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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My response to my Friends response to Rachel Held Evans response to Dave Ramsey (or reason No. 145 why RHE annoys me…)

My friend and former ministry colleague Grace Biskie recently penned an angry rant-y, hot-mess response to Dave Ramsey getting lambasted by Christians.  The lambastation (that’s not a word I know) first came to my attention via a link to something Rachel Held Evans wrote in response to a post Dave Ramsey had on his website.

(Edit:  Grace has made it clear that her post was not in response to RHE.  I’m not suggesting that it was…)

My reaction to the critique of Ramsey was not quite as rage-filled as Grace, but it was strong… very strong.  Grace writes of Dave Ramsey:

FOR GOD’S SAKE PEOPLE, he is NOTHING like Joel Olsteen and why I can’t think of any single comparison for the ENTIRE LAST YEAR that has offended me so terribly much.  And how I think the people who have made that comparison have very little experience with ACTUAL prosperity preachers or have had to sit and trenches with or disciple people trying to break free from the EVIL of prosperity preaching & false gospels in general. And how if they had, they WOULD NEVER compare a man like Dave Ramsey who FREE’S people from the bondage of poverty & bankruptcy compare those two…or Dave Ramsey to ANY prosperity preacher.  As someone who’s discipled countless students away from the bondage of prosperity preaching I am repulsed by this unhelpful comparison.  REPULSED.

I feel you.  I was pissed too, and not just because I personally have benefited from Ramsey’s principles (though I have) and not just because the critique lodged against him were shallow, uncharitable, and unfair (they were.  In fact her second line, “he makes his living telling other evangelical Christians how they can get rich, too.” is a flat-out lie, but anyway…).  It is because I think I ‘get’ Dave Ramsey and his ministry.  I ‘get’ his sarcastic humor.  Let me explain.

In a strange way Dave Ramsey is living the life I envisioned for myself.  He and I are both Tennesseans.  We both went to the University of Tennessee Knoxville and both majored in Finance.  Dave made a fortune in real estate, which was exactly my life plan.  Dave lives in my hometown.  If I wanted to, I could go to church with him.  I know how to get to Financial Peace Plaza without looking it up on Google Maps.  And like Dave is doing now, I had hoped to get rich and also find a way to help people (especially low and middle income people) manage their money.  Dave and I are also both fluent in sarcasm.  God however, called me in a different direction.

But there is something else besides.  Dave taps into something that I think is at least part of why Grace reacted so strongly, and also something that is often misunderstood or misinterpreted.  Dave understands, like Grace understands, and like I understand that there is a kind of poverty of spirit that traps people in a pernicious web.  He and she and I understand that a person can be so degraded, worn out, and worn down by their circumstances – whether circumstance of financial mismanagement, of family history, of abuse, of dysfunction – that ALL your sense of personal agency is destroyed. You feel powerless, hopeless, trapped, scared.

And then someone like Dave Ramsey comes along and meets you, as Dave says, ‘eyeball to eyeball’, and tells you the hard truth, ‘Yep you screwed up.  Yep, someone else messed you up.  Yep, the system is stacked against you. Yep, that was a stupid decision.  But you know what? You don’t have to live there.  There is a better option. YOU have power.  YOU have choices.  YOU have agency.

And the sarcasm?  The snarkiness?  It shocks your system.  It shocks you because almost all the people who have come to help you before don’t talk like that.  They listen to you, let you cry on their shoulder, sympathise with you, and agree with you that, yeah you were done wrong, and that’s about it.  Why isn’t Dave more sympathetic?  He’s so mean, etc., etc.

And then after you get over the shock at his approach, and the anger, and the frustration, and poking out your lip, you realize he’s right. That while you can’t do everything, you can do something.  You realize that your life really doesn’t have to be one of failure, of despair, of constrained choices, of inevitability, of abuse, of dysfunction.  And you wipe your tears, and you start where you are.  And people like Dave and Grace and others hold your trembling hand and walk you through it.  It’s ain’t about getting rich.

If you’ve never been there, or you don’t personally know people who live there, you probably have a hard time understanding that. I know those people. Some of them are my relatives.  People who take their children on vacation only to come back to the lights being shut off.  People who are afraid to answer the phone because of debt collectors hounding them.  People who have never known what it is to have money left over at the end of the month or to have a savings account with more than the $25 minimum required to keep it open.  People who make enough, but never have enough and so spend recklessly because they figure that they never will have anything so they may as well enjoy life while they can.  Or so that they can forget.

I’m not sure folks like RHE who so easily critique Ramsey understand really what it feels like to live in a world where money is your master and not your servant.  Where prosperity preaching is appealing in exactly the same way that the lottery is: because it offers a false hope.  Where you are enslaved to habits of materialism and consumerism and yet you are afraid to even open your bank statement, much less reconcile your check book.  Where debt collectors hound you morning and night for money that you have no idea how to pay back.  Where the biblical statement that the borrower is slave to the lender doesn’t feel at all theoretical, but real.

