culture

 

Nov

05

2013

Thabiti Anyabwile|1:27 am CT

Communicating Authentic Love by Not Resorting to Unhelpful Comparisons

This is a guest post by Joani, devoted wife and mother of five adventuresome boys aged 7-16. A former homeschooling mom, she now serves as Assistant Director/Client Services Director at East Texas Pregnancy Help Center and studies at Liberty University. She is eternally grateful for her Saviour who redeemed her life. She is as kind a woman you will ever meet, and she also plays a mean violin! In this post she continues to evaluate different ways of speaking about abortion. You can read her first post here.

“Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart” (1 Peter 1:22)

We all can recount in our own individual lives memories of past suffering.  Deep hurts.  The type of hurt that makes you desperate to see a light somewhere, the pain that makes you wonder if you will ever recover, and the anguish that gives you sleepless nights…. and the taunting belief that you’ll never feel “ok” again.  My friend sat before me, tears streaming down her cheeks.  A choice stared her in the face bleakly, as she struggled to cope with what seemed impossible.  Alone.  Scarred.  Betrayed.  Now here she sat, left with an unplanned pregnancy, heartbreak, and a life deteriorating disease.  The choice was actually, dare I breathe again?    Memories flooded my mind as a reminder of emotions that I had experienced with my own crisis pregnancy that actually brought me to the doors of an abortion clinic 17 years ago.  I thought more about the call to authentically love, without agendas, in ways that would be helpful to the hurting and confused.  I thought again about how comparisons hurt me so deeply, and brought insult upon injury.  I prayed, how can we grow to love more as Christ? Not only in person to person ministry, but as we minister to the whole of society. Cos, let’s face it… if it isn’t helpful or effective…. why would we continue to do so?  Let’s consider together four of the ways comparisons can affect others.

1. Comparisons make me feel like it is somehow my fault that I hurt deeply.  Possibly we have said, “You’ll get over this. Other people have gone through way harder things and they overcame.  Their issues seem worse than yours, and yet you are still hurting about this?”  And I heard, “YOU need to suck it up, YOU are being a baby about your pain and others are stronger than you.”

And my heart hurt worse.

2. Comparisons make me think you aren’t really listening to my heart cry, and maybe don’t understand the specific nature of my pain.  Sometimes we have even interrupted before others are finished stuttering to try explaining the nature of their hurt, and then we said, “You’ll get through this.  There are pains far worse, and I know so n’ so who went through a tragedy, and she kept a smile on her face the entire time.  Nobody even prayed with her once, or gave her any encouragement.”  I then thought about how I didn’t even get to finish my outcry, and maybe I should just stay silent and be strong alone.

And my heart suffered alone.

3. Comparisons make me further look at how helpless and hopeless I really am to move forward… and offers me no solution.   “This story reminds me so much of what all so n’ so walked through.  You may be going through a divorce, but she had a separation from her estranged daughter for a year and it hurt her badly.  So, this is what she did, and you need to do the same thing too!”  And we hear, “Your own hurt that you are walking through is not really unique, and you should just hurry and get it figured out by doing what everyone else before you has done.”  When others don’t understand my specific pain, and then compare with generalizations my heart wonders if my own hurt has a solution.  A solution, even just a tiny step past the pain I’m experiencing today, has to be unique for my situation.  Comparison lumps everything together in my mind, and I feel more overwhelmed.

And I wonder if I can face tomorrow. 

Recognizing similarities is not the same thing as comparing.  Empathy is helpful.   Shoulder to shoulder carrying one another’s pain is different than demeaning the pain through tactics.  I don’t want to be a problem that needs to be “fixed,” I yearn to be loved and offered light when I can’t see.

Recently, I spoke with a young lady who sat before me tearfully – carrying burdens that made it difficult to even breathe.  It was a beautiful opportunity to pour out the love and hope for tomorrow that has been so freely poured into my life.

“You’ve tasted pain.”  She said it slowly.  She stared me straight in the eyes almost as if she was looking deep down into my soul.  She was scared.  She was hopeless.  She searched for something in my eyes…. Something to cling to, and all at the same time our hearts bonded together in camaraderie.

“I see it in your eyes.  You’ve tasted it.  You know what pain is.”

I felt a sad twisting in my stomach.  I remembered the bitterness that poisoned me and the hurt that seemed to have no end.  The stupidity I carried for ever having given my trust to someone.  I remembered the feelings of betrayal, the spilling of my tears replaced by dry-eyed loneliness.  Then a small smile crept slowly across my face.  I remembered that my biggest fear was that I could not ever humanly live again after such agony.  How dare I breathe again when breathing only brought sharp, icy pangs of death?  But, the tiny smile reminded me that I did indeed lose.  I lost it all, but a Champion won my heart.

The opportunity was there with this beautiful soul to empathize and intercede, not compare or slight her issues.   I had the opportunity to listen, listen, listen.  I had the opportunity to offer true hope, while speaking truth into the specific situation that was presented.

Many have said to me, “feelings don’t count”.   I disagree with that statement, and that would be a discussion for another day.  J  But a question to ask is this:  Will they care about what we have to say if at first they don’t see how much we care?

The same is true for our society.  Turmoil spins all around.  We criticize, judge, and make people-issues that are so painful into our “projects”.  Comparisons sometimes help agendas more than they heal hearts.  It’s our job to always reconsider why we do things the way that we choose to, and look for better ways to communicate God’s love.  We need to see beyond our own attempts to raise awareness, and focus on Christ.  Our desire to authentically know Him, and display His truth does not come from trying so hard to find ways to alert the people with comparisons and shock-value tactics, but with His passion, truth and love bringing healing to our community.

My heart reminded me of my Champion who has overcome fear, pain, and death.  The Champion who gently led me to turn my car out of the parking lot of that clinic 17 years ago, and now, daily I embrace my son who reminds me every moment of the miracle that authentic love can work in a heart.

You know this passage below, but read it again today… slowly, prayerfully… and let’s ask Him again how we can love like Him.

“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.  If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned,but have not love, I gain nothing.  Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful;  it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.  Love never ends.”  1 Cor. 13:1-8 (ESV)

 
 

Apr

15

2013

Thabiti Anyabwile|10:49 am CT

CHH: “Christian Hip Hop” or “Controversial Hip Hop”

I’m just back from a refreshing and edifying time with saints at New Word Alive. New Word Alive is a family Bible conference held each year in North Wales. If you’re in the U.K.,  I can’t recommend it enough for its focus on the word of God, evangelism, and Christian fellowship. It was a joy to take part.

Of course, spending a week at a largely internet-free campground in North Wales means you’re a little out of the loop when it comes to the goings ons of the Christian world. And when it’s the world of Christian hip hop, the cultural black hole is even more pronounced. I loved the saints at New Word Alive, and the worship was wonderful, but there wasn’t much boom-bap happening.

So, I was a little surprised to see some of the internet brouhaha over shai linne’s new single, “Fal$e Teacher$.” In the single, shai takes aim at a host of prosperity gospel and word-faith teachers. It’s not the first time he (or others for that matter) has critiqued such teaching in his music. In response to the single, Bradley Knight, son of Paula White, posted an open letter to shai in defense of his mother’s ministry. Christianity Today picked up on the issue. Lisa Robinson at Parchment and Pen offered reflections based on her years inside prosperity congregations. Mark at Here I Blog added some source support for the song’s denunciations. Those were the first 4-5 entries in my quick google search. I’m sure there’s tons more opinion out there!

