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.

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Diversity = Asian & Gay?

Maybe I’m exaggerating here; actually, I’m certain that I’m exaggerating. Hyperbole is sometimes useful to illustrate a subtler point. And there is a point to this post, obscure though it may be. The point is simply this:

It seems to me when people talk about living in a “diverse” city, or having “diverse” friends, or being in a church that welcomes “diversity,” what they’re really saying is Gay people and/or Asian people with perhaps a sprinkling of Middle Easterners or Eastern Europeans thrown in for good measure. What they don’t mean is Black Americans, or White people from the south, or Hispanics (the “work in your yard, sit in the back of the pickup truck” kind of Hispanics don’t count in terms of diversity, only the “wow, can you teach me salsa dancing” kind do).

Okay… I’m and evil wrong person for using these exaggerated stereotypes. But how wrong is it really? To discuss diversity one metric to possibly use would be the raw percentages of non-Whites (since Whites / Euro-Americans are dominant in the US) in a city. The higher the percentage, the more “diverse” the place; this is a simple measure, right? Given that metric, the state of Mississippi would be considered one of the most diverse in the nation since it has a non-White population of nearly 50% or more. Except that most of those non-Whites are Blacks, and they don’t count towards the idea of diversity, unless there are some Asians and gay people in the mix and the Black people aren’t too low brow.

So perhaps that metric isn’t a good one. Maybe it is better to analyze diversity based on residential housing patterns. A diverse city would have many different ethnic groups living there. Thus, Chicago or L.A. are very diverse cities, right? Except that Chicago is notoriously residentially segregated, at least most of the Black people are. And there are many White ethnic enclaves throughout the city as well.

Is that diverse or not? Does being able to find good “ethnic” food count as being diverse, even though usually what counts as “ethnic” are various Asian cuisines with the occasional nod to Ethiopian and Mediterranean/Middle eastern dishes.

What if someone is Asian and grew up in the south, and their favorite foods are grits and turnip greens? Does that count as suitably “diverse?”

What does any of this have to do with anything, and what does it all have to do with the church, and Christianity, which is after all the topic of this blog? Actually, I’m not sure. It’s just that I wonder how much the much touted “diversity” we talk about in our society is really just a proxy for saying “Wow, there are Asian people here, and Asian people are the currently ‘cool’ ethnicity, so yay!!” It is kind of like the way people say “urban” when they really mean Black.

Can I be myself?

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

I was the soloist.

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

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

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

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

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

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