Evangelicalism in a Post-Christendom Age Part II: In which Evangelicals Lost By Winning

In Part I, I briefly detailed the history of American Evangelicalism, tracing its roots to the 2nd Great Awakening and the contemporary emergence of a post-Christian society.

Before delving further into our exploration of how Evangelicals might move forward in this post-Christian world, it is important to acknowledge their triumphs in the previous one. I mentioned earlier that the Evangelical movement was a movement for reform of society and of the men in it. It aimed for a transformation of impious, irreligious nominalism into a devout, serious minded faith. It aimed further for the culture itself to be ‘renewed’; for reform in labour laws, for the abolition of slavery, for a deep change in the understanding of marriage, for the raw mercantile capitalism of the day to be tamed, and on and on.

 Well the gocathedralod news is that it largely worked. Gradually, locally and then more systematically, the reforms of manners and customs that evangelicals championed were enacted. Within the US context for example, abolition of slavery was preceded by a change in the terms of argument employed by opponents of abolition; it had now to be justified as being more beneficial and humanitarian than the alternatives, whereas previously it was justified simply by its profitability. In hindsight it is an utterly unconvincing argument, but the fact that it was even put forth as an argument at all shows the power of the society wide change that was taking place under evangelical Christian influence. Eventually of course, slavery was abolished. Prisons were reformed. Labour rights were secured. Public drunkenness, rampant gambling and other ‘vices’ became taboo in polite society. And finally, in what might eventually be seen as the last great flourish of the evangelically inspired reformist movement, legalised racial oppression was struck down.

Now some of these reforms were backed by liberals and others by conservatives and some were opposed by them, but they were all products of the Evangelical Revival and each were making their case on the terms of Christian commitment to a ‘Christian’ society that shared, at least theoretically, those same commitments.

What is all the more striking is that the soteriological framework of Evangelical thought, complete with its focus on crisis, awareness of guilt for sin, recognition of the need for external aid, emotional & spiritual responsiveness, etc., has become the framework by which Americans generally understand social or personal change. This obtains whether they are Christian or not, and indeed even if they are intentionally aggressively anti-Christian. The so-called new atheists (who are generally much less interesting than the old ones) describe their embrace of atheism in ways that would not be out of place in an old time fundamentalist revival meeting. The same is true for gays as well, with ‘coming out’ absorbing the abandoned space of testimony of salvation, except in this case it is usually a testimony of deliverance from the false life of lying to oneself and ones family before finally surrendering to the higher truth of their identity and finding hope and acceptance within a new LGBT community.

In other ways too Evangelicalism won. We take for granted the calm that stalks our city streets, the absence of widespread and open bribery of public officials, the assumptions of trustworthiness that lubricates our business and social interactions, the fact that children are not openly abused or sold into servitude. Yet none of these could have been taken for granted in the rough and tumble, money obsessed days just prior to the Great Awakening. Britain for example was awash in cheap gin, with the concomitant social problems that entailed. The American South, where slavery was common, was a veritable wasteland of irreligion and impiety with most people concerned about little more than profit taking and the enjoyment of life at whatever cost. New Englanders, steeped in a hypocrisy that belied their Puritan heritage, mostly turned a blind eye and deaf ear to the cries of trafficked slaves from whom they derived the vast profits that drove their mercantile enterprises. In other words, virtually all the ‘normalcy’ of American life that we now enjoy is light years away from what was normal at the nation’s founding and is largely the result of the long shadow of the evangelical movement.

The Evangelicals in some ways won much of the culture, but because they were a movement birthed in revolt against the institutional structures of ‘Christendom’, they tended to disregard the need to control or substantively reform the structures of society, seeing this as superfluous and perhaps even harmful to their project of societal transformation. What mattered was the heart and the Christendom model, wherein the institutional structures of society were under the control of the church, had mostly failed in their estimation to bring about real social and personal reform. Consequently the institutional structures of society, such as the arts, media, universities, and government among other things, which for a long time maintained their ‘Christian’ character as a hold-over of the Christendom ideal, eventually were taken captive by antichristian forces.