The back and forth has conjured the usual questions about whether private conversation should have happened first, whether public criticism and naming names is appropriate and under what circumstances, and whether Christian unity and charity ought to rule out polemics.

For my part, not that “my part” means anything, I’m rather glad shai included this single on his album. I have six reasons:

1. Reach. Unless you’re inside the prosperity gospel or word-faith  movement, you’ve probably been concerned with the reach of these teachers. They operate impressive (I mean that!) multimedia empires and export their brand of the “gospel” to the most distant corners of the globe. That media savvy and reach has made it difficult for others to stand against the rushing tide of their teaching. But Christian hip hop has a developing, media-rich, and savvy reach of its own. It’s reaching a younger generation of believers and reaching the corners of the globe. Christian hip hop may be the first medium by which orthodox voices can effectively push back against the titans of word-faith and prosperity “gospel” teaching. When Prop, Lecrae, and shai are able to stir the ire, accolades, or pushback of theologians, secular awards panels, or ministry offices of word-faith teachers, something is happening on a different scale. We may be observing Truth’s reach being extended in a helpful and hopeful way.

2. Force. Of course, what good is reach if you have no power or force? The ranging responses drawn from “Fal$e Teacher$” also suggests that Christian hip hop may be developing as a cultural force at least strong enough to prick the conscience and shape opinions. Hip hop has always featured rhetorical and creative power. Now we’re witnessing a maturing theological power. Prop’s “Precious Puritans” provoked a conversation about our heroes, race, and pastoral sensitivity. Perhaps shai’s single will awaken a fresh discussion of biblical and theological faithfulness. Perhaps the medium of hip hop will have enough rhetorical, theological, emotional, intellectual, and social force to prompt some Christians to re-evaluate the teachers to whom they listen. I pray so. I mean, when’s the last time you heard contemporary Christian music or gospel music effectively raise these issues? Yeah, me neither.

3. Urgency. I’m also thankful the Lord moved shai to pen, record and release this song because the gospel is urgent business. Getting it right is eternally urgent. Making it clear is urgent. Believing the gospel while it’s still day–urgent. These are not the kinds of issues that should be dealt with in the glacial, cold cerebral manner of academe. The gospel of Jesus Christ is the message that divides time and eternity, heaven and hell, life and death. Who can tolerate distortion and half-truth when so much is at stake? I’m glad for the driving sense of urgency that hip hop can give to some of these issues, because these issues and these teachers are affecting real people in real ways. Perhaps we pastors have been unable to create the combination of light and heat such errors deserve. Perhaps the native passion and the growing theological light of Christian hip hop can change the pace of the discussion.

4. Profile. Not one of the teachers listed in shai’s song could be called “unknown” or “low key” or otherwise “anonymous.” These are some of the most high-profile figures in the evangelical (I use the term loosely) world. Their collective public influence is massive. Their teaching, prettied up and slicked down a bit as their clout has grown, is a very public record. They have not taught these things in a corner and the proliferation of books, websites, and other resources means that a very public alternative and response needs to be given. We need a higher profile opposition to these high profile errors. I’m thankful to shai for the part he has played in doing this. I understand that some people view the first opinion as “unfortunate” at worst but hold anyone who replies guilty of a more foul offense. They tell us that confrontation should first happen privately (even as they write to publicly confront for this supposed transgression). But this inverts the Bible’s teaching, which says, “The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him” (Prov.18:17). By silencing the cross-examination, we leave ourselves with only the first-stated case, which usually is not the correct position. It seems to me the Christian world needs to grow up a little and accept the public accountability that’s necessary to guarding the gospel and guarding God’s people.

5. Prevention. I pray this ounce of prevention really does result in a pound of cure. I pray that minds would be changed, thinking sharpened, and hearts enflamed with greater passion for Christ and greater thanksgiving for what He really does purchase for us. Every faithful pastor wants to guard the flock entrusted to his care. They want to keep the sheep feeding on the green pasture of God’s word correctly understood and applied. In this day of internet connectivity, most every pastor who takes this responsibility seriously is probably thankful for an ally like shai who uses an important medium to help protect the children of God. I know I’m thankful and I hope many are kept from the errors of men and women piercing themselves through with the love of money, deceiving and fleecing the flock to provide for their worldly lifestyles.

6. Witness. I shouldn’t have to say that false teachers harm the witness of the church, but they do. People with clear vision can see it. Take, for example, this comment from a self-described atheist over at Christianity Today:

Well, as an atheist who does watch TBN on occasion…I have to say he [shai] got it right. If you Christians care about the integrity of your religion, you’d drum out these snake oil salesmen from your midst. They’re turning Christianity into a laughingstock with no credibility at all.

Even those with no belief in God see the problem created by “gospel” hucksters. If we care about the effectiveness of the church then we must care about the reputation (1 Tim. 3) and teaching (Titus 1:9) of its leaders.

Conclusion

The usefulness and power of hip hop will be multiplied as we pray for and encourage the kind of courage shown in shai linne’s “Fal$e Teacher$”. There ought to be enough room in Christian hip hop for someone to stir godly controversy in behalf of the gospel and the Church. What we have to guard against is the kind of controversy between artists that overthrows the potential of the medium and the artists. As Christian hip hop matures, I pray it continues to handle the hard-hitting controversial subjects with reach, force, urgency, profile, and a pinch of prevention. The entire Church will be blessed as they do.

If you haven’t already, get shai’s new album Lyrical Theology, vol. 1 here.

 
 

Apr

02

2013

Thabiti Anyabwile|1:52 am CT

A “Black and Tan” Round-Up

For the past couple of weeks, Douglas Wilson and I have carried on a discussion of his book, Black and Tan. The book and its prequel, Southern Slavery As It Was, triggered controversy that’s lasted these last ten years or so. Our exchanges have been charitable and frequent. I thought it might be good to include a post-by-post round-up for anyone wishing to follow the discussion as it evolved. I think I’ve gotten them all, but there have been a lot of posts, sometimes seemingly posted only minutes after one or the other of us have hit “post.” So, if I missed one or more, please charge it to my head (and eyesight) not my heart.

Why Respond Publicly to Douglas Wilson’s “Black and Tan”? (TA)

A brief post explaining how I became involved in this discussion and listing five reasons I think it wise to proceed with a public discussion rather than a private one.

Douglas Wilson’s Views on Race, Racism, Slavery and the Bible (TA)

I attempt (successfully, according to Wilson) to summarize the main argument and points included in Black and Tan. I quote at length Wilson’s comments rejecting racism and slavery, and attempt to summarize Wilson’s motivation for writing Black and Tan.

Does the Driving Logic of “Black and Tan” Hold Up? (TA)

I attempt to address three basic aspects of the book: (1) the underlying logic guiding the entire book, (2) the exegetical case for slavery as a permissible institution, and (3) the historical claim that the South as a nation and the slavery it practiced was comparable to the Roman practice the apostle Paul addressed. I contend that the authority of the Bible was not widely challenged leading up to the Civil War, and that federal action to end the Civil War cannot be causally linked to our contemporary culture wars.

Patrick “Nostradamus” Henry (DW)

Wilson responds to my first critique by distinguishing between the formal authority and the functional authority of Scripture. He expresses his concern that the real issue was not the doctrine of Scripture among slaveholders and abolitionists but the doing of scripture, actual obedience.

