Cultural Identity and the Purposes of God, Steven M. Bryan. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2022.
Summary: A biblical study of cultural identity: ethnicity, nationality, and race.
Cultural identity has become a prominent topic of discussion. There is a growing movement in many countries contending that nations must be constituted of a singular cultural identity, ethnicity, and/or race. At its worst, it eventuates in genocide. In other contexts, an ideal of multiculturalism is upheld, celebrating diversity, yet often struggling to compose relations between diverse cultural, ethnic, and racial groups on any other term than power and any attempt to pursue a common ground is perceived as a move of power and an effort to colonize or assimilate.
Steven M. Bryan, a theological educator who spent twenty years among the ethnically diverse cultures of Ethiopia, believes our starting point must be the biblical narrative, from Genesis to Revelation. In this work, he surveys the contribution of the biblical corpus to thinking about cultural identity within the overarching purposes of God, reflecting on the relevance of this material to his own cross-cultural experience.
After articulating the contemporary issues, he sets forth his thesis, using the vision of Nebuchadnezzar of the idol of different materials with clay destroyed by the stone which becomes a mountain drawing the nations into a “people of peoples.” From creation to new creation, this has been the vision of God.
He traces this theme in the early chapters of Genesis, seeing humanity as created for cultural identity, reflected in the different cultures of the table of nations in Genesis 10. Babel is fallen humanity’s rebellion against the cultural mandate, an effort toward a totalizing uniformity, prevented by a God who intended diverse cultures to fill the earth rather than gather in one place to form a monoculture. The calling of Abraham as one, was the beginning of a plot to bring blessing to many, forming a people of peoples blessed by God. Yet this takes many twists and turns with the nation that arises from him, with nations declared herem in their idolatry, while others who embrace the one true God are included. And when Israel turns to idolatry, she too is separated, and then restored.
Matthew shows us a Messiah who heals the Canaanite’s daughter and feeds the four thousand, welcoming to his table those who evidence the faith of Abraham, although they are not Jews. Luke portrays the holy people, all who repent and believe, who needn’t become Jewish to become part of a new common culture–“the Way.” John portrays Jesus as the temple not made with human hands, an open house of prayer for all peoples to worship one God in spirit and truth. Paul forms churches as he goes first to the Jew and then to non-Jews, forming a people of peoples reflecting the new humanity. Finally in Revelation, we see the garden-city-temple of the new creation where the nations bring their treasures and the vision of a people of peoples is consummated.
In conclusion, Bryan considers the purpose of peoples within God’s plan for one new humanity and the significance for our current moment. It means our politics are shaped by the hope of the new creation, refusing either soft or hard forms of nationalism and a politics that cannot envision either the individual or a greater commonality beyond particular cultural identities. We allow for both multiple and common identity. We give up power in the pursuit of righteousness, creating a community of equals formed not by contests of power but the downward path of the servant Messiah. We become a holy people as we reciprocate hospitality, hosting one another without distinction at our tables. We become a people of peoples.
Rather than taking sides in our debates about cultural identity, Bryan shows how the scriptures able to navigate the contested waters between incommensurable cultural identities and imposed uniformity. He helps us see God’s intent for the mosaic of identities that comprise his new humanity in Christ and how this reflects the purpose of God from the beginning. This felt to me like an “all y’all” book, not only for the American context but for the many different contentions around cultural identity faced in the global church. And in a time where we tend to take our marching orders from the particular echo chambers we inhabit, Bryan invites us to the expansive biblical narrative reflecting God’s love for cultures and culture making being formed into the beautiful mosaic of a people of peoples.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.
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