Evangelicalism in a Post-Christendom Age: Part 1

It may be news to the less astute observer, but for most people who pay attention to such things, the United States is rapidly following Europe into a ‘post-Christian’ era. American Evangelicals are struggling to adjust though there are substantial numbers who do not recognise that a shift has taken place at all. This is because much of the shift is buried under layers of political and cultural trends: abortion rights, gay marriage fights, rhetoric about the ‘War on Women’, etc. The recent scuffle concerning World Vision only highlights this.  These are just surface symptoms. The deeper reality is that a post-Christian age is upon us and the foundational assumptions of the prior age no longer apply. What does all this mean for American Evangelicals? To answer this, we must first understand what evangelicalism is, what it isn’t, and what its’ roots are. Part one will address this issue.

Contrary to popular belief, American Evangelicalism is not simply a product of early 20th century Fundamentalism – although Fundamentalism is an antecedent movement. American Evangelicalism is, properly speaking, a child of the 2nd Great Awakening of the late 18th and early 19th century – that great mass movement that arose in rebellion against the decadent, irreligious, and impious culture of the day. It was a movement that shared some of the more optimistic assumptions of the Enlightenment which preceded it. It spawned the great missionary movement of the 19th century as well as the anti-slavery movement, the prison reform movement, and various other humanitarian reforms. This social reform impulse was paired with a deep conviction of the need for individual repentance and faith in response to the claims of the gospel.

cathedral

An empty cathedral. The future of the American church?

The liberal / fundamentalist split that many people trace as the origin of American Evangelicalism didn’t come into being until more than a hundred years later when those now termed theologically ‘Liberal’ dropped the emphasis on personal response to the gospel while retaining the concern for social reform. We needn’t dwell here much on liberalism vs. fundamentalism; that is not the essential point. What is important to note is that it was at the outset a unified movement out to change both the world and the men in it!

But, and this is the crucial thing for it lies at the heart of the present dilemma, this movement was out to change a particular kind of world and to convert particular kinds of people – a Christian world, full of Christian people. Evangelicalism is a product of Christendom itself, but not in the way people like to think it was. Evangelicalism wasn’t a prop to Christendom, but rather its inveterate opponent.

Evangelicalism was a prophetic movement, calling nominal Christians back to the radical claims of discipleship to Jesus Christ. It was an apostolic movement, issuing the challenge to bring the gospel to all nations. It was innovative, using all the latest techniques and technologies to advance its cause. It was trans-denominational. And perhaps most critically, its theology was developed against the backdrop of a ‘Christian’ society.

By the time of the Evangelical Revival, Europe had been Christian in some form, for more than 1000 years. The Reformation, upon which so many contemporary internet theologians place undue emphasis, had brought some shifts to the currents of Christianity and indeed made the Awakening possible. However it had left in place one critical component: the establishment of religion. Evangelicals, many of whom were non-conformists, chafed under the strictures of established religion and were perturbed by the rampant nominalism it seemed to encourage. Though in the United States, Christendom, the official alignment of church & state, broke, the culture of Christendom, the notion of a broadly ‘Christian’ civilization, remained intact as most people thought of themselves as Christian whether or not they had any active life of faith in the evangelical sense of that term. It was a Christian society, with Christian assumptions that prevailed in Europe and North America.

This is the backdrop for all the contentious social debates of the last 100 years of American life. Liberal and Conservative, Mainline & Evangelical all made their cases and built their theological frameworks of thought within a society that shared a broadly ‘Christian’ conception of the universe even as the institutional structures of that society were shifting. Over the past fifty years however, what had been gradual and at times imperceptible movements became a rapid unraveling. The pace of this unraveling has increased significantly in the past twenty years and now Christians in the West find themselves confronting an entirely post-Christian reality.

We should note that this emerging post-Christian era has and is affecting ‘liberals’ and ‘evangelicals’ alike. While one will find plenty of people willing to lay the decline of the American Evangelical church at the foot of rigidity in doctrinal positions related to women’s ordination and gay rights, churches that have long embraced such positions have declined far faster and for far longer than their evangelical counterparts. Theological ‘openness’ and ‘affirmation’ have not been sufficient to stem the tide and those who have trod such paths find themselves swept aside just as readily as the more doctrinaire and dogmatic evangelicals who are the bogeyman and whipping boy of American socio-cultural commentary. Simply put, a theology, whether of ‘liberal’, ‘conservative’ or ‘evangelical’ stripe forged in a Christian era is largely irrelevant in a post-Christian one.

