Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Next Evangelicalism, a review


I have listened to Prof. Soong Chan Rah of North Park College and Seminary for about two years.  He has spoken most often on the topic of this new book, published by IVP.  The first time I got a recording from my young staff, it created a sensation of sorts.  

He had asserted that "If you plan to be a missionary and you enter another culture to carry the gospel but you have not ever had a non-white mentor or spiritual leader you will not be a missionary but rather a colonialist"  (my approximation).  Strong stuff!

This new book builds on themes that are in my estimation undeniable.  First, that the growth within Evangelicalism in the present and future is largely within minority, poor and immigrant communities.  Citing statistics based in the Boston area, I think this assessment has proven to be quite accurate.  

If the overall argument of the book is that (a) the US evang. church is changing demographically and (b) that the leadership and primary influence of the church is held tightly in the grasp of white evangelicals, then I think it is hard to dispute.  Next, Rah critiques the central weaknesses of the cultural realities of a white/western dominated evangelicalism; namely materialism, individualism and racism. Finally, the author asserts that those who make up the future of this church have exceptionally important perspective and value to add but are too often marginalized.  

The central value to this book is in its description of the coming reality of the future of Evangelicalism and the cogent articulation of the unique weaknesses of the church especially as explored through the immigrant/non-white perspective.  These twin ideas that the future of the church is non-white, and from a non-white perspective the evident weaknesses in our church are strategically and relationally insightful.

A perhaps secondary but I think great contribution to literature available to white churches and church leaders is the description of the role of the ethnic minority or immigrant church. Rah's telling of his own story and lacing in the role the church played in his life and that of his friends was captivating.  It's almost like I knew my brothers in the Korean church played a unique role within US society but I couldn't tell the story (of course!).  This is just a beautiful chapter and made me want to more closely identify with the role of the outsider to US culture that our immigrant believer brothers and sisters play.  

As someone that lives as a minority in my community and church, this really resonated with me.  For about 10 years I was in a denomination that had a huge Korean presence (PCA).  My current reality has changed the way I reflect on the reality of my former denomination.  I hope my brothers in the white church that seem to "humor" the Korean presbyterians will read this and gain a new admiration for our korean brothers!  

The weakness in the book, in my mind is the too often repeated phrase "white western captivity of the evangelical church".   As I read the book I realized that Rah regards himself in the role of a prophet rather that "bridge builder" per se.  In other words he's not concerned with those who may be offended.  That's what prophets do.  The downside to prophets, however, is that they don't make very good teachers, which is where I think Rah is actually strongest.  I think he wants to be both but can that work?  Will he actually persuade someone who doesn't basically agree with him already?  I'm not sure.  

One last point:  Rah partially unfolded an expansion of his thinking (which builds on the work of Walter Bruggeman in Peace) about the differing perspectives on the culture of "suffering" vs. the culture of "celebration".  This too needed further development. .  needs. . . I should say.  I hope he writes more about it in the future.  

All in all, a strongly recommended book. . .  but with my own bent toward bridge building vs. prophesying  I would just caution the reader, don't let the use of the phrase "white western captivity" distract you from hearing the substance behind the provocative wording. 


6 comments:

T. C. said...

Hi pastor Joel,

I'm so glad to have found your blog via The Next Evangelicals Facebook group. I really like what I've read so far and look forward to reading more. If it is alright with you, I'd like to add your blog to my "blog roll." I also have a Blogger blog at: grafvoice.blogspot.com and have also recently reviewed Dr. Rah's new book. He was my professor at Gordon-Conwell - Boston (CUME) just after he accepted the position he now holds at North Park.

Overall, I liked your review of TNE but I'm not entirely sure I agree with all of your conclusions. You say that from your reading you gather that Rah regards himself in the role of a prophet and that in such a role he is unconcerned who may be offended by his words. You also say that in this role of a prophet Rah does not operate as a "bridge builder" per se. I'm not sure this is an entirely fair portrayal of either the role of a prophet or Rah.

From my reading of TNE, I sensed deep concern for those who are most likely to be offended by this thesis: white American evangelicals. Rah's concern for white American evangelicals is boldly displayed in his desire to expose their blindness to their own cultural captivity. Jesus operated as Prophet, Priest, and King. Yet in his role as prophet he certainly did not forsake his concern for those who may have be offended by his prophetic witness. A prophet needn't be callous to boldly proclaim the word of the Lord. Rather, in contrast, I believe a prophet is more likely to be heart-broken at the lack of response from his own people (i.e. Jeremiah). Rah's audience are American evangelicals--whites included--and he himself is an American evangelical. Rah's heart breaks for the American evangelical church, which is why he writes TNE.

