Identity and Ethnicity

What happens when identity politics seep into the church (which the world’s philosophies inevitably do)?

Let me provide an example. It has become a truism among some to identify traditional Reformed worship as “western.” Its stodgy order, its music, its wordy intellectualism, its emotional restraint, are all “western.” This is stated as an accusation needing defense by traditionalists. Reformed worship is western, and so, because the church’s membership is increasingly made up of non-westerners, the church needs to adopt non-western ways. This, it is said, is a simple matter of fairness. Non-western music, instrumentation, and emotional expressiveness need to be incorporated into the life of the church. Moreover, only those with a western bias would fail to see the necessity of this.

 

Among the problems that the American of today faces is what political scientists call Balkanization and academics call identity studies. Americans are seeing themselves less as Americans, and more as hyphen-Americans, and often as aggrieved hypen-Americans, Americans second, and minority identity first. Voting patterns reveal groups voting at rates approaching those of Soviet Republics, predictable at 80-90% on the basis of skin color, marital status, ethnic identity, or sexual preferences. Political philosophy, character, and accomplishments mean little when identity politics take over. What a given politician will do for my group means everything. All other considerations take a back seat. America, the America of the Declaration, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, the America of shared values and the common good, disappears. Group identity takes over.

What happens when identity politics seep into the church (which the world’s philosophies inevitably do)? Then theologians and clergymen begin to think increasingly in terms of race, ethnicity, and gender. No longer are we “mere catholics,” as the Puritan Richard Baxter would have us known. Instead the conversation (and agitation) is about whether each group is properly represented, honored, and utilized. Objections begin to arise to the domination of “dead white males,” and living ones, in the life of the church.

Let me provide an example. It has become a truism among some to identify traditional Reformed worship as “western.” Its stodgy order, its music, its wordy intellectualism, its emotional restraint, are all “western.” This is stated as an accusation needing defense by traditionalists. Reformed worship is western, and so, because the church’s membership is increasingly made up of non-westerners, the church needs to adopt non-western ways. This, it is said, is a simple matter of fairness. Non-western music, instrumentation, and emotional expressiveness need to be incorporated into the life of the church. Moreover, only those with a western bias would fail to see the necessity of this. I see three problems with this line of thought.

First, why should Christians care about the gender, ethnicity, race, or age of the source of its thoughts and practices? Why would the church want to evaluate its practices on the basis of skin color? or gender? or class? These are worldly categories that we are meant to transcend in Christ. Is it not the case that in the church we are neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female (Gal 3:28)? Is it not our motto (borrowed by our American founding fathers), “out of the many, one?” We are “one new man” in Christ, transcending our worldly differences while not obliterating them (Eph 2:11ff). We no longer evaluate each other based on worldly categories (see Jas 2:1ff). We are to “know” or “regard” (ESV) no one “after the flesh” (2 Cor 5:16). If eighteenth century Germans and nineteenth century Brits were particularly gifted at musical composition, why should we hesitate to recognize this? Why fail fully to utilize their contributions though other ethnic groups may be “under-represented” according to the quota–obsessed? As to the source of the church’s beliefs and practices, as long as they are godly and gifted sources, who cares?

Second, does this classifying of the church as “western” stand up to scrutiny? It certainly doesn’t in terms of the church’s theology and practices. Did the Scottish Presbyterians invent psalm-singing, or did the ancient monks of the Egypt desert? Was expository preaching an innovation of Calvin, or did he find it in the ancient church fathers Origen (c.185–254), considered the “father of biblical exposition,” and Chrysostom, whose “plain style” expositions profoundly influenced Calvin? Did the English Puritans invent extemporaneous prayer, or did they find it in Justin Martyr’s Apology, dating about 155 A.D.? As for church songs, our hymnal includes lyrics contributed by Clement of Alexandria (c.150–220), an Athenian but also a longtime resident of Egypt; Gregory of Nazianzus, of Cappadocia (see below); Prudentius (348–413), a Spaniard; John of Damascus (c.655–c.750), a Syrian; Andrew of Crete (c.660–740), a Syrian; and Joseph the Hymnographer (c.810–886), a Sicilian. Some contributions are very old and from unknown sources. The Gloria Patri dates to the second century, the Gloria in Excelsis to the fourth century, the Te Deum also the fourth century, the Liturgy of St. James (from which “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence” was derived) from the fifth century, and so on. Musical contributions may be found from Hebrew, European, American, Hispanic, and African-American folk traditions. What exactly do we mean by western?

