In Case You Missed It

1) At Christianity Today, this young Iraqi girl — living in a mall in Mosul because her family would likely be killed by ISIS if they went outside — teaches the Arab world and us about forgiveness.

2) Anthony Bradley argues at World Magazine that talk of Jesus and social justice among evangelicals often ignores the largest group in the U.S., poor whites.

3) From First Things, Matthew Schmitz points out the ironically traditional view of the family held by gay fashion designers Dolce and Gabbana.

4) At Facts and Trends, Chris Martin and Marty Duren note several hashtag dos and don’ts for churches.

5) For helpful stuff on faith and culture, check out the new Intersect Project hosted by SEBTS in partnership with the Kern Family Foundation.

On Evangelicals and Race: Two Recommendations

Next EvangelicalismYesterday, my fellow contributor Bruce Ashford published an important blog post titled “On Affirmative Action and ‘Wishing You Were Black.'” Bruce accurately points out what I’m just beginning to learn: it is difficult for caucasians to understand exactly how minorities view racism because our position of cultural privilege so informs our perspective. The whole idea of a “colorblind” approach to race matters is really only beneficial to those who are already sitting in the proverbial catbird seat in our culture. I would add that it is also a decisively “modern” interpretation of race since it assumes a sort of neutral vantage point that simply doesn’t exist.

The reality is that white evangelicals have often botched the race conversation, normally without intending ill toward minorities. Just look at the way so many of us fumbled the Trayvon Martin tragedy, often sounding more like rightwing radio and television personalities than redeemed vessels called to be instruments of peace in a fractured world. Perhaps closer to home, or at least white evangelical subculture, are the recent reminders that some evangelicals are profoundly ethnocentric in their understanding of African American culture and history. (See the articles here and here, but note that several of the men who participated in the controversial event have offered apologies in recent days.) It has never been more important than now for evangelicals who look like me to work hard to engage the race conversation winsomely, thoughtfully and with an open mind and a teachable spirit.

aliens-in-the-promised-land-cover2I want to recommend two books that evangelical pastors and other leaders should read, especially if they are caucasian. The first is Soong-Chan Rah’s book The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity (IVP Academic, 2009). Rah is a professor of evangelism and church growth at North Park Seminary in Chicago. Rah argues that  American evangelicalism is thriving spiritually and numerically, though most of this vitality is ignored by evangelical leaders and the media because it is primarily among ethnic minorities and immigrants. Rah provides numerous suggestions, some of them quite provocative, for how white evangelicals can better understand these trends work to create space for minority evangelicals to make a more meaningful contribution to evangelical institutions and leadership.

The second book is Anthony Bradley’s recent edited collection Aliens in the Promised Land: Why Minority Leadership Is Overlooked in White Christian Churches and Institutions (P&R, 2013). Bradley is a theologian and ethicist who teaches at The King’s College in New York City. Bradley assembles a theologically and ethnically diverse set of evangelicals to engage topics such as the paucity of ethnic minorities in evangelical institutions, the relative lack of minorities on the faculties of evangelical colleges and universities, the non-participation of many minority scholars in the evangelical academy and the challenges and potential perils of white churches and denominations planting congregations in minority-dominated communities. Bradley’s introduction, which recounts his own experiences with evangelical racism, is particularly poignant.

I hope you will read these books and find them as challenging as I have. I know there are loads of other helpful books out there, so please feel free to recommend some in the comments. And for those of your who are Southeastern Seminary students, I would urge you to consider taking Prof. Walter Strickland’s January course on Black Theology.

Orthodoxy, Orthopraxy, and Puritan Slavery

A (mostly) friendly brouhaha has broken out in the blogosphere over the puritans and slavery. Propaganda, a Christian hip hop artist, released a song titled “Precious Puritans.” The song points out that the puritans ought not to be uncritically adored by white believers because many puritans were slaveholders. Some thoughtful folks resonated with that argument, other insightful brothers pushed back a bit. (Several of them on both sides are friends of mine.) Thabiti Anyabwile and Anthony Bradley have each written summaries of the debate.

