Recently the first WeekFOUR event took place. WeekFOUR is the student group I started with Matt Schuler as a platform for student voices at Fuller Theological Seminary to be heard and as a space for the incredibly diverse and experience-rich Fuller student body to impact, shape and challenge each other more intentionally.
My motivation for starting this group came after I watched a panel discussion hosted at Fuller and some elements of this discussion were actually found in the WeekFOUR talk that I gave (it will be uploaded and available soon).
As a prelude to a much larger post on race that should be coming out in a couple of weeks I wanted to write on something that I have been thinking about for some time: the White Western hegemony of the Gospel.
First, you may want to watch their talk here:
To begin I must explain my belief that the Gospel is always transmitted through and expressed by a culture. But what do I mean by this?
In regards to the Gospel being transmitted by a culture…
Whenever God has interacted with humans, God has done so in understandable terms. God did not speak to Abraham in English or Italian, nor did Jesus use parables that had to do with industrialization or computers. God meets people in their culture in their time and space in history. People then retell the stories and record them in some fashion in an effort to transmit these encounters and their meaning to other people or future generations.
Throughout this entire process culture plays an important role. Cultural values, views, understandings, idioms, language, expectations, social conventions, etc. color this process both in what was originally received from God and in how it is transmitted. This is why people from another culture can often fail to understand the stories or parables of another culture. This is why we must study the original culture, the ancient social and political context, and the ancient languages the Bible was written in to really figure out what is going on.
The Gospel (by this I mean the sum total of the Biblical witness, the story of the Creation of the world, the covenants made by God, the history of the people of Israel, the fulfillment of these covenants in Jesus, the redemption of humanity through Jesus and the future fate of the world and humanity) has always been and continues to be transmitted through culture. Jews explained it a certain way to Jews, Romans explained it a certain way to Romans, Europeans explained it a certain way to Europeans, etc.
In regards to the Gospel being expressed in a culture…
Hand in hand with the fact that the Gospel is always transmitted by a culture is the fact that the Gospel is always expressed in a culture. Whenever humans respond to God or respond to the Gospel we do so in ways that make sense to us. A Spanish-speaking Christian does not pray to God in English or Swahili. A culture that has a robust value on embodied expression of emotion in dancing and singing does not naturally worship God, expressing emotions such as gratitude and happiness, by standing completely still and reading in unison from a hymnal. The specific practices, theology and daily life of any given Christian community will be the Gospel as understood and expressed by that culture. What we actually see, think and do as Christians is not the Gospel per se but ways our specific culture has seen fit to express the Gospel as we understand it to the world and embody that Gospel as people and individuals.
Two grave and persistent dangers: forgetting and assuming.
Problems arise when we mistake the cultural expression of the Gospel from a culture to be the Gospel. This often happens naturally over time as the stable Christian community transmits the Gospel to the next generation. The next generation is raised in a cultural expression of the Gospel and knows nothing else. They naturally assume what they experience is the one right way the Gospel should be expressed and responded to. They assume what they know is Christianity, with any alterations being heresy or sub-standard. They assume what they know is Christianity, with any alterations being heresy or sub-standard.
As the generations roll on we come to think, consciously or unconsciously, that how the Gospel has been expressed in our culture is how it should be expressed in all cultures. When we do this, whether we realize it or not, we forget the distinction between the Gospel and our culture. We then show up on the missions field in another culture and do not just tell them to believe in Jesus, we tell them that to believe in Jesus they have to look like us. This is a situation that some might call cultural or theological imperialism/colonialism.
But why do I bring this up?
Phyllis Tickle has suggested in her book The Great Emergence and at the panel discussion at Fuller that Christianity goes through an identity crisis and dramatic changes every five hundred years or so. This happened first in the Dark Ages, second during the Great Schism in 1057 (where the Western and Eastern Church divided), third during the Reformation in the 1500’s and now in what she would call the Great Emergence.
At least since the Reformation, and most likely for several centuries before that, the Gospel has been in a state of captivity to White Western culture and the White Western imagination and understanding of faith. What I mean by that is the cultural expression of the Gospel within White Western culture has had a hegemony on how the Gospel should be expressed. In other words, the “Christianity” many are familiar with is actually the Gospel as it is has been understood and expressed within White Western culture. As the Gospel has spread throughout the centuries everyone has been expected to understand, express and respond to the Gospel in the ways White Westerners have understood, expressed and responded to the Gospel.
Evidence of this hegemony and part of the reason this hegemony has been so complete and powerful is that White Westerners have had an near monopoly when it comes to holding positions of power, authority and influence in Christianity. Across the various Christian churches, denominations, sects and communions, for centuries the most prominent and influential theologians, leaders, speakers and Christian communities have been White Westerners, most of them male.