Slavery and the Bible: The Perspective of This Abolitionist (TA)

I attempt to account for the biblical texts relevant to the question of slavery, its practice, and its end. I call for an immediatism to slavery’s end, contrary to the gradualism Wilson proposes. We cover the commandment to love, Philemon, 1 Tim. 1:10; 6:1-2, and the household codes.

Love Is Never Later (DW)

Wilson responds to my exegesis of the biblical texts with almost complete agreement. He agrees that we should privilege the command to love and that obedience to that command should not be delayed. Wilson points to some hypothetical situations where he suggests that love might not mean immediate manumission.

How Koinonia Conquers (DW)

Wilson offers this article, originally published in Omnibus, as evidence of his treatment of Philemon and evidence of how closely aligned our understandings of the text are. He believes Philemon received Onesimus back as a brother, most likely freed Onesimus, that Onesimus became a co-laborer with Paul, and that Onesimus is likely the same Onesimus addressed by Ignatius.

The Designated Ambition Pole (DW)

Wilson reminds us of the original context for publishing Black and Tan. He recounts Paul Hill’s murder of an abortion clinic doctor, the questions Hill’s actions provoked, and his desire to avoid the marketing shrink wrap of so much evangelical culture.

Sometimes the Exceptions Reveal How Far We’ve Gone with the Rule (TA)

A response to Wilson’s near complete agreement with my biblical exegesis of pertinent texts on slavery. Wilson imagines situations where a gradual manumission might be more loving, while I ask, “Why not free the slave immediately and still provide the kinds of support that express love?”

Adoni-bezek’s Thumbs and Toes (DW)

Wilson explains why he continues to believe that current obligations to do things like denounce racism cannot be disentangled from “messy history.” He also introduces the notion of progressive revelation as he discusses a portion of Lev. 25′s commands regarding slaves.

The Cost of Our Chosen Entanglements (TA)

I attempt to explain why I think Wilson’s association with the “civilian affairs” of the South’s secession impairs his ability to value African-American life and to extend to African Americans the same right to pursue the freedom he cherishes.

Water Is Thicker Than Blood (DW)

Wilson explains why we mustn’t go to war with cartoons but recognize the humanity of our opponents and explains why he doesn’t think constitutional issues are easily disentangled from very real lives that have been disenfranchised.

Resisting the Slavers (DW)

In response to thread comments, Wilson takes up the issue of whether the War of Independence could be considered just and the Civil War not.

The Histories of the American South: A Caution Against Hegemonies (TA)

After attempting to avoid a discussion of the historical issues at play, I felt compelled to make an assessment of the assumed history in Black and Tan. I argue Black and Tan fails to provide us any history while attempting a major revision of our understanding of the American South and slavery. I also contend that the book’s failure to interact with differing perspectives amounts to a biased view and an overly optimistic view due to Wilson’s postmill perspective.  I conclude with a postscript on historical and cultural hegemony.

With Jello in My Hair (DW)

Wilson replies to my concerns about the history in Black and Tan by admitting the book is not and is not intended to be a work of history, that he believes the book would have been stronger to interacting with differing viewpoints on the history, and explaining his postmill perspective. He pushes back against a postmodernism and “multiculturalism” that denies God’s metainarrative on history.

Another Point Where Wilson and I Almost Entirely Agree: On Doing History and Multiculturalism (TA)

I reassert my basic critiques of Black and Tan‘s underlying history by responding to Wilson’s defenses. I also attempt to discuss how many African American and White discussants have two different things in mind when they talk about “multiculturalism.”

A Good Luck Wave Won’t Cut It (DW)

Wilson responds to my critique of Black and Tan’s history, agrees with my previous post’s comments about multiculturalism, and returns to a comparison of slavery and abortion, maintaining that abortion is far worse than slavery in its death toll. He also explains why he doesn’t think his postmill views lead to a “rosy” picture of slavery.

Illustrating Racial Insensitivity in Black and Tan (TA)

I attempt to define “racial insensitivity” and to comment on several minor and more serious comments in Black and Tan that I think fail to lovingly consider diverse readers and racial sensitivities.

Harder Than It Looks (DW)

Wilson responds to my definition of “racial insensitivity” with a proposed amendment and replies in turn to my citations of racial insensitivity. He offers an apology while distinguishing between persons genuinely offended and those who may be “flopping”. He calls for the kind of effort at reconciliation where parties say what they want to say and remain at the table after they have said it.

A Theology of Apology (DW)

Following up on “Harder Than It Looks,” Wilson uses three biblical incidents to explain why his apology came with qualifications and explanations.

I Can Be Insensitive, Too (TA)

I offer an apology to readers who took offense at a passing reference to Trayvon Martin.

Once More Into the Breach (TA)

I respond to Wilson’s call to “stay at the table” by pointing out three problems with his apology post and seeking to get a clear sense of whether Wilson though he’d written anything insensitive in Black and Tan, accepts responsibility for those comments, and would retract them. I refer to some useful principles for apologies and forgiveness from Peacemaker Ministries.

A Trigger Alert Study Bible (DW)

Wilson pushes back against an apology I offered readers at Pure Church. He then reasserts the need for a full and complete acceptance of scripture and a way for understanding our current cultural struggles in historical context before he could apologize for Black and Tan across the board.

Oh, So Close… And Yet So Far Away (TA)

I clarify that I was not asking him to retract Black and Tan across the board, but respond specifically to the charge of insensitive comments. I also speculate about whether fear of negative results might hinder Wilson giving a more complete apology.

Another Rose Hedge Awaits (DW)

Wilson accepts that I was not asking him to retract Black and Tan and apologizes for misreading me. He restates his apology by admitting that he believes himself to have written some insensitive things in Black and Tan. He creates a placeholder for some future comments.

Hecklers Gonna Heck (DW)

As promised, Wilson returns with more thoughts about the kinds of fears he has in public conversations of this sort and why different tones might be appropriate for different persons in such a discussion. Part of his concern is that evangelical capitulation to insistence on “polite” speech often comes a step or two before evangelical capitulation to the demands of those rebelling against God’s rule.

 
 

Mar

12

2013

Thabiti Anyabwile|7:20 am CT

Why Respond Publicly to Douglas Wilson’s “Black and Tan”?

It’s been a while since I’ve written anything on the blog. After nearly two weeks in Israel and a few days at Cedar Springs Presbyterian Church for their annual missions conference, I’m finally coming out of a brief internet hiatus.

I wish I were returning to the blogosphere under different circumstances. But last week I got myself involved in one of the periodic internet spats that happens among God’s people. Someone on twitter asked me what I thought about Bryan Lorrits’ lament over Douglas Wilson’s book Black and Tan, and I responded honestly. Here’s the exchange:

 

 

In return, Doug Wilson responded to Bryan Loritts, Anthony Bradley, Eric Mason and myself with this post. So, my 280-character tweet with three retweets has triggered another round of comments regarding Wilson’s Black and Tan.

Now, it’s almost a matter of evangelical orthodoxy that disagreements ought to be handled privately and that critics should contact the folks they’re critiquing before they say anything publicly. No doubt some reader has already thought that perhaps Loritts’ and my tweets should have never occurred without the prerequisite private confab. Since that sentiment seems popular in internet evangelical circles, let me briefly explain why I think it’s wrong and why I’m writing publicly in this and 3-4 subsequent posts, Lord willing.

