Why yes. Your skirt is too short… and other thoughts on modesty

Modesty. For many Christians, especially in the US, the word conjures up unwelcome images of unfashionable and uncomfortable clothing choices imposed and monitored by strict and legalistic preachers.   For others, it is seen as a way of controlling womens’ sexuality and of enforcing the ‘Madonna – whore’ dichotomy that someone (probably in a ‘studies’ programme) decided is a patriarchal meme that validates the suppression / oppression of women. There are ‘good girls’ and ‘bad girls’ and ‘good girls’ don’t dress like that. Such a bifurcated view of female sexuality is rejected by sex-positive feminists as being inherently oppressive of women.

Now to be honest, I am not too familiar with the various shades of meanings attached to these terms. I was fortunately spared having to go through any ‘studies’ programme at university and am consequently delightfully ignorant of a great many things. I first read the ‘Madonna-whore’ dichotomy mentioned in the comments section of some article I read (which I cannot now find), but which basically was railing against something called ‘purity culture’. An article by Sarah Bessey  and a sympathetic response by Jen Pollock Michel in Christianity Today were part of the discussion.   Then there was this article that dealt specifically with the question of modesty and the Christian woman..

Taken all together with a number of other recent articles, books, and blogposts, a picture begins to emerge of Christian women revolting against certain assumed norms of behaviour that seem to be part and parcel of the evangelical sub-culture and the double-standard that obtains for men and women.

What to make of all this? Well, I cannot really answer all the questions surrounding purity cultures and virgin-whore dichotomies, but I can say that, all protestations to the contrary – your skirt is probably too short. Let me explain.

Working on college campuses, I’ve watched as women have embraced fashion trends that make simply walking through campus akin to perusing soft-core porn. I’ve seen women embrace styles and trends that were formerly seen only on prostitutes. I’ve read men describe church services as the ‘Sunday morning night-club’ because of what women wear there. I’ve counselled Christian men who dread the coming of warm weather because of the barrage of temptation with which they will inevitably be faced, and the guilt and shame heaped on them for not ‘guarding their eyes’ or for somehow ‘making women responsible for their lust’. And I’ve scratched my head in wonder that I have to advise Christian women going for short-term mission that skin tight jeans and skirts half-way up their thighs are not appropriate dress.

At the same time, I’ve listened to and read how many countless times of the need for Christian women to not ‘cause their brother’s to stumble’ by their dress. I’ve also read of the frustration many women feel about this, as they (rightfully) point to the responsibilities men have to manage their own sexuality and take responsibility for their own choices.

In all of this, the discussion has almost always revolved around the male response to female sexuality. I have rarely seen anything about what I believe lies closer to the heart of issues of modesty in dress – vanity.

In almost every case wide numbers of women have embraced these styles of clothing because of the fact that it appeals to their sinful nature and their vanity.

(Cue howls of protest from the gallery)

Yes, yes I know I know. I’m a misogynist patriarchal sexist who wants to utilise religion to subvert and suppress women.

So what do I mean? Well simply put women generally like to dress in ways that enhance their visual / sexual appeal. Women want to be seen as desirable and attractive to men (that is to men they like and/or deem to be an attractive catch. Other men not so much). Women like to look pretty, and it usually makes them feel good to look good. And as far as I can tell this is a universal trait, equally apparent among ‘decadent westerners’ and ‘conservative Muslims’ (if you doubt it then you’ve never really observed Muslim women, covered nearly from head to toe in swaths of fabric manage to somehow rock a runway-worthy fashion sense while not showing a stitch of skin beyond their hands and face.)

I don’t have any problem with this and I think it is a good thing; a God given thing even. Women like to look good and be appealing. Wonderful.

Like all good things however this one has been warped and twisted by the Fall. So what was a good gift has become a nightmare. The result is women caught in a never-ending vanity arms (and legs, and thighs, and mid-drift…) race with other women, mostly falsely projected images of idealised women, that they can never meet and that leaves them dissatisfied and perpetually unhappy and looking for someone to blame.

