(Fixed Link) New Christian Century Post : Navigating the waters of post-Christendom visions

“for, between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest, possible difference—so wide that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked.” (Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass)

It seems like everywhere you go Christians in one way or another are talking about Christendom. Actually, the word being used most is post-Christendom. At the turn of the 21st century we are still in the cloudy shadows of a post-everything society. Postcolonial. Postmodern. Post-Christendom. In most cases, there is no agreement about what exactly is to come. Postmodern thinkers, for example, do not have one agreed upon theory that they are all working out of. The only thing they can agree to is that modernity and its tools of reasoning have failed to deliver what it promised. Similarly, most postcolonial thinkers do not think we have really fully left colonialism behind, and so the future form is still merely pencil sketches. It is no surprise then that there isn’t consensus on what it means for us to be going through a post-Christendom shift in western society.

DIFFERENTIATING POST-CHRISTENDOM VISIONS
As I write this, I can imagine at least three different ways that people broadly use the term post-Christendom. I am going to risk being overly simplistic and brief, in what could potentially be a book given the topic, but I hope to differentiate these positions some, so that there is clarity around what exactly is being said. The challenge with words is that people can use the very same words and yet mean or imply different things. I for one have found the language of Christendom and post-Christendom helpful at times, but not always congruent with other people that might think we are sharing concerns. Hopefully with just a little more clarity around our disposition towards Christendom itself, we can create more appropriate partnerships and alliances as our trajectories align. Likewise, we might find that some partnerships indeed have been faulty and must be dissolved because of conflicting goals. Lastly, I might also add that though I am sketching three approaches, my goal here is not to do so in a manner that advocates for some ‘halfsies’ middle ground and mediating position between the two radical stances, as some are prone to do. Those hierarchical power games that sketch an artificial center from which one just happens to find themselves in every discrepancy, is not only convenient, but it is deceptive as well. That said, I can’t promise that my descriptions are fair or objective, in the sense that those that hold to them will probably differ some on the descriptions. You are welcome and encouraged to descriptively elaborate your own position in the comments if you would like.

THE LAMENTED SHIFT
There are some that talk about post-Christendom shifts as a dreaded moment in Christian history. For this community Christendom is the way things ought to be. The Church is supposed to control and encompass all of society. That Christianity should be expressed seamlessly from the top-down, through every institution, political body, and social entity, is common sense. Christendom is good. If that is the case then the possibility that we are entering a post-Christendom era is a terrible thing. It is a failure of the Church and a sign that our society is currently on a steady decline. These advocates of Christendom lament that we are losing power and influence in society. Given that this undesirable reality is out of control, the understanding is that we must prepare ourselves for this new grim context that is on the horizon.

THE OPPORTUNISTIC SHIFT
While some want to hold on to the 1950s era, when Christianity still seemed to dominate the landscape, others have been much more skeptical and have readily been inviting this new context. For them Christendom involved a series of co-options, diversions, and missteps for the Church. That was unfortunate in their eyes, but hey, they can see more clearly now, and they can identify how exactly the Church failed in the Christendom era, to live up to its name. It merged with state and governing powers too much. The Church confused the gospel with western culture too much. And it lost a sense of distinctiveness as a Church community. Rather than be sent out, it called people to come in. Rather than disciple people it developed powerful institutions. Rather than yielding to the spirit it yielded to capitalistic and militaristic forces. This group however doesn’t want to judge or take sides against Christendom either, because they are our ancestors and they make mistakes, just as we are likely too. Rather than condemning the past the focus is purely on examining and engaging the new future context, in which a plethora of possibilities reside. These post-Christendom Christians are excited and pumped about jumping ship from the now failing methods of Christendom to the new post-Christendom praxis they are discovering.

THE SHIFT OF LIFE AND DEATH

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Williamsburg: Hearing the Subversive Stories

I am wrapping up my family time in Williamsburg, which has been good despite it being a ‘working’ vacation. Eleven of us in total spread across several units, have enjoyed hanging out in Virginia and spending time with one another. We decided to actually visit Williamsburg, which most of us were hesitant to do, because well, we are not that patriotic as a family, and therefore tend to not be as inclined to relive early American colonial life. My dad however, urged us to do it, and so most of us did.