The thing is, Dave Ramsey doesn’t have to do what he does.  He’s rich.  He’s a financial whiz.  He’s made money, lost money, and made it again in real estate.  He doesn’t need this gig. And he understands that it isn’t really about money anyway, because the ‘only way to have real financial peace is to walk daily with the Prince of Peace, Christ Jesus our Lord.’

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.

Does God like Girls better than Boys?

boys-problem-education-schools-vl-verticalIt seems perhaps an odd or needlessly provocative title with an exceedingly obvious answer. It is common knowledge after all that men are in better position overall than women in the world. Conventional wisdom in the enlightened evangelical circles in which I run likewise confirms that men have misinterpreted and misapplied scripture, supporting patriarchal narratives that deny women their god-given freedom. Secular sources tell us that women are subject to abuse at the hands of their “intimate partners” at shockingly high rates, that poverty afflicts women much more than men, and that educational systems discourage female educational achievement. The world is run by oppressive patriarchs and the church is its chief defender.

Maybe all this is true. It doesn’t change my question. And it doesn’t make this a cynical exercise or a step forward in reestablishing the rapidly collapsing patriarchal system.

Does God like Girls better than Boys?

It may surprise you, but this is not a new question for me. It is one I have pondered since I was a child growing up in church. Certainly I heard that the man was to be the head of the house, but that didn’t seem to hold any particular privilege to me. In fact it seemed rather punitive. When I grew up I could expect to have the responsibility of working hard to support my wife and children, make hard decisions, fix stuff when it broke, make sure no bad guys got in the house, beat them up if they did, make sure my wife had the clothes and miscellaneous fru fru that women always seemed interested in, and at some point die and leave an inheritance for her.

In exchange my wife would cook, clean, shop and watch soap operas unless something came up that prevented her from doing these things (like a sale) in which case she would just shop. I exaggerate of course, my mother did much more than that, and I was a kid so how accurate could my perspective be? In comparison to the lengthy command to husbands in Eph 3, the admonition to submit seemed like a really good deal.

More seriously though, I did wonder as a child if God liked girls better than boys. After all, there were more women than men in church. The main sins preached against seemed to be things that men do much more than women and the things that women struggled with seemed always to be related to something a man did to her. Being a good Christian seemed much more compatible with being a little girl than being a little boy. I was quite sure that Jesus wouldn’t run in church, or use chewing gum to glue the pages of the church bulletin together; things it seemed the boys wanted to do much more often than the girls. Jesus, as presented in the church, was the ideal man, which wasn’t a problem except following Jesus seemed the be the same as acting like the little white kids on tv at best, or acting like a girl at worst, either of which were pretty sure ways to have your masculinity called into question, or at least to get punched in lip and called a punk.

And you couldn’t retaliate. You were supposed to turn the other cheek.

Being a man seems to be fraught with the judgment of God. Am I being silly? Consider this:

▲On average, women outlive men in developed countries by five or more years;

▲Men have higher death rates for all fifteen of the leading causes of death (except Alzheimer’s);

▲Men are approximately 50% of the workforce but account for 93% of job related deaths;

▲Males between 20 and 24 have a seven times greater rate of suicide than their female counterparts, and overall, men commit suicide at rates three to four times greater than women;

▲Innocent males are between 1.5 to 2 times more likely than females to be assaulted;

▲Government funding for breast cancer research outpaces funding for prostate cancer research by nearly two to one even though prostate cancer and breast cancer have roughly the same caseload;

▲Death among young men due to testicular cancer in the 15-34 age group outpaces the number of deaths from breast cancer among women in the same age group, but good luck trying to remember the last time a commercial entity raised awareness about testicular cancer;

▲Victims of war — both combatants and, yes, non-combatants — are more likely to be male;

▲Responsible young men are charged considerably more for auto insurance than irresponsible young women, simply because they were born male;

▲A woman who commits the same crime as a man will receive, on average, only a fraction of the sentence; and

▲During FY 2007, 158,935 names and addresses of suspected violators of the duty to register with the Selective Service System were provided to the Department of Justice for possible investigation and prosecution for their failure to register, carrying a penalty up to five years in prison — every one of the violators was male — because young women are exempt from even registering.

As an adult and In the secular realm, men generally are held responsible for patriarchal oppression, and we all know that poverty will be eliminated by educating little girls and empowering women. Men on television are nearly always presented as buffoons needing to be taught their lesson by smart women and savvy children. Men die at younger ages than women, have generally poorer health, and are much more likely to be the victim of a violent crime or to go to prison. Boys are diagnosed much more frequently with learning disabilities, or punished for bad conduct in school and far less likely to graduate. Women are outpacing men in college graduation rates in nearly every field except science and mathematics, and that they do not excel there is likewise the fault of men. In fact men are pretty much responsible for everything bad in the world from nuclear proliferation to athletes’ foot, and women… well, women are rarely ever described as being responsible for anything bad in the world at all.