The advert comes out, the skirts on the rack are shorter this year and vanity kicks in. One doesn’t want to be unappealing and wearing a longer skirt would be unappealing and to be appealing is to be ‘sexy’ and to show more and more skin and well everyone else is wearing it and it really can’t be so bad if that is what everyone else is wearing and who wants to look like an old woman (because old women aren’t sexy whatever else they might be) and it’s the sexist patriarchy that is responsible for all this and, and and…

Annnd you know what? It isn’t men or the ‘patriarchy’ that drives the immodest clothing arms race. Its other women. The women that women compare themselves to in the media, among their network of friends, and the woman in their heads that tell them that to be appealing or beautiful or desirable is to do this to wear that.

And the church comes in with teaching that generally is more harmful than helpful by deflecting the issue into one of women being responsible somehow for men’s sins – a stance which simultaneously infantilises and dehumanises men by making them little more than walking gonads AND avoids dealing substantively with women’s sins and sexual power. It fails to address the fact that yes, women who are seen to be ‘sexy’ have power; power that is used to extract unearned privileges that men and unattractive or older women do not have. It neglects the fact that women have and do often use sex, sexiness and the male attention it generates for their own advantage. It forgets that women are sinners and that the admonition to modest dress in the Bible is made without any reference at all to men, but is made in reference to holiness and prayerfulness, watchfulness and submission.

So yes, when you pour yourself into that pair of skin-tight jeans don’t deluded yourself into thinking it’s because they are comfortable. They aren’t and besides, – there are plenty of comfortable clothes that don’t allow me to trace every part of your figure so closely that I can see the outline of the birthmark on your upper left thigh. And when you put on that super short skirt, please don’t pretend that it’s because it’s hot since the men all around you are equally hot and they don’t wear things like that and the only men who do so are gay men and they’re wearing them for the same reason you really are. Admit the truth of how it appeals to your vanity and your carnal nature. Admit it and repent.

 

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.

Ding Dong the Witch is Dead: TNIV is gone gone gone!

Is there any doubt from the title of this post that I don’t exactly have great feelings of sadness for the demise of the TNIV?  It is perhaps not so appropriate to call the TNIV “the witch” since it is a “faithful and scholarly translation” but there you have it.  There are others for whom the TNIV has been an important resource for their own lives and ministry and they are sad to see it go.  Daniel writes:

As someone who communicates from the Bible on a weekly basis, I have found the TNIV to be a faithful, accurate and scholarly update to the best-selling NIV translation many of us grew up with.

Well  God bless him.  Eugene Cho also is lamenting its demise. I personally have used the TNIV on occasion (usually because there was no other option available) but have never purchased one and wouldn’t unless I had no other option.  I was opposed to its publication for a number of reasons, not the least of which was the gender inclusive language.  From Christianity Today:

“Whatever its strengths were, the TNIV divided the evangelical Christian community,” said Zondervan president Moe Girkins. “So as we launch this new NIV, we will discontinue putting out new products with the TNIV.”

Girkins expects the TNIV and the existing edition of the NIV to phase out over two years or so as tniv-study-bible_0products are replaced. “It will be several years before you won’t be able to buy the TNIV off a bookshelf,” she said.

“We are correcting the mistakes in the past,” Girkins said. “Being as transparent as possible is part of that. This decision was made by the board in the last 10 days.” She said the transparency is part of an effort to overhaul the NIV “in a way that unifies Christian evangelicalism.”

“The first mistake was the NIVi,” Danby said. “The second was freezing the NIV. The third was the process of handling the TNIV.”

I have no quarrels with or suspicions about the motives of the scholars who did the work of translation for the TNIV.  I am certain (as certain as anyone can be about such things) that their motives were honorable and pure before God.  This is true even as it relates to the issue of gender inclusive language.

Doug Moo, chairman of the the Committee on Bible Translation (which is the body responsible for the translation) said the committee has not yet decided how much the 2011 edition will include the gender-inclusive language that riled critics of the TNIV.

“We felt certainly at the time it was the right thing to do, that the language was moving in that direction,” Moo said. “All that is back on the table as we reevaluate things this year. This has been a time over the last 15 to 20 years in which the issue of the way to handle gender in English has been very much in flux, in process, in development. And things are changing quickly and so we are going to look at all of that again as we produce the 2011 NIV.”

