Freestyle Theologians – Men of Issachar

You may have been wondering “What does it take to be a freestyle theologian? What are the skills required to do engaging freestyles for the 21st Century? Well there are two basic requirements for doing good theology (in my opinion). One of them are obvious, however the other might not be so obvious.

I’ve always believed that we all need to have a good understanding of what God wants from us. We need to be a people that are thinking about God. Specifically about what God has done in the past, helping us to understand what God is doing now, and what He will continue to do. In some sense, we all need to become unofficial theologians (meaning we don’t all have to go to school for theology). We all need to be taking the time to understand how God is at work today, and how He has revealed himself and is working through His son Jesus. We need to be thinking about the nature of the Spirit and how it unites us, empowers us, and guides us. We are all called to reflect on God’s mission for us in community.

I’m also a firm believer that we need to be students of society, culture and people. We need to be able to understand the trends, interpret systems, and be relevantly engaged with the culture of the community we serve. What do people eat? Where do they hang out? What’s the music? What are the needs of the community? Who are their role models? What do they think about Christians? Basically, we all should become unofficial sociologists (again not necessarily going to school for it). Some might think this is unnecessary “hype” in an attempt to be “cool”. However I understand this attempt at being contextual to be directly drawn from incarnational ministry. Jesus came down and became like us in every way. Paul talked about becoming all things to all people to win them. Yet we refuse to even take the time to understand our neighbors. We are all called to reflect on the culture and society in which we want to see subjected under Christ’s Lordship.

A great example of both unofficial theologians and unofficial sociologists were the Men of Issachar. In 1 Chronicles 12:32 we see that they were “men who understood the times and knew what Israel should do.” They understood their situation, context, and cultural problems, while simultaneously having the answers for those problems that were relevant and appropriate for their context.

A Glimpse of Heaven

Revelation 7:9-10
“After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!’”.

Looks like we will all be in heaven together after all… we might as well get a head start learning how to get along. How and where do we begin to find our unity, while still affirming this beautiful diversity described?

Getting Off Theological Welfare

From 1619-1865, I imagine that the African slaves that were either on route in the middle passage, standing on the auction blocks, or in the burning hot cotton fields of Alabama were doing theology. Yes, they wanted to know if God was present when they were being whipped, if God’s love could sustain them through another raping, if God valued the life of the young man who was castrated after receiving too much attention from a white lady. They wanted to know if they could call on Jesus in the midst of their suffering, and would he be there. Would he liberate them from their slavery and oppression? Simultaneously, the slave masters were also doing theology. They wanted to stress that it was by faith alone that one was saved, and not by works. They pondered on whether it was worth improving someone’s life on earth, which was needy, when this life was temporal. They theologized on the priority of eternal salvation over temporal earthly relief. Volumes of “Classical theology” were written in this time, emphasizing the need to save the soul of the Negro, rather than improving his standard of living.Theology has never been a neutral or universal practice. Theology has always been done from a context and perspective.

Our theology can never equate the knowledge of God; we are finite and limited beings, while God is infinite and limitless. We cannot offer up an infinite, limitless, and universal gospel, our finite, limited, and contextual selves will not allow it. For the last four hundred years, those who have been the most rich, powerful, and main stream have offered up a “universal theology” that is good for everyone. Yet this universal approach did not have an answer for those who were chained up like chattel crossing the mid-Atlantic. It did not have a theology developed for the 5000 lynching’s that took place post slavery. And it still does not have a theology developed for the unequal education, housing, health care, employment opportunities, police brutality, prison sentences, and discrimination that many people (especially of color) in urban centers live with year after year.

My beef is not with the Bible; actually I really believe that it is the answer. Rather it is with the interpreters that conveniently “overlook” the passages permeated throughout the whole bible that speak on justice, liberation, and empowerment, while only interpreting the things that are beneficial for their particular context. It would actually not be that bad, except that it has been forced down upon us as “Universal Theology” for all people in all contexts and situations. When black people share a different perspective, it gets labeled black theology, Latinos do it and it gets labeled Latin Theology, when Asians do it is called Asian theology, yet somehow when white folk do theology it translates into “universal theology” because it lines up with what other white men in the 1500’s said which somehow is called “classical theology”. It is as if white theologians are conveniently unbiased as they read the bible, and they get to referee as we all take a shot at it. They get to decide who is in bounds and out of bounds. And surprisingly, every time someone questions the injustice and oppression that often caricaturizes the systems they live in and benefit from, that person has left universal truth. This is not an attempt to claim all white people are racists, nor is it to dismiss the authenticity of some people’s faith journey. What it is though, is a challenge for us to get off of theological welfare. That is the theological dependency that we have grown accustomed to because of our laziness of not doing our own theology.

We continually wait for the next “IT” book. At one time it was the Prayer of Jabez, then it was Purpose Driven Life, and I am sure there is another one by now already. We wait for these Pastors from Mega-Churches in the suburbs of Texas to tell us how we are to live, and how to be successful, how to fulfill our desires, and what God’s purpose is for us. Yet they do not know our context, our community, our story, because they are limited by theirs. That is not to say that they cannot say anything meaningful, but it would be even more relevant to your life for you to read and interpret for yourself. For you are able to interpret the bible for yourself as well you can interpret your context.

Better yet, read and interpret in community with others. Since none of us are capable of attaining knowledge equal to God because we are all finite in our attempts. We can allow our strengths to pick up where others miss, and where we miss others can catch with their strengths. When we allow “iron to sharpen iron” we can all hopefully grow in our journey together. Just imagine if the slave masters and slaves got together and eagerly sought to learn from each other. Where would we be today? It all starts by each of us doing theology by reading and interpreting scripture while also fully understanding the context and realties that surround us.