Monday, December 10, 2007

Black And Reformed

Some of our brothers and sisters who hail from the black American culture hold to a reformed soteriology. This is no small thing for them and Pastor Lance pointed to a discussion at The Council of Reforming Churches that asks the question, "Can we be both Black and Reformed?"

I was born in what was then a rather homogeneous area of Ohio and raised there throughout my early formative years. My exposure to Black culture was on TV with programs like Good Times and Fat Albert. I was (and still am) vocally imitative. My kids love for me to read to them because I affect different voices. I could imitate nearly all the the Fat Albert gang. Despite these television shows, I knew little of the real black culture they caricatured. On a trip to Detroit for my dad to obtain his ham radio license, we left very early in the morning and brought breakfast with us to eat on our arrival. I remember my aunt offering leftover orange juice to a black lady on the street and getting a strange look.

A few years later we moved south and I was introduced further to black culture. As far as I could see, these were people like any other people who had been dealt a difficult cultural hand. However, my new associates were kind in general and I made several friends among them. In high school, I enjoyed hours of writing and improvising jazz with a remarkable saxophone player who happened to be black. I even had a chance to sing in a black country church one Christmas. The walls of the small church were held together by a small cable and the church was packed. The choir was small but dynamic and I could swear the whole building moved with praises to God. I fell in love with black gospel music then.

In the Marines I continued to broaden my experience with brothers in arms who were black. For a short time I played with an R&B group that played base clubs - we did Keith Sweat stuff mostly. The group gave me my black nickname "P-bone". Many of my fellow jarheads who were "dark green" (they said there was no white and black - only green) were also brothers in Christ. As I strayed from the faith, among the brothers God sent to bring me back was a godly black man named Larry Williams. I started going to the base chapel and sang in the choir. The choir director was black and the choir was thoroughly mixed. We sang a variety of things, but I learned how to sway and clap here.

I love learning different cultures. I was envious of my wife and children as they spent the summer in Venezuela and received firsthand experience of the culture there. I love reading mission books like "Cowboy Boots in Darkest Africa" by Dr. Bill Rice and "Peace Child" by Don Richardson. I've been deployed to England and the Middle East with the Marines and Venezuela on missions. All these required some education as to developing and utilizing an understanding of the culture.

Some observations regarding cultures:

1) Multiple cultures can provide an opportunity to destroy moral mores in each. Wisdom must be employed when transversing or mixing cultures that the law of God as manifested differently in each is not compromised.
2) Mot people understand only a single culture and other cultures often prove to be a stumblingblock to them. In this case a certain lack of cultural sensitivity is to be anticipated and some education may be lovingly offered to these.
3) Culture is fluid and changes over time, often at dramatically different rates. I'll call this "cultural progression".
4) Cultural progression carries with it popular philosophies and outlooks that influence the understanding of the people in that culture. This understanding has theological ramifications for any religious group with a contingency in that culture.
5) Reciprocally, the introduction of theological concepts influences cultural progression.
6) Therefore, Christians must understand that a culture may cloud the truth of the gospel in some ways and reveal it particularly well in others.

With regard to Reformed theology, we should understand that much of our theology is a reaction to theologies we regard as false for whatever reason. Reformed theology, by definition, is a reaction to the poor theology of the Roman Catholic Church - originally with regard to Pharisaical abuses where ecclesiology and soteriology overlap. The purpose therefore is to arrive at the truth.

I am a Reformed theologian because I believe it is the best reading of scripture, not because I necessarily want Reformed Theology to be true. I want what's true to be true and I didn't particularly like Reformed theology when I started realizing the teachings in scripture. They challenged my previous understanding. However, I wanted to align myself with truth, so I changed my understanding and reassessed my presuppositions. My personal culture (if there is such a thing) changed. My prayer is that it has changed to be more in accordance with the transcendent culture of the Kingdom of Heaven.

So, whatever culture that can be identified, whether white, black, Asian, Hispanic, or any number of the hundreds or thousands of particular iterations of culture in the world, can be said to have elements that cloud the truth and elements the reveal the truth. We must be diligent to cast off those elements that cloud the truth and use those elements that reveal the truth to proclaim the truth. From 1 Corinthians chapter 9:

19 For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I may win more.

20 To the Jews I became as a Jew, so that I might win Jews; to those who are under the Law, as under the Law though not being myself under the Law, so that I might win those who are under the Law;

21 to those who are without law, as without law, though not being without the law of God but under the law of Christ, so that I might win those who are without law.

22 To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak; I have become all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some.

