Multicultural Reading Groups


Another multicultural discussion group. Photo by Robert Trube, 2012 (all rights reserved)

I am in the midst of a multicultural reading experience. Our book group, The Dead Theologians Society is reading Shusako Endo’s Silence. We’ve had four new participants join us this fall: a student from Japan, another from China, a third from Ghana, and a woman from Venezuela, who joined in for the first time today.

The Japanese student has been a special gift in explaining some of the cultural references of this novel, set in Japan. But today, the Chinese student gave us an interesting take on a hymn a Japanese martyr was singing, and the similarities to a Buddhist outlook. We just were reading it in Christian terms but it made us wonder how much Buddhist beliefs had been mixed with these. Our Ghanaian student has added interesting observations and questions about relationships in the book that others of us have missed.

Our group meets in a university context, which often is a global crossroads. Yet I’m struck with how rarely, even when we have the opportunity do we enjoy this wonderful mix of perspectives, to see a work with different eyes. I’m also appreciative of how helpful this is with a work that originates in a different culture. A bunch of white people reading a book from another culture will still miss many cultural nuances.

I think this is equally important in discussions of books from Western sources. We don’t see our own cultural blind spots very well, the things we assume because that’s just the way it’s always been. I’ve found this in Bible reading groups as well. The truth is, the Bible originated in a Middle Eastern context, and sometimes people from Africa, the Middle East, and southern Europe, or even Asian cultures may understand this better, or certainly differently than I.

One important challenge in such groups is making sure we welcome and encourage the contributions of everyone. Those from other cultures may defer to the Westerners or “dominant culture” folk in the group. Asking for the ideas of someone who has not spoken yet can be helpful, both in creating space for those from other cultural backgrounds and reminding the more gregarious to listen.

A group like this won’t just happen. It probably means thinking about who you’d like to invite to the table beyond your own cultural group, and being intentional about that, and inviting them to invite their friends as well. It means listening to their book recommendations in deciding on new readings. And it means being open to having your thinking changed.

I’m still on a learning curve here. I’d love to hear what others who have tried this have learned works well!

Review: The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity

The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity
The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity by Soong-chan Rah
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There is something wrong with much of American evangelicalism in its current form. Many churches are declining. We have moral scandals. Evangelicalism continues to splinter into weird offshoots like the emergent church and various other post-modern expressions. And many quarters of society hear the term and revile us (I say “us” because theologically this is where I would truly locate myself) because of our over-identification with conservative political stances and indeed for becoming a pawn of conservative interests.

Soong-chan Rah writes that it is not evangelicalism that is on the decline, but rather white evangelicalism that is culturally captive to Western cultural values. Not only is there rapid growth of churches taking place throughout the non-Western world, but because of the immigration of so many of these people groups to the West, they, in many cases, are bringing with them a vibrant evangelical faith, and the churches they are establishing are among the most rapidly growing.

The book consists of three parts. The first describes the captivity of the white church, observing our individualism that makes the gospel and the Bible all about me; our consumerism and materialism that Christianizes affluence; and our continuing racism evident even in Christian publishing circles. On this last, he tells the sad tale of a publisher of Vacation Bible School materials who themed one such set of materials “Rickshaw Rally”, using all sorts of stereotypical and demeaning Asian stereotypes. When criticized, the publishers responded that the Asians shouldn’t take themselves so seriously. In particular, there is the presumption in all this of white privilege–the propensity of whites in organizations and churches to simply consult other whites and do things without consideration or consultation with other cultural groups.

In the second part of this book, Soong-chan Rah explores how pervasive this captivity is as manifest in our church growth and megachurch strategies, the Emergent church, and in our cultural imperialism, our unthinking export of Western ways of doing things around the world. He praises Bill Hybels for his recognition that the Willow Creek model had failed to produce fully-orbed Christian disciples of Christ. And he scathingly criticizes the Emergent church movement as young whites dissatisfied with boomer evangelicalism who are simply creating young white churches reacting against the worst of the previous generation without engaging a broader cultural mix.