The “flux” to which Moo refers concerning the English language is actually overstated.  Neutered language is the norm in academic English usage and has moved  into common usage beyond the academy due mostly to rather aggressive efforts to mold popular use.  Unlike the evolution of the English language generally, the neutering of the language happened intentionally as a way to counter what were considered to be the oppressive patriarchal assumptions embedded in the language.

Why this gender thing matters, but not really

In so many ways, it honestly doesn’t. Though I am no Greek scholar, I am aware that in many places the language used is, in some ways, generic, that is, it does not specify gender, or more specifically, sex.  To neuter the original language in this way in order to conform to contemporary English usage norms makes a lot of good sense and doesn’t fundamentally challenge any doctrines of the church.

In other ways though, the neutering of language is quite significant as it says something powerful about how the church interacts with culture.   It is in fact only the newest manifestation of the church’s efforts to respond to and speak relevantly to a culture that is rapidly becoming post-Christan and into which the church’s voice as a culture shaping agent is less and less important.  The multiplication of English language translations in the last century is testimony of the increasing marginalization of the church in society and every attempt at relevance reinforces greater and greater alienation.  But more on that in a later post.  In the mean time:

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.

Church as Prophet or Church as Mouthpiece of Democratic “Progressive” Socialism?

There’s a lot out there about the “new evangelical left,” the “emerging church,” and new missional communities that are seeking to embody the gospel in new ways and live out the mission of Jesus in the world. I’m painting in hugely broad strokes, but many of these churches share in common a skepticism / critique of church as it has been practiced and especially of the political activism of the religious right. It is an easy to blog surf and find some church, group, preacher, or random know-it-all with a laptop (guilty!!) spouting off about how the church has ceased to be relevant, how abortion and gay marriage are important but not really, how the church needs to apologize for so many things, and on and on. There is a good deal out there about how the church needs to deal with issues of poverty, social justice, and oppression and complaint that the church hasn’t done enough. And again there is usually a call for the church to apologize.

Theologically speaking, there is ample room for the emerging dialogue to take place under the umbrella of orthodox evangelicalism, defined broadly as belief that: 1) the Bible is true, and authoritative and we ought to follow it, 2) Jesus is the only Son of God and Savior, 3) return of Christ in judgment, 4) umm something else that I’m probably forgetting. The current movement though is often self described as being “prophetic” because of the ways that the prophets of the Old Testament and Jesus himself spoke about the poor and the marginalized. They see themselves as standing in that stream seeking to “be the church” in a prophetic kind of way rather than just “proclaiming” the gospel in a way that is disconnected from the day to day lives of the average person.

Socially speaking the movement seems to be dominated by White middle class, college educated people who wear black rimmed glasses and use Macs instead of PC’s. They tend to hang out in coffee shops and have churches with one or two word names like “Quest” or “Missio Dei” that obscure more than they reveal. They care about multiethnicity and try to actively pursue it. They have “creative class” jobs and live in gentrifying neighborhoods that have local food markets. They know what arugula is.

In other words, they fit neatly the typical demographic of liberal Democrats except for their pesky clinging to evangelical religion. But honestly, much of what is discussed in the blogosphere and bandied about in circles of these new evangelicals is hardly distinguishable from the Democratic Party platform. Without intending to, their prophetic voice on issues like abortion is suspiciously reminiscent of the bumper sticker, “Against abortion? Don’t have one!” Of course, it much more nuanced than I am portraying it, but there is a distinctive unwillingness to be notably and publicly FOR anything typically associated with recent evangelical politics and a concomitant willingness to be AGAINST anything championed by the Republican Party.

How prophetic though is it to align oneself with the prevailing currents of social and political thought? Has the Christian right spoken only a “negative and condemning message,” and if even they have, isn’t that also in the prophetic tradition? John the Baptist was not exactly sitting down for a conversation with those he preached repentance to, and Jeremiah would likely have been treated for clinical depression based on his frequent weeping and lament over the sinful state of his nation. Does being a faithful follower of Jesus mean that you support the notion of Universal Health Care Coverage?

