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.

Advertisements

Are Asians Sell-outs?

On the heels of the rapidly subsiding waves of controversy caused by the “SPLASH” of the Deadly Vipers controversy (read more: here, here, here, and here), I find myself  puzzling anew over the whole issue of how Asian-American identity is constructed, what is the relationship between ethnic identity and faith, how and whether to speak up and at what cost, and even how to bring others along on the journey without only being angry.

It strikes me that one of the basic underlying struggles is rooted in the question of what it means to be an authentically ethnic and Christian person when one either is or is immediately descended from people who intentionally forsook their ethno-cultural matrix in order to make a home in North America.  Or in other words, maybe it isn’t just the Francis Chan’s of the world who are sell outs.  Of course no one is actually calling the man a sell-out, it’s just making a point and raising a question about how much one’s ethnicity ought to be in play in an intentional kind of way, especially as a Christian.

But there is a larger and more problematically complex issue at stake here.  The racial history of the United States has created an oddly distorted racialized system that has been a double-edged sword for Asian Americans.  East Asian immigrants particularly enjoy quite remarkable economic and educational success in the United States and Canada.  And the reality of immigration is such that those who chose to leave their home countries came generally (though not always) with quite significant economic, educational, or entrepreneurial drive that made their ability to climb the ladder of economic opportunity much more likely than those left behind in their native lands .

This has been true of most immigrant groups who generally outpace natives in economic achievement after the first generation, however the racialized nature of American society has meant that such economic advancement has rebounded to create a sort of idealized image of Asian Americans that is the foundation stone of the “model minority” myth; a myth alternately decried and embraced by Asian Americans since it provides needed distance from association with non-model minority — Black AmericansSo the image of the hard-working, compliant, family focused and theologically orthodox Asian American who is educated at the finest evangelical seminaries is set against the decidedly lazy, angry, irresponsible and theologically liberal Black who is feared rather than loved. (not to mention Latinos and Hispanics!!) This of course ignores intentionally the many many lazy, non-hard working, irresponsible, dysfunctional Asians both here and abroad.  It is quite easy to have  a picture of relative success when you leave all the unsuccessful relatives back at home.

Of course this is the unintended consequence of the wholesale purchase of the American dream that has been sanctified via the dual cultures of Asian educational idolatry and American materialist pursuit.  A consequence that is further illustrated by the uncertain sound of the trumpet blast of justice against biases and stereotypes such as those employed during the Deadly Vipers controversy.  It is a bit challenging to sound the alarm against the system abusing, misrepresenting, and dishonoring Asian culture when ones own success and acceptance within America has been predicated upon the abandonment of that same culture or at least those parts of culture which are inconvenient and represent impediments to achieving the American dream.  It is a bit hypocritical to condemn the exploitation of ones culture by others when you unwilling to pay the price of defending it.  Certainly it is no virtue to continue to enjoy the privileges associated with being the “model minority” while wanting to avoid the quite high costs of being like that problematic other minority group that’s always complaining about something, i.e. Black people.

I say it with love and respect and those who know me can attest to my bonafides in terms of deep and abiding compassion (in the original sense of “suffering with”) Asian Americans, that AA have long enjoyed the fruits of the labors of others, notably Blacks and to a lesser extent Latinos, in plowing up the very hard ground of racism and racialization in the society.  We have often been (and I speak here of Black Americans) on the “point” of major issues, speaking out, expressing anger, demanding redress and in so doing have taken many hits while others have slipped in on the backs of our misfortune and in the bloody footsteps of our sacrifice.  It has been worth it.   Deadly Vipers would never have been done with an African theme; the writers wouldn’t have written it thus and Zondervan would never have dared to publish it.  However it has come at a cost, a high one.  Are you willing to pay it?

A sell-out is one who bargains away his own identity or people in exchange for acceptance and benefits afforded by those in power.  Asian Americans cannot continue sell out their cultural inheritance and then expect others to honor it.  They (I started to write “we”) cannot ask others to pay the full cost of understanding and appreciating the nuances of Asian culture while failing to be educated and deeply appreciating what it is all about.  They cannot continue embracing unthinkingly the theological and culture paradigms of White American evangelicalism which took root in a very different cultural soil while demanding a theology that influences and is influenced by the nuances of Asian American identity and understanding.  Asian Americans cannot decry the maladaptive use of their cultural symbols, language, and ideas by others while maintaining a steadfast refusal in their churches to demonstrate the redemptive reuse and re-adaptation of those same symbols, language and ideas to the glory of God.   It cannot be enough to say, “we are not your stereotypes” and remain unwilling to engage in the creative process of culture making, of dethroning Euro-American cultural idols of how church is to be done, and of creating an authentic Asian-American Christianity that is more than a bad system poorly imitated.