1. I’m writing publicly because Wilson’s book is in the public domain, in fact, freely offered to anyone who wishes to download it. Were these privately held opinions, perhaps expressed in conversation with a friend or a few acquaintances at a dinner party, they would not be (or at least should not be) subject matter in public dialogue. But there’s a rather simple rule in academic and publishing circles that I’m sure everyone involved in this understands: If you publish something as a matter of public record, it then becomes “fair game” to critique it in public. Public opinions are subject to public responses. I’m simply keeping with that widely accepted practice.

2. As far as I know, Wilson has not retracted his book or anything in his book Black and Tan. The book itself is a clarification and further defense of an earlier publication, Southern Slavery: As It Was, which due to some oversights in proper citation and some problematic data was pulled from circulation. So, what we have is a publicly-stated position defended and maintained, making it an ongoing issue.

3. I’m writing publicly to counter, as best I can, what might be called the “rotten egg” effect in these matters. You probably became familiar with this effect as a child. Ever say something like, “The last one to the car is a rotten egg”? We have an internet version of this. “The last one to comment publicly is a rotten egg.” That is, I understand that some people view the first opinion as “unfortunate” at worst but hold anyone who replies guilty of a more foul offense (rotten egg). But this inverts the Bible’s teaching, which says, “The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him” (Prov.18:17). By silencing the cross-examination, we leave ourselves with only the first-stated case, which is not always the correct position. So, like some others, I’m writing publicly because it seems to me some harmful positions need addressing charitably and clearly, with God’s help.

4. I’m writing publicly because I have a pastoral concern for anyone that may read the book and treat it either as sound in reasoning or an acceptable model for dealing with controversial subjects and the fallout they inspire. In my opinion, the book and resultant exchanges represent neither. I’m as liable as anyone to put my foot in my mouth–and I have on numerous occasions. But I hope these posts offer a better way of thinking about some of the issues and a better tone while doing so.

5. Finally, I’m writing because I need to account for my public statements–including tweets, which I know to be a medium far too simplistic for issues this volatile. Mr. Wilson isn’t the only one needing to give an account. I do, too. And I have often found the democratic medium of blogs to have a helpful effect to that end–it’s other problems notwithstanding.

So, Lord willing, this week I’ll offer (1) a summary of Wilson’s Black and Tan as I understand it; (2) a critique of the argument and methodology; (3) an attempt to explain why Wilson continues to be liable to the charge of “racial insensitivity” (at least); and, (4) a short reply to Mr. Wilson’s offer of a meeting. I’m not looking to be sensational or to engage in a rhetorical alley fight. I’m certain I’m not Mr. Wilson’s equal when it comes to rhetorical jabs and hooks, and I don’t think our “dukin’ it out” will actually advance any understanding or dialogue. I welcome you to the dialogue as well, and hope you’ll join me in trying to raise it in ways that edify.

 
 

Feb

04

2013

Thabiti Anyabwile|10:39 am CT

Learning to Be the Moral Minority from a Moral Minority

In recent weeks the evangelical world has found itself reeling from cultural setbacks it once took for granted. The re-election of President Obama, state passage of “gay marriage” initiatives, the uninviting of Louie Gigglio to the Inauguration, and even last night’s Super Bowl have signaled to some that Christians and Christianity have lost their welcome place in the public square. For the first time, some evangelical conservatives feel like an oppressed minority in the country.

As I’ve watched the chatter mixed with laments and jeremiads, I couldn’t help but think of Jerry Falwell’s “Moral Majority,” founded in the late 70′s and defunct by the late 80′s. For nearly a decade, the Moral Majority exercised its political voice largely in southern states.

It seems to me that the very notion of a “moral majority” rested on two assumptions that some evangelicals no longer find tenable. First, it assumed the basic morality of most of the country. It assumed basic “Judeo-Christian principles” shaped and framed the moral reasoning of the average citizen, making your “average Joe” basically friendly to the aims and concerns of conservative Christians. Second, it assumed privilege. The very notion of “majority” suggests strength in numbers, a perch from which to rule for no other reason than outnumbering one’s opponents. The last couple months have upturned both of those long-standing assumptions and some evangelicals find themselves at a loss for how to handle it, claiming to be “persecuted,” “rejected,” and “shut out” from the public square. Many who don’t yet go so far as to claim persecution now, ring the ominous alarm of abuse being just around the corner.

It seems to me that if the evangelical church faces minority status in a country that no longer feels as welcoming, it will need to learn to become the moral minority. And to do that, coming from a position of significant privilege, she will actually have to learn from some folks who have long understood what it means to be moral and what it means to be minority in a country that denies your morality and even your right to freedom and existence. The Black Church. Evangelicals could well learn to be the moral minority from a much older moral minority. Here are a few things to pick up (some of which I had the privilege of discussing here):

1. Learn to suffer with dignity and grace. That’s not easy. But if the evangelical church is going to maintain a healthy dignity and resolve, it’ll need to endure suffering like a good soldier. It’ll need to learn how to bear reproach, shame, insult, ridicule, and even physical attack without cowing, lowering its head, or hating itself. Because of its privilege, white evangelical churches don’t know how to joyfully accept the plundering of its possessions and persons. If true persecution comes, it will need to learn this lesson in spades. There are two models: Jesus and the Black Church. Jesus’ model is perfect; the Black Church’s example is proximate, near at hand. One you read in the scripture, the other you can read in history texts or even access in conversation.

2. Learn to do theology from the underside. Privilege affords a person the ability to think about life and God from “above.” It allows a person to form conclusions in abstraction, detached from the grit and grime of suffering and need. But you can’t do that if you’re in a “persecuted minority” status. You have to ask, as Howard Thurman did two generations ago, “What does Jesus of Nazareth mean and have to say to the disinherited?” What truth and power is there in the gospel from the underside? How must we think about power and its use when we’re the disenfranchised rather than the brokers? In many respects that’s the great difference between theology done in Black and White circles. Most of African-American theology gets worked out in the crucible of suffering and under-privilege. That’s why it’s starting points and conclusions can be so different to those arrived at from the “top.” That’s why it can look heretical to those with power and privilege. The view comes from the bottom, and that’s a very different reality. I suspect that if the white evangelical church ever does become a truly persecuted minority in the country, the scope and content of its theological commitments will change significantly to include questions of power, privilege, access, and justice. It would be good to glean from the experiences and theologies of persons that already have in hand over three hundred years of thinking about such things.

3. Learn how to fight for your oppressors, not just against them. One genius of African-American theology and the Black Church has been its insistence on the full dignity, humanity, brotherhood, and rights of both the Black community and the White community. The best of Black Church history sees the future of Blacks and Whites inseparably connected. The best thinkers about the nature of humanity have identified the ways in which racism, for example, dehumanizes both the oppressed and the oppressor. The best activists have, therefore, sought not only freedom for the oppressed but also freedom for the oppressor. The “enemy” becomes the beneficiary of the oppressed’s love. This is the genius of a Martin L. King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement. The moral minority rose up against an immoral majority without sticks and guns but with love and justice for all. In positions of privilege, we don’t easily adopt such attitudes and positions. We easily engage our “opponents” with a zero-sum, winner-loser mentality. So, for example, “homosexuals” are meant to be “stopped” rather than loved and included. We focus on the heinousness of the sin rather than helping the sinner be as free as we claim to be. The problem with that winner-takes-all approach is that those chickens will come home to roost when we find ourselves in the minority. If we’re truly moral then we seek justice for everyone, including those who line up against us on this or that political issue. In a true “moral minority” any “superiority” will be demonstrated in concrete action on behalf of everyone’s equality.