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Eat the Cake

Courtesy of http://cdn.madamenoire.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/eat-the-cake-anna-mae.jpg

You know you want the cake!

There is a scene in the movie What’s Love Got to Do with It? where Ike tries to force Tina (Anna Mae is her ‘real’ name) to eat a piece of cake that she doesn’t want.  Here’s a quick run-down of  the scene courtesy of Hollie McNish of the Mirror:

Tina Turner, real name Anna Mae Bullock, has just released her own music single and two kids come up to her at a diner asking for her autograph. Not her husband Ike’s. Ike is jealous. He tells her to “eat the cake” so they can celebrate her new and independent success. She doesn’t want any. He says “Eat the cake, Anna Mae” and when she refuses, he stands up, shoves it in her mouth and across her face. Her friend and backing vocalist tries to stop him. Ike threatens her, beats her and she runs away shouting to Tina Turner, “You are dead if you stay with him.”

The scene has become iconic because of its vivid portrayal of the humiliation of domestic abuse.  (That the phrase has now become fodder for a Beyonce song is problematic in itself, which is McNish’s point, and beyond the scope of my current concern.)

Well, it seems we have now have progressed to a kind of ‘eat the cake’ scenario in American society. Well, more like bake the cake.  As everybody who pays attention to these kinds of things knows, there have been lawsuits about bakers who refuse, because of their tender Christian consciences, to bake cakes for same-sex nuptials.  There have been laws passed, vetoed, hysterics, etc. all around but for many it seems to be a totally irrelevant issue. After all it is just cake right?

Of course we are fortunate to have author and social commentator Rachel Evans to elucidate for us just the exact nature of the problem.  In a recent post, Walking the Second Mile: Jesus, Discrimination and ‘Religious Freedom’, she informs her readers and the listening public:

We have become known as a group of people who sees themselves perpetually under attack, perpetually victimized, and perpetually entitled, a group who, ironically, often responds to these imagined disadvantages by advancing legislation that restricts the civil liberties of other people.

Leaving for a moment any consideration of whether Evans can plausibly include herself in the ‘We’ of evangelicalism, we note that she advances this statement partially in relation to the supposed rally of evangelicals in favour of ‘injustices in Russia and Uganda’. ( Of course, it cannot possibly be that Russians and Ugandans have ideas of their own about how to order their societies; it must be because of ‘evangelicals’ that they have chosen to advance such legislation.)  More importantly though, and more central to her thesis is her suggestion that evangelicals are advancing legislation that restricts civil liberties of other people.

This statement betrays a lack of understanding of both the recent legislation and the very notion of what constitutes a ‘civil liberty’ – which doesn’t, last I checked, include the right to have someone bake you a cake.

But the heart of her argument is this:

As Christians, our most “deeply held religious belief” is that Jesus Christ died on the cross for sinful people, and that in imitation of that, we are called to love God, to love our neighbors, and to love even our enemies to the point of death.

So I think we can handle making pastries for gay people. 

Interesting.  But it isn’t just Evans that has this view. And it comes up whether we’re talking about insurance mandates under the Affordable Care Act, or Hobby Lobby, or Chik-Fil-A or whatever.   I have seen it elsewhere as people have likened the issue of meat sacrificed to idols in the New Testament, or of washing the feet in service to our neighbors, or of Jesus serving Judas who he knew was going to betray him, or, or, or…

Just eat bake the damn cake! It’s really not a big deal and I don’t understand why you’re making a big deal of it.

My thoughts on this turn rather to our forebears in the faith who lived in the sprawling multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-cultural empire of Rome.  An Empire that was actually quite tolerant of different religious and who had, because of the oddness of their customs, even created a carve-out for the Jews.  All that was required of a subject of Rome was a simple acknowledgment of the supremacy of Caesar.  The Romans did not ask you to forsake your religious worship, they did not ask you to stop your sacrifices to your own gods. In fact they did not even ask you to believe in the divinity of the Roman Emperor.  Heck most of them didn’t likely believe in it, least of all the emperors themselves!

