Evangelicalism in a Post-Christendom Age: Part 1

It may be news to the less astute observer, but for most people who pay attention to such things, the United States is rapidly following Europe into a ‘post-Christian’ era. American Evangelicals are struggling to adjust though there are substantial numbers who do not recognise that a shift has taken place at all. This is because much of the shift is buried under layers of political and cultural trends: abortion rights, gay marriage fights, rhetoric about the ‘War on Women’, etc. The recent scuffle concerning World Vision only highlights this.  These are just surface symptoms. The deeper reality is that a post-Christian age is upon us and the foundational assumptions of the prior age no longer apply. What does all this mean for American Evangelicals? To answer this, we must first understand what evangelicalism is, what it isn’t, and what its’ roots are. Part one will address this issue.

Contrary to popular belief, American Evangelicalism is not simply a product of early 20th century Fundamentalism – although Fundamentalism is an antecedent movement. American Evangelicalism is, properly speaking, a child of the 2nd Great Awakening of the late 18th and early 19th century – that great mass movement that arose in rebellion against the decadent, irreligious, and impious culture of the day. It was a movement that shared some of the more optimistic assumptions of the Enlightenment which preceded it. It spawned the great missionary movement of the 19th century as well as the anti-slavery movement, the prison reform movement, and various other humanitarian reforms. This social reform impulse was paired with a deep conviction of the need for individual repentance and faith in response to the claims of the gospel.

cathedral
An empty cathedral. The future of the American church?

The liberal / fundamentalist split that many people trace as the origin of American Evangelicalism didn’t come into being until more than a hundred years later when those now termed theologically ‘Liberal’ dropped the emphasis on personal response to the gospel while retaining the concern for social reform. We needn’t dwell here much on liberalism vs. fundamentalism; that is not the essential point. What is important to note is that it was at the outset a unified movement out to change both the world and the men in it!

But, and this is the crucial thing for it lies at the heart of the present dilemma, this movement was out to change a particular kind of world and to convert particular kinds of people – a Christian world, full of Christian people. Evangelicalism is a product of Christendom itself, but not in the way people like to think it was. Evangelicalism wasn’t a prop to Christendom, but rather its inveterate opponent.

Evangelicalism was a prophetic movement, calling nominal Christians back to the radical claims of discipleship to Jesus Christ. It was an apostolic movement, issuing the challenge to bring the gospel to all nations. It was innovative, using all the latest techniques and technologies to advance its cause. It was trans-denominational. And perhaps most critically, its theology was developed against the backdrop of a ‘Christian’ society.

By the time of the Evangelical Revival, Europe had been Christian in some form, for more than 1000 years. The Reformation, upon which so many contemporary internet theologians place undue emphasis, had brought some shifts to the currents of Christianity and indeed made the Awakening possible. However it had left in place one critical component: the establishment of religion. Evangelicals, many of whom were non-conformists, chafed under the strictures of established religion and were perturbed by the rampant nominalism it seemed to encourage. Though in the United States, Christendom, the official alignment of church & state, broke, the culture of Christendom, the notion of a broadly ‘Christian’ civilization, remained intact as most people thought of themselves as Christian whether or not they had any active life of faith in the evangelical sense of that term. It was a Christian society, with Christian assumptions that prevailed in Europe and North America.

This is the backdrop for all the contentious social debates of the last 100 years of American life. Liberal and Conservative, Mainline & Evangelical all made their cases and built their theological frameworks of thought within a society that shared a broadly ‘Christian’ conception of the universe even as the institutional structures of that society were shifting. Over the past fifty years however, what had been gradual and at times imperceptible movements became a rapid unraveling. The pace of this unraveling has increased significantly in the past twenty years and now Christians in the West find themselves confronting an entirely post-Christian reality.

