walking her dog, a young Asian guy driving a late model Honda down the street, a Volvo parked inconspicuously in a driveway while the young, vaguely hippie looking homeowners enjoyed a drink on the front porch. All of these things were signs that I’ve been trying valiantly to ignore.

But what I saw today was something I could not ignore nor misinterpret, despite all my efforts. There he was in all his trendy splendor – a young white guy, casually dressed in the kind of clothes that look like they’re from Wal-Mart but you know are really from Banana Republic… sitting at the edge of his walkway, innocently, unobtrusively, and completely naturally – playing a guitar. There he sat, in front of an appropriately trendy Craftsman style home, barefoot, and playing his guitar in the calm of a late afternoon as if it were the most normal thing in the world.

My neighborhood is officially trendy.

White folks drinking wine on the front porch I could ignore; the White woman walking her dog was harder to rationalize, but still I made the effort. But this, this cannot be denied or explained away. It is only in trendy urban neighborhoods that White guys play guitars while sitting out in front of their houses I knew it was coming, but I didn’t expect it so quickly.

Before I know it, there will be coffee shops with bearded baristas and black rimmed glasses wearing Mac users. The ubiquitous loud young Black girls with too much saunter and not quite enough jeans to cover their shape will be replaced by svelte looking people who ::gasp:: jog!!

I’m not quite sure what to make of it all. There goes the neighborhood.

Political writer’s block & uncomfortable questions

It has been quite some time since I’ve put the metaphorical pen to paper and written anything on this blog. In fact, I haven’t done much writing at all in any arena. I have felt busy and overwhelmed and the creative juices have not been flowing very well. That is at least the line that I’m holding to.

In actual fact, in addition to my so-called writer’s block, I have been radically reluctant to write anything because I’ve been thinking mostly about politics, and haven’t wanted to put my thoughts out for the world to see in the midst of campaign season. It is not that I believe anything I say influences anyone in any particular way. I just don’t want to be misinterpreted and misunderstood. I also am tremendously picky about my word choice. I won’t say much today either, but here are some things that I’ve been thinking about. Maybe I’ll blog about these things at some point

Black people supporting Barack Obama largely because he’s considered “Black” but really he’s biracial and his background is really pretty “White” by some measurements

Racism in politics is bad, but sexism is ok, as long as you disguise it well

Candidates or political messiahs; why democracy is deceitful

Why whoever is elected won’t really change my life that much

There are so many other thoughts rolling around in my head that I cannot articulate. It is not an easy thing to put into words political thoughts because people hold their politics more seriously than their religion.

We already knew how to sing, we only needed to know the words

Singing, like worship, is an expression of the human soul that is universal in scope and yet as diverse as the myriad people that populates the globe. People every where and throughout history have puts words to music in order to somehow articulate their inmost thoughts and feelings. Music is like art, or poetry; it gives voice to the inexpressible in a way that actually communicates transcendentally. Is it any wonder then that almost every religion in the world incorporates music in its expression of worship to God?

When the holocaust of American slavery met the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ, an entire culture of Black church that is as unique and diverse as the Black people who inhabit it was born. What a glorious multifaceted expression it is. This expression is made all the more glorious by the fact that it reflects the authentic African-ness of a people living in America. It was not that these Africans did not know how to worship, or were somehow deficit in their ability to relate to the transcendent reality of God as over against their European subjugators and would be interpreters of scripture. They simply lacked the language and understanding of the good news of Jesus.

When they received this gospel (though not the first Africans to do so) they “ate the meat and spat out the bones” of a gospel that said they were less than human and worthy of nothing more than to be vessels of dishonor in the White man’s house. They refused to bow in worship at the altar of the White man’s god.

Instead these Africans in America contextualized the gospel message and found a savior in Jesus as well as heroes in Moses, the Hebrew boys, and Esther. They reinvented and rearranged traditional hymnody and gave birth to both gospel music and its cousin, contemporary Christian music. They took the art of preaching and combined it with the traditions of African storytellers to create a synthesis of that is envied and copied to this day. These Africans in America already knew how to sing; the coming of the gospel merely gave them the words.