They didn’t want or need your belief.  They needed your compliance.

And Christians, the ones who would go the extra mile, turn the other cheek, give water and food to their enemies, render to Caesar what was his, willingly, painfully, horrifically died rather than perform a simple, likely meaningless, ceremony.

Just like eating cake at a party.

What Evans is advocating is exactly what was portrayed in the film.  Anna Mae is perceived as being disrespectful because she doesn’t want to eat the cake.  It is taken by Ike to be a personal affront, something no ‘good woman’ would do.  If Anna Mae really wanted to serve and be like Jesus she would simply shut-up and eat the damn cake already! 

And  according to Evans if these objectors were really Christian they would just go ahead and bake it.  After all, isn’t that what Jesus would do?

At the end of the day it doesn’t matter whether the martyr dies for their faith or is merely driven out of business, or  shamed, or simply derided as an ignorant bigot – the substantive issue is the same and no amount of clever internet snark can change that.  Simply put, it isn’t about just baking pastries for gay people.  It isn’t just questioning whether to eat meat sacrificed to idols.  It is requiring people under force of law to supply goods for and participate in something they view as abhorrent and intrinsically immoral.

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On the Complementarity of the Sexes

“For the man is not of the woman: but the woman of the man. Neither was the man created for the woman; but the woman for the man.  Nevertheless neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, in the Lord. For as the woman is of the man, even so is the man also by the woman” 1 Corinthians 11. 8-9, 10-11.

Of late, long simmering issues connected with the relationship between of men and women within the context of American Evangelicalism have become more of a slow boil.  The lines have long since been drawn between what is termed ‘Complementarianism’ and ‘Egalitarianism’ with each camp of Evangelicals planting their hermeneutical flags and rallying their troops to their preferred approach. Usually people who disagree on these issues are willing to be charitable to those who disagree. This post is not about the respective merits of each of these positions, at least not directly.  Instead I want to talk about something more basic to the whole discussion — something I think is too often lost in the terminology that has been assigned (or chosen) by the partisans of the different schools of thought.

Men and women are complementary.

Men are not women and women are not men.  This plain statement, which should seem obvious, is no longer obvious.  In an era when heteronormative cis-gendered patriarchy is regularly attacked directly by those outside the church and indirectly by those inside, this statement betrays a kind of binary approach to sex / gender that reflects my heterosexist male privilege or something like that.

Yeah.

I don’t really care.  Men and women are not the same, nor were we created to be the same.  We were created to be complementary to one another.

Complementarity is a term that has unfortunately been swept up into the polarizing theological and doctrinal debate so much that the term itself has lost all meaning.  Really it just means that men and women are for each other.  Not in the sense of being ‘in favor of’, but in the sense of being designed or intended for the other.

The other day as I drove home I noticed some men working by the roadside.  Specifically, they were digging a drainage ditch. By hand. As traffic was backed up (as it often is) I had the chance to observe well.  I noticed the young man as he hoisted with relative ease the pick-axe straight above his head, his muscles rippling through his lithe frame as sweat poured down his back.  He brought the pick-axe down again and lifted it again in a single moment – the whole upward / downward motion taking all of 5 seconds; which means 12 times per minute.  Near him was another man, standing in the ditch shoveling, the dirt flying over his shoulder with ease.

These men will go home to a wife or a mother or sister who has also worked hard all day – washing clothes by hand, selling fruit, hawking goods on the street and hauling water to the house for cooking and bathing – who will then cook for them to eat, and probably clean up afterwards.

Hard work all around.  Of that there is no doubt.  Yet the work that each does is complementary to the other.

Ditches need to be dug and men are better suited at it than women.  Domestic tasks likewise need to be done, and although these tasks can be done by men, are more readily and easily taken up by women.  One critical reason for this is that the domestic tasks usually taken up by women are the kinds of tasks that lend themselves to multi-tasking – a critical necessity when small children appear on the scene.  After all it is much easier to wash clothes by hand and keep an eye on the children than it is to dig a drainage ditch and do the same thing.