Sayings that shaped me: “I know one thing”

Spent some good time in Atlanta last week and had a chance to meet face to face with David Park as well as eat some very good Korean food (which is almost a good enough reason to move to Atlanta). Shared with David a bit of my family history, and came from that inspired to share some of the phrases and meanings that shaped my world view. Today I tackle: “I know one thing…”

This phrase, “I know one thing” was spoken countless times in my youth and was directed usually towards one or the other of us children as a warning. We could, and often did, argue back and forth with my mother about almost anything. She was an exceptionally patient woman and tolerated far more “back talk” than most would. However when she uttered the magic phrase, “”I know one thing” all arguments were cut short. And yes, that is the extent of the phrase. She never did say what the “one thing” was, and we were too wise (and too scared) to ask. You see that statement indicated that whatever our objections and excuses, the time for argument and discussion was done and the time of obedient implementation had begun. None of us wanted to really know what would happen if we continued to argue. My mother had declared that she knew one thing, and if pressed we likely would have discovered that one thing had something to do with a switch, a bathroom, and a whole lot of crying.

What lessons have I drawn from this phrase and what has been its meaning in my life. In many ways, nothing at all. It’s just words my mother used to threaten us when she was fed up. But in other ways it is quite profound. Her statement along with countless others she and my father used over the years were in many ways nonsensical threats which we and they knew would never be carried out. Nevertheless, those words, and the featured phrase in particular delineated for us the limits of both our autonomy and of the power of our reason. It was a lesson, painfully learned at times, that there is a principle of authority present in the world to which reason and rights must bow. “I know one thing” meant that regardless of our opinion, reasoning or feelings about the matter at hand, our actions, indeed our will needed to bend to an authority higher than our own.

In light of how we think and understand or talk about authority now, this may seem arbitrary and my mother may seem to be some uncaring tyrant. Indeed this is far from the case. She was a loving, tolerant and extraordinarily patient woman. However she understood and instilled in me the essential truth that her rights and responsibility to establish the limits of my behavior and to set norms of conduct within the household did not derive ultimately from anything extrinsic to her position, whether the reasonableness of her request or the consent of the governed. Her authority was intrinsic to her status and her role as our mother. She was in fact quite reasonable, very sensitive to our needs and concerns, and altogether rather more solicitous of our requests for inclusion in the decision making process than many of her peers thought beneficial. At the end of the day though, she was in charge and held both the responsibility and the right to decide. She did not derive that right from us; it was inherent in her position as the mother.

My mother’s care and leadership in my life was a reflection, though a pale and flawed one, of God’s care and leadership of his creation. And just as my mother’s authority was inherent in her position as a mother, so too is God’s authority inherent in his divinity. Though God is good and loving and holy (and parents reflect that reality albeit imperfectly) his rights vis a vis his creation do not derive from that goodness, love or holiness. Our authority is derivative of our position in the created order and is a reflection of our being made in the image of God. His authority is inherent in his being and is a reflection of nothing. It is rather an emanation of his very self (if God can be called a self in any meaningful sense of the word). God need not appeal to anything outside himself to justify his authority. He is the author and therefore authority belongs to him.

This notion of intrinsic divine authority is not appealing. The arbitrariness of God in this respect is disconcerting in the same way that my mothers was. Some of her rules and decisions seemed to us at the time entirely arbitrary, lacking in sensitivity, immune to sound reason and flatly unfair. In hindsight I recognize the great wisdom, keen insight, and loving concern of many of her decisions, and those choices continue to guide my behavior today. Others of them remain inscrutable and indeed were only expressions of her own particular ways of doing things – which I promptly dropped when I left the authority of her roof.

At issue though is NOT the wisdom or loving nature of God’s decrees, though indeed they are perfectly wise and loving, that is not the basis upon which his authority rests. When we base our submission to God upon the loveliness or reasonableness of his commands, we set ourselves up to either mount a defense of those commands which seem unloving and unreasonable or to redefine his commands in such a way as to accommodate what we believe to be loving and reasonable. That was the original temptation of the garden; to reinterpret God’s commands in such a way that it became evident to our first parents that a reasonable and loving God would not withhold the goodness of the forbidden tree from us — surely he did not mean we would die.

I wonder how things would have turned out if when asked about the tree God had said, “I know one thing….”

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.

Political Philosophizing & abortion rights

Whilst perusing various blogs earlier in the day I ran across one that had a quite disturbing graphic depicting the steps undertaken by a physician performing an abortion procedure on a child at approximately 20 or so weeks. Though I have seen such graphics before, I was this time horribly disturbed in a way that I have not been previously.

