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 By 2050, white Americans will no longer represent a majority of the population.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.
In his latest book, Brian McLaren calls the church to a deeper and broader vision of the gospel that makes room for contemporary issues of justice and reconciliation. But has the controversial author gone too far this time? PLUS: Keep reading to find out how you can receive a FREE copy of McLaren’s book, A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith.
Reading a Brian McLaren book is not for the theologically faint of heart, nor is it for those who wish to stay safely ensconced within their doctrinal comfort zones. McLaren is, to put it mildly, an evangelical agitator. He has been labeled everything from “unbiblical” to “dangerous.” A lot of that stems from his prominent role as a leading proponent of what we now call the “emergent” or “emerging” church movement, which seeks to recast the Christian faith in the context of postmodern culture while staying true to Scripture. More often than not, this means questioning the customs and practices of the modern evangelical movement and its various institutions.
The founding pastor of Cedar Ridge Community Church in Maryland and a popular speaker and writer, McLaren has traveled far and wide with his controversial ideas on spirituality and faith. In 2005 TIME magazine named him one of the “25 Most Influential Evangelicals in America.”
• The Narrative Question: What is the Bible about, and what problem is it trying to solve?
• The Authority Question: What does it mean to say the Bible has authority?
• The God Question: Is God violent? Does he make innocent people suffer?
• The Jesus Question: Who is Jesus and why is he so important?
• The Gospel Question: What is the core message of the Christian faith?
• The Church Question: What are the church’s primary, essential functions?
• The Sex Question: Can we move beyond polarization to constructive dialogue on the issue of homosexuality?
• The Future Question: What is our vision of the future?
• The Pluralism Question: How should followers of Jesus relate to people of other religions?
• The What-Do-We-Do-Now Question: How can we open a discussion about these questions without creating needless controversy and division?
McLaren argues that he’s not proposing a new set of beliefs, but rather a “new way of believing” the truth of God’s Word.
Not surprisingly, the book is already stirring up debate. In Christianity Today, North Park University theologian Scot McKnight, usually generous toward thinkers in the emerging church, finds the book lacking in evangelical orthodoxy. And Kevin DeYoung, pastor of University Reformed Church in East Lansing, Michigan, takes it a step farther. He writes: “McLaren’s Christianity is not new and certainly not improved. I don’t believe you can even call it Christianity. It is liberalism dressed up for the 21st century.”
With these criticisms in mind, UrbanFaith’s resident Jazz Theologian, Robert Gelinas, spoke to McLaren about what he wants to accomplish with his new book, as well as the popular critique from many that the emerging church movement is a decidedly “white” phenomenon that has very little relevance for non-Caucasian believers and those coming from an urban context.
JAZZ THEOLOGIAN: How does A New Kind of Christianity build upon your past works, and what’s wrong with the old kind of Christianity?
BRIAN McCLAREN: Several people have said that the book summarizes my work to date and extends it into new territory, and I think there’s a lot of truth to that, although it is less directly engaged with contemporary crises than Everything Must Change, or with spiritual formation than Finding Our Way Again. Instead of saying what’s wrong with the old kind of Christianity, I’d simply say that as the Christian faith matures over the centuries, we are ready for new challenges, new learnings, and it would be a shame to fail to keep maturing. So older kinds of Christianity were appropriate to their times and our maturity, but we need to keep growing, learning, and maturing.
In your 2001 book, A New Kind of Christian: A Tale of Two Friends on a Spiritual Journey, you draw an analogy between modern churches that look like everything is fine with being like “horse buggies” that were built when the automobile was invented. That is, the best buggies were built right when they were becoming obsolete. Is that who your new book is for, Christians who have bought into a form of Christianity that is fading?
Nobody has asked me that question yet, and it forces me to face something that I probably haven’t really faced so far, namely, that the folks who are thoroughly bought into current forms of Christian faith are unlikely to change. They’ll be likely to interpret this new book as an attack on what they hold dear, which really isn’t what I intend at all.
I’d say this book is more for Christians who have tried and tried to buy into the dominant forms of Christianity today … traditionalism, the religious right, the prosperity gospel, and so on — and who simply can’t give their hearts to those forms of Christian living. They feel there’s something more calling them, and they’re on a quest for that something more. That’s more, I think, who I’m writing for, although I’m glad to have any of the others come along who are willing.