As a church historian, I resonate very much with this controversy. Every semester, I teach about some of the most well-known figures in the history of Christianity. Historical integrity, as well as a strong sense of human depravity, compels me to mention not only the good things these men and women said and did, but also their shortcomings. Origen castrated himself. Cyril of Alexandria was a thug. Martin Luther was antisemitic in his later years. A group of Anabaptist anarchists took over the city of Münster. Calvin approved of Servetus being burned at the stake. Puritans persecuted religious dissenters, including Baptists. Antebellum evangelicals owned slaves. Karl Barth probably had a long-term affair with his secretary. W.A. Criswell was a segregationist in his early ministry. Martin Luther King Jr. plagiarized portions of his dissertation. The list could go on.

Different students respond in different ways upon acquiring this sort of knowledge. Some are thankful that their heroes have been humanized, since there is always a temptation to idolize Christian leaders from bygone eras. Others really struggle with this. I can remember one student asking me in front of the entire class if I believed Martin Luther was “really” saved, seeing as he encouraged the nobles to kill anarchic peasants, gave approval to a Lutheran prince’s bigamy, and didn’t care much for Jewish people who didn’t convert to Christianity. Others students have questioned whether nineteenth-century Southern Baptists were “really” regenerate since many owned slaves and most approved of chattel slavery.

I think Thabiti nails part of what’s really going on in these discussions. Note the extended quote from his aforementioned post:

Fifth, good theology does not mechanically lead to good living. We need to understand this. It’s a commonplace Christian assertion that if we believe the right things we ought to do the right things. Then we’re perplexed when either people who believe the right things actually do vile things, or people with supposedly faulty theology actually live better than the orthodox. We’re left groping for explanations and defenses. How did the Puritans “miss it”? Why did “liberals” seem to “get it”? Well, “it” doesn’t follow mechanically, ipso factoex opere operato from some set of solid beliefs. There’s a whole lot of effort, application, resistance to the world, self-examination, and mortification that’s gotta accompany the doctrine in order for the duty to follow. As Flav put it, “They’re blind, baby, because they can’t see.” That’s why they missed it; they couldn’t see it. Their theology wasn’t a corrective lense; it didn’t fix the cataracts. It didn’t fix the degenerative sight of Southern Presbyterians who also missed it, or the Dutch Reformed of South Africa who not only missed it but supported Apartheid, or some of the German Reformed who missed it in Nazi Germany, and so on. And this is why I’m made slightly nervous by the tendency of some Reformed types to advocate “pure” doctrine and demur at “pure” social action. The Puritan movement was a movement in church reform and revival, and some of their heirs (I count myself one) can be too purely concerned about the purity of the church without a commensurate concern about the purity of social witness. We can stack our chips on theology, as though theology inexorably produces the social results we want with little to no attending effort. Mistake, I think. The Puritans prove that.

Exactly. We’re tempted to believe that orthopraxy naturally follows orthodoxy. After all, ideas have consequences. The problem is that we each live in the reality of Romans 7 every day of our lives. We often willfully choose to say and do things that are contrary to our professed beliefs. Every Christian (and sometimes whole “tribes” or generations of believers) also has blind spots when ti comes to certain sins in our own lives and times. Often, believers in other tribes or later generations wonder how in the world it can be that some Christians reconciled a particular sinful behavior or priority with the Scriptures. Many of my mostly white, southern students feel that way about their often segregationist parents and grandparents.

Puritanism really was a movement of sincere and mature believers. (At least this is true of the puritans whose books Reformed publishers choose to reprint for modern consumption.) But as with all groups, they had sinful blind spots where they fell short of God’s best–sometimes seriously so. Slavery is a great example of that. Persecuting Quakers and Baptists is another. I bet they were even guilty of pride, lust, deceitfulness, and gluttony–because they were sinners.

Instead of criticizing Propaganda or criticizing those who raised concerns with “Precious Puritans,” I’d urge us all to do a “speck and log” type of examination on ourselves. What are some areas where we know our orthopraxy doesn’t match up with our orthodoxy? What are some of our own cultural or generational or tribal blinders that are preventing us from honoring God as well as we might? Let’s pray that the Lord would show us these things and grant us the grace, through the power of the Spirit, to daily mortify these sins.

(Image credit)