4. Learn to hope in God. When you’re the majority community wielding power in society, you don’t have to hope in God in quite the same way as you do when you’re the minority and oppressed community. There’s a sense in which it becomes easy to trust in chariots, horses, and armies rather than the name of the Lord our God. But true persecution strips you of every support but God. Persecution brings you to your knees, but that’s where you find power. That’s one part of the legacy of the Black Church. When life was at its worst, it was a praying church. Despite injustice, persecution and the threat of death on every hand, African-American Christians put their hope in a God they were sure would bend the arc of history toward justice and deliverance. That hope was not pie-in-the-sky escapism. It was the noose-is-tightening realism. It was the kind of hope the apostle Paul found when he felt the sentence of death written in his heart and despaired of life, the kind of hope that comes to its senses and realizes it cannot rely on itself but must rely on the God who raises people from the dead (2 Cor. 1). It’s a hope kept safe beyond the vicissitudes of this life.

I suspect that much of the lamentation I hear in the evangelical world may be the dying cries of long-standing privilege. I also suspect that the death of such privilege will result in a purer grasp of faith and dependence upon God. Much less will be taken for granted and more genuine thought given to living out the faith from the “bottom.” Perhaps we’ll see, as one person put it, that a lot of what we’ve called “thinking” has merely been the rearranging of our prejudices. Then we’ll find that persecution, if it comes, has been for the purging and purifying of God’s people. A purging and purifying that’s very much needed.

 
 

Feb

02

2013

Thabiti Anyabwile|9:25 am CT

Around the Blog in 80 Seconds: Kicking Off Black History Month

It’s February. The shortest month of the year. That must mean it’s Black History Month.

Yet, as Trillia Newbill has written at DG, Black history is an every day thing. And more than just Black history, it’s the history of all people willing to be enriched by the wisdom and experience of others.

In honor of this time of celebration, a number of folks have offered useful reflections. The following are links to just a couple I read yesterday and this morning:

Jemar Tisby offers five reasons we should celebrate Black History Month.

Charles M. Blow pens a NY Times OpEd, “Rosa Parks, Revisited.” In it he reports a few tidbits from a new biography on Mrs. Parks, a biography that aims to shift our image from a tired, docile domestic to a strong-minded, purposeful advocate.

Bob Kellemen begins a look at “heroes of the Black church” with an excerpt on the life of Bishop Daniel Alexander Payne from his book, Beyond the Suffering: Embracing the Legacy of African-American Soul Care.

The Nation reprinted a June 23, 1926 essay from Langston Hughes entitled “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain.” Hughes offers his thoughts on Negro self-hatred and class aspirations, and the impact they have on the ability to perceive and artistically express Negro beauty. It is an important essay for understanding some of the themes and tropes that have shaped Black artistic, intellectual and social production since the Harlem Renaissance. These words have application to more than just “race”:

So I am ashamed for the black poet who says, “I want to be a poet, not a Negro poet,” as though his own racial world were not as interesting as any other world. I am ashamed, too, for the colored artist who runs from the painting of Negro faces to the painting of sunsets after the manner of the academicians because he fears the strange un-whiteness of his own features. An artist must be free to choose what he does, certainly, but he must also never be afraid to do what he might choose.

The concluding paragraph has much to teach us about the freedom that comes from rejecting both the white gaze and the black stare:

Let the blare of Negro jazz bands and the bellowing voice of Bessie Smith singing Blues penetrate the closed ears of the colored near-intellectuals until they listen and perhaps understand. Let Paul Robeson singing Water Boy, and Rudolph Fisher writing about the streets of Harlem, and Jean Toomer holding the heart of Georgia in his hands, and Aaron Douglas drawing strange black fantasies cause the smug Negro middle class to turn from their white, respectable, ordinary books and papers to catch a glimmer of their own beauty. We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too. The tom-tom cries and the tom-tom laughs. If colored people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn’t matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves.

Have a great Black History Month!

 
 

Jan

21

2013

Thabiti Anyabwile|8:08 am CT

A Few Reasons King’s Vision for America Remains Unfulfilled

Across the United States, persons will commemorate the birth of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Rightly so. God used Dr. King to save America from her fratricidal hatred of her darker brothers. In an unanticipated and much longed for historical moment orchestrated in the councils of Divine Providence, God raised Dr. King onto the national scene as the visionary, orator and martyr for Civil Rights. Before the Montgomery Bus Boycott, full civil rights seemed distant and nearly impossible to achieve. After roughly 20 years of public ministry and agitation, the denial of full Civil Rights seemed unthinkable. What happened in between must surely be one of the most remarkable records of God’s deliverance of any people in any place.

At least one writer contends that Dr. King is or was the only American hero of his time. He writes:

Have we, in America, had a hero in our time–that is, since World War II? I can think of only one man with a serious claim, Martin Luther King. The theme was high, the occasion was noble, the stage open to the world’s eye, the courage clear and against the odds. And martyrdom came to purge all dross away. King seems made for the folk consciousness, and the folk consciousness is the Valhalla of the true hero–not the gossip column. King may even, someday, enter into the folk consciousness of the white world, which may yet underlie, at what depth it is hard to guess, the Culture of Blab (Robert Penn Warren, “A Dearth of Heroes,” American Heritage, vol. 23 (October1972), p. 99)

Have we reached the day when King has entered “the folk consciousness of the white world”? I highly doubt it–especially if by “the white world” one means the consciousness of white people outside the United States. But it’s doubtful Dr. King has thoroughly seeped into the consciousness of white people in America. Most Americans–White and Black–know little more of King than the fact that he was a preacher and a “slain civil rights leader.” Fewer still have read any of his writing wile assigning him iconic status. But the problem with icons is that they rarely communicate the depth and substance of the thing pictured. Icons have a frustrating habit of becoming merely pictures. Like old photographs that yellows and fades with time, so does the memory of that dynamism and profundity that first insisted we make someone an icon. In that sense we all become iconoclasts because we all so easily forget. On this day set aside to remember King, I’m left pondering the deep civic forgetfulness of King and his civil ideals.

And perhaps the clearest way to observe the deterioration of memory would be to contrast so many claims about the realization of King’s dreams (and what that entails) with
the things King actually seemed to advocate. Consider, for example, the presidency of Barack Obama. At his first Inauguration, held during the King commemoration four years ago, Harry Houdini could not have escaped the comparisons and allusions. Here was a son of the Civil Rights movement, an inheritor of sacrifices and advances won by the many foot soldiers who walked with King, taking an oath that those foot soldiers could barely have imagined possible in their lifetimes. How far we had come.

And, yet, how far have we come?

It seems to me that a cursory look at the Obama presidency and the civic, political and cultural state of the country begs for a resolute announcement that “we have not arrived” and a recommitment to Kingian ideals. Let me illustrate.