Here’s the real kicker. Who were the prime movers in formulating the orthodox doctrines of the church, the theology of Nicea and Chalcedon? Who wrestled out the doctrines of the Trinity and the dual nature of Christ? Surely they were westerners, Greeks or Romans, infected with the rationalism and logic so foreign to the non-western world, right? Wrong. As Thomas C. Odom has shown in his work, How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind, the flow of intellectual life in the first three centuries of the church was not north to south, but south to north. It flowed from Africa and the Middle East north to Europe.

We can name two theologians to make our point: Athanasius (of contra mundum fame) and Augustine, the former having decisive influence in formulating the doctrine of the Trinity and the latter the most important theological mind in the history of the church. Athanasius (c.296-298–373), nicknamed the “black dwarf,” was an Egyptian. So were Origen (c.185–c.254) and Cyril (c 315–87). Augustine (c.185–c.254) was a North African, as were Tertullian (c.160–c.225), known as the “Father of Latin Theology,” Lactantius (c.240–c.320) and Cyprian (c.258).

The Cappadocian Fathers (Basil the Great [c.330–79], Gregory of Nyssa [c.330–c.395], and Gregory of Nazianzus [325–390]), of crucial influence in defeating Arianism, were all by birth from Caesarea in Cappadocia, that is, present day south-central Turkey.

The church was dominated by “non-western” leaders in the crucial formative years between the resurrection of Christ and the fall of Rome. I might remind us as well, Jesus and the apostles were not westerners either. We can only speak of the church as “western” in a highly qualified sense.

Third, are the more obviously “western” elements of the church a product of the culture of the west or of the culture of the church? When Boniface (c.675–754), the “Apostle of Germany,” and Ansgar (801–65), the “Apostle of the North” (Scandinavia), and Willibrord (658–739), the “Apostle of Frisia” (the Netherlands) evangelized their respective mission fields, they found their hosts playing Bach fugues on their harpsichords and found Rembrandt’s paintings on their walls, right? The barbarian Europeans, pre-Christian, had no music to speak of and primitive art at best. Western music, with its harmony, melody, and rhythm, is, in an important sense, Christian music. It is the music that the Christian church developed, beginning with Gregorian chants and increasing in sophistication over the centuries. In my view, the church’s location in the “west” is incidental. The ethnicity of its members is incidental. For most of the last 1400 years (since the Muslim conquests in the Middle East and North Africa), the church has been located primarily in Europe. The barbarian European converts took the musical heritage the Patristic church handed to it and developed it, adding little from its distinctive barbarian culture as the church shaped Europe, rather than Europe’s barbarians shaping the church. It is ridiculous to think that pagan European converts demanded the inclusion of their primitive drums and dances in their church’s services – so that the “style” of the service would be familiar to them. Instead the Christian church developed its own music, and Europe adopted what the church created.

It is painful to see “interest” groups vying for their style preferences in the church’s worship: the young demanding pop music, ethnic groups their music, cowboys and hip-hoppers their music at their churches. Because I am a Christian, not a hyphenated Christian, I gratefully receive the “Tradition,” consisting of the Creeds, classic writings, music, devotional lyrics, and so on. I embrace the “catholic” hymnal, words and tunes. I refuse to join the Balkanizers and classify contributions to the Tradition according to their racial, ethnic, gender, and generational identities. I care only about excellence. Because we are “in Christ,” we appreciate the contributions of the brethren according to their edifying capacities, whatever their worldly “identity,” and judge them not “according to the flesh.”

Terry Johnson is a Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church in America and serves as Senior Pastor of the Independent Presbyterian Church in Savannah, Ga. This article first appeared on his website and is used with permission.