Somebody ought to testify

“First giving honor to God, who is the head of my life.  To the pastor, first lady, all the ministers, deacons, mothers, missionaries, saints & friends…”

I’m sorry, you must have thought I was talking about this kind of testimony:

Testimony Before Congress
Testimony Before Congress

What I really mean is quite different, and its related to my post on Things I Miss About the Black Church.

Giving a testimony in church is one of the most amazing and wonderful expressions of participatory worship you might imagine.    Each person that stands to testify gives a song, an inspiring story, shares a prayer request, exhorts the congregation,  unburdens themselves from the struggles of the week and allows the whole community of God’s people to laugh with them, cry with them, rejoice with them and yes, sometimes even roll their eyes at them.

It was funny to see the concerns of one group of folks as they prepared for a testimony service that is upcoming.  Being reformed, there is of course a great deal of course about maintaining proper order in the midst of it all.  One quote:

one testimony service in the past had been billed, at least to the worship leaders, as a “Spirit-Filled Free-for-All.” A few songs were chosen to start things up, and then … whatever. There is something exciting and spontaneous and … all right, authentic about that. I get it. I even like it. But yikes! The Spirit leads us into freedom, but is it freedom for “all”? Freedom to do anything? Does the Spirit work only in the direction of liberation from perceived stricture and structure? Surely this is appealing—especially to young people. But doesn’t the Holy Spirit also work, as in Genesis 1, in the direction of creating order from chaos? Finding true freedom only in slavery to Christ? How do we balance these two?

I find their questions humorous, but understandable coming from their perspective.  What if the spirit gets out of control?  But it was the next section that made me laugh:

How do we, as a worship team, as musicians, prepare for such a service? Do we choose no songs at all ahead of time? Do we rehearse anything? Do we wait and hope for students to suggest songs that we know? Do we pray for the Spirit to move us in the moment, and move us to play the same song in the same key? What if the Spirit tells us, like that old joke has it, “Oops. You should done more planning.”

And what happens if someone’s testimony turns inappropriate? We can’t control what folks will and won’t say…

Well now that’s just part of the fun of a testimony service.  They could perhaps learn from these folks about how to manage a testimony service:

It may be perhaps difficult to understand what’s being said, but the scene in that church is pointedly NOT chaos, and there are rules of engagement that differ a bit from one church to another, but some which are commonly understood. Testimony service has a rhythm and flow all its own.  And musicians are just along for the ride.

Allow me to tell you some of these rules:

1) The testimony leader (usually an up and coming fiery preacher, or a missionary, or someone who can keep the crowd going) conducts the service.  If there aren’t a lot of people waiting to testify, you can just stand up and start, but if two or three stand up at a time, the testimony leader tells who can go first.

2) The testimony will also shut down the testimony if it goes too long or veers off into “crazy.”  They usually do this by at first saying things like, “Amen, Amen.  Praise God sister” in a calming voice.  They may also interrupt at what seems to be a pause in the testimony and make some remarks before moving on to the next person.  If its really bad they will collaborate with the organist to start a praise song to shut you down.

3) The testimony leader may take over your singing of a song if the singing is really bad

4) Your testimony should begin with giving honor to God in some way, acknowledging the leaders of the congregation and the pastor (whether present or absent) and should end with some sort of, “You all pray for me”

5) It is perfectable permissible to lead out in a song during testimony service, especially if you know the words and can sing.  but even if you don’t people will try to help you out.

6) Your testimony cannot take longer than about 3 minutes unless it is REALLY good and folks get to dancing and shouting from it.  If folks start doing this, then you are not permitted to come back at the end of the shouting session to resume your testimony unless YOU were the one dancing, and then only to give a closing.

I will close with a typical testimony that I might have heard growing up in the Universal Christian Holiness Church (yes, I know our church was the one holy catholic church)
“Praise the Lord saints! Praise the Lord saints!  To the pastor, pulpit guest, deacons, missionaries, saints and friends. Truly we give honor to God today for all that he has been to us.  Down through the years, God has been good to me.  Earlier this week I was thinking back on some times when I thought I wasn’t gonna make it.  Thought I was gonna lose my mind.  But God!  But God!  Even this week, he keeps on blessing me, in spite of all the things I’ve done.  And I thank him for it. He’s been better than good.  You know I’ve been so worried lately; so many people being laid off, and the economy is down.  But God continues to provide for me and my family.   I think about all the young people running the streets and getting into trouble, and then just this week some of my nephews stopped by the house, and they aren’t doing all that they should be doing, but God has kept them from dangers seen and unseen.  They could be out here in the streets, but God continues to have mercy.  He’s been so good, I just can’t tell it all.  Pray for me saints, as I’m traveling next week that God would give me traveling mercies.  And pray that the Lord would help me to hold on until the end.  Y’all pray my strength in the Lord.”

