Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The End of Integration

Jazzed Theology

A Response to Jemar Tisby

Nearly 40 years ago a group of ministers listened to a talk about Reformed theology and Blacks. The speaker pointed out the need to use accessible vocabulary and concepts to teach Reformed theology so that Black people could understand and relate to it. I remember in particular he said that when teaching covenant theology to Blacks one might refer to a covenant  as "the deal." (About which I thought "not.")

Had I said that, it could well have been taken as as a racist statement. But, since it was said by a Black man, it was not. 

Carl Ellis
Now Jemar Tisby over at the Reformed African American Network  calls  attention to Dr. Carl Ellis' having expressed 30 years ago the hope for "an indigenous Reformed movement in the African American community." 

Jemar Tisby
Mr Tisby attempts to begin to flesh out what this  indigenous Reformed movement might look like. What does Mr. Tisby mean by indigenous? "First we need to analyze this word 'indigenous' because it is crucial to defining the contours of the movement. Indigenous means 'originating or occurring naturally in a particular place; native.'"

So how does Mr. Tisby envision an indigenous African American Reformed movement?

First, an indigenous Reformed movement must arise among and be led by Blacks.
An indigenous movement, then, comes from the community in which the movement is taking place. Rather than some other racial or ethnic group with a different culture coming into Black communities and leading a movement, Black people themselves should see the need, develop the principles, and lead the strategies of an indigenous Reformed movement. This doesn’t mean that people of other races, cultures, and communities can’t be involved. But African Americans should be well-represented and at the forefront of a movement affecting their own people.
With this we might conclude that an indigenous African American Reformed movement is something akin to an indigenous African American Republican movement. African American politicians, perhaps Tim Scott, or Allen West, or Herman Cain might organize among African Americans a Republican movement to spread Republican Party ideology, recruit candidates, and seek both to increase the size of the Republican base and to improve the lot of African American citizens. Or we might think of economists Drs. Thomas Sowell and Walter Williams leading a movement to teach and garner support for economic libertarianism within Black communities.  But Mr. Tisby makes clear that he has more in mind for an African American Reformed movement.

Second, an indigenous movement will require an indigenous theology.
Yet indigenous refers not only to the people involved but also to the type of theology being done. The theology itself has to be indigenous to African Americans... 
An indigenous Reformed movement among African Americans will draw upon existing Reformed theological formulations, but it will not simply mimic them. Theology, not truth, will be adapted to the unique social and cultural milieu of Black communities.
The type of theology will be different for the theology itself must be indigenous. This theology may draw on existing Reformed theology as suggestive of lines of investigation or even as a kind of source material, but the theology must be adapted to the unique culture and circumstances of Black communities. 

African Americans are not alone thinking that their history, experience, and culture are so different that there must be a theology indigenous to them as group of people. Mr. Tisby and other African Americans believe an indigenous theology is required by race. Some females believe it is required by gender. Males don't have the same chromosomes, nor the history and experience of oppression in a patriarchal society. In fact males are the oppressors of females. Just as we need feminist studies in general, so  we need feminist theology in particular. 

The part of this statement, however, that leaves me scratching my head when I stop banging it against the wall is that "theology not truth will be adapted" to the African American milieu. What does that mean? What is the distinction between theology and truth? Try this for comparison: "It is ethics not morality that must be adapted." 

 Third, an indigenous theology will require indigenous methods: 
Since today’s questions and issues are different than the ones faced 500 years ago, we have “do” theology differently. We have to have different paradigms for drawing out the truths out Scripture and applying them to situations and questions that most affect African Americans. 
Many will read this idea of doing theology differently as changing or compromising God’s truth. This is not at all the thrust of an indigenous Reformed movement. God’s word is unchanging and eternal. But every evangelist and missionary, including the Biblical writers, recognize that while truth is timeless, applications are endless. If we want to more effectively apply God’s word to a variety of cultural contexts we’ll have to figure out a variety of methods of application. 
Reformed theology that truly comes out of the African American experience will look different from the Reformed theology that comes out of, say, 16th century Europe or 19th century North America.
Mr Tisby says the questions and issues today are different from the ones faced 500 years ago; therefore, we have to do theology differently. Neither Mr. Tisby nor African Americans are alone noting the historical and cultural distance between the early 21st century and the Reformation era. Five hundred years has put a lot of space between us and Geneva, Edinburgh, and Westminster. That's obvious, and it is true for all. But Mr. Tisby is saying that the distance is greater for African Americans than for those of northern European and British descent. This requires an uniquely African American theological method.

Nor are Mr. Tisby and African Americans alone in arguing that the questions and issues today are different, and, therefore, that we must approach theology differently. Plenty of white theologians make the same argument with regard to Reformation theology. The issues and questions are different for us; therefore, the answers and the methods of obtaining them are necessarily different.