This isn’t to say that women can’t or shouldn’t dig ditches or that men mustn’t do domestic work. Not at all.

It is simply an observation of the realities that our physicality impose on us and as I said earlier, it is only our technological sophistication that allows us to pretend otherwise.  Our physicality introduces us to something we don’t like and which continuously strive to reject and that is our limitations.  And here is where the tension of complementarity comes in for many of us.

We live in a world where we can pretend that these things don’t matter.  Complementarity is easily hidden in technologically advanced and complex societies where the differences between men and women are hidden beneath layers of labour saving devices, medical interventions, and legal constructs explicitly designed to minimize the differences.  But when these are stripped away, the differences become much more starkly evident and our need for one another emerges more clearly as well.  Here is where the profundity of the mystery of marriage comes in.

As Christians there is little controversy around affirming complementarity as it relates to the body of Christ.  We all have gifts differing, as the scripture says, and so the hand and the foot need each other.  The foot does what it does and the hand what it does and although it is possible for one to function in the place of the other it isn’t ideal.  Yet when it comes to the complementarity of men and women, of what our embodied sexually differentiated selves bring into the mystery that is our union with one another, all manner of ire is stirred.  Why is that?  Well there are lots of reasons having to do with all kinds of things but I want to highlight only one which I believe is at or near the core.

We don’t want to live in the limits of our physical nature.  We have embraced a heretical notion that what really matters is spirit and the physical is unimportant.  So our physical natures tell us nothing of the things of God — it is only the disembodied spiritual that matters and since spirits are not sexed then it is an irrelevancy to make distinctions as it relates to sex.  We are therefore not complementary to one another, but interchangeable.  We don’t need the other.

But this is a lie.  And it is a lie that is particularly appealing to women.  In fact I cannot recall any time when I’ve heard a man say ‘I don’t need a woman’, yet ‘I don’t need a man’ is a common proclamation.  Why the difference?  Well men are taught by our physical nature that women are necessary.  We all came through woman and it is impossible for us to bear children.  We know that ‘it’s not good for the man to be alone’.

The contribution of men is much more hidden and dispersed so it is not readily apparent to most women that men are necessary – especially not in a world of push button technology, sophisticated systems of electricity generation and global transport.  These systems, which are run on the backs of men digging ditches, are hidden, and make it possible for this demonic delusion to take root.

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Building Monuments out of Memories: Why I said I was ‘over’ MLK Day

During the wandering of the Israelites in the wilderness, the people grumbled against the Lord (as usual).  To punish them, God sent a plague of fiery serpents among the people.  The people cried out to God in repentance and at God’s command as a remedy for the plague, Moses made a bronze serpent.  The serpent was to be lifted up on a pole, and those who would look on it would live (and that’s where we get the song Look and Live from).  It is quite the story; full of theological significance.

Much later, 2 Kings 18.4 records an obscure event related to this same bronze serpent.  It is of the destruction by King Hezekiah of the bronze serpent that Moses had made.  You see the people had been burning incense to the serpent – worshipping it, and it had become a distraction and a distortion of the whole event in their history.  Instead of the bronze serpent being a reminder to them of how far they had come, of their sins and need for repentance, of their dependency on God, it had become nothing more than another object of false worship: a monument to a memory.

It was in this vein that I made comments that I was ‘over’ MLK Day.

Please, don’t get me wrong (and I know some of you will anyway).  I have a deep appreciation for the price paid by many during and after the Civil Rights movement, exemplified by Rev. King.  I remember the stories my parents told of going to school in under resourced, segregated schools.  My family was the first Black family to move into an all-white, working class (to put it nicely) neighbourhood in the late 1960’s in the south.  Let that sink in.

They bought a house.

In an all-white, lower working class neighbourhood.

In the south.

In 1969.

My mother walked my elder brother through angry crowds of not-too-pleased white neighbours to kindergarten that was only just beginning to be integrated.

Our neighbours children broke into our house, stole our video camera and shot movies of themselves insulting the ‘n*ggers’ that lived next door to them. …. Next door.