We should note that this emerging post-Christian era has and is affecting ‘liberals’ and ‘evangelicals’ alike. While one will find plenty of people willing to lay the decline of the American Evangelical church at the foot of rigidity in doctrinal positions related to women’s ordination and gay rights, churches that have long embraced such positions have declined far faster and for far longer than their evangelical counterparts. Theological ‘openness’ and ‘affirmation’ have not been sufficient to stem the tide and those who have trod such paths find themselves swept aside just as readily as the more doctrinaire and dogmatic evangelicals who are the bogeyman and whipping boy of American socio-cultural commentary. Simply put, a theology, whether of ‘liberal’, ‘conservative’ or ‘evangelical’ stripe forged in a Christian era is largely irrelevant in a post-Christian one.

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On the Complementarity of the Sexes

“For the man is not of the woman: but the woman of the man. Neither was the man created for the woman; but the woman for the man.  Nevertheless neither is the man without the woman, neither the woman without the man, in the Lord. For as the woman is of the man, even so is the man also by the woman” 1 Corinthians 11. 8-9, 10-11.

Of late, long simmering issues connected with the relationship between of men and women within the context of American Evangelicalism have become more of a slow boil.  The lines have long since been drawn between what is termed ‘Complementarianism’ and ‘Egalitarianism’ with each camp of Evangelicals planting their hermeneutical flags and rallying their troops to their preferred approach. Usually people who disagree on these issues are willing to be charitable to those who disagree. This post is not about the respective merits of each of these positions, at least not directly.  Instead I want to talk about something more basic to the whole discussion — something I think is too often lost in the terminology that has been assigned (or chosen) by the partisans of the different schools of thought.

Men and women are complementary.

Men are not women and women are not men.  This plain statement, which should seem obvious, is no longer obvious.  In an era when heteronormative cis-gendered patriarchy is regularly attacked directly by those outside the church and indirectly by those inside, this statement betrays a kind of binary approach to sex / gender that reflects my heterosexist male privilege or something like that.

Yeah.

I don’t really care.  Men and women are not the same, nor were we created to be the same.  We were created to be complementary to one another.

Complementarity is a term that has unfortunately been swept up into the polarizing theological and doctrinal debate so much that the term itself has lost all meaning.  Really it just means that men and women are for each other.  Not in the sense of being ‘in favor of’, but in the sense of being designed or intended for the other.

The other day as I drove home I noticed some men working by the roadside.  Specifically, they were digging a drainage ditch. By hand. As traffic was backed up (as it often is) I had the chance to observe well.  I noticed the young man as he hoisted with relative ease the pick-axe straight above his head, his muscles rippling through his lithe frame as sweat poured down his back.  He brought the pick-axe down again and lifted it again in a single moment – the whole upward / downward motion taking all of 5 seconds; which means 12 times per minute.  Near him was another man, standing in the ditch shoveling, the dirt flying over his shoulder with ease.

These men will go home to a wife or a mother or sister who has also worked hard all day – washing clothes by hand, selling fruit, hawking goods on the street and hauling water to the house for cooking and bathing – who will then cook for them to eat, and probably clean up afterwards.

Hard work all around.  Of that there is no doubt.  Yet the work that each does is complementary to the other.

Ditches need to be dug and men are better suited at it than women.  Domestic tasks likewise need to be done, and although these tasks can be done by men, are more readily and easily taken up by women.  One critical reason for this is that the domestic tasks usually taken up by women are the kinds of tasks that lend themselves to multi-tasking – a critical necessity when small children appear on the scene.  After all it is much easier to wash clothes by hand and keep an eye on the children than it is to dig a drainage ditch and do the same thing.

This isn’t to say that women can’t or shouldn’t dig ditches or that men mustn’t do domestic work. Not at all.

It is simply an observation of the realities that our physicality impose on us and as I said earlier, it is only our technological sophistication that allows us to pretend otherwise.  Our physicality introduces us to something we don’t like and which continuously strive to reject and that is our limitations.  And here is where the tension of complementarity comes in for many of us.

We live in a world where we can pretend that these things don’t matter.  Complementarity is easily hidden in technologically advanced and complex societies where the differences between men and women are hidden beneath layers of labour saving devices, medical interventions, and legal constructs explicitly designed to minimize the differences.  But when these are stripped away, the differences become much more starkly evident and our need for one another emerges more clearly as well.  Here is where the profundity of the mystery of marriage comes in.

