- Reference Points
- Asian American Christians
- Asian Americans
- Christianity in the World
- Christianity in America
- Spectrum of Views
We’re in a series that shares the thinking behind the 7 challenges that inform our mission. We have been discussing challenge 2: the perceived irrelevance of Asian American ministries. Today, we will address how we’re sometimes thought so by seminary-trained Evangelicals.
- Evangelical theology hasn’t allowed for issues of ethnicity, race and culture
- The word “culture” in Evangelical circles mostly means “the world”
- Culture is relevant to each evangelical theologian because of the very human and life-applicatory task of theology.
- Evangelicalism’s focus on personal relationship with Jesus means engaging in cultural contexts
- Christ incarnates into culture: here is where Christ incarnates and transforms!
Asian American ministries are sometimes perceived as irrelevant
What does culture have to do with the Gospel?
(The word “culture” is predominantly synonymous with “the world”—the secular non-Christian world.)
Evangelical systematic theology has not allowed for culture, ethnicity, race etc. In his article, “Asian American Historicity: Problems and Promises for Evangelical Theology” theologian Amos Yong makes the point that Asian American Christians have absorbed “the evangelical bias against history, tradition and experience.” (124)
“[E]vangelical theological tendencies generally urge a universalistic perspective, and in this paradigm, there is no need to attend to the particularities of, or articulate Asian, Asian American, or other cultural perspectives since these are all subsumed within the biblical framework read in an evangelical way.” (126)
As evangelical theology developed as a response to liberal theologies, theologians strove to strengthen their arguments as best as they could. Universal propositions thus became a hallmark of evangelical theology. By definition, such truths applied to all Evangelicals. And while they made for a tight defense, they also quash the significance of culture, ethnicity and race.
AsianAmericanChristian.org wonders perhaps if this is why many seminary-trained evangelicals do not feel that “ethnicity” is relevant to our faith. In the light of universal propositions, ideas that offer nuance like ethnicity don’t seem important or necessary. Universal propositions in effect declare us all the same! Perhaps this is why how subjects like missiology or evangelism or pastoral care or spiritual formation are left to niche groups within Evangelicalism. Perhaps this is also why some current evangelical theologians are discouraged from specializing in Asian American Evangelical theology: because their work will be discounted, and they will not be seen as important theologians. Even many seminary-trained Asian American evangelicals wince at the thought of an Asian American theology, as their theological training has taught them that ethnicity has “no more than biological significance, and that historical and cultural aspects of Asian identity are accepted only as accidental to identity in Christ.” (119) Evangelical theology’s focus on universals thus negate the significance of ethnicity, race and culture, and many good seminary students, including those who are Asian American, accept this and thus perceive Asian American ministries to be irrelevant.
Adding to the confusion is how Evangelicals popularly use of the word “culture.”
“Culture” in some Evangelical circles is predominantly synonymous with “the world,” as in the secular world. Richard Niebuhr’s influential book Christ and Culture (1951), describes five ways of engaging “culture” or the greater surrounding culture of the world. And many Evangelicals have not looked further into his typology or his post-World War II context, misconstruing his title: Christ and Culture, Christ as opposed to culture. As historian George Marsden notes: “The Christ and culture juxtaposition may reinforce the tendency of Christians to forget that their own understanding of Christianity is a cultural product.” This “culture” to some Christians is one different from Christ; it is “the world” and moreover, it is the enemy. Theologian Geoffrey Holsclaw describes this viewpoint of older Evangelicals: “Culture is where one must battle over a Christian worldview and Christian values.” This kind of “culture” is over and against Christianity, and it is this idea of “culture” that is involved in the “culture war” that still rages, though is perhaps dying.
This strong militant usage of “culture” as the greater world has dominated much Evangelical discourse, so much so that the very word “culture” can trigger antagonistic emotions among some Evangelicals. If you are speaking of “culture” in other ways (Evangelical culture or ethnic culture, for example), “culture” defined as “the world” and its associated feelings sometimes can overwhelm, confuse and block a discussion. This makes other definitions of “culture” very difficult to introduce.
Also, sometimes it can be difficult for some Evangelicals to understand that people of different cultures (be it ethnic, socio-economic, geographic) can lead to very different mindsets and experiences. Perhaps this is so because of universal propositions that deem us all the same.Such a strong engrained idea can make it difficult to imagine and expect other Christians to be different in family and life circumstances. Perhaps this is why the churches sometimes have trouble loving people who don’t always fit its norms like the mentally ill, single women in some areas, the divorced etc. You and I are all the same.
Theologically, we are primed not to expect difference, and because of the predominance of one loaded definition of “culture,” we also don’t have language to talk constructively about it.
Culture (and related) are significant!
Culture is relevant to each evangelical theologian because of the very human and life-applicatory task of theology.