Over time Evangelicals, both of the liberal and conservative stripe, mostly ignored these institutions. The liberals did not generally see them as a threat and even applauded at times as they were subverted, seeing in their evolution away from ‘Christendom’ something to be celebrated; a further liberation from the old prejudices and inadequacies of the past. The conservatives mostly saw them as irredeemably corrupt and thus avoid entering them altogether, while occasionally using their declining social influence to rail against this or that excess. The commanding heights of the culture were thus secured by the non-Christian and anti-Christian heirs of the Enlightenment; it was only a matter of time before the rest of society would fall.

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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.

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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.

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.

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.

The Wastefulness of Worship

It has been a long time since I’ve written in this space and don’t know how many people would even read this.  This is actually an odd post to start a resumption of my blog

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I must admit that this post is a response to a write up I read by Hugh Halter in Outreach Magazine.  Now admittedly, I don’t know the man and don’t regularly read anything he writes, so I’m not qualified to make any broad assertion about what he thinks and how he interacts theologically with the issues he raises in his post.  With that disclaimer in mind, I found myself responding a bit negatively to what he says. but since I was inspired I thought I’d strike while the iron is hot, so to speak.

He says a couple of things to which I agree wholeheartedly:

In other words, worship on Sunday is only going to be as deep as our worship the rest of the week.

I agree with this.  Worship is intended to be a whole life response to God, not just a weekly musical concert with a lot of emotional content.  However, he then continues to assert:

Depth through song, liturgy, spoken word and preaching is only going to be as meaningful as the level of meaning we bring to others around us.

Whoa!  That’s where my caution meter kicked in.  Depth through song, liturgy, spoken word and preaching is only going to be as meaningful as the level of meaning we bring to others around us?

This is, in my opinion, quite an erroneous statement and a misapplication of the biblical admonition to Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength and your neighbour as yourself, which he cites as support for his assertion.

He mentions:

The average church spends well over 75 percent of their time and financial resources keeping the “house of worship” open for business. How can minimize the consumer tendency, justify the expenses or at least find a balance that brings glory to God?

He then goes on to make some quite interesting suggestions geared towards minimizing the consumerism that threatens to creep into the life of the church — something that I believe NEEDS to be combated fiercely.

My problem though is at another level, and again, I’m not attacking the man, his motives, nor really even his good intentions towards the reform of the church.

My issue is that worship is inherently wasteful.

Significant sections of the entire book of Leviticus and Numbers are given over to description of elaborate ceremonies, costly garments, excessively expensive structures that God commanded to be constructed for the sake of his worship.  A huge waste of materials, time and resources.

All of Israel was required to pay tax (tithe) to support a whole tribe of people whose sole job was maintenance of the worship apparatus.  These people literally did nothing but conduct religious services.  How wasteful (and unfair!).

Sacrificial ceremonies required people to travel quite some distance to offer the first and best of their produce and flocks as worship to God.  In a subsistence agricultural context, this is very costly — indeed wasteful.

Israelite boys were required to be cut in their most vulnerable parts a mere eight days after birth without anesthetic, without antibiotics and in a context where infant death was very common.  Also a wasteful act.

Of course these are all Old Testament references, which does not of course invalidate them though many Christian effectively behave as if it does.  Rather we ought to look at the Old through the lens of Christ.

In this light, Mr. Halter’s words seem stunningly familiar.  There was another disciple who decried wasteful indulgence of worship while insisting that the money would be better spent on the poor, or in Halter’s words:

put the same amount of money into serving the poor, equipping people to go out in missional communities or simply giving the money away to smaller church plants that can’t even afford to buy a portable Bose sound system.