Are you a coward? Am I?

The Attorney General of the United States apparently thinks so.

After having elected a bi-racial president of the United States, had two supreme court justices who are Black, two Black Secretary’s of State, we apparently are not doing enough, or are simply cowards. Because we are largely segregated in our social life and church life, we are therefore cowards.

The issue of race seems to never go away and even as I think through the intersection of faith and life, I am also very aware of how race is often used as a bludgeon to end rather than begin conversation.

You don’t speak for me!

Rarely am I annoyed by something to the point of deciding to write a blog post extemporaneously, but this case will mark a departure from my previous reserve.

By now everyone who is paying even scant attention to the political campaign is aware of Rev. Wright (Sen. Obama’s pastor of twenty years). Most recently he has engaged in a number of speaking engagements in which he has spoken eloquently and passionately about his views, and expanded admirably on sound bites that had admittedly demeaned and narrowed his ministry and message. Rev. Wright is a remarkable man, and a formidable preacher; certainly now one of the best known Black preachers in America, though he had a good deal of prominence before all of this started.

Rev. Wright preaches from a distinct tradition within the larger Black gospel tradition; one that emphasizes the prophetic engagement of the church with the world. His sermons and analyses serve the function of calling needed attention to the foibles, failures, and outright dysfunctionality of the American government. The Black liberation tradition from which Wright springs is not mainstream American evangelicalism, and like much of what happens within the Black community, it is obscure in its origins and impact to the larger American psyche. Like the prophets, liberation theologies have a particular edge that lends itself to causing great offense in the hope that the people to whom the message is addressed will change their behaviors and repent. The recent spotlighting of Rev. Wright and indeed the very fact of Obama’s candidacy has allowed an opportunity for many American’s to “listen in” on a conversation that occurs within the Black community. Wright’s style, cadence, free use of Biblical passages, even his mannerisms are exceedingly common within the Black church.

I would be dishonest if I did not say that some of the things Wright has been quoted as saying are not entirely unfamiliar to me or foreign to my ears, having grown up as I did strictly within the Black church tradition. Let me also say that the kind of preaching Wright does and the ministry he advocates does bear a certain appeal. His sermons touch a deep chord with many in the Black community. Even his flirtations with universalism and his seeming embrace of Louis Farrakhan are not particularly exceptional within the context of the Black church and community. A large part of this is the simple reality that our history in America has not afforded us much luxury of distancing ourselves too far from those with whom we may vehemently disagree. The outside pressures of racism, discrimination, and poverty have created within the Black community a type of tolerance for diversity of ideas and approaches that would surprise many. It is the reason why Black churches rarely split over theological issues, but much more frequently over personality and leadership issues. It is also why many Black people will turn a willful blind eye towards practicing homosexuals in the church, or to preachers who proclaim a prosperity gospel. There is a decidedly political aspect to Black church life that means you simply don’t disrespect another recognized leader in the Black community publicly even if you think him to be a charlatan and a fraud. In this, Obama is correct; he can no more dissociate himself from Wright than he can from the Black community.

Having said all of that, I part ways significantly with Wright’s characterization of the negative press attention he’s received as being an attack on the Black church. Rev. Wright. whatever his strengths in preaching or service or even his theological persuasion, does not speak for me. I am as Black as they come, and I love the Black church. Indeed I myself am a minister of the gospel and I understand the responsibility that comes with proclamation. I would not want someone to dissect all of my sermons. Some of the early ones were probably borderline heresy. Nevertheless, Wright does not speak for me, nor does he speak for the hundreds of Black denominations, thousands of churches and millions of church-goers. Prophetic preaching is a hallmark of the Black church, but so is redemptive declarations of forgiveness. The pulpit is not the place to peddle conspiracy theories and wild eyes imaginings about the U.S. government. Furthermore it is not his place to declare or anoint himself as spokesman of the Black church in America.

As we and others have wrestled with what it means to form an authentic Asian American theology one of the places to which we’ve looked has been the developed of an authentic Black voice in liturgy, theology and preaching. As a participant in that ongoing conversation, I believe it is important to remember that any authentic Biblical theology must be first rooted in the revelation of God through Jesus Christ and the sacred text of scripture and then at how that revelation speaks into and reinterprets our particular context. It is likewise important to recall that the kingdom of God is a kingdom not of this world, and that the vagaries of politics and government are not to be overly feared, sanctified, or vilified. They are what they are, and they will perish when he who will come shall come.