On the surface, it was a ‘beautiful presentation’ of early colonial America, with reenactments happening all around as you walk the streets. We of course were too cheap to pay for tickets, so we didn’t get to go inside any buildings, but rather took it all in from a sidewalk view. I honestly was bored, and uninterested in the domesticated propaganda tour we were on, which presented early colonial times through a non-existent pleasantville-esque view. I know enough history to know that just because you are walking the very geographical streets, does not mean you are getting a significant glimpse into the context and times. So I decided to grab the first black ‘enactment’ actor I could find and proceeded to ask him about slavery and slave quarters. Unfortunately, he pointed out that to actually see the slave quarters you would have had to pay the ticket price, which again we did not do. But, he then began to personally share his own knowledge of the African American slave experience in Williamsburg.

What he shared was a counter-narrative to the dominant narrative that brushed slavery and oppression out of sight. While I was not surprised necessarily by any particular details he shared (not to say it wasn’t interesting), the more fascinating experience was again to unearth the voices and experiences of those who are not allowed space within the hegemonic center of American life. Everywhere you go, if you listen carefully, you will find subversive voices testifying to narratives other than the dominant narratives being told. These bottom-up heterogeneous stories are dangerous, in that they provoke and disturb the deceptive homogeneous story being told from the top-down. May we all hear, learn from, and be shaped by these subversive stories.

Baby Jesus Presented in the Temple: Luke 2:21-39

At the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was named Jesus, the name given by the angels before he was conceived in the womb. Now when the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, Joseph and Mary brought Jesus up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (just as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male will be set apart to the Lord’), and to offer a sacrifice according to what is specified in the law of the Lord, a pair of doves or two young pigeons. Now there was a man in Jerusalem named Simeon who was righteous and devout, looking for the restoration of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. So Simeon, directed by the Spirit, came into the temple courts and when the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what was customary according to the law, Simeon took him in his arms and blessed God, saying, “Now, according to your word, Sovereign Lord, permit your servant to depart in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples: a light, for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.” So the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “Listen carefully: This child is destined to be the cause of the falling and rising of many in Israel and to be a sign that will be rejected. Indeed, as a result of him the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed – and a sword will pierce your own soul as well!” There was also a prophetess, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old, having been married to her husband for seven years until his death. She had lived as a widow since then for eighty-four years. She never left the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment, she came up to them and began to give thanks to God and to speak about the child to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem. So when Joseph and Mary had performed everything according to the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. (Luke 2:21-39, NET).

At the start of beginning of Howard Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited[i], the argument is made that there are certain elements that are often neglected in western Christianity. Particularly Jesus’ Jewishness, poverty, and oppressed and dominated state are highlighted as being often neglected. Here in the passage in Luke chapter 2, we see all three of those elements of Jesus’ humanity witnessed to in the text.

Jesus is not only ethnically Jewish, but he is obviously raised Jewish as well. He is circumcised, and even presented in the Temple to God, all according to the Law of Moses. Despite many people’s desperate attempts to cast Jesus as a western figure throughout history[ii], Jesus is very much a Jew. Sorry for those who continue to perpetuate the devastating lie that Jesus is a western hero, representing and endorsing all things European, but that house is falling fast. We must continue to argue for Jesus’ Jewishness, because in that particularity of ethnicity we are revealed to the universality of Jesus’ Lordship. It is because Jesus is Israel’s Messiah, that we gentiles can be engrafted into that story and salvation.

Ethnicity is not the only concern in the text or for Thurman. We also see that Jesus comes from poor and humble beginnings. This could be easily missed, but Jesus’ parents are noted for offering two birds. The preferred sacrifice would have been a lamb, the two birds as a replacement was a specific prescription for those who could not afford the costlier animal[iii]. The fact that Luke notes that they opted for the pigeons is not by mistake, but to remind the hearers of the gospel that Jesus was a common poor man, like the masses of humanity that struggled to make it day by day. Sorry folks that push that Jesus was wealthy, it’s not true, he was homeless and had no place to lay his head.