He goes on in the third part of the book to prescribe an alternative, which is that the white, culturally captive church needs to learn from and humble itself before the cultures from the Majority world and learn from them. He proposes that we learn a theology of suffering from the African- and Native American churches. He believes the immigrant church can teach us approaches to holistic evangelism from their experience of addressing comprehensively the needs of their own immigrants coming to the west. And he believes second generation people can serve as “bridge” persons between the West and the rest as those who in some ways are in both, and neither, of these cultures–the culture of their parents, and Western culture.

This is a challenging and blunt book which it needs to be. When, in one of his examples, a dying congregation accepts a bid by a white congregation for half the price being offered by a Korean congregation, one recognizes that niceness just won’t cut through the fog and the chains of the captivity he is describing. I believe Rah is spot on in his diagnosis of white evangelicalism and the way forward.

My only question as I read this book is whether the author and those leading the vanguard of this “next evangelicalism” are aware of the dangers of new forms of cultural captivity and privilege to which they could fall prey? Perhaps this is implicit in the incisive critique of these realities in white evangelicalism, but it was not stated. The truth is, these are human conditions present in every culture, not simply white conditions. Culture shapes every form of Christianity, either ordinately or inordinately. Ordinately, this is a thing of beauty as the mosaic of Christians from around the world come together to create a beautiful, God-composed work of art. Similarly, positions of power and influence may be used to effect great good and great service, yet also may be warped to new forms of privilege.

My own hope is to see the dawning of a multicultural evangelicalism where we learn from and humbly submit to each other (beginning with the submission of white churches), and guard each other from hubris and the pitfalls of cultural captivities of every sort and the temptation to privilege in all its forms. May we not simply exchange captivities but move to a greater freedom for all the children of God!

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So Whose America is it Anyway?

When my son was young, my wife had an awakening experience as she waited to pick him up from school and realized that she didn’t understand the conversations going on around her because of the different languages being spoken. Growing up, he interacted with students from every continent and most of the major faiths. Similarly, one of the things I love about our church is that we don’t worship God in just one language. And in the community choir I sing in, we are currently rehearsing music in four different languages (English, Hebrew, German and Spanish). I look forward to the day in the new heaven and earth when we will sing in all the languages of all the nations the praise of our one God. (Maybe I’ll be able to sing better in other languages then!)

So I have to admit to really being baffled by the reaction to Coke’s “America the Beautiful” commercial during an otherwise ho-hum SuperBowl. Singers in multiple languages sang this song while we saw images both of the beauty of our country and the incredible mosaic of peoples that make up our nation. The reaction wasn’t to marketing a soft drink with no health benefits but to the portrayal of who we’ve become as a country. And what surprised me most is that people seemed to overlook the clearly sung, “God shed his grace on thee”.

What troubles me in the reactions to this song are several things:

1. The song acknowledges that our land and our richly diverse nation is a gift of God. That may offend atheists, although I haven’t seen protests from them. We don’t own this country–we all are blessed by God to live here.

2. There are people who are citizens of this country from all the nations represented in the piece. If they have immigrated and naturalized, they have sworn an oath of allegiance to this country, something I never did other than the pledge of allegiance. They pay taxes, serve in our military, and enrich our economy. Just because their first language isn’t English (and most do, or their children do learn English) doesn’t make them any less Americans. Unless our own family line has only English speaking people it is likely that we had forebears whose first language wasn’t English either.

3. Some don’t like the idea of certain peoples singing a song with both Christian overtones and that is a stirring American anthem. Apart from the issues of “civil religion” which could be a post all its own, the critics ignore the fact that we often begin to aspire to the things we sing. Isn’t singing our songs part of how “us” and “them” become “we”?