Maybe God likes girls better than boys.

The massive irresponsibility of my blogging absence explained

I don’t have very many readers to this blog, and likely have far fewer now that I’ve neglected to update in nearly 3 months (or is it 4?), but those few readers ought to know that I have not been entirely unaware or absent from blogdom.

Indeed, as St. Jude would say, I have had every intention of writing, but have often found myself at odds with myself over the content that I want to communicate. It is rather difficult at times for me to put into words the concerns that I have had and to clearly lay out some of the recent thoughts I have had about various topics political, theological, ecclesiological, and otherwise. So… just as a way of whetting (or perhaps dampening) the appetite, here are a few things I’m thinking of writing on:

Are ALL Asian American Christians sellouts
(a response to the post at nextegenerasianchurch)

Further thoughts on women in ministry leadership (an exploration of history, hermeneutics, and sociopolitical considerations)

Black Asian dialogue (just wanting to know if we have anything to teach each other)

Are there any other suggestions?? Asian Christians and homosexuality? Preaching in the Asian church? Am I a sellout for going to an Asian church?

Christ against the multiculturalists

Higher education in the United States and indeed throughout the so-called “West” is dominated by multiculturalism, with the “hard” sciences, professional schools, and business schools being somewhat the exception. It is an unquestioned assumption within the storied halls of our most elite and least elite colleges and universities that the dominant narrative of Western culture is insufficient to educate students. Their biases, assumptions, and worldviews must be challenged, deconstructed and hopefully re-assembled into something resembling coherence.

Concurrent with these assumptions has come a rejection of what had been the core content of a “liberal” education – namely becoming conversant with the thoughts, ideas, and stories of Western culture (i.e. dead White men) and a departure from what had been the intent of such an education (the discovery of ‘truth’). Heretofore marginalized voices (women, minorities) are given privileged status as a consequence of their having been deemed historically oppressed. In history especially (my field), the European explorers, philosophers and missionaries of old have been transformed into apostles of intolerance, genocide, and unremitting oppression. Simply put, dead White guys are out of fashion and truth as a governing or transcendent concept is not even really talked about.

Of course this shift represents a major challenge for Christians in the academy since we follow a religion that both makes transcendent governing truth claims and whose most significant theologians happen to have been mostly dead White guys. It doesn’t help that the “West” is popularly associated with Christianity, notwithstanding the fact that Christianity did indeed originate in the Near East, its most famous early theologians (Augustine and Tertullian) were Africans, and the Christian legacy of India, Ethiopia, and Iraq is far older than that of Ireland. It follows easily that the worst crimes of the western world are laid at the feet of the theology, practice, and indeed even the existence of the Christian faith.

Enter: multiculturalism and the gospel of relativism. According to an article in First Thingsthe task of

a student in the multicultural classroom is to grant unquestioned authority to those who come from underprivileged or marginalized backgrounds. You have to do this because, you will learn, because Western culture has exploited every other culture, and your experiences are so shaped by Western culture that you cannot question those who criticize you. And thus you will become a good cultural leftist (which is the shape liberalism takes in the academy), or, if you are not convinced by these arguments, you will learn how to fake it for the sake of getting a good grade

The article continues:

All of this is profoundly anti-Christian, which is why Christian students are typically the most radical questioners of higher education. Because Christians believe in a universal human nature, they also believe they can make universal truth claims about human nature. That does not mean that every statement about human nature is true.

And so it is that Christians hold as profoundly and universally true the very thing that sticks in the craw of post-modern cultural relativists. Thus Christian students, albeit thoroughly unversed and ill prepared to “give an answer for the hope that lies within them”, they are nonetheless adherents of a gospel that declares that truth does indeed exist; truth about God, the meaning of life, the condition of man, and man himself. Further, they hold to the notion that these truths are not culturally bound, nor limited by time, but are always and in every place profoundly and fundamentally true.

It is true though that the lens of multiculturalism has brought a needed corrective to the myopia of the Christian church in the United States. It is perhaps a function of our relative isolation from people of different languages and ethnicity that the universality and thus the infinite translatability of the Christian religion has been lost on us. It is a good thing that churches are wrestling with questions of multi-ethnicity and culture. We must be careful though as we wrestle not to adopt the singularly unChristian, dare I say anti-Christian academy that reflexively dismisses the achievements of Christian civilization while highlighting its sins and lionizing those presumed to be victims.

It is no small thing that it is only in the Christian west that human freedom as a concept rooted in the Biblical view of all people being made in God’s image bore the fruit of eliminating slavery, or that women have enjoyed the relative equality of status that they do. When the West failed, it is perhaps not the failure of Christianity, but only an indication that the Christianization of society did not go far enough.