As Christians there is little controversy around affirming complementarity as it relates to the body of Christ.  We all have gifts differing, as the scripture says, and so the hand and the foot need each other.  The foot does what it does and the hand what it does and although it is possible for one to function in the place of the other it isn’t ideal.  Yet when it comes to the complementarity of men and women, of what our embodied sexually differentiated selves bring into the mystery that is our union with one another, all manner of ire is stirred.  Why is that?  Well there are lots of reasons having to do with all kinds of things but I want to highlight only one which I believe is at or near the core.

We don’t want to live in the limits of our physical nature.  We have embraced a heretical notion that what really matters is spirit and the physical is unimportant.  So our physical natures tell us nothing of the things of God — it is only the disembodied spiritual that matters and since spirits are not sexed then it is an irrelevancy to make distinctions as it relates to sex.  We are therefore not complementary to one another, but interchangeable.  We don’t need the other.

But this is a lie.  And it is a lie that is particularly appealing to women.  In fact I cannot recall any time when I’ve heard a man say ‘I don’t need a woman’, yet ‘I don’t need a man’ is a common proclamation.  Why the difference?  Well men are taught by our physical nature that women are necessary.  We all came through woman and it is impossible for us to bear children.  We know that ‘it’s not good for the man to be alone’.

The contribution of men is much more hidden and dispersed so it is not readily apparent to most women that men are necessary – especially not in a world of push button technology, sophisticated systems of electricity generation and global transport.  These systems, which are run on the backs of men digging ditches, are hidden, and make it possible for this demonic delusion to take root.

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.

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.

Why the TNIV’s demise makes me happy…

Well, it doesn’t really; I mean, not in any “real” way.  As I said before, I never liked the TNIV and don’t care for the NIV either for that matter.    Part of this is frankly because I tend to prefer “word for word” translation over “dynamic equivalence” that the NIV and TNIV employs.  The other reason is because, as I said in my comments on the preceding post, I believe the publication of the TNIV as well as it’s withdrawal has more to do with profits than anything else.  But allow me to lay out a bit more my larger issue with English language Bible translation.

1) Arguments over Bible translations (whether NIV, RSV, NRSV, ESV, etc.) provide cover for Christian intellectual elitism

Christianity is a translated religion.  Unlike Islam, we do not hold to any particular language being the revealed language of God and scripture.  Therefore the words of Jesus (perhaps spoken in Aramaic) were translated into Greek without losing their potency.  Reading the Bible in French or English or Twi or Russian does not represent a deficiency, but the heart of the missionary impulse.  However the way debates over translation occurs communicates that unless one is fluent in the so-called “original languages” one cannot really know what God is saying. This is inherently elitist as the vast majority of Christians in the world who have ever lived and who currently do live may not even be literate, much less experts in ancient Greek.  Is their understanding of God, ethical practice, and Christian maturity therefore inevitably compromised?

This is not to say that translation with great care is unimportant.  It is very important, but if we communicate, however unintentionally, that you “really need to read it in the Greek to understand” we inevitably establish a hierarchy to which only an elite and privileged few have access.

2) The proliferation of English translations in the last 100 years has done NOTHING to advance Christian maturity or knowledge.

Faithful translation is important as I have said, and that has ostensibly been the motive for updating translations, in addition to keeping pace with new or better source documents that have come to light.  But is hardly evident that these multiple versions have done anything to increase the amount of scripture knowledge or biblical practice.  Indeed I would venture to guess (anecdotally to be sure) that those Christian “neanderthals” who hold onto the KJV probably have  more extensive Biblical knowledge than many others.

3) The proliferation of English translation is driven by profit and is evidence of an exceedingly materialistic self referential culture.

Many translations are copyrighted.  Book publishers make lots of money selling Bibles.  There is great incentive to come out with a “NEW & IMPROVED” version every few years.  We buy them because we can, and because we want a version that “fits” us.  This is related to my last point.