4. Perhaps most important both as a national value, and a deeply held Christian principle is the call to welcome the immigrant and stranger. This poem, “The New Colossus”. by Emma Lazarus is engraved at the base of the Statue of Liberty:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

The statue with its uplifted torch, along with the words of this poem, have represented generations of immigrants. Equally for Christians, passages like these have inspired past and present efforts to welcome and care for immigrants:

“When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” (Leviticus 19:33-34, ESV)

For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, (Matthew 25:35, ESV).

Our attitude to the immigrant is to be shaped by the fact that our spiritual story is an immigrant story. We remember Israel, once strangers in Egypt, and also remember that all of us were strangers to God apart from Christ’s reconciling work. Moreover, when we welcome the stranger, Jesus tells us that we welcome him. In fact the Matthew 25 passage warns of judgment for those who don’t welcome the stranger–that in our refusal to do so, we may be refusing to welcome Jesus.

I totally get that we have a broken immigration system and hard, substantive work needs to be done on this. I totally get that being a multi-lingual, multi-cultural, multi-faith nation has its challenges. I am encouraged that the early church thrived, even in persecution, in such an environment. And I also realize that to some degree, this has always been the American experience. E pluribus unum means “out of the many, one”. Perhaps the recognition of these challenges and opportunities should cause us to cry afresh with the song, “God shed your grace on us.”


Review: Opening of the American Mind

Opening of the American Mind
Opening of the American Mind by Lawrence W. Levine
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I actually liked this book more than I thought although I am left with many questions. It was written in the mid ’90s in response to the spate of books attacking developments in the university world, Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind foremost among these and the obvious inspiration of the title. Truth is, this is a far more readable argument than Bloom’s.

Levine contends that in fact the “canon” of subjects and texts taught in the university has continued to change throughout the history of universities. At one time, the esteemed texts of English literature, philosophy, and history were in fact eschewed for Greek and Latin literature. The inauguration of “Western Civ” courses only occurred after World War 1.

Furthermore, he argues that the rise of gender, cultural, social and ethnic studies, including the impact of these studies on his own field of history is not a move to cultural relativism or political correctness. Rather, these recognize both the intellectually biased accounts of the past that marginalize many Americans who are not political leaders, or male, or white. We cannot understand the truth of our nation’s history and cultural makeup without listening to the full spectrum of those who contribute to “this American life.” So as the makeup of our country continues to change, so must the curriculum and intellectual life of the university, as it always has.

By and large, Levine’s argument has prevailed in the years since he wrote. And there is much to commend this–a fixed canon that does not take into consideration the contribution of women, the various ethnic communities, the labor movement and more to our national identity does not serve many of those who bear the title “citizen”–it merely expects them to assimilate to some “golden ideal”, when in fact, every new element to our society has changed who we are.

There are questions Levine leaves me with:

1. How does this translate into the curriculum of undergraduate education? Ever since before I was a student GEC’s were a buffet of possible course selections with little coherence except that they represented different areas of a “general education”. As important as these studies are, the reality is that students will sample only a small and fragmented portion of this. If anything, with pressures to control costs and graduate students in four years and increasing specialization of undergraduate education, there is in fact less time for such studies.

2. The years since Levine wrote have resulted in an increasing polarization and Balkanization of American culture around cultural as well as political identities. Circling the wagons around a fixed canon is an inadequate defense against the increasing number of those outside the wagons. But how do we achieve a new form of e pluribus unum that recognizes both our cultural diversity and some common identity and consensus as Americans? Can we maintain an identity as a democratic republic when incommensurable worldviews clash? And what is the role of universities in helping forge that cultural consensus?

3. Beyond a passing observation that, in fact, the advocates of multiculturalism have often been politically inept rather than politically correct, Levine fails to address the hyper-specialization and in-group jargon of these new areas of study that make them incomprehensible to all but the few engaged in those studies. Levine, who sadly is no longer with us, seems to be a notable exception who translates well his own studies of African American cultural history and its contribution to America’s cultural heritage. He fails to address how academics can turn from simply talking to each other to making their work accessible to a wider public in an engaging rather than belligerent manner.

These seem important questions in the ongoing formation of “the American mind” and the role of universities in that formation.

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