23 I do all things for the sake of the gospel, so that I may become a fellow partaker of it.


This past weekend, I sang a little solo with my wife at church in a portion of a program that was choreographed and styled after the 1940s white American culture. I wore a top hat, a coat and scarf over my tux. My wife wore a nice 1940s style dress and makeup. People knew that we were from 2007, but they understood the words I sang in the context of the 1940s. It made a nice warm-up for a program that was otherwise steeped in worship and praise for our God who deigned to become a man so as to pay the penalty of sin for men.

So, can you be black and reformed? Just as much as you can be white and Reformed. If I cannot share the gospel as a white man, I must wear the culture that people understand as though it were a piece of costumed attire. "You're not one of us, are you..." may be the sentiment of someone of a different culture "...but I understand what you are saying."

The multitude of cultures speaks to the extravagance of God's grace. The pursuit of truth is possible in each of them. However, while we can enjoy many of the particulars of a culture in the truth, there are elements that must be cast off and new elements that must be added. The culture must change as we grow closer to God. This is true of the white culture as well as the black culture. You can be black and Reformed with the understanding that the grace of God is greater than all this.

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2 Comments:

Anonymous Lionel Woods said...

That is right you were a Jarhead!!!!! I will let you make since you are a brother in the Lord. Dang, Marines! Go ARMY!!!! The only true brach of service!!!!

But to the post, your writing amazes me and warms my heart above all I can say. I wrote something at www.blackandreformedministries.com about the dilemma of being black and reformed. My white brothers must understand that the culture of Reformed theology is inherently white, while the truth it preaches is colorless. As we look at the forefathers of the movment, we must admit that Wyclife, Luther, Calvin, and the great Puritans and even up until today are white man, who bring Anglo culture to their faith.

This culture includes, dress style, musical prefrences, communication, and even politics. The other issue is that blacks have come into such a system of theology with a lot of past hurts and skepticism due to those hurts. That is where we are tying to bridge the gap. We are saying hey you don't have to put up your cultural distinctives to accept Reformed Theology.

Finally as you said, we all bring something unique. I agree. I always say we all bring unique and even special backgrounds to the cross of Christ. God so planned it that way for better worship.

Wed Dec 12, 11:10:00 AM GMT-5  
Blogger Jim Pemberton said...

I think I understand what you are saying, brother Lionel. Reformed theology as a history was developed in Europe by white men. Here's something that may help: these white men only relearned something through the writings of Paul, Matthew, Peter, etc. that was first taught by Christ. These were not white or black men although we know that Christ had some non-semitic heritage from Rahab (a Canaanite), Ruth (a Moabite) and probably Bathsheba (whose name is speculated to mean "daughter of the oath", but may mean "daughter of Sheba", a nation once located between Arabia and Africa).

Yes, the white theologians applied the rediscovered theology to white culture. That's what they knew. Despite the development of architecture, society and advanced military engineering, the Europeans were no less barbaric than anyone else in the world. Even Roman Catholics and Protestants alike were pretty cruel with anyone who disagreed with them. They just exhibited their sin nature and justified their corruption with vain reasoning.

This evil, prevalent in the white culture at large, manifested itself in many different ways. One way was when explorers, perhaps nominally Christian, discovered people whose architecture, sociological structures and military technology were not as advanced. They also didn't know Christ. These were deemed "barbarians" and were enslaved by the whites. This was wrong, but the whites confused their advancements for righteousness.

Incidentally, they still do. I live in North Carolina. I have white neighbors who are maligned as backwards, backwoods "rednecks" by many of the white New Englanders who have moved down here to escape the high taxes up there. A few of these "rednecks" still play the same stupid racist game (although most of them have been "enlightened", for lack of a better term). Even in our churches, we see it. I hold to the Reformed theology and I see so many debates between brothers in Christ who are Reformed and those who are not. Many of these become battles of pride rather than earnest theological discourse in pursuit of the truth. So the sin of pride still happens today, even in our churches.

What happened with African slaves is two sides of the same coin. I believe that while the white man intended slavery for evil, God used it to bring Christ to the many of the slaves. The down side is one you mentioned. The reaction has been "a system of theology with a lot of past hurts."

I believe that the sociological pendulum is swinging back around and that theology is being refined, not to a system of theology merely rediscovered a few hundred years ago by white men, but to teachings given by our Savior and His first apostles 2000 years ago.

The pendulum swings, but not easily. The perception is that Christians steeped in the black culture must continue to react against the theology of the white man. I believe we are seeing a change where the truth is being revealed for what it is and we have good things to look forward to as a result. I believe that the black culture, set free by this truth, will become a force that God will use to accomplish great good and we will see grace like we have never seen it before. And you, my brother, are among those on the cutting edge.

Wed Dec 12, 09:28:00 PM GMT-5  

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