I’m assuming that you believe that the emerging church is not just a renewal movement for young middle-class Caucasian Christians. So I’d like to ask you a few questions to get at how emergent Christianity addresses the issues of following Jesus within the urban context. First, how does A New Kind of Christianity help urban Christians address issues such as the high incarceration rate among young men, substandard schools, and fatherlessness while at the same time there is a proliferation of churches preaching a prosperity gospel?
In the book, I’m trying to help us get a deeper and broader vision of the gospel. The gospel that many people believe in says very little about issues of justice and peace in this life; it focuses on personal morality in this life and salvation from hell after this life. It would be very concerned about, say, homosexuality, but not very concerned about systemic racism and economic exclusion and oppression. It would say a lot about personal morality but not so much about social morality. I’m proposing that the gospel of the kingdom of God — the gospel Jesus preached (and Paul too, I propose) — is about God’s will being done on earth as in heaven, and so that has everything to do with the city, with racism, with incarceration, with unemployment, with equity in education, and so on.
I’m also suggesting that the eschatologies that many of us were taught — eschatologies that predict the world will get worse and worse and then be destroyed — work against working for the healing of this world, including our cities. So I would say that this book, along with Everything Must Change, would be of real interest to folks engaged with urban issues.
You argue that a new kind of Christianity will require that we ask, “What is the overarching storyline of the Bible?” How will the answer to this question help African American churches that often read the Bible through an Exodus or Exile narrative?
Actually, in this book I’m saying that those African American churches that read the Bible through an Exodus narrative have been right all along, and that the white churches that tended to read the Bible exclusively through an atonement and evacuation narrative are missing something tremendously important. Sadly, in my experience, quite a few of our African American churches are switching over to the more traditional white narrative, which says that it’s only about Jesus and me (and maybe my family, or my religion), with little concern for the more social dimensions of the gospel for the poor, oppressed, excluded, marginalized, and forgotten, not to mention our enemies. I’m recommending that we take that Exodus narrative that African American theology has cherished, and then set the narrative of Creation as its prequel, and the narrative of reconciliation as its sequel. In that way, I think we’ll have a three-dimensional narrative that has room for us to live, serve, and breathe.
Not long after telling our nation about his dream, Martin Luther King Jr. said that he started to see his dream turn into a “nightmare.” One of the reasons for this can be found in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” in which he expressed his love for the church while at the same time he pled with pastors to reject the “fear of being non-conformists.” Do you ever feel like that?
The pressure to conform really is great, and the punishment for stepping out of line can be harsh. For a lot of years, I did what a lot of people do: tried to conform and stay out of trouble! But eventually, I just couldn’t do so any longer. In part, the Bible drove me out of conformity, because the Bible didn’t fit in the narrow framework I was given. In part, people drove me out — when I met people who were experiencing injustice, and when I took seriously my call to love them as I love myself, their burdens and concerns became my own and I had to take some risks.
Knowing how much to risk when is a real matter for spiritual discernment. Some of us are liable to be too timid, and others of us to be too rash, so I think there aren’t one-size-fits-all answers to this, except to say that we need to be prayerful and open to the Spirit’s guidance, and we need to have a circle of soul-friends with whom we can process our lives and our work.
Malcolm X’s main critique of Christianity in America had to do with how race seemed to determine our habits more than Jesus. Which of your ten questions in A New Kind of Christianity can lead us closer to the unity that Christ prayed for in John 17 and why?
The first of the ten questions probably is key here — the Narrative Question. I suggest that what many of us take to be the biblical narrative is actually the Greco-Roman narrative, and that narrative is inherently dualistic. It creates us vs. them, civilized vs. barbarians, insiders vs. outsiders, and that dualism easily gets translated into racism and related -isms — white versus black, settlers versus native peoples, Americans versus immigrants, whatever.
I’d also say that the third question is really key, the God Question: Is God violent? If we believe that God plays favorites — loves some, hates others; chooses some, rejects others; makes some rich, lets others be poor — then it becomes very easy to see our race (or nation, or denomination) as blessed and everyone else as cursed. That connects us quickly with the fourth question, the Jesus question, because if we believe that God is like Jesus, and we see Jesus constantly crossing boundaries to show love to the other, then we see God as being the God who breaks boundaries too, rather than the one who creates boundaries.
Then I think about the sixth question, the Church Question, because we need to ask how we manifest and embody our view of the biblical narrative, our view of God, our view of Jesus, in our local churches. All of our theology needs to be translated into real life in local faith communities. That’s where it makes a difference — especially in our cities, where it is needed so much!
You’re a musician and songwriter and I’m a jazz theologian, so let’s jam a bit. Jazz assumes standards and practices before one takes the stage. What are the basic practices that need to be assumed before we can experience A New Kind of Christianity?