They never reported it to the police because…why bother?  They would still be living next door to them and why ask for more trouble.

When we moved from there, we moved again to be the first Black family in an all-White (slightly better-off) neighbourhood.  We lived there for 30 years.  The neighbours, being mostly of the ‘decent church-going Southern White folk’ were a far sight better than the ‘po white trash’ we left behind.  They were the kind of folks who loaned eggs and sugar to each other over the back fence.  Miss Woodard, (who said she never married because her fiancé found out she couldn’t cook) would say to her friends on the phone while she was keeping an eye on us after school before Mom got home from work, “the little coloured boys from next door are here.” She is the first person I remember taking me to McDonalds.  Mr Bradshaw confided to my father about the mental decline of his wife who would ask him again and again, “Les, you want some coffee?” while never bringing him any. And Miss McCarty, who loved her dogs, baked excellent cakes, gave me overripe bananas anytime she saw me because I once told her I liked them (I was just being polite), and who asked my sister every year to come over and help her turn her mattress (or some such chores).  Mrs Louellen brought us a batch of brownies when my Momma passed away. We were probably the first Black family any of them had ever had close contact with and likely the first White people my parents learned to have a measure of trust with.  They’ve all died now; maybe I’ll meet them in heaven.

Meanwhile my mother was finding “A N*gger Application for Employment” placed on her desk where she worked at a school in an ‘upper class’ neighbourhood across the street from Vanderbilt University.

My father was dealing with the small and large slights of racism day in and day out on the job.

And we (the kids) were learning to navigate a post-civil rights world where dirty snot nosed stringy haired White kids somehow though they were better than us because of skin color.  Where police found a reason to roll up and surround 3 young teenaged boys with 5 squad cars playing basketball at night in the park… 100 yards from my home.  And where in first grade at my upper middle class school in the middle of White suburbia, the teacher managed to find a way to isolate the only two Black children in class – one of whom (me) was always being sent to the office because he already worked through all the workbooks for the class, and read all the assigned materials.  Yeah… I was punished for being too smart.

Flash forward to university and you find me chairing the MLK committee, planning the march, speaking at the MLK Day program (because the vaunted ‘Civil Rights veteran showed up late’).  You’ll find me defending soul food being served in the cafeteria, reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X in one weekend because I want to read the book before I see the movie, and coordinating the university’s Kwanzaa programme.

And now?  20 years onward, I look at the celebration of MLK Day and I see what King Hezekiah saw.  I see a memory, in this case the person of Rev. King, being made into a monument.  I see people making speeches, planning marches, posting inspirational quotes.

And in a few weeks, there will be another young Black man shot dead.  Someone else a victim of police brutality.  Another stereotyped movie with a shallow script and shallower acting.  Another 1000 Black children born out of wedlock or aborted in the womb. Another twerking video.

It’s as if the whole point has been forgotten.  And I wonder… did my dad skip school to go to a Civil Right march so that getting educated and speaking proper English can be considered “ack-in’ White”?  Did Rosa Parks sit down on a bus so that we can watch videos of Black people fighting on the bus?  How many more speeches will it take before we stop talking about White racism and deal with the huge crime problem in many of our communities?

That’s why I’m ‘over it’.  Not because I don’t love and appreciate the history but because I do appreciate it so much.  I have 2 young boys – who will soon be men.  They need to know this history, so that they grow up to stand up as men on the shoulders of the giants that have preceded them. So that they don’t waste the lesson by using it as an excuse for failing to excel.  So that they don’t show up telling me some stories about how they couldn’t keep from getting in a fight because they needed to keep it real.

I’m done with talking about the dream and I refuse to make a monument out of a memory.

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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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Disputing about the body…

Jude 1:9 Yet Michael the archangel, when contending with the devil he disputed about the body of Moses, durst not bring against him a railing accusation…

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“Hello… is anybody in there?”

Recently there has been quite the kerfuffle in the media in reaction to Megyn Kelly’s comments about white Santa (and Jesus).  Quite a few folks have written in response reaction and amongst those social media folks I call friends, most of the reaction has been rather negative.