Theology is a human activity. In perhaps every introduction, evangelical theologians acknowledge that this, that no human being can entirely comprehend the mind of God. The universal propositions of theologians thus cannot be thought of as completely definitive. “Thinking that it is equal to biblical revelation misunderstands the nature of both Scripture and theology!” as John S. Feinberg asserts this in Crossway’s Foundations of Evangelical Theology (1997 – present) series introduction. Thinking that evangelical theology’s universal propositions are firm and complete discounts God. He continues: “But even if all the propositions of a systematic theology are true, that theology would still not be equivalent to biblical revelation! It is still a human conceptualization of God and his relation to the world.” Theology is the result of human activity, and is filtered through human minds and hearts. Culture etc is relevant because each theologian must be aware of his own presuppositions and context, lest he think himself God.
In addition, theology must apply to life, and thus reflect life’s circumstances of culture, ethnicity and race, etc. According to Feinberg, systematic theology’s very nature is to apply itself to life. Updated volumes of theology thus needed because circumstances change.
“Because systematic theology attempts to address itself not only to the timeless issues presented in Scripture but also to the current issues of one’s day and culture, each theology will to some extent need to be redone in each generation. Biblical truth does not change from generation to generation, but the issues that confront the church do.” (bold, is my emphasis.)
As theologians apply their propositions to life, and the United States is becoming increasingly multicultural, thus, culture, ethnicity and race are relevant to evangelical theologians. As Yong acknowledges: “[M]ost evangelicals now recognize, in light of living in a pluralistic world, that biblical truths need to be properly contextualized outside of the North American context.” While the extent of cultural contextualization is debated, the very nature of the theological task requires evangelical theologians to find culture, ethnicity, race, class, gender and the particularities of life relevant so that they can relate them to theology.
Evangelicalism’s focus on personal relationship with Jesus means engaging in cultural contexts
Evangelicalism at its very heart is a revival movement. We want our hearts to be revived in Christ, to come alive in Jesus. We want to know personally that God is true, that he sent his son Jesus to die for us on the cross—this is how much God loves us! We are a people who know that God can intimately encounter us through His Word, that the Holy Spirit can touch us and transform us, in the ways we very much need. And our lives are revived by his grace and truth!
Evangelical theology’s focus on universal propositions, as Yong was quoted above,“has a bias against history, tradition and experience,” however, conversion and relationship demand an engagement with one’s history and experiences. While conversion and relationship with God is a universal experience to many Christians, it is also something that is special and unique to that person. Our personal histories, our temperaments, our interests, our wirings, our talents, our health, our families, our families’ traditions and more: all the things that make up culture: this is where God meets us.
Christ incarnates into culture: here is where Christ incarnates and transforms!
Culture—the culture of your workplace, your church, your region, your generation, your ethnic culture, your social class, your race; culture even as “the world”—this is where Christ meets us!
“Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did.” (John 4:29) The Samaritan woman was so touched, that Jesus knew intimately about her present and past: that she had no husband, though she had had five. Jesus entered into her town, her daily life at a well and interacted with her, though the disciples were puzzled as to why.
“He told me everything I ever did.” (John 4:39) Repetition indicates a clear impact on the Samaritan woman’s heart. And as Jesus stayed two days with the townspeople, he transformed their hearts as well. “We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Savior of the world.” (John 4:42) The townspeople believed for themselves because they heard for themselves. Jesus Christ came into town and transformed hearts!
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross! (Philipians 2:6-8)
Revival comes from God touching something intimate to us, being touched by God who humbly became man like us, a servant to us, even choosing to die for us. God is with us; culture is where God meets us.
We need to acknowledge the significance of culture and ethnicity to our faith.
We need you to continue to be open to hearing about lives different from your own. We need you to be be open to seeing Christ in the lives different from your own.
We need you to continue pressing on towards Christ. Please continue to engage culture, race and ethnicity in all its forms, in your research, in your exegesis, in your ministries. Please continue to work together to think interdisciplinary ways to our lives become more holistic in Christ.
What we propose
We’re currently a proposal for a ministry. The hope is that God will make a way for us to serve all Evangelical Asian American Christians. Because Asian American Christians are a dynamic group, an overwhelming diverse group whose our needs and contexts will always be changing, we’re a ministry that focuses on this one question: What is God doing in us? in order to hear and gather all Asian American Christian voices and to build inroads necessary for understanding, reconciliation and fellowship.
We’d love to learn from you, to help us understand our various reference points. We’d also like to work with you: help us do our research, to gather and understand our stories. We are a new group, and God has done remarkable things in us, as even, secular sociologists have noticed! We, however, want to understand this in an Evangelical way, in ways that fit Asian American Evangelicals.
May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you loved me.
For God’s glory, alone.
We’re in a series sharing the thinking behind the 7 challenges that inform our mission. Our mission is to ask what God is doing in us, to hear and gather all Asian American Christian voices and to build inroads necessary for understanding, reconciliation and fellowship.
AsianAmericanChristian.org is a proposal for a new ministry that offers a framework and a way forward. If you’re wondering where these ideas are coming from, read this. If you’re interested and would perhaps like to join our feedback sessions this Fall, join our mailing list.
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