The Defense and Flourishing of Life

Does anyone else find it a tragically sad irony that the  new icon of civil rights progress, President Obama, has with his presidential policies regarding abortion ended untold numbers of Black lives when King fought to save them? President Obama’s position on abortion actually represents the most vile and fundamental betrayal of King’s legacy. King fought against the country so that the country might live up to its ideals of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” King sought the extension of life and the full thriving of humanity for African Americans who were systematically denied it. President Obama’s policy systematic ends life even before it begins. His policy on abortion must surely be the grossest violation of basic humanity and civil rights in American history. Grossest because his victims are unborn and defenseless children. Those with tender consciences will object to this word choice, but we can only call the President’s policy and its effects “demonic.”

The Continuance of War

Or, let me offer another example of how little of King’s vision has been fulfilled. The latter part of Dr. King’s life was given to protest against the Vietnam War. At present, this country carries on wars on more than one front, launches drones into civilian areas, and seeks its own “strategic interests” with little regard for the development of the peoples and countries it exploits. I’m not making a political point here–at least not in the style of the tired red vs. blue diatribes we hear so much. I don’t think it would matter one bit whether we were right now facing a second Obama term or a first (fill in the blank) term. And that’s why we’re so far short of King’s ideals. Of course, some “patriot” will tell me that King’s ideas were Quixotic jousts with the windmills of “real life” and “real politics” and “real threats abroad.” Perhaps. But perhaps the “real” follows the ideals of a man and country. There was no “real chance” of ending segregation when King’s ministry began. But in roughly two decades the legal separating and oppressing of people based on skin color was over. An idealist led the way. Despite his campaign rhetoric, President Obama is no true idealist when it comes to war and there appears to be, in Robert Penn Warren’s term, a “dearth of heroes” on the horizon. Moderates were still moderating and conservatives were conserving shrinking margins of the old way of life.

The Beloved Community?

One final observation. The central and driving force of King’s vision and theology was his quest for “the beloved community.” You might think of the beloved community as an egalitarian and mutually responsible expression of the kingdom of God, a society of love and fellowship that far outpaced mere segregation, that eliminated poverty, and really sought “justice for all.” Perhaps it’s best to allow Dr. King to give us a picture of what is meant in his own words:

In a  real sense all life is interrelated. The agony of the poor impoverishes the rich; the betterment of the poor enriches the rich. We are inevitably our brother’s keeper because we are our brother’s brother. Whatever affects on directly affects all indirectly. (King, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?, p. 181)

Let us be dissatisfied until rat-infested, vermin-filled slums will be a thing of a dark past and every family will have a decent sanitary house in which to live. Let us be dissatisfied until the empty stomachs of Mississippi are filled and the idle industries of Appalachia are revitalized…. Let us be dissatisfied until our brothers of the Third World–Asia, Africa and Latin America–will no longer be the victim of imperialist exploitation, but will be lifted from the long night of poverty, illiteracy and disease. (cited in Kenneth L. Smith and Ira G. Zepp, Jr., Search for the Beloved Community: The Thinking of Martin Luther King, Jr, p. 133)

King spent the closing years of his life agitating for a real and significant effort to end poverty in the country and promote justice around the world. One look at the data and we’d have to conclude that poverty remains a plaguing social problem. And when a fellow pastor is barred from Inauguration activities because he actually taught something the Bible says, we’re a long way from the beloved community. Despite his many proclamations of an inclusive society, President Obama’s rhetoric and action has lacked the deep principle and courage of a Dr. King. This country has lacked that deep principle and courage.

Now, as during King’s lifetime, this country fails to take seriously enough it’s own American Dream and extend it for all. Many people miss the fact that King’s most famous speech, the “I Have a Dream” speech delivered at the March on Washington, really was an exposition of the American Dream from the vantage point of the oppressed. Part of the genius of the speech was its seamless weaving of biblical principle with the country’s own best ideals. King summarized the speech this way:

The dream is one of equality of opportunity, of privilege and property widely distributed; a dream of a land where men will not take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few; a dream of a land where men do not argue that the color of a man’s skin determines the content of his character; a dream of a place where all our gifts and resources are held not for ourselves alone but as instruments of service for the rest of humanity; the dream of a country where every man will respect the dignity and worth of all human personality, and men will dare to live together as brothers…. Whenever it if fulfilled, we will emerge from the bleak and desolate midnight of man’s inhumanity to man into the bright and glowing daybreak of freedom and justice for all of God’s children. (cited in Smith and Zepp, Jr., Search for the Beloved Community, p. 138).

With all our debates about tax cuts for the wealthy and fiscal cliffs, and all our continued and willful ignorance regarding the poor persons sleeping outside our doorsteps, we’d have to conclude that we’re still living in “the bleak and desolate midnight of man’s inhumanity to man.”

A Final Thought

King’s life and ministry not only challenged a hypocritical nation, it also confronted a faithless church. His ministry was prophetic not only in terms of calling the powerful to consider justice, but also in terms of calling the people of faith to consider fidelity to their covenant with God.

Some won’t see it that way, just as some didn’t see it that way during King’s life. That’s why he penned one of the most famous letters in American history–the Letter from a Birmingham Jail. King wrote to opposing religious leaders enjoying the relative comforts of life outside of jail while he pondered the bricks and iron of a cell. It’s a moment that carves in historical stone the sad reality that the church has too often lingered on the sideline like a disinterested water boy while men of principle have stood nearly alone in the cause of what’s right and pleasing in God’s sight. The wider church during King’s years lay largely in a stupor of willful ignorance and social accommodation. It’s to the church’s shame.

And for theologically conservatives, it’s to our shame that the intellectual and theological resources that equipped King for his mission came from an “evangelical liberalism” rather than a Bible-believing community. It won’t do for us to “celebrate” his legacy while quietly lamenting his theology when our own theology has been and continues to be so inept at addressing justice. We need to heed the challenge that Dr. King leaves to us–the challenge of a man formed by conviction, acting upon principle, and concerned that all might experience love and justice in society.

 
 

Jan

15

2013

Thabiti Anyabwile|1:23 am CT

Miserable at “Les Miserables”

This past weekend a number of couples from the church took to the theaters to watch the critically acclaimed Les Miserables. We’d heard from a number of people how wonderful this film adaptation was. Now, in every one of those conversations I played the genuine skeptic, calling the film a “chick flick” and all. In every one of those conversation burly plaid-wearing men spoke passionately about how it wasn’t a “chick flick,” how it was moving and passionate and full of action, and about how many sermon illustrations and gospel themes ran through the movie.

Against the better judgment of my inner caveman, I went to the movie.

My very first thought in the opening moments of the very first scene was I hope they don’t sing the entire movie. Two nano-seconds later, the singing started… and never ended! I suppose there were ten spoken words in the entire flick. Immediately following the movie I received a much-needed lesson in culture. I’m gonna pass it on to you for free. You ready? There’s a great difference between a musical and an opera. Some of you knew that. Some of you didn’t. You see a musical–take a classic like Grease–has spoken parts punctuated by songs. An opera has every word sung. Every word. Les Mis is an opera. Check that–a pop opera, I’m told. If my wife had told me we were going to a “pop opera” I would have never left the couch, flipped on Net Flix, and called it a night. But because I can enjoy a musical here and there, I was clobbered by the pop opera Les Mis. Clobbered!