Perhaps the main difference between this approach and the Reformers is that, while the Reformers knew they were addressing issues of their time, they did not think the substance of their theology was time or culture bound. They knew they had to deal with issues of their time such as the Papacy, works righteousness, and the mass, but they thought what they were doing was reforming theology, worship, and practice according to the patristic and apostolic patterns, not coming up with new theology or new theological methods. Some of the issues were timely; the theology was timeless. The Reformers did not see themselves as producing a theology indigenous to their ethnicities, histories, or cultures. (We read Calvin today, not for historical interest alone, but to learn theology.)   

As an Anglican, I would say to white Anglican theologians, "Stop telling me that the Articles of Religion addressed matters faced by the English Church in the time of Cranmer. Things are different today, so we can downplay the Protestantism of the Articles in order to deal with the issues faced by the church today." I hope someone with sufficient standing and courage will say something similar to African Americans who want their own version of Reformed theology. A quest for theology that is both Reformed and peculiar to the African American experience and culture has contradictory aims.

Fourth the difference between "classical" Reformed theology and the indigenous theology Mr. Tisby envisions is the difference between classical music and jazz.
Take music for example. Both classical music and jazz music utilize the same universal principles of music but create drastically different expressions. As Dr. Ellis says, the beauty of classical music is the music as it is written. Classical music performances are deemed excellent to the degree that the performer reproduces the exact musical phrases that were written by the composer. But the beauty of jazz music is the music as it is performed. Jazz music is deemed excellent to the degree that the performer lives in the moment and improves (improvises?) based on the context of the musician and the audience. In other words, classical seeks to imitate while jazz seeks to improvise.
This is the difference between historic Reformed theology and the theology that will come out of an indigenous Reformed movement. Historic Reformed theology is classical music. Indigenous African American Reformed theology is jazz. Remember that neither art form changes the principles of music. They both utilize notes, scales, rhythm, and more. But they apply those timeless elements in different ways.
A non-musicologist may be allowed to say these things.

The differences  between jazz and classical music are not quite as Mr. Tisby describes them. Classical music is not without improvisation. Anyone who has heard "Messiah" with different orchestrations, different conductors, and different soloists knows that the playing of the piece is not "imitation" as Mr. Tisby describes it. On the other hand jazz is not without imitation. Jazz requires composition whether written in the mind alone or put on paper. Notes must put to paper or at least recorded for the composition to be preserved for future generations. Moreover, at  some point improvisation will produce something that is no longer "Mood Indigo" but something else. Then, if one has heard improvisational musicians play the same piece on different nights, he knows that the "improvisations" are more similar than dissimilar.

More important what Mr. Tisby gives us in his comparison of classical and jazz is what I call the Willie and Waylon approach. The cowboy "ain't wrong, he's just different." Applied to culture this is the view all cultural expressions are equal but different and that excellence is determined by context. The standards for excellence are different for classical music than for jazz. One of primary criteria for excellence in classical music is "imitation" while one of the primary criteria for jazz is "improvisation." But there is no difference of value or quality between the forms. Classical music and jazz are equal but different musical forms. 

It can be determined without hearing much "jazz theology" that Mr. Tisby sees it as  just as good "classical theology." It is just a different approach. And for African Americans it is better because it reflects the uniqueness of being African American. Imitative (talk about a loaded term) and improvisational theology are different but equally valid ways of "doing theology." To each his own. What we have here is standard multi-culturalism applied to theology.

I have a question: What can we learn about indigenous Oriental or Hispanic theology from their indigenous music? 

Fifth, one of the differences we must expect between classical Reformed theology and jazzed theology is that the indigenous African American Reformed theology will be more concerned with the experiential, practical, applicatory, ethical, and multi-cultural. 
All Christians should be thankful and appreciative of historic Reformed theology. We have derived many great truths from it about the sovereignty of God, His grace in election, and how to study the Bible. But if, as John Frame says, “Theology is the application of God’s word to all of life,”then much more theology remains to be done.
 ... God’s word is unchanging and eternal. But every effective evangelist and missionary, including the Biblical writers, recognize that while truth is timeless, applications are endless. If we want to more effectively apply God’s word to a variety of cultural contexts we’ll have to figure out a variety of methods of application.
How does one “do”jazz theology? Jazz theology is done by doing. It is a lived theology. It is ethical in nature and takes into account both the personal and the social dimensions of the gospel. Much of this kind of theology is already being done by practitioners like pastors and non-profit workers. So part of the mission of the movement is to capture those practices on paper and distribute them. Another aspect of the doing this kind of theology is broadening the background sources. We have much to learn from historic Reformed African Americans like Jupiter Hammond, Phyllis Wheatley, and Olaudah Equiano. In addition, there are more contemporary Black evangelicals like Tom Skinner, William Pannell, and, of course, Carl Ellis. Thus a fundamental task in doing indigenous Reformed theology is an education that draws on the vast resources of the multi-cultural Christian world.
African American Reformed theology will be less logical, propositional, creedal, confessional, and, yes, less theological.