If I am honest with myself I must admit that at least part of my reaction was likely due to the particularly sensitive state of my emotions following several weeks of intensive ministry, family and social obligations, all of which serve to make me more tender than I perhaps am in “normal” circumstances. Perhaps it is such tenderness that our Lord would desire me to always have.

Nevertheless and despite the cause, I was deeply moved and given the political season in which we are engaged, my thoughts turned quite readily to that arena. The political structure of our government and the evolution of political decision making alongside developments in the understanding of the role of the courts in refereeing political and social life in our nation make it certain that for many religious and otherwise socially conservative persons, the issue of judicial appointments to the federal bench is a salient issue in their minds as they weigh their voting responsibilities. It is fair to say that many, if perhaps not most of the so called evangelical vote that has been given consistently to Republican Party candidates over the last two decades has been heavily influenced by this political consideration.

The courts have become the most contested battleground in the long waging culture wars of American political life as evidenced by the recent California Supreme Court decision concerning homosexual marriage. It is also fair to say that many of these same conservatives have been likely disappointed by what they perceive as a lack of progress in overturning controversial decisions such as Roe vs. Wade and with the ongoing dissolution of what had been a large scale social consensus concerning such things as marriage and the family. The rabid unpopularity and arguably failed governance of the current president have left many evangelicals thoroughly disenchanted with these age old controversies and many, especially of the younger generation, are likely to see abortion and homosexuality in the same light as their secular non religious friends. It remains to be seen whether the California decision will serve to rally such “conservative” voters around a McCain candidacy that has received, at best, a lukewarm reception (something no doubt due in part to the tepidness of the candidate himself).

As an evangelical Christian it might perhaps surprise some that I have not always been “pro-life” as the terminology has it (though I know of no one who is publicly “pro-death”). In my youth I was quite settled in my opposition to efforts to limit the exercise of a woman’s freedom over her own body. It seemed to me at the time a potentially unjust imposition of state power and an unnecessary intrusion by the state into what was fundamentally a private matter of health and safety. At the time my greatest consternation with the issues was the exclusion of the father from the decision making process, as I believed (then as now) that the vagaries of our biology do not afford one parent greater rights of decision making vis a vis a child or potential child. Though the woman physically carries the child, he is no more or less responsible than she is in determining how best to proceed in such as case. Likewise I believed it to be reasonable that adult parents of under aged teens held primary responsibility for making the decision for or against abortion as it was a medical procedure and excluding them from the matter would be an uneven application of existing laws. As you might imagine, while it was simple to hold these positions from a political point of view, it became increasingly difficult to justify abortion theologically, though honestly in my youth, I never attempted to do so.

One of the fundamental problems with abortion and with other socially and politically challenging questions from a biblical perspective lies not simply in the application of seemingly arcane laws and mores from the Old and New Testament to a very different social context, but rather in an inherent contradiction between the social and political philosophy of the Bible and The Republic.

The political philosophy of the United States is the product of two distinct and important streams of thought that culminated in the production of the founding documents of the republic and which account for some of the tensions inherent therein.

The first is the tradition of English common law which stretched back several centuries and was influenced by its Norman, Celtic, and Anglo-Saxon precursors and came about in a time of stark realism about the hardships of life. It was part of the feudal compact of European society that at core was conservative, agrarian, and individualistic and yet was cognizant also of the responsibilities of the common man to “do his bit” for his feudal master or, less frequently, the crown. This was all the government he wanted or needed.

The second is that of the French Enlightenment which was more recent, yet in some ways more potent. It was the product of educated elites who were, in the main, atheistic in their orientation if not in their actual belief. It was largely corporatist and viewed society as a series of “compacts” or agreements between groups, but most especially the “governed” and the government, which was the monarchy. It was also humanistic, anti-authoritarian (in the sense of its rejection of any authority deriving from sources external to the “people” i.e. divine right), and, like common law, rights oriented but in an idealistic sense. That is to say rights are common, rather than individual goods.