If this is true in the Black American experience, is there any less reason for it to be true within the Asian American experience? It seems that there remains complex and insidious stronghold of neocolonialism deeply ingrained in the Asian America psyche that resists any true effort to contextualize the gospel within their own communities. Perhaps I am speaking out of school, so to speak, that is, outside of my range of experience or level of trust. If so, I implore your forgiveness.

Nevertheless, I marvel that on the one hand Asian Americans are some of the most gifted, highly educated, and creative people in evangelical Christendom today, and yet “with hands high and hearts abandoned” the gospel that is preached and sung sounds remarkably exactly like that heard in any White suburban church. Asians clearly know how to sing; there is no lack of cultural creativity within Asian and Asian American communities. And the words of the gospel are accessible and present to all, Asians and Asian Americans together. Can there be a generation raised up who would be willing to integrate these powerful realities into something that can speak in a lovingly prophetic way to multiple generations of Asian Americans and invite them into the choir? Oh Lord God would you be so gracious as to raise up people who will indeed seek to be faithful to you in this generation; a generation who will sing the Lord’s song with their own melody but with your words?

The Peril of Privilege

I am just exhausted from a wonderful weekend of service in the inner city with over 50 students from around the state of Tennessee. My church was gracious to host us, although some students sleep was cut a bit short by an overly zealous chipsanim* opening the sanctuary for early Morning Prayer on Saturday. Lesson: 6 AM prayer really means 5:30 AM.

In any event, I and the students had a great time and we learned quite a bit about God’s passionate concern for our “neighbors”, and I had the privilege of mounting the pulpit Sunday to preach to both the normal English Ministry crowd, and the InterVarsity students who were gathered. It was great to stand at the “Intersection” (note subtle but shameless insertion of my blog name!!) of at least two parts of my world.

I preached from Exodus on the call of Moses by God, and emphasized our need to get beyond our reasons and excuses for not being involved in God’s purposes. God had placed in our hands the very instruments we need to achieve, by his grace and power, the things he calls us to.

As I reflect on this sermon and the weekend, I am reminded about how much of my preaching focuses on our responsibility, on our stewardship, on our need to get involved actively in what God is doing. These sermons are so different than the ones I preach to my father’s congregation, which is much poorer, and ironically needs much less motivation to serve either in church or in the community. It seems that more privilege people enjoy in terms of wealth and education, the more effort it takes to goad them into service.

It is a well attested fact that poor people are more generous in their charitable giving than wealthy people (as a percentage of income), and that poorer people tend to be more religious, and more committed in their religious observance. In fact, Christianity was initially and currently is globally, a religion of the poor and disenfranchised. It seems that privilege carries with it the increased perils of loss of generosity and even of faith.

A recent article in the New York Times citing a Pew Research poll indicates that an increase in wealth is correlated with a decrease in religiosity. How prescient are the words of the apostle that “those who desire to get rich fall into a snare and find themselves pierced through with many sorrows.” Unfortunately we don’t hear much preached about this.

Could it be that part of the reason for the so called “silent exodus” of Asian Americans from the church (which is paralleled in the Black community as well) is partially caused by the wealth experienced in these communities? Although the average household wealth and income of Asian American families is higher than even that of Whites, what is often obscured is that it is the wealth of families, many of whom work very hard and sacrifice greatly in order to send their children off to the best schools.

In the process of securing the future for their children financially, are they perhaps selling them out spiritually in the same way that Israel’s decision to move to Egypt to avoid famine eventually led to the enslavement of his descendants to the Egyptian pharaoh? The irony of their enslavement is that they were so busy working at the behest of Pharaoh, they did not even have time for a three day spiritual retreat. Even more ironic for us is the ways in which this pursuit of wealth has routinely been spiritualized and made to seem itself as an exercise in discipleship.

If Asian American and Black Christians are to have a future as people of vibrant faith, we need to take a serious look at the our wholesale swallowing of the pursuit of economic security (really wealth) and what such pursuit does not only to our souls, but to the faith of those who will come after us.

*chipsanim = deacon