In my review of Rah's book I actually applaud him for his unrepentant use of the full phrase "Western, white cultural captivity" because it does not shrink back from speaking truth to power, which is a crucial function of the church of Jesus Christ empowered by the liberating Spirit. It is important that we white evangelicals do not attempt to divorce white privilege from Western culture; the two are intrinsically linked. I think Rah is right to call for a radical divestment of power from white American evangelicals. The disproportionate display of white leadership in American evangelicalism perpetuates systemic, institutional racism that is an offense to God.

Personally, I am sick of seeing my nonwhite brothers and sisters undervalued and discounted. The racial injustice in the American evangelical church grieves the Spirit of God and is symptomatic of Western culture that cannot be divorced from white privilege, colonialism, and institutional racist oppression. Bridge building cannot become code for nonwhite evangelicals adopting Western, white culture to be accepted. Rah does build bridges in TNE. Rah builds a crucial bridge by exposing several destructive aspects of Western, white culture and charting the course towards greater unity with several strategic ways white evangelicals can learn from nonwhite evangelicals. The bridge will not be nonwhites crossing over in Western, white culture, the bridge of the Next Evangelicalism must be whites crossing over into the non-Western, nonwhite cultures.

Please forgive the length of this comment. As a preacher yourself, I'm sure you know that it is often easier to take a long time to say something than it is to be brief.

God bless you, your family, and your church!
~T. C.

hammerdad said...

TC,

thanks for stopping by. . . and for your thoughtful note! I hope you got the sense that a fundamentally concur with Rah on his thesis.

I personally engage in hundreds of conversations around these topics every year as a part of our short term missions program which we happen to call Bridge Builders.

I've been "in the middle" so to speak about a couple of massive divides within US evangelicalism over the past 20 years; the first being the divide between covenant theology and dispensationalism, the second being the racial divide.

So I am processing Rah's book through this experience. One part of the consideration is content, the other is form. I find that the form one chooses (use of language, style of communication, forums, style of argumentation etc..) is as important as the message. It is very easy to take a highly significant topic and make it totally irrelevant through using an inappropriate form.

So in argumentation about important topics like the cultural captivity of the church I am always concerned about the way the topic is engaged. Does it alienate the listener or persuade them? That was my point about Rah's style, including use of language. I think that anyone who has significant concern for the racial division within the church or much experience working across racial lines, will likely find him compelling. But that's not bridge building. . . it might even be teaching. . . but really its preaching to the choir so to speak. . . highly valuable mind you. . but not ultimately persuasive to those who most need to hear it.

Let's face it, it is abrasive language. This doesn't mean the motivation isn't loving. . . but while I agree that he clearly has a love and concern for the wider Evangelical church, I don't think that a white believer reading this book will be affirmed or loved

I realize that's not the point of the book and personally think that if the white church learned the lessons from the book it is a loving message, one that will lead to health and growth. But again, how does it come across to one of our brothers currently isolated from this conversation?

So my main critique or question was about this issue of persuasiveness to those who don't get it, don't believe it, and are unaware of it. I think that the use of that kind of rhetoric probably alienates some who otherwise could be persuaded to listen.

All that said, it doesn't mean it is illegitimate!! The bible is full of abrasive, confrontational, offensive prophets (not that Rah is all that. . . ). God uses all of us and there is clearly a role for this. But can a confrontational prophet teach? Or maybe I should say "who" can a prophet teach?

I will continue to recommend the book highly but will generally give a caveat or warning (as I did in my review).

T. C. said...

I think I hear what you are saying about the form of a message potentially disqualifying it's content. This seems to be the thrust of verses like Col. 4.6 and Eph. 4.15. My wife sometimes refers to this sort of thing as serving up prime rib on a trash can lid. ...She's from Texas :) If fact, I'm a big proponent of Gospel-ministers utilizing mediums that deliver the message in culturally relevant ways. Holy Hip Hop strikes me as a particularly applicable example in this regard.

However, I'm sure you'd agree that Jesus was known on occasion to say highly offensive things. Yet it would be strange to think that Jesus violated the spirit of these biblical commands. How, then, does one reconcile the abrasive rebukes of Jesus with the biblical call to grace-filled speech?

One possibility is that it is the audience to which the message is directed. The form of the content must be suited to the audience--the "end user" if you will. Jesus said highly offensive things to an audience of powerful religious hypocrites to shock them into seeing how blind they really were. The Pharisees were not interested in hearing a meek and mild Jesus. Personally, I don't feel qualified to criticize Jesus' approach.