The joining of these two streams under the leadership of the elites who founded the country largely explains the tensions inherent in the American political system. It is a system wherein the corporate, utopian, group rights orientation derived from our Enlightenment roots are ever in conflict with the radically individualistic, dystopian and personal rights orientation of our English common law ancestry. Ironically, it is our Enlightenment legacy that, despite its anti-hierarchical bent, that lends itself more readily to domineering executive power utilized generally in the guaranteeing of perceived corporate “rights” and less frequently in the pursuit of utopian aims.

So then, how is the political philosophy of the United States fundamentally at odds with a biblical worldview and what does any of this have to do with abortion? Indeed there are some Christians who would argue against this characterization and point to many things within the intent of the framers original documents that have Christian antecedents, as well as pointing out that many of the framers were themselves Christians.

The Christianity of certain of the framers is not at issue here, nor is it particularly relevant in this argument. It is quite possible to hold and practice a solidly active faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and still adhere to, support, and even endorse a political philosophy that is not especially Christian or even biblical. Likewise the presence of certain Christian presuppositions within the founding documents does not mean that the entirety of such documents reflect a Christian or biblical framework. Indeed it is more likely a reflection of the fact that the United States was birthed out of a culture that had been influenced by Christianity for several centuries and whose predominant philosophic impulse was Christian.

The answer to my question is rather simpler than my arguably inaccurate and unhelpful description of American political philosophy and is at least two fold (though I suppose I could dig out another fold if I were so inclined).

Firstly, the Bible specifically and Christian thinking more broadly has very little use for the concept of “rights” in either the Enlightenment or the English common law sense of that word. As a religion, Christianity is preoccupied with cultic questions of proper religious practice and with ethical questions of proper social relations. Political commentary, where given, is generally sparse, situational, and at times prophetic. There is little said about how the government as an institution ought to function in relation to its citizens / subjects since government was largely personal and arbitrary in nature. Subsequent years of Christianization provided abundant opportunity for discourse on how princes ought to conduct themselves towards their subjects, but such advice was given with the understanding that the rulers themselves would be Christian, in word if not in actual fact. Even so, the way in which we talk about rights is a concept alien to Christianity. Much more is written in scripture about the responsibility of Christians to one another, to unbelievers, to God and occasionally to the government. In all of these cases, the over arching thrust is towards the giving up of ones prerogatives both as a spiritual discipline, and as a practical matter leading towards peace.

Secondly, the principle of majority rule or more elegantly, “the consent of the governed,” is as alien to Christianity as my critique of it is likely to be to those who are democracy’s most ardent defenders. Rightful critique of “activist” jurists often falls back upon a philosophical position that it is the responsibility (or right) of the people to decide upon certain issues and that courts over overstep their boundaries and usurp this presumably sovereign right. A counter critique is then launched about the need to protect the rights of the minority opinion from the “tyranny of the majority.” In this case, both positions are right and both in error. To prevent what would likely be an even more tedious post to finish I will deal only with the error of the former as I have already discussed the fallacy of “rights” inherent in the counter critique. The notion that “the people” have a right to decide anything is a clearly unchristian concept when applied outside of a covenanted Christian community as was present in Acts, and flies in the face of our common depravity and deceivability. It was after all a majority position to select a king in 1 Samuel, and we know well how the democracy of the Tower of Babel worked out.

Thirdly and finally (I knew I’d find another ‘fold’ in there somewhere), the Bible and Christian history hold Christians, not government, to a high standard of interventionist responsibility on behalf of justice for those most unable to assist themselves. The testimony of scripture is that government exists to “reward good and punish evil.” In such circumstances that the government inverts its function and begins to reward evil and punish good, it is the responsibility of Christians to resist (and of course to bear the consequences). In a democratic system, Christians can work more actively towards that metric through the democratic process by electing officials who will act towards that end. In any government system Christians can work toward eliminating or ameliorating the most detrimental effects of injustice, oppression, brokenness or sin on “the least of these” as we did in the earliest days of our faith when Christians actively rescued abandoned babies who had been left to die.

What a Christian cannot do is work actively or passively towards the support or institutionalization of those governments or official which fail to adhere to the metric of scripture to “reward good and punish evil.” This is not to say that Christians ought to be single issue voters or should otherwise ignore the promises, characteristics, and commitments of any candidate for the sake of his or her position on an issue such as abortion or homosexual rights. It is rather to say that due consideration must be given always for those who have the least ability to defend themselves or their own inte