Lastly, we must take notice of the messianic expectation that is leaping of the text. The devout are anticipating the consolation and redemption of Israel. There is a common feeling of continued spiritual exile and political and social oppression because of the continued hostile occupation and taxing from the Roman Empire. Jesus is born under these conditions himself, and must be seen as a colonized person. The desire for independence and God’s full presence and reign for the Jews was real, and thoroughly shapes Jesus’ own experience, life, and teaching. Sorry for the folks that imagine Jesus as a part of the dominant streams of society, but Jesus has more in common with postcolonial thinkers and freedom fighters than he does with those safely situated in comfort and security without any fear of political incarceration or execution because of one’s ethnicity and social position.

Therefore, when we talk about the incarnation, life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus, we must allow these aspects of Jesus concrete existence to shape how we begin to perceive, imagine, and come to know Jesus. And it this Jesus that we are also called to follow, imitate, and risk life for. May we all find the courage to follow Jesus radically as we also link arms with the underdogs of the world in our own contexts and communities.


[i] Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited. (New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1949).

[ii] J Carter, Race: A Theological Account (Oxford ;;New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).

[iii] Biblical Studies Press., NET Bible : New English Translation., 1st Beta ed. ([Spokane  Wash.]: Biblical Studies Press, 2001), bk. Leviticus 12:8.

The Hoodie (Revisted and Expanded): Racialized Gaze and Trayvon Martin

 About 2 years ago my wife and I stopped for pizza way up in the Souderton/Telford area (philly suburb outskirts). We were in the area already and had received a strong recommendation for this particular place. As we walked into the restaurant, we immediately received stares from everyone in the facility, adult and child alike. Once seated, my wife who is white, and who tends to not always pick up on glares from others as quickly as I tend to, immediately said to me “whoa, did you feel that!”, and of course I responded by saying “uh, yeah, of course I did”. Our presence there was disruptive to whatever norms that were typically played out in that building. It was summer time, and I was wearing nothing but a T-shirt and shorts. And my black skin was bare, on display, and held social meaning beyond ethnic difference. I could not hid or cover myself from the racialized gazes that looked at me and projected meaning onto my black body. I honestly do not know what exactly was running through the minds of the people who rudely stared at us as we came in and took our seats. Was I perceived as a threat or did I appear suspicious? Was it taboo to be an interracial couple in their minds? Or maybe it was just my hyper-visibility as other, and different. I will probably never know precisely what those stares meant, other than that they were not welcoming glances. My body had once again become an object to be observed and interpreted, which was not my first experience with this, nor my last, but yet certainly a memorable one.

Since college, I have learned and mastered the importance of manufacturing a public image when I go out. Yup, that’s right, I intentionally choose clothes to wear to manipulate how I am being perceived by others, particularly by the dominant culture. What you must understand is that I do not have a choice, as a young black male I must always know how I am being perceived by others, and play into that, to not know could prove detrimental. For example, since graduating college, most people probably conjure up in their minds an image of me in which I am wearing jeans, a button up shirt, and a sports coat. However, when I was in college, my uniform of choice was most often a hoodie and jeans. I loved and continue to love hoodies. There is something familiar and comfortable about a hoodie for me.  The hoodie for me goes beyond comfort, and begins to transcend into my own self awareness of identity, formation, and social place and posture in the world I live.  The clothes I wear, in many ways, has as much significance to me as space does for Willie James Jennings in The Christian Imagination. My hoodie communicates to me, reminding me of who I am, how people perceive me, and how I defiantly respond to the racialized gaze.