It was a long couple of hours. One brother exiting the movie with hollow eyes in a death walk slightly above zombie status rightly commented, “That could have been about 40 minutes shorter.” Amen and amen. But the filmmakers can’t be blamed for erasing a portion of our lives with a harrowing cacophony of amateur siren songs. Had I known the novel ranks among the longest in the world (1,500 pages in English and 1,900 in French) I would have taken a sleeping bag to the theater!

All along the way I’m uncomfortable and vexed. I couldn’t figure out why until the end. It seems to me the gospel was handled in a most unhelpful way. The “converted” Valjean spends the entire movie trying to find forgiveness through good deeds. We see him in the convent trembling, sweating, fading, with one question on his lips: “Am I forgiven?” His nemesis, who lives by an inflexible law and justice, is crushed beneath the weight of the law even when offered forgiveness. One wonders what the effect of the film might be if imputed righteousness might have been clearly communicated. Valjean could have done wonderful acts of mercy not for forgiveness but from forgiveness. He could have lived his life with assurance rather than dogging doubt. He might have actually told the film’s many other beggars where to find the Bread of Life. Rather than trying to be the Savior, he could have enjoyed the Savior. His nemesis might have had the crushing weight of the law lifted by the Lamb who satisfies both the Law’s demands and penalty.

Instead, we were treated to a cruel imitation of the gospel, a suggestion of grace without the marrow of it. In fact, the film probably confuses mercy (being punished less than our sins deserve) with grace (being treated better than our sins deserve). Praise God for mercy, but grace is so much more. If you’re taking a friend who is not yet a Christian to this movie, be prepared to show them the difference between moral conversion and new birth.

Then, to top all the misery off, there’s the final scene with the entire cast–except Javert–singing a revolutionary fight song as though collectively victorious. A universalist hint? I dunno. But by that time I was thoroughly entrenched among the miserables, the wretched, the poor ones, the victims.

My wife owes me 10 action movies in a row for this one!

There was one bright spot though–the cute, feisty little boy. You’ll like him, but you’ll still be miserable. I know I was.

Okay… let the disagreements begin!

 
 

Apr

24

2012

Thabiti Anyabwile|1:41 am CT

T4G Debrief: Questions about Contextualization

One of the panels at T4G focused on contextualization.  If you like, you can listen to the panel here.  It was one of the panels cut short due to time constraints.  As a consequence, we didn’t have time to develop important conversations about basic definitions and about current applications like “insider movements” and so on.  So, I think many people (myself included) were left hoping more conversation could have happened.

In this post, I want to debrief by offering a number of questions and statements about contextualization–not as a “final word” or even a complete word, but as a way of getting questions and thoughts out of my own head.  So, I’m thinking out loud here.  And I welcome your thoughts and interactions.  Let me offer these things in three sections: general agreements or stipulations, observations/questions about contextualization in a domestic context, and observations/questions about contextualization in predominantly Muslim or cross-cultural contexts.

General Agreements

It seems to me, as was the case on the panel, it’s useful to state a few basic things right up front to hopefully avoid confusion and unnecessary debate.  Among these general statements:

1.  On some level, everyone contextualizes their communication/message.  We all try to get information from one context to another in a way that the receiver can understand and receive.  In that sense, as I see it, contextualization is simply a subset of good communication where the first rule is “Know thy audience.”

2.  At least among the folks likely reading this blog or attending T4G, we all agree that our efforts at contextualization should not distort the gospel message or the necessary entailments of the gospel.  No one looks to fabricate a different message which is really no gospel at all; the intent is to transfer the truth about our Lord in a responsible and responsive way.

I’m sure there are other basic agreements, but these are the ones that seem to repeatedly come up in conversation and ought to be acknowledged at the start.  The real substantive conversation lies somewhere beyond these basic statements.  Especially when it comes to application, we begin to see diverging and sometimes competing points of view.  Which brings me to my observations and my hope that you’ll sharpen my thinking.

Observations Regarding Domestic (largely shared) Cultural Contexts

Of course, contextualization is not merely a communications issue.  Proponents really offer contextualization as a necessary missiological strategy.  The intent is to find ways to faithfully communicate the gospel message to other cultures (though not all missiologists and practitioners hold to this principle or are successful at its application).  In the domestic context, doing missions where we live, I have a few questions and thoughts I’m trying to flesh out:

1.  What limitations are created or ought to be acknowledged when one takes a principle developed for truly cross-cultural settings and applies them in settings where everyone shares the same basic cultural milieu and world view?  Is there anything that needs to be adjusted when you move from Western missionaries in tribal India to American pastors in rural Indiana?  The folks in rural Indiana or even in metro Washington, D.C. would by-and-large share the same cultural milieu and worldview even if they’re members of distinct subcultures.  Does the fact that different folks in rural Indiana or metro D.C. are closer in kind than the missionary from England and tribal member in Northern India matter for how the pastor in Indiana or D.C. thinks about and practices contextualization?  I suspect it might, but I haven’t seen anyone exploring these adjustments.  I think this is a really important thing to think through because I see a number of groups (campus ministries for example) that are placing major emphasis on contextualization in their evangelism strategy but they’re essentially reaching out to people just like them.  Aside from simply running the risk of over-emphasizing strategy and under-emphasizing doing, it seems this kind of situation fosters an unhealthy blindness to our own position in the culture.  Any good reads out there covering this?

2.  In the domestic context, does the increased similarities and the likelihood of substantially shared world and life views blur the distinctiveness of church v. world?  Let me try to explain because I’m still working on this thought.  It seems to me that good contextualization is like throwing a boomerang.  You send the message out on a particular arc, hoping to make contact with a cross-cultural recipient, and to bring that recipient out of an unregenerate state (inclusive of some fundamental world and life views) into a regenerate state and membership in the church.  This is the “I became… so that I might win some” trajectory I assume Paul to mean in 1 Cor. 9:19-23.  He flexes and communicates in order to bring people to where he is in Christ.  The messenger doesn’t move from his position in Christian world and life views; rather, the message goes out with the hopes of bringing others to where he/she is.  That arc and direction seems clear when the situation is clearly cross-cultural.  But what if we’re sharing the same cultural position?  Isn’t contextualization then a bit more like throwing a stone rather than a boomerang?  ”Contextualizing” in shared cultural space might simply be immersing ourselves more deeply in the culture we’re already in, which, I think, is another way of describing increased worldliness.  We’re not actually bringing people out of one position into a distinctively Christian identity and culture, but we’re actually joining them in a more entrenched worldliness.  Does that make sense?  What’s the strength and weakness in this thinking?

3.  It seems to me that a lot of the popular discussion of contextualization suffers from an incomplete statement of the goal.  Contextualizing isn’t the goal.  I think everyone who pauses to think about this even for a moment would agree with this.  But what’s missing is, imo, a robust statement of the goal.  What’s the end we ought to have in mind as we employ this strategy?  What does Paul have in mind when he says “so that I might win some”?  It’s not simply Christian profession.  Nor is it simply personal discipleship.  Neither is it simply church membership.  If Paul means to win people to the position he himself occupies, it also includes such a radical redefinition of personal identity that he and the convert can become all things to all men (a kind of loose grip on natural identity itself, or a radically enlarged notion of freedom in Christ).  If the goal isn’t adequately and repeatedly stated, then the great danger is goal displacement and a glacial drift into worldliness or sub-Christian identity, behavior, etc.  Does this make sense?  Surely there are folks who’ve thought this through.  Any recommendations for further reading?