The whole episode of course called to mind images of Jesus from my own childhood, which were all of white men. Interestingly, one of the most beautiful and memorable of those images was one of Jesus knocking at the door; an image meant evoke Revelation 3:20 (‘behold I stand at the door and knock…).  However, since that particular picture hung over the entrance to the washrooms in our church, the image evoked the rather less sublime notion of knocking on the door before entering the toilet, thus avoiding embarrassment for everyone – something I was quite convinced that Jesus would want us to do!

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“Hey girl, you interested in abundant life? I got some for ya!”

The other image that came to mind was a decidedly different one, of a handsome, muscular and dreadlocked Black Christ with his hands tied with rope while his gaze was directed towards the viewer.  I’m unsure what exactly was meant to be evoked by that particular portrayal, but when the picture was hung, more than few of the sisters in the Christian fellowship I led seemed to suddenly acquire a new found appreciation for reflecting on his image.  Whatever else was intended by that particular picture, I’m sure that images of Christ should not be the cause of our Christian sisters stumbling.

Upon more (and deeper) reflection however, theological and cultural issues began to emerge for me.  I understand well the reason for the controversy.  For many, Kelly’s comments, off-handed and unsophisticated, seems to reflect a White, Euro-Western proprietary stake in the person of Jesus; an assertion of ownership of Christ for her own culture and the implicit rejection of the claims of other cultures upon Christ.  Such an assertion is made more problematic by the comments having been made on Fox News, the news network most popularly associated with all things right-wing and politically conservative.  Her words were not, and indeed could not, be taken simply as a light-hearted statement of historical ‘fact’, but were culturally and theologically significant.

Kelly’s words were indeed a kind of assertion, though not necessarily one full of the intention ascribed to it.  Her words, coming as they did in response to questions about the possibility of deracination of Santa Claus, were a kind of riposte intended to stake a historical claim as over and against efforts to deconstruct and reconstruct Christmas and its attendant imagery along politically correct lines.  By stating that Santa AND Jesus were white guys, she was attempting to head off efforts to wrest the holidays from their moorings in Euro-Western history and culture.  As a point of historical fact, neo-Africanist critiques aside, Jesus would likely have been counted as or considered ‘white’ if he were alive in contemporary America by the US Census Bureau definition and, depending on his actual appearance, would be treated that way. This fact, however, is not the point. Both her initial statement and the reactions she engendered were contestations over the cultural, historical and by implication, theological meaning of the Christmas holiday.

While admitting to my limitations, I want to suggest that part of the theological dissonance surrounding this teapot tempest is due to a failure of theological & cultural engagement.

The book of Jude contains an obscure reference to an event not recorded in any canonical scripture of a fight over the body of Moses; Moses being the iconic figure of Israel’s faith, the lawgiver who towered over the history of Israel like a colossus and whose law was the entire reference point for Israel’s theology.    Although Abraham was the progenitor of the Israelite people, Moses was the author of their religious identity – a fact all too apparent throughout the New Testament in Jesus’ encounters with the scribes and teachers of the law, and in his follower’s wrestling with the meaning of Jesus and the cross in the shadow of the Mosaic Law.  Indeed we can say that the whole of the New Testament is, in fact, a contestation over the body of Moses; over what he meant and what he came to do.

Just as Moses’ body was taken up by God himself and was never found by man so too was the body of Jesus, raised from the dead and taken up by God.  And just as there was dispute and contest over the body of Moses, so too is their dispute and contest over Jesus’ body – over his race, his cultural identity, and what that means for us.  This wrestling is good, necessary, and healing for the Church which has too often ignored these questions.  And yet such wrestling, as we see in the controversy over Kelly’s remarks, falls short because of an impoverished theo-cultural imagination that is so Christ focused that the Father and the Spirit fall entirely from view.

The entry of God into the world that we celebrate at Advent is a necessarily limiting enterprise, for it is not possible for God to be incarnate as anything other than a particularity rooted in time and place.  This statement may seem at first to affirm those who have pushed back against Kelly’s statement, for Christ did not enter the world as a person of privilege, nor does he belong to Euro-Western culture.  This is of course true, but it is beside the point, for it misses the broader context of Christ’s coming. It is out of the redemptive mission of God that Jesus was sent.  It is God’s reconciling initiative that gives birth to the mission of Christ and consequently to the incarnation.  Contestation over the identity of Jesus threatens to turn the incarnation on its head, making it about our identification with God rather than about his condescension and identification with us.  It is too Christo-centric, if I can dare to say so, for Christ’s coming into the world is not, in fact, about Christ.