One of the most encouraging things that happened during my last year as a student, was when two separate white female friends of mine on campus admitted on separate occasions that they were afraid of me when they first met me freshman year. They also admitted that it was ridiculous for them to have felt that way, because after all I was Dru, and everyone who knew me loved being around me. My only caution was to make sure that this revelation would be applied to humanizing all black males rather than making me the exception to the rule.  I actually applaud these two young women for their courage to admit to me what I had known I was experiencing more broadly throughout my time there as an undergrad. The racialized gaze that interpreted my young black male body in a hoodie as dangerous and suspicious until proven otherwise, is not merely a Christian College problem, but it pervades the racialized American experience, in that black male bodies are always seen as more threatening than their white counterparts. The same act performed by differently pigmented people, especially when hoodied up, is interpreted as two completely different acts. This is the case even when merely walking down the sidewalk of one’s own Christian College Campus as a Bible major.

This narrative has been lived out over and over again with different characters. Hoodie or no hoodie, there is a gaze which has been racialized to see dark skin and make it opaque, in that it cannot be hidden. The visibility of dark skin on human bodies in America immediately makes one the other, but not mysteriously other. Nope, the dark skin is believed to be known, understood, and mastered. Dark skin can be interpreted not only as uniquely visible but uniquely suspicious and threatening. The racialized gaze imposes this storyline on unfamiliar bodies. The hoodie allows one to shut out those who gaze at you while also making one hyper visible and apparently more readable in the minds of the dominant culture.

Trayvon Martin’s last moments become transparent when we are honest about the racialized American experience that plays out over and over again. Zimmerman saw an unfamiliar black body and based off of his own words, he reinterpreted Trayvon as suspicious. Trayvon, just a child, adorned in his hoodie both blocked the direct gaze of Zimmerman and yet nonetheless became more victim to Zimmerman’s racialized gaze. Zimmerman believed that Trayvon was “they”, the other, who “always get away”, in reference to his belief that young black men had recently committed crimes in his neighborhood. Trayvon’s presence then is a disruptive presence for Zimmerman, and so he believed that he must be removed out of his gated community. Zimmerman took on this responsibility himself, convinced that he knew Trayvon. Zimmerman could not see a child terrified for his life before him because his racial gaze impaired his vision.

Let’s be honest, while I believe Zimmerman is guilty of murder and our justice system needs to respond accordingly, he did not create the racialization that is in our country, but rather he is a byproduct of hundreds of years of racism in this country. Since the 1600’s, people of European descent in America have been gazing upon the African, seeing only 3/5’s a person, uncivilized labor, inferiority, and danger in those beautiful black bodies. This impaired vision is societal. The hoodie in black urban communities in many ways is a response to the racialized gaze. We covered ourselves up and defiantly hid ourselves from view. We controlled who saw us and who didn’t. Yet the racialized gaze only grew. The hoodie reminded us simultaneously of the stereotypes projected onto us by the dominant culture andalso the rebellious spirit born out of the urban hip hop culture. It taught us to resist. So, the hoodie for me then has interwoven well with my embracement of the subversive prophetic tradition and my anabaptist leaning. Consider how Jesus often utilized and borrowed the revolutionary terminology of the Zealots, calling people to take up the cross. So too can we as Christians employ the hoodie with it’s hip hop subversive spirit to begin to challenge the criminalizing gaze that is fixed on black bodies in America. We can ALL cover ourselves with symbolic hoodies from the racialized systems and stereotypes that disrupt justice, by resisting with a faithful prophetic witness against hegemony, tyranny, and oppression in all forms as followers of Christ. 

I Am Trayvon!


Evangelical Split, Piper Imperialism, & a Search for Postcolonial Christian Expression

Many evangelical bloggers have just finished chiming in on Rob Bell’s new book.  While there have been a couple nuanced positions, overall most have fallen into two camps; conservative modernist evangelicals (especially reformed conservatives) and postmodern missional  evangelicals (especially emerging church leaders).  What I and others realized was that this internet and blogosphere battle that was unfolding really was not about theological and doctrinal difference (even while those tensions do exist), but rather the real underlying issue was a matter of control, influence, and power.

Younger, fresher expressions of church are “emerging” and are winning over many from white America. Simultaneously, the old guard is losing relevance, and feels threatened. Rather than working together as as the Church, imperial and colonial instincts have kicked in as folks gaze upon all the religious authority that could be attained. Domination over American Christian theological direction has quietly been the real story & narrative when you stop and read between the lines.