Dr. Rah's audience is also a community of powerful religious hypocrites--the American evangelical church. The evangelical church in American is hypocritical because she does not live out the vision of the Kingdom she proclaims. The evangelical church in America looks nothing like Micah 4 or Revelation 21, yet this is who we are called to be.

Even if Rah's prophetic message in TNE was as abrasive as Jesus calling the Pharisees a "brood of vipers," (which I think we both agree it isn't), would he be wrong? Would we be able to rightfully criticize his methodology as flawed because it is (seemingly) ineffective? I'm not sure that we can. I guess I'm not convinced that persuasiveness is the best criterion for judging the form of a message. Some criticize the approach Paul used in his Mars Hill sermon citing the verse that says only a few followed him. This strikes me as a particularly man-centered approach to prophetic speech--as if the form is the only factor present, discounting the Spirit and the power of the Gospel itself.

What is it precisely that you find offensive, or potentially offensive, about the phrase "Western, white cultural captivity"?

P.S. - I went ahead and added your blog to my blog roll. Hope you don't mind.

hammerdad said...

TC,

hey thanks again and I'm honored to be on your blog roll!

On the form issue, I think it is an interesting discussion, one that is too often not engaged. I am not against prophets, but I don't think prophets "success" is based on response. A successful prophet speaks the truth, regardless of outcome. A teacher on the other hand, whose pupils don't learn, is a failure even if he/she spoke the truth (in my estimation).

Teachers usually work within the context of relationships. . they do their work "from the inside" primarily. Prophets do the opposite. . . mostly. I don't want to overdo this as it is a continuum and again. . . plenty of legit room for both!

There is a place for knowing your audience and working with them, and there is a place for just saying it like it is, regardless.

You're right that Jesus took on the roles that included both prophet and teacher. . . but as much as you don't want to critique him, I don't want to presume to do all that he can do.

I love your last question: why is "western, white cultural captivity" offensive. I think in one sense it is obvious, and that is why the word "white" is absent on the cover of the book!

Plainly said: white Christians don't like to talk about race. By and large, we value "colorblindness" above all as our racial doctrine. So just the phrase is an indictment of sorts on our thinking. I am not arguing for colorblindness as virtue (I've blogged about the issue directly last year) but rather pointing out its reality as the dominant perspective.

There are several more layers to this I think but on the face of it, that's a core issue I think.

Scott said...

Hi Joel, I ran across your page on a google search of Soong-Chan's book. I'm planning to read the book (just ordered it) but I was curious to see how others have found it. Your review seems very fair and consistent with a couple other very thoughtful reviews I've read.

I'm a Korean-American who grew up in Soong-Chan's youth group, which was a Korean-American ministry with a charismatic orientation. After 15 years of post-high school exploration of various churches, I have to say that the term "white, Western captivity" seems both harsh and reductionist. my experiences suggest to me that my white brothers and sisters have often been the catalysts for racial reconciliation in communities where ethnic minority culture is dominated by a cynicism of "white" culture and intention. i really doubt that the next evangelicalism per se has to do with deliberately washing the whiteness out of contemporary Christianity. it's already happening by virtue of world missions and outreach here at home. the biggest advance i'm hoping we can make as a church is to overturn the traditional discourse of race relations in favor of true reconciliation; and harping on Western domination seems to turn back the clock to the last generation's protests.

any thoughts?

hammerdad said...

Scott,

thanks for your words. . . thought provoking! I would like to hear what you think after you read the book too.

While I am constantly in these racial reconciliation/righteousness conversations I am a white guy and not privy to the perspective you bring. Let's face it, we all talk with one another a bit differently when the "others" are not in the room.

So I would never describe the harping against whites quite the way you do. . . but I think it is a point to consider and I appreciate your challenge to your fellow believers. I find my role more often then not is to get my white bros to think about race. . so often they assume that they don't need to think or talk about it and that's the best. . .

so Soong-Chan's role in getting people talking openly about race (on the white side) is important I think. . . I also think that what white people don't usually consider is the cultural weaknesses in that white/western culture, and even more often they don't consider the strengths found in the churches of immigrant and minority communities. . . .

so that's where I find great value.

I don't think his goal is to "wash out" whiteness but rather to loosen its hold in cultural definition of what is the standard. This will mean the open cultivation of non-white leadership and I think it can be done well only if it is a result of seeing the beauty of the Glory of the Image of God in non-white cultural expressions that are missing in mainstream evangelicalism.

Overall a healthy criticism and calling I think. . .