March 3, 2009
Urban Exile: Whose History?
I've been to a lot of potlucks. Growing up in church and being a pastor has meant many, many casseroles and Jell-O salads. After a recent preaching gig at a suburban church, I was treated to an entirely different version of the potluck: fried chicken, ribs, spaghetti, and kimchi-stuffed dumplings. Not a casserole or gelatin-inspired food product to be seen. The menu perfectly reflected the ethnically diverse congregation of students, families, and retired folks.
Contrast these eclectic culinary delights with the weeklong theology class I took earlier this year. The professor provided an overview of church history that hit all the high points: canon, creeds, schism, reformation, awakening, evangelicalism, and so on. Curiously, there was no mention Christianity's early spread to Africa and India and not a word about the faith's new center in the global south. In the past, both church and neighborhood reinforced this mostly European perspective on history. Of course I knew about the Middle-Eastern roots of and some of the global influences on Christianity, but didn't most of the important stuff happen to guys with vaguely European-sounding names? History and tradition through a Western lens made sense when I lived and worshiped with people whose great-great-grandparents came from Germany, England, and Sweden.
This description of church history is no longer adequate. My neighbor's names are mostly Hispanic, and the people I worship with have roots all over the world. Calvin and Luther still matter, but the predominance of European and majority-American historical facts and figures seem odd in a diverse community of people with little contact to this history. Dave Gibbons wrote on Out of Ur about America's rapidly changing demographics, changes that are leading to minority-majority cultures. He asks whether these developments have "affected the leadership of our denominations, businesses, churches, and non-profits." To his questions I would add another: In light of this rapidly shifting culture, are we willing to acknowledge and celebrate the vast diversity of our history and heritage?
In Disciples of All Nations, Yale professor Lamin Sanneh documents the hospitality of ancient Christianity to the diverse cultures through which it was transmitted. "Paul was determined that for those new Christians who were brought up as Hellenistic pagans, even the notion of adopting the lifestyle of very good, devout, observant Jewish believers should be rejected." It was critical to Paul that faith in Jesus be rooted within the cultures and traditions of the newly converted. "The gospel was not just about religion as ?the Way,' or as ?ethnic dressing' so that followers and adherents could parade in borrowed garb?but religion as a personal, faith-filled fellowship with God." The early church had to reject culturally irrelevant traditions in order to transmit the faith across cultures.
Some of us are keenly aware of the tensions that arise while transmitting the faith. A Korean congregation must decide how to reach the second and third generation who mostly speak English. A denomination that baptizes infants is faced with Hispanic congregations who embrace believer's baptism. A mostly White suburban church wonders how to respond to new minority residents who've been displaced from the city by gentrification. Paul's rejection of cultural monopoly seems downright impractical in these situations. Wouldn't it be simpler for new converts, new immigrants, and new generations to adapt to our established traditions?
The Western church has often chosen such simplicity, which has prompted the newly converted to ask difficult questions. Sanneh, an immigrant from Gambia, writes, "Africans asked whether apostolic witness required civilization as an alibi, and whether it was credible for the West to claim to be exclusive host of the things of God? Should John Calvin and John Wesley be the litmus test of Christian conversion?" These types of questions were not only asked on the 19th century African continent; today they are voiced by missiologists, church planters and youth pastors. Christian's on the leading edge of the church's advance face the most dissonance with accepted Christian history and tradition. Calvin and Wesley will always have a place in the Church's story, but are there not thinkers and saints who more genuinely relate to our increasingly minority-majority culture?
Born in Liberia in 1860, William Wad? Harris is one such overlooked figure. Harris was converted after an encounter with the angel Gabriel in which he was charged to preach the gospel and baptize African converts. Traveling throughout the Ivory Coast, this indigenous prophet resembled an African John the Baptist, "with a long graying beard, a flowing white robe with broad sleeves, sandals, and a white turban." According to Sanneh, "The unadorned bamboo cross in his right and the Bible in his left hand were symbols of hope and renewal." Less than two years after his ministry began, Harris was arrested by the French and banished from the Ivory Coast. The French were understandably nervous: in that short time 200,000 Africans converted to a Christianity that was independent of colonialism. While European missionaries lamented the snail's pace of their progress, Harris could not find enough churches for those who heeded his Gospel call.
With grievous results, the Western church has often chosen cultural hegemony over indigenous expressions of Christianity, even when the fruit of these expressions was unmistakable. "Converts were torn from their roots in their own society to wilt in an alien missionary environment," writes Sanneh. "They once had a home. Now, thanks to Christianity, they had none." It is no longer only the foreign missionary who faces these realities; as Gibbons points out these are now questions for our suburban and city churches. How will congregations respond to new immigrants, shifting demographics, and a generation influenced by post modernity?
I hope we welcome the changes brought by those of different cultures and histories. The church is a growing body made up of Believers with diverse traditions, worldviews, and artistic expressions; not a static reserve for theology and worship. Those of us who are used to comforting traditions and controlled worship are reticent to release control. Difficult though it may be, this is the vision of God's coming Kingdom, when all peoples and histories are enfolded into the reign of the world's Savior. Put another way, once you've feasted on fried chicken and kimchi-dumplings it's impossible to be satisfied with casserole and Jell-O.