A war is unfolding and the victor of the war will take over (or continue) as the theological overlords of American mainstream Christian thought. They will be the de facto referees, deciding whether any given theology is in or out of bounds. Therefore these two streams of American evangelical Christian tradition fight over which white male dominated group will inherit the reigns of 21st century Christendom.  At the heart of all this hype is a thirst to reign over the Church, it is not primarily about Rob Bell and his views on heaven and hell.

John Piper jump started everything.  He personally took on the role of theological referee, wanting everyone to know Rob Bell stepped out of bounds. That’s where his “farewell Rob Bell” comes in. To be able to pull off such a ballsy move like that, John Piper must convince American Christendom that he knows the fine line between theological curiosity and theological heresy.  Repeatedly he and many of his conservative reformed entourage have basically claimed that their understanding of God, scripture, and overall theology is indeed truth. They have grasped the universal, neutral, objective, biblical, and fully truthful realities of God and the Bible. In essence, the conservative Christian tradition has arrived and know all there is to be known about truth and God (my assertion and words not theirs). 

via Google Images

Piper does not only use his comprehensive understanding of (his) god to deem people as heretics, but he also uses his knowledge of his apparently small god (one that can be fully explained by finite humanity), to assert divine will over the horrific earthquake in Japan that killed thousands. He offers 5 reasons why God kills thousands of people. Yes in the midst of tragic human suffering, confusion, and pain, Piper decides to boldly assert that God caused the earthquake killing tens of thousands as a warning to repent and to show off his magnificence.  This is a disturbing, ugly, and untimely depiction of God that vandalizes his Image in this world. Whatever happened to “good news” for those struggling?

via Google Images

I can understand why younger white evangelicals would want to break away from this brand of American Evangelicalism. While I can appreciate many of the theological nuances expressed by this zealous group of white 20 and 30 somethings, they have their own set of problems. Before we get too excited about this coming shift in influence over American religious life, we must acknowledge that the practice of hegemony and domination will still continue through these “emerging leaders”. Overall, I have been pleased with the theological shifts being expressed, because they express desire for racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity in the Church… wanting the Church to be ONE church, which we were called to be.  However, it did not take very long for me to realize that the proclamations and the practices of this group were not lining up. Everything that is done is done to cater to white middle class suburbia. They cater to the priviliged despite affirming Jesus’ call to serve the least of these. As far as hegemony goes, Black and Latino pastors and theologians still continue to be uninvited to the infamous “table” Even these newly formed tables under banners of emergent or missional are starting off on the wrong foot, being almost completely homogeneous. Of course these Evangelical 3.0’s have learned from their predecessors that you must at least grab a token black for your entourage or program (however the 2.0’s actually did a better job at pulling in tokens), often this GED effort of token representation is not even being done at many of their gatherings and events. Unfortunately the white control and supremacy over religious life in America is not going anywhere if left on track.

This leaves many black leaders who are open to partnership feeling skeptic about the actual intentions of these young leaders who have all good stuff to say, but no follow through.  Many black christian leaders (fully missional minded) have told me that they have quit trying to join the white dominated table, and instead have determined to create their own table where all people groups are truly welcome.  A table that finds solidarity with the oppressed before it does with Starbucks. A table made up of people that are tired of the colonial and imperial practices of Western European Christian Empire. Such anti-racist, post-colonial Christian communities will not be endorsed by Zondervan or the billion dollar Christian industry. Nope, this movement is taking place on the corners, porches, courts, homes, and church basements of America.
In the end, neither Piper and his peeps, nor Bell and the boys represent me, and billions of other Christians globally.  We have absolutely no stake in this growing feud (that is just heating up in my opinion). No stake, because for many it still leaves us in the same place (except with fewer tokens) of not being heard or taken seriously, and not being treated with dignity as though we lacked the Imago Dei in us.  It is now more than ever that we need to take our attention off of superstars like Rob Bell and John Piper… and begin learning from those who have been crying out from the margins with a very different gospel.  A gospel that is good news to the poor and oppressed.