Contestation about Moses the Lawgiver and the man Jesus Christ are inevitable and easy, because they are contests about particularity.  The law of course is particular, dealing as it must with temporal and localised matter.  The incarnation as I’ve said, cannot have been otherwise for it is not possible that God should be fully incarnate in anything other than particularity.  So we fight over his image, contending for the legacy entailed in his ‘body’ and imagine ourselves somehow immune from the rebuke enjoined by Michael upon Satan.  We fail to see that the legacy of Jesus is a thing of heaven rather than of earth.

Contestation about Jesus fail in the same way that disputes about Moses did, for both are premised on the same error, which is that Moses and Jesus (the man) are somehow the point.  Yet Moses, the arbiter of the old covenant, and Jesus the author (and finisher) of the new, both pointed beyond themselves to the Father who through Moses (temporally and incompletely) and through Jesus (eternally and completely) created and called a people to Himself.  And Jesus pointedly made it clear that his mission was not about him, but was about the one who sent him.   God, while he is particularized in Christ, remains unlimited and universal – a fact that is simultaneously comfort and terror.  The angels who heralded his coming announced, “Glory to God in the Highest”, because the praise and glory of God is what Jesus’ coming really is all about.

The Israelites pleaded with Moses to speak to God on their behalf, so frightened were they at the awesome terribleness of his majesty, and yet years later divided into factions contesting the Mosaic legacy; seeking to make their claim of ownership rights.  Christians too face the same temptation of contending over the image of Jesus, co-opting him to our cultural and socio-political agendas and laying claim to him as one of us.  But he is not one of us, and we do not have stakes of ownership in his particularity, just as the Jews did not own Moses or the law.  But God through Jesus lays claim to us in our particularity, speaking the word of rebuke to Satan on our behalf, and all of this for the praise of his glory.

Addendum:  My former colleague has written about the culture wars that frame this whole discussion here: http://thewarrenpeace.wordpress.com/2013/12/24/the-prince-of-peace-and-the-culture-wars-a-lamenting-meditation/.  It is a worthy read.  Blessings.

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Only One Life: Some theological reflections on the death of Nelson Mandela

I remember when I was a child reading on some placard or poster somewhere in the home of a relative the proverbial saying, ‘Only one Life; it will soon be past.  Only what’s done for Christ will Last’.  I haven’t thought of that placard for many years but was reminded of it today as my pastor mentioned the passing of Mr Mandela in his sermon.

He said that Mandela was, by all human measurements, a great man. This sentiment is one shared by most people.  His passing was noted, lamented, and mourned by people from various spots on the political spectrum – and rightfully so.  From his origins as a firebrand freedom fighter, jailed for his terrorist activities against the apartheid government of South Africa, Mandela emerged early three decades later as a man who would pursue peace with reconciliation.  The bloodbath that many thought to be inevitable upon the collapse of the apartheid regime was forestalled in large measure by Mandela’s efforts to work for reconciliation.

Some ten years after the end of apartheid, I travelled to South Africa, where I engaged with and learned from many of those who had served on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that had been set up to deal with the demons of South Africans’ past.  I also learned about the history of the Boers – later and better known as the Afrikaners who were nearly themselves ethnically and culturally destroyed during the Boer War – one of the most brutal wars in modern history – and how the development of apartheid was at least partially in response to that tragedy as the Arikaners sought a ‘never again’ solution to the disaster that had nearly overtaken them.   I learned how the church in South Africa both fought against apartheid, and supported it, in either case overlooking either some critically important parts of scripture to justify their support or opposition.  In any case, the South Africa of 2004 was moving ahead – a rainbow nation seeking to build a national identity cognizant of the wounds of the past, yet not captive to them.

Mandela was key to that.

