What’s Next, part V
Did you notice that this Sunday we are having a “Theological Roundtable Discussion on Climate Change” after worship at 11:00? Are you aware of all of the Holy Week events and worship services that are taking place next week? If you’ve been a little too busy to pay attention to all the details, I encourage you to click
and scroll through the announcements and events that are coming up. (There’s chocolate!)
Many thanks to those of you who have reached out after last week’s post to share some of your ideas of what constitutes “White Christianity,” as opposed to Christianity itself. I will share some of those observations, but first please allow me to make a critical clarification. When it comes to the cultural dimensions of any expression of Christianity, I find myself convinced by Paul Tillich’s argument that “religion is the substance of culture; culture is the form of religion.” That is to say, I don’t think any presentation of Christianity is possible without some kind of cultural shape in which it is presented – starting with something as basically cultural as language itself, but extending far beyond that. Two of the early struggles of the early church were over the cultural form of the faith of those who follow Christ. The promise that the risen Christ gave to his disciples, according to Acts 1:8, was “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” As the church moved out of Jerusalem and then out of territory that was predominantly populated with Jews, one struggle was over how Jewish the Christian faith was supposed to be. The question often arose, “Do Gentile followers of Jesus have to be circumcised, or follow the laws of the Old Testament as they had been incorporated into Jewish life?” As one more recent scholar person put it, “Do you have to become Jewish before you can become Christian?” That’s a complicated question, with lots of different layers of answers, but my point for now is that this hotly debated topic among the early church was essentially a question of the substance and form of Christianity – what is the best cultural form to carry the message of the gospel?
Another question of Christianity and culture, or the substance and form of the early church, was with regard to the Roman Empire. Many of the espoused values of the Christian message are radically different than the values of the Roman Empire – such as the paradoxical teaching of Jesus that to be the greatest one must become the least. Most of the Greek and Roman imperial thinkers would have thought Jesus foolish for choosing to endure the cross as a way of salvation. So, when the early church began to organize itself, it faced some questions – do we follow the hierarchical structure of the empire? Do we follow the structure of the temple? Or, is there a way of living into the egalitarian vision of Joel that Peter proclaimed on the Day of Pentecost, when the spirit would be poured out on every layer of society, empowering sons and daughters, young and old, enslaved and freed to speak with power and authority? My point, again, is that there is no “culture-free” expression of the Christian faith. But, there are times when the cultural expression of the faith can actually be contrary to the meaning and content of the faith. So, the reason for trying to identify the difference between “White Christianity” and Christianity itself is not to aspire to a Christianity that is free of particularity, but to challenge those parts of the faith that we have inherited that are actually contrary to the content of the gospel.
Over the next few weeks I’ll be responding to some of the responses that I have received from readers about what constitutes “White Christianity.” And please feel free to send more. Here is a sample of some observations I received as well as my own questions that were provoked by them.
- Is the almost mechanical understanding of “substitutionary atonement” a product of the rise of science and manufactory in 18-19
century Western thinking?
- Is the emphasis on “individualism” – in phrases like “personal salvation,” “personal evangelism,” and the idea of a “personal God” – a reflection of Western culture?
- So many of the stories of Jesus have him speaking outside, yet almost every gathering of Christian community today is indoors, often in ornate structures that are solely for that purpose.
- Many elements of worship seem very constricted and controlled, from sitting and standing at certain times to only speaking or singing when instructed.
- Why are we expected to be “apolitical” when the Christian community is gathered?
- We are very word-centered, still, quiet, and compliant when worshiping together.
- One reader also wants to explore how some parts of the church today have internalized their oppression – such as the Native American man that Dick Piper mentioned in last week’s post, who only found four-part harmonic hymnody to be appropriate music for worship.
Ah, there’s a lot to see, a lot to celebrate, a lot to mourn, and a lot to learn here. Let’s keep walking together.
Mark of St. Mark