First, that there’s a key we’re playing in: that’s the key of the gospel of the kingdom or dream of God. Second, that there’s a rhythm we’re working with: that’s the rhythm of Jesus’ birth, life, death, resurrection, and indwelling. Third, that there’s a bandleader who calls the tune and sets the rhythm: that’s the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Fourth, that there’s a chart, the Bible, that gives us some basic chords and notes and melodies to learn by heart and play from the heart. Fifth, that the chart makes room to improvise — that each of us has the freedom, opportunity, and even responsibility to let loose and make our unique solo contribution, always being sensitive to what the other musicians are doing and to the integrity of our song. Sixth, that there are dynamics to be respected — you don’t play too loud, you don’t solo too often or too long. And seventh, that there is a goal — to get people up off their seats and dancing with joy to the music of God, so they’re caught up in the glorious dance, something bigger than any of us, something that enfolds all of us in God’s song of celebration and love.
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Tiger Woods was raised a Buddhist, and now he’s returning to his childhood religion. Hopefully, he’ll avoid one of the great pitfalls many of us Christians fall into when it comes to living out our faith.
Recently, Tiger Woods went before TV cameras and a roomful of journalists and friends to apologize for his marital infidelity and all the damage it has wrought. In the midst of his confession, he revealed what he considers to be a key component to his rehabilitation: A return to his Buddhist roots.
I admit, as a Christian pastor, I would’ve loved to hear him announce that he had committed his life to Jesus while in rehab, but I was nonetheless thankful that Tiger seems to be confronting the spiritual dimensions of his problems. He now takes responsibility for his actions and recognizes that true restoration will require something greater than himself. And, based on his family background, Buddhism was the natural choice.
The thing is, most Christians are as Buddhist as Tiger Woods wants to be!
Can you guess what I mean?
Tiger Woods is facing the same challenge we all do: What do we do with our desires?
Two basic answers: Feed Them or Deny Them.
Option #1 is fraught with promise and peril. When we feed our desires we can say, “We are doing what comes natural.” That is, God gave me these desires and it’s only right to follow their lead. The downside? Weight gain, broken hearts, STDs, debt, and, oftentimes, a secret life.
Secrecy sets in because something inside us knows that just pursuing our desires without limits is wrong. Tiger said as much.
Option #2, a denial of our desires, has one big downside: Suffering. We suffer when we don’t indulge our desires. There is a discomfort that goes along with not doing what you feel you have to do. Just try not to scratch your next itch and see if you wouldn’t describe it as suffering. Denial of desire carries with it ultimate satisfaction. But we rarely get to experience it, because we don’t like the suffering required to get there.
Tiger’s solution to the dilemma is to become a better Buddhist. This ancient philosophy teaches a great deal about dealing with desires.
Here’s a summary of “The Four Noble Truths” of Buddhism: Life leads to suffering; suffering is caused by desires; suffering ends when desires end; thus we should eliminate our desires.
I think that most Christians, in practice at least, are as Buddhist as Tiger wants to be … unfortunately.
Unlike Buddhism, Christianity has a very different view of suffering and desires. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Unearned suffering is redemptive.” Jesus didn’t exempt himself from suffering and he invites us to take up our cross and follow him (Matt. 16:24-25). Furthermore, desires are meant to be pursued to their fullest extent. That is, all the way to God.
That’s why Jesus is revealed as bread and water … so that we might feast on Him. That’s why the psalmist sang, “Fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand” (Ps. 16:11) . Our soul is able to sing because it is God “who satisfies our desires with good things” (Ps. 103:5).
Like Tiger Woods, we all need to confront the root of our sins and strive for healing and restoration. I just hope we recognize that genuine healing must eventually get beyond the act of simply denying ourselves and focus on the process of allowing ourselves to be filled with the good things of God.
C. S. Lewis was correct in The Weight of Glory when he said that our problem is that we satisfy with too little. Like little children making mud pies in the gutter when we are being offered a vacation to build sandcastles on the beach.
As the pastor of a church with a deep desire to love others as Christ would, I’ve recently been telling folks, “If you only read one book this year, then you must read The Hole in Our Gospel by Richard Stearns.” And that’s saying a lot, given that my own book just came out! I feel that strongly about Stearns’s message.
Hip-Hop is here to stay. Pastor Efrem Smith not only understands this, he embraces it. And he believes other leaders in his position also must learn to embrace it if the church is going to do its job in urban communities. (more…)