And yet… as my pastor so inconveniently reminded me this morning, even as he expressed his hope that perhaps Mandela had come to know Jesus, it is ultimately not the applause or commendation of men that matters.  However great Mandela may have been, and as men count greatness, he was indeed a great man, what matters is our heart towards God.

This tension lies at the heart of the evangelical, indeed the broader Christian dilemma.  For we see many people who wear the badge of Christ as an ornament; something that merely decorates their life and deflects criticism, but whose lives are much less honourable than that of the late Mr Mandela.  And there are many who know not Christ, and yet who publicly at least live in ways that are consonant with Christ – perhaps not following in measure, but rhyming at least with his ethics and his principles.

On the one hand the easy evangelical thing to do is to search out for some particular moment of conversion; a crisis event of decision wherein a man like Mandela ‘made his peace with God’, for such a moment would remove the shadow hanging over any celebration of the good things he was able to do.

On the other hand (and increasingly common) is the temptation to simply place the actions of the man in the balance and declare them not just good enough, but exceptional, and thereby to say of men like Mandela, ‘well done good and faithful servant’.

In both cases, the desire is to claim such good people for ourselves – to co-opt their good work and append them to our own theological systems in order to validate our own frames of thought concerning salvation; a desire rooted perhaps (at least partially) in the fear that maybe those in the other camp may be right and we might be wrong.

The tension is not however intrinsic to Christianity.  It is, I believe, a feature of Christianity that has been sieved through a long Western history of engagement with the Christian philosophical commitment, and more immediately, through a world wherein ‘Christianity’ is the frame in which everyone operates.  In such a world, ironically, the sense of the immediacy of God is usually lacking, and Divine Sovereignty, while acknowledged theoretically, is relegated practically to the far outskirts of the consciousness of most Christians.  Consequently God takes a back seat to our theologizing about governance and about the governors themselves.

The world of the Bible, and indeed of much of the contemporary world, is not such a world.  The Christians of the early church would find no such tension in the celebration or mourning of a leader like Mandela.  They were highly conscious of the immediacy of God and read every action through the lens of the unfolding of his sovereignty through history.  A leader, whether thoroughly pagan or God-fearing, was seen and interpreted and vetted, as it were, through that lens.  His righteousness or unrighteousness, or the consequences of his policies were seen in every case as tools through which and by which God himself was operating to effect his purposes in history, which purposes included always that purification and sanctification of his people.  While they did not pray for persecution, and understood the ills of it, they also well knew the history of the people of God, and prayed that they would be worthy to stand the testing of the Lord that was being manifest through the persecution.  When the leader was benevolent towards them, they saw it as a grace from God and an opportunity.  In every case, they viewed themselves as pilgrims, as aliens, as sojourners to earth whose real citizenship was heavenly.

Which brings me back to Mandela and his death.  So far much of what I’ve seen and read even by Christians on his death, hark to what he did for South Africa and the example he set for the world.  These are not to be discounted.  But little that I’ve read has hearkened to the question of what did Mandela do for Christ for – whether personally Christian or not – the value of his life and the applause of it are measured ultimately by their utility to the service of the sovereign Lord.  The temporal and ephemeral nature of our world (and especially of the 24 hour news cycle) lends itself to a dismissal of the court of the heavenly king, before which we all must appear and receive from his hands the judgment due.    Mandela was great, as men count greatness, yet Mandela too is a servant – a clay pot in the hand of the eternal potter, and it is before that master that his determination as an object or mercy or of wrath is determined.  The accolades and applause of men are meaningless in that eternal trial and our works, whatsoever they be, will be tried by fire and if found wanting, they will be consumed.  We too, if found wanting, will likewise be consumed.  As my mother would say, there is no big ‘I’ and little ‘you’ before God.  Mandela will stand on the same ground to be judged as you and I, as the pope, and the president.

History is, academically speaking, my first love – a fact that gives me perhaps a melancholic view of life.  Seen through the long span of time, a thousand years hence, Mandela will probably not merit even a passing mention in any history book.  After all how many people aside professional historians know of King Pepin the Short or Gustavus Adolphus?   But what is done that merits the applause of Christ, that which passes his judgment, and receives his commendation, will last eternally.

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