In his latest book, Soong-Chan Rah wants to equip us for the multicultural revolution that’s knocking at the American church’s door. Are we ready to trade our melting pots for jazz improv?
Right now, the U.S. is experiencing the most dramatic demographic shift in its history. By 2050, white Americans will no longer represent a majority of the population. Instead, they’ll be the largest minority group in a country comprised entirely of minorities, followed by Hispanic Americans, African Americans, and Asian Americans. What does that mean for American Christianity?
It’s safe to say Soong-Chan Rah is one of the evangelical church’s leading voices on issues of race, culture, and social justice. His 2009 book, The Next Evangelicalism, ramped up the church’s conversation on the changing cultural landscape of Christianity in the world and its implications for Western believers. Now with his latest book, Many Colors: Cultural Intelligence for a Changing Church, Soong-Chan explores how American Christians can become more sensitive to the new multicultural realities of our world. A professor at North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago and a former urban pastor, Soong-Chan cares deeply about the future of the church. He recently spoke to Robert Gelinas, UrbanFaith’s own Jazz Theologian, about Many Colors, his personal journey, and why jazz is better than creamy ranch dressing.
JAZZ THEOLOGIAN: Let’s start with a basic definition. What is Cultural Intelligence?
SOONG-CHAN RAH: Cultural intelligence is a phrase that I am borrowing from the business community. Businesses have been aware of the need for cultural intelligence and sensitivity for many years. They recognize that you will not survive as a business in the next century without having an understanding of how to deal cross-culturally. Many of the books that you will find on the topic of cultural intelligence will be found in the business section.
I also say in my book that it’s not so much cultural intelligence that is the goal, but cultural intuition. It is not simply that you need to gain knowledge or content or a certain skill set, but our goal is actually, cultural intuition, which means that you develop cultural sensitivity. You develop a way of understanding the world and those you encounter with a slightly different lens. I advocate for mutual cultural understanding and learning rather than simply cultural intelligence, which may have the connotation of just gaining knowledge.
How would church in America change if the average Christian developed their Cultural Intelligence?
My hope for the book is that churches would develop a certain level of understanding, sensitivity, and intelligence that would allow us to begin the process of communicating and developing cross-cultural relationships. I think there’s a lot of fear, anxiety, even mystery when it comes to cross-cultural relationships. Most of us recognize that it is not an easy task to interact with those that are different from ourselves. I want to help demystify some of this anxiety and fear. As we develop a biblical understanding of culture, we should develop a greater respect for other cultures. A developing cultural intelligence and sensitivity should give the church the courage to build more intentional cross-cultural relationships.
In your book you write, “Telling those who have suffered or are attempting to come to terms with suffering to ‘Get over it’ is not a helpful answer.” Why are phrases like, “Get over it,” so harmful and what do you suggest in their place?
An important aspect of cultural intelligence and intuition is that we have empathy and sensitivity to experiences that are different from our own. This requires a biblical way of looking at the world. It requires having a concern for others above our own concerns. So it’s not about getting ahead for our own benefit or making sure that we get what we want, but it really is about engaging and empathizing with the stories of others. The Bible teaches us that this is the example that Jesus gave to us. He came into the world in human flesh, and he can empathize with our suffering because he himself also suffered. Our inability to show compassion towards the suffering is a horrid witness to the incarnational love that Jesus has shown. Our lack of sympathy and empathy can be an obstacle to communicating the gospel message. I would offer that being quick to listen would be the best alternative. We don’t always have to have the right answers. It’s okay to listen and to learn.
I’m becoming more convinced that the church would greatly benefit from learning the biblical language of lament. In the Psalms of lament and in the Book of Lamentations, we see the people lamenting together for the suffering of their entire community.
As a Korean American, you write with keen knowledge and perception when it comes to African American history. How, personally, did you gain such insight?
I grew up in a diverse neighborhood: first in inner-city Baltimore, then in a Maryland suburb. So I’ve always had cross-cultural friendships which contribute to my personal understanding of different cultures. Interestingly, my church experience early on was very segregated, growing up in the Korean immigrant church. During my college years in New York City, I began to have more interaction and experience with Christians from other races, ethnicities, and races. I had opportunities to visit African American churches and I made an intentional effort to learn about different cultures. During seminary, there was almost no teaching on African American church history. I recognized this gap and made an effort to draw from a wide range of reading, including Lincoln and Mamiya’s book on the Black Church, Albert Raboteau’s Slave Religion, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Dr. King’s sermons, etc. I made an intentional personal effort to gain as much knowledge as possible.
But probably the most significant experience has been with the African American pastors who have mentored me over the years. They were key mentors who guided me during years of pastoring an urban church. They were mentors that provided insight into my spiritual life, my relationship with my wife, my role as a father, and my identity as a pastor. Having the opportunity to learn at their feet and by their example provided as much insight as all the books I have read.
Some say that the way we should view a multicultural America is by thinking of it in terms of a “melting pot” or “salad bowl.” Do you like those metaphors?
I believe that the melting pot imagery is inadequate because it assumes that cultures are disposable and can be melted away. It is the taking of the rich diversity and array of cultures that exist in our nation and melting away the flavors to make a bland, monolithic soup. It assumes that cultures are easily disposable. But as one of my Native American mentors said, “Natives don’t melt very well.” So how do we contend with the elements of our culture that don’t melt? And how inappropriate is it for us to assume that they should melt? The salad bowl approach believes that we can gather a wide array of vegetables that may reflect different cultures. So we can throw into the mix: kimchi, jalapeno peppers, turnip greens, napa cabbage, or roma tomatoes. But we end up drenching the rich array of flavors with one type of dressing. So no matter how flavorful that pepper may be, we end up drenching it in creamy ranch. And even kimchi, with too much creamy ranch, ends up tasting like creamy ranch.
Both images are inadequate in that they provide the possibility of one flavor dominating and covering the range of flavors that are possible in a multicultural society and a multi-cultural church. My concern is that most of what passes for multiethnic churches is actually a dysfunctional expression of the melting pot or the salad bowl — where we still end up with only one flavor.
I spend a lot of time exploring the jazz-shaped nature of our faith, so I have to ask what you think about the metaphor of the multicultural church as a jazz ensemble — all unique instruments, yet playing the same song?
I really like that image. I especially like the idea that, with jazz, there is some improvisation involved. There isn’t one tune that carries the day that everyone has to play along with. I like the fact that you actually needdifferent instruments to sound different in order to make good jazz. When it comes to these issues of a multicultural America, maybe we should move our thinking away from food and toward jazz.