Of course Judas was a thief and betrayed Jesus.  I’m not suggesting that Halter is either a thief or a betrayer.  I am merely observing that their suggestions are virtually the same.

Christians shouldn’t be wasteful and extravagant and wasteful in a consumerist fashion, spending only on themselves and their entertainment, and it is far too easy for the apparatus of worship to become that. Agreed.  The larger point though is that everything concerning worship can be considered wasteful or extravagant.

By a drum set? Wasteful.

Pay the musician? Wasteful.

Have a carpeted sanctuary? Wasteful.

It is all waste — depending on your point of view, the money can always be spent on something more ‘worthy’.

God save us from a Judas spirit.

(Cathedral picture from: http://worshipvj.com/church-architecture-worship/)

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.

The Faces on the Stage

“It’s not about the faces on the stage, but the One who’s truly famous.”

So says the opening promo line on the Passion 2010 website highlighting the speakers for this years conference.  The leaders of the Passion conference say, convincingly I might add, that their aim is to, “see a generation stake their lives on what matters most.”  Praise God for such a vision!  And praise God for the organizers of this event.  Praise God for the godly men (and couple of women) who are listed as “leaders” for the event.  Now, can we just be a little bit more honest about “the generation” and about those “faces on the stage?”

The generation the leaders of Passion are aiming to see stake their lives are suburban, upper middle class, overwhelmingly White evangelical kids.  Everything about the conference and the conference website is geared towards that demographic and though they may tout international credentials, this is far from an international conference.  These same kids will worship in much they same style they would at a secular rock concert though to Christian music.  They will surge and sing.  They will cry and commit.  And they will hear from speakers who look and sound just like them (with the noted exception of Francis Chan — and the word is still out on whether he’s a sellout or not).

The faces on the stage matter.  If they didn’t matter the organizers of Passion would not have rounded up the likes of John Piper, Louis Giglio, or the David Crowder band.  These folks are some of the superstars of the evangelical church world, and if we could be honest, they are the reason why many of the folks signing up for Passion are signing up.

They matter for the same reason the Deadly Viper’s controversy was indeed a real controversy.  It is not without significance that Deadly Vipers was initially introduced during a Catalyst conference (at least I think it was).  The stunning ignorance (and quite ready repentance) of the authors of Deadly Vipers and of Zondervan is not theirs alone.  The evangelical community within the United States over and again continues to demonstrate a tone deaf ignorance bordering on stubborn hard heartedness when it comes to issues of race and ethnicity.

Why is Passion able to say without apparent irony that the faces on the stage don’t matter in a world where the fabric of evangelicalism even within the United States is incredibly diverse?  Why did Zondervan stick their foot in the crap pile again after only a few years ago Lifeway was smacked down for producing other racial insensitive material?  Why is any of this news to the large number of White evangelicals who honestly and with sincerity desire to work to proclaim the gospel effectively to all people?

Because White evangelicals live socially, economically, and indeed theologically in a world untouched by other perspectives and increasingly are seeking to isolate themselves further by developing specialized ministries that cater only to themselves.  Call it FUBU for White people.

The truth is, the faces do matter.  And my White evangelical brothers under the skin had better be aware that it matters more than they think.  Every ethnic minority living under a dominant culture knows that it matters.  Think I’m wrong?  Spend any length of time in a foreign country and you’ll discover quickly just how welcome an American accent can be, or better yet join a church of a very different ethnicity than your own and immerse yourself.  You’ll quickly discover that it matters a lot more than you think to have someone who looks like you, who can at some level identify with your experience, and who can articulate in a culturally relevant way those things that matter most, is very important.  Call it the incarnation experience.  You see, none of us have a high priest who cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities.  That is to say, Jesus knows well what it is to enter fully into the human experience and thus sympathizes with us in our own.

It is time for mistakes such as those embodied in Deadly Vipers and Rickshaw Rally to come to an end, and the Christian community ought to be the leaders in this effort.