This is not just an assumption but a fair assessment of history. All of the titans of the Reformation, all of their peers, and all of the leaders of new and old expressions of Christianity that went out from Western Europe into the Americas, Africa and parts of Asia have been for White Western Europeans, again most of them male. This trend has continued rather consistently throughout the last several hundred years. Surveying all of the “big names” (or as I like to call them, “super-apostles”) in the contemporary Christian culture in the the United States and in Western Europe, one can see that they are almost exclusively White Westerners. Shane Claiborne, Rick Warren, Mark Driscoll, Bill Johnson, Jim Wallis, John Piper, Pat Robertson, the late Jerry Falwell, Donald Miller, James Dobson, Tim Keller, Randy Clark, N.T. Wright, Tony Campolo, John and Carol Arnott, Brian McLaren, Rowan Williams, Heidi Baker, Michael Horton, Mike Bickle, Kevin DeYoung, Rob Bell, the late Billy Graham, Bill Hybels, Joel Olsteen, and others are just some of the household names that represent a variety of expressions, movements and theological streams that are prominent in the U.S. right now…and they are all White Westerners. Beyond Protestant circles, while the U.S. has finally seen a black President, the Roman Catholic Church has still not seen a non-White Pope even though the Catholic church has existed and thrived in many non-White contexts for centuries.
The consequences of this have often been that what it means to be Christian has become blurred what it means to be a White Westerner and many of our past missionary endeavors and our current missionary practices have been thoroughly guilty of cultural and theological imperialism. We think we are communicating the Gospel but we are really communicating our cultures understanding and expression of the Gospel. In this we are not just presenting a pure Gospel and trusting the local followers of Jesus to respond to it, but we are forcibly remaking them into our image.
Only in the last hundred years or so in the West have we seen non-white Western theologians, pastors and leaders come to prominence, though they have still been heavily marginalized and are still the minority. Black, Latin American, Asian, and female theologians, leaders and speakers have indeed been gaining traction very slowly but arguably some have only risen to places of influence by adopting the Gospel as it has been expressed in the White Western culture.
Why this hegemony is about to end.
One of the greatest areas of risk and opportunity in the Great Emergence is that Christianity is breaking free from this cultural hegemony of the Gospel. The balance of power is shifting away from White Western Christians to non-Western and non-White cultures in Latin America, Africa and Asia. Numerically, especially with the rise of Pentecostalism and the Charismatic movement, the balance is shifting drastically even as Christianity in Europe is seen as culture more than an actual faith and Christianity in the U.S. is in decline, division and disarray. Soon, theological prominence will shift as a rising tide of leaders and theologians who grew up outside of White Western culture, will attend non-Western seminaries, and begin producing and disseminating their works that will be instantly available to the global village. This is in some senses already happening as many Christians are now increasingly aware that non-Western and non-White churches have existed, they are coming into contact with them, and coming into contact with their thought and theology through the internet. I would suggest the interest in the Eastern Orthodox Church is just one example of this.
The loss of control over Christianity and the prospect of large changes in Christianity frightens some White Western Christians. Used to their cultural expression of the Gospel being privileged above all others they are quick to accuse and label others expressions as poor misunderstandings of the Gospel, misreadings of the Bible or even heresy. In the Fuller discussion, Tony Jones very transparently admitted that this was his own reaction in regard to the rise of Pentecostal Christianity in the Global South. However, even many White Western Christians are beginning to recognize this cultural hegemony, the problems with it and the need for change.
This may be a very good thing and a very bad thing for the Gospel and the Christian Church as a whole.
On one hand, I want this cultural hegemony to be broken. It is culturally and theologically imperialistic. It also has limited our understanding of God, the Gospel and what it means to be a follower of Jesus in this world. I expect the diversification and proliferation of thought and leadership to other cultures to bring greater depth to our understanding of God. I think Christians from other cultures will be able to see the many problems with our cultural expression of faith that we are blind to, and will eventually have equal footing from which to speak those truths into our lives. I think Malawian Christians and Vietnamese Christians and Chinese Christians and Iranian Christians and Mexican Christians, etc. will also have a lot to teach us from how they come to understand, express and respond to the Gospel from their own culture, not replicate or adopt the ways White Westerners have done so (or how these understanding will be given a voice). If the Gospel is understood to be a diamond, for the last several hundred years we have only been looking at one side of it, and to see the true beauty and majesty of the Gospel, we need to look at the other facets as well.
On the other hand, White Western Christianity is by no means monolithic. The story of Western Christianity in the last five hundred years has been a story of endless schism and we now have over 30,000 different Protestant denominations. Will breaking free from the cultural hegemony of White Western culture produce 30,000 more different denominations in the African Church and the Latin American church as well? In the Reformation people broke away from the Catholic Church and refused to accept it as authoritative so the Reformers really could not stop people breaking away from their teachings or refusing to accept their authority. After all, if the Roman Catholic Church could be wrong, so could Luther or Calvin. In the same way, will we see endless fractures as people break from the hegemony of the White Western culture find they too are unable to stop people breaking away from them? Probably.
In this time of great change no one can predict the future, but several hundred years from now I think what it means to be a Christian will probably be very different than what we think it means now and we will be better for it.