4.  We really need a solid working definition of “culture.”  Personally, I don’t think the Evangelical world is anywhere near as sophisticated as it sometimes imagines itself to be when it comes to defining and “engaging” the culture.  This, too, can contribute to the church’s mission drift, to pastoral misdirection, and to creeping worldliness.  Many of the popular appeals to “engage the culture” and the defenses of contextualization that rely on “exegeting the culture” seem to me too simplistic and naive at points.  I enjoyed Crouch’s Culture Making, in part, because he clearly understands that though we “shape culture” the culture shapes back!  (though I find Crouch’s definition of”culture” as “things we make in/of the world” terribly reductionistic).   I’m a bit behind in getting to Hunter’s To Change the World, but I look forward to exploring his notion of “faithful presence” (which intuitively appeals to me).  I’m hoping Hunter’s book delves into notions of culture beyond the artifacts (Crouch) and the popular aesthetics (dress, etc.) to think about the “deep structure” of culture.  We need good work in this area; or better yet, perhaps I need to be made aware of good stuff on this topic.

Observations Regarding Cross-Cultural Contexts

I really regret we didn’t have opportunity to discuss this at greater length in the panel.  Apart from Al Mohler’s concluding comments, we didn’t touch this aspect at all and this is perhaps where the greatest challenges to gospel faithfulness, church vitality, and pastoral practice originates.  Perhaps the most hotly contested contextualization missions strategy right now is the so-called “insider movements” and even the viability of the C1-6 contextualization scale.  From where I sit, these forms of contextualization (by which I mean levels 4-6 as I understand them) misunderstand Islam in five critical ways.

1.  These views of contextualization seem to me to misunderstand the nature of cross-carrying, persecution-facing, costly conversion and the nature of the rewards promised to those who suffer for the Name of Christ.  In saying this, I am not making light of the potential or actual suffering and persecution of MBBs.  I’m simply saying that it seems to me that the C-scale has no place for radical costly discipleship in its conception of conversion and following Christ.  That’s a fatal omission and ultimately a fatal distortion of NT Christianity.  Scripture passages regarding suffering and reward abound.

2.  These views of contextualization seem to me to misunderstand the nature of the called-out, visible local church.  Without suggesting that wise strategies for safety ought to be thrown to the wind, it does seem to me that there’s a fundamental level of identification with the people of God as the people of God that must be maintained.  Strategies that intentionally hide the church ultimately place a blanket over what Christ means to be revealed.  They hide the light under the bushel.  Such strategies may prize individual “conversions” over the formation of local churches replete with qualified spiritual leadership, the sacraments, witness, and disciple-marking love.  C4 and beyond move in the wrong direction, toward hiding the church.

3.  These contextualization strategies seem to me to misunderstand the nature of Islam as a system that emphasizes outward obedience and forms combined with social and cultural expectations and pressure that form a steel shackle on the mind and heart.  I suspect this is difficult to understand unless you’ve been a Muslim.  But Islam is all about the forms, the ritual, and culture.  It’s difficult to know where Islam begins as a religion and where Muslim culture ends.  The culture carries the religion and the religion enforces the culture.  I doubt someone can ever be a healthy Christian while pretending to be a Muslim or engaging in the outward forms of Islam.  When we intentionally adopt strategies that leave MBBs inside Muslim contexts, we can do more damage to them than if we encouraged them to come out and face persecution.  They will be rewarded for their persecution, but may be damned for failing to name Christ among men!

4.  These contextualization strategies misunderstand the necessity of thinking about and pursuing a Christian identity with biblical entailments that sever the grip of ethnic and religious backgrounds.  This is a tough one because it’s bound up with so much bad mission practice and abuses among western missionaries who have confused Christianity with Western culture.  In some respects, it seems that some of the higher level contextualization strategies are reactions to these abuses.  But the answer to abuses is not to default to ethnic cultural forms and religious expression.  Those forms are not value neutral. They’re part of the “deep structure” of culture.  What’s needed instead is a movement from Muslim community to biblical community.  We need deeper identification with/in Christ, one that radically reorients us from our natural backgrounds to a primary identification with the new humanity in Christ.  What’s needed is an outworking of Gal. 3:28–”There is neither Jew nor Greek” nor Arab or European or American or African but we are all one in Christ.  I’m concerned we may unwittingly be teaching people to prize their ethnic and social location over their position in Christ, thus perpetuating the ethnocentric blemish that has haunted the church since Acts 6 and certainly in modern missionary contact between Whites and the two-thirds world.  This seems like a re-run of earlier episodes of situation tragedies on the mission field, only with different motivation.  We’re too concerned about letting people be “Arab” or “Paskistani” or “Indian” (which we can’t distinguish very well from being “Muslim”) and too concerned about exporting western ideals (which we can’t distinguish from biblical).  We need a tighter grip on what we’re trying to make people–Christ-ians–and less concern for cultural preservation (ours or theirs), as unpopular as that statement is likely to be.  The cost of souls is far greater than the cost of culture.

5.  It seems to me that these contextualization approaches misunderstand one of the core apologetic issues in Christian engagement with Islam–the inerrancy, inspiration, reliability and superiority of Christianity, including Christian purity and faithfulness to the Scripture.  I’ve yet to engage in a discussion with a Muslim apologist or before a Muslim audience where someone did not contend that Islam was superior to Christianity because it governs all of life.  That’s the party line.  The talking points in defense of that party line include Muslim perceptions about errors in the Bible, the insufficiency of the Bible for directing the lives of the faithful (no law), the lax moral lives of Christians, and the perceived injustice of the gospel (especially Christ’s substitutionary atonement for sinners).  I’m concerned that these views of contextualization effectively concede these points by adopting and validating Muslim forms and practice.  Aren’t C5 and C6 practices akin to Schleirmachian capitulation to the Muslim “cultured despisers of Christianity”?  It’s difficult to see how such contextualization isn’t completely subjectivizing and individualizing the faith in a way that ultimately abandons the faith rather than defend it–if need be with our lives.

In the end, the entire C-scale presents syncretism rather than faithful contextualization.  It blends Christianity and Islam in such a way that, if taken seriously, leaves neither Islam nor Christianity intact.  Such adherents will never be accepted among Muslims and radically misrepresent Christian faith and practice. We need strategies that foster faithfulness and distinctiveness in Christian life and obedience, not strategies that obscure the costly grace of following Christ.

Conclusions

So, I have questions and concerns as I start to learn more about contextualization as both a communication and missions strategy.  Honestly, I’m less concerned with superficial adaptations and adoption of cultural artifacts, styles and expressions (some clothing, some music, figures of speech, etc.).  I don’t think all adaptations and adoptions are harmless, but some level is inescapable.  My bigger concerns have mostly to do with “what’s the end game?”  Where are we really taking the church and taking converts once we’ve implemented our contextualization strategies?  Have we really thought through the boomerang or the rock and where either lands?

 
 

Jan

09

2012

Thabiti Anyabwile|1:49 am CT

Cross-Cultural Ministry

I enjoyed listening to this 9Marks interview on cross-cultural ministry with Mack Stiles, Brian Parks, Nisin and Lenny.  They’re a team of brothers serving in the UAE who bring a wealth of cross-cultural life and ministry experience.  I particularly enjoyed the gospel focus and the naturalness of their conversation.  So often discussions of this sort become polemical and oddly culturally hegemonic in assumptions.  This was refreshing.