4) (Not the last point but related to the previous one) The English language has not changed so much in the last hundred years and certainly last fifty years to justify the new translations.

The 400 year dominance (and continued strength) of the KJV meant that much of the language was indeed very different than contemporary English and quite opaque to some (though not so much as to be unintelligible. After all it is still a leading version and in some ways superior; KJV English conveys continuing present tense better than contemporary English) and therefore made some sense to update.  Since then… not so much.

5) The proliferation of translations is in some ways a capitulation to the Christian disengagement with shaping culture.

The chief justification for many modern versions is to faithful translate the scripture into “today’s English.”  Well this is fine as far as it goes. BUT, none of these many translations, partially due to their abundance and partially due to their linguistic poverty, actually affect the culture into which they are cast.

The KJV, for all its flaws (and they are many) was written in a language that though long “obsolete” retains a poetry and magnificence that remains unsurpassed, much like the language of Shakespeare (written in the same era).  Many contemporary versions, though technically superior, frankly lack any beauty and therefore are less powerful in their effect in shaping culture, both within and outside of the church.

Now it can be argued that aesthetic value is less important than accuracy, but I disagree.  Aesthetics have a truth value all their own and while “though I walk through the darkest valley” may be a more technically accurate translation, it does not speak in the same way as “though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death” and is therefore lest likely to be memorized, or to shape our worldview.  Bad writing cannot be covered up by saying “the translation is technically accurate.”

Additionally the multitude of translations means that Christians have lost something very important: a common language, which is important in creating and reinforcing and yea verily, shaping our common dialogue and culture.

If you want peace, work for justice… really?

I ran across this bumper sticker slogan today as I was leaving a local coffee shop. My first thought upon reading it was, “Yup, that’s right.” And then I thought again, “Really?” I mean, it is a neat slogan, and it isn’t the first time I’ve seen it. In fact I really like it. But as I thought about it, I realized that there are some assumptions buried deep within this seemingly innocuous statement. These assumptions are deeply and profoundly mistaken.

Assumption 1: The cause of war or violence is injustice

The implicit nature of this assumption becomes clear when you look at the statement itself: If there were no injustice, there would be peace. This is definitely untrue. Indeed much of the violence in human history, whether the violence of spousal abuse and homicide, or genocide and war between nations is itself unjust. Injustice is not the cause of violence. There is much violence in the world that has nothing to do with injustice and is not a response to it. Contrary to what many have been taught to believe, sometimes people do evil and violent things simply out of malice, hatred, or ill will. Sometimes, there is no justification nor explanation for the wrong that people do. Sometimes there is injustice, or the violence done by poverty and oppression to the human spirit, and such conditions make reciprocal violence all the more plausible or likely. But many times, it is the violent who bring about injustice.

Assumption 2: The presence of injustice is a justification for violence

Yes, there is a threat of violence inherent in the rather innocuous bumper sticker. You see if you want peace, you must work for justice. Otherwise there will be no peace. So then is violence is an expected or at least appropriate response to injustice? Is it justifiable to respond to unjust conditions with violence? Are those who have been subject to oppression and injustice somehow unable to act with restraint or are they somehow slaves to their situation?

Assumption 3: Peace can be “worked for”

This sentiment seems to be the most innocent of all, but is it really? In a purely secular sense, yes, social equity and the absence of violence can be worked towards. But inherent in the maintenance of any society is the power to enforce the social order, which includes, by necessity, the threat or actual use of violence. Sure, it isn’t something we like to admit, but until the final king comes in glory, all human societies and government enforce the existing social order through force. True peace, that is shalom, is much more than the absence of conflict or violence. It is the positive presence of a just, equitable and holy order wherein there is space for human flourishing. Such a world is not attainable by human effort, but is only foreseeable in God’s economy. Even then, it is the authority of the sovereign Lord that establishes and maintains that order. And what we perceive of as a more perfect form of government; democracy, has historically come through the violence of war and revolution and sometimes a literal “coup d’etat.”