It seems to me that the only thing new here is the orientation to what Mr. Tisby perceives to be the uniqueness of African Americans. But, liberal Fosdick rejected "theoretical" Christianity for a practical and ethical faith. De-mythologizing Bultmann saw that modern man faces insuperable difficulties with historic formulations of theology and so recast them in existential terms. These leaders were trying to do theology that was indigenous to the 20th century. Yes, Mr. Tisby  respects the Bible, though he has already driven a wedge between "theology" and "truth." But substitute "African American" for "liberal" or "demytholozing" and you get insight into the concerns, methodology, and sorts of outcomes one can expect of indigenous theologies. 

Two brief comments and I am done:

(1) This is another evidence of the end of the ideal of integration. There is a classical Reformed theology that is indigenous to whites of northern European descent. And there is a jazz Reformed theology indigenous to African Americans. Two communities, two cultures, two theologies, two methodologies. Separate but equal. 

(2) I don't think Mr. Tisby has realized it, but there is a much bigger problem than classical Reformed theology of 500 years ago. The bigger problem is with classical Christian theology of 1700 years ago. What is he going to do with Nicene Creed? How are you going to go about making that indigenous to African American culture? What is the jazz version of "And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made"? 

He will surely have white allies if he finds fault with the Creed. The story line is that pure Biblical theology got hijacked by Greek philosophy and so produced a statement of faith that uses Greek vocabulary and concepts foreign to the Bible. My own view is that in the providence of God there were Greek words and Greek concepts that could be put to use to gather up the Biblical material and state it in creedal form.

I would guess that since they are of different races and cultures N.T. Wright and Jemar Tisby will not be able to work on the Creed together. But they can agree that the Creed is historically and culturally bound.

Some of us, however, will continue to use it practically as a universal confession of Christian faith and measure of Christian orthodoxy. I suppose it's indigenous to us.


Anonymous said...

Hi, Bill:

Of course our theology is culturally situated and contextualized. We don't have to make it contextual; it already is contextual. Further, one would expect that African Americans doing Reformed theology will necessarily offer a differing framework for stating similar truths. That's because they are working in a different cultural system than 17th-century former Anglicans.

However, we would expect that all theology that takes the Bible seriously will come to receive approximately similar views--the fact that orthodox Christianity, as represented by the Creed (which itself is in fact Greek--that doesn't negate it any more than Augustine being an Latinate African negates his theology), has been present in many places over many times suggests this.

I do think, however, that using Jemar as your foil and making him out to be some sort of proto-liberal is foolish and wrong. He's one of the brightest men I know who is trying to bring biblical (i.e. Reformed) theology to flourishing in an African American context that has been suspicious of it. I surely wouldn't want to shoot at one of our friends--whether someone working through bringing about an indigenous African American Reformed movement or someone who labors in an Anglican context.

Sean Lucas

The Christian Curmudgeon said...

Thanks for your response, Sean. I appreciate it.

I do not think I used Jemar as a foil. I took seriously what he wrote, thought about its implicatons for theology and the church, and responded to it. I thought a response was warranted and still do. It was Jemar who wrote his blogs, and it is Jemar and this blogs to which I made response.

I do not know Jemar, but I would have assumed what you say which is that he is very bright. That's what surprised me about his two blogs to which I responded as well as his GA report, because the thinking was muddled and the argument lacking in logical progressions and conclusions.

I am somewhat surprised, given your exhortations, that you would accuse me of being foolish and wrong. Perhaps you might just have said, "I disagree and here's why." Perhaps you did shoot at one who labors in Anglican context.

But I expect the world of thought and argument to be rough and tumble and suppose your description of my taking up Jemar's blogs foolish is rather mild compared to the kinds of things Calvin said about others who were part of the Reformation. I expect he would have some pretty strong things to say about Jemar's views, too.

What I see as the real problem here is the underming of the western tradition. Jemar's blogs are just one more instance of this decades long trend. It's post-modernism's rejection of transcendent, objective, timeless truth and rational thought. Take that approach if you wish, but don't ask me to think it Reformed or even catholic Christianity.

I understand the Creed is Greek, and I said so. But that's part of my point. I don't think the Creed is wrong, outdated, unBiblical, or needing revision. Of course, Wright, who wants to trump everything with his exegeisis and BT. does think the Creed is problematic and acknowledges his says it with certain "mental adjustments." I don't. I don't think he is right, nor do I think Jemar, coming from his own context, is.

It needs to be said again and again that not all African Americans take the approach that Jemar does. Others take a classical academic approach to intellectual questions and issues. They don't have the need for a separate culture where things are done in a different way. They remember slavery and segregation, but they are not willing to put themselves in a special African American enclave.

I think Jemar wants to shift gospel from "What must I do to be saved" toward "What must we do to make for a just society?" If he wants to address the latter question, fine. That makes him a transformationalist. But what I am not willing to see him do, without protest, is shift the focus of the gospel from Christ's atoning work and justification by faith alone. But that is the trajectory of his thought.

I am not optimistic about what I argue. One OT prof told me that he believed the discussion has already been had and implemented with engaging many in the conversation. An historian told me he would love to have the discussion about race with whites and African Americans and that it would be uncomfortable for both, but that he thought that Jemar was throwing out the approach to the Bible and the settled Creeds of the church that have come down to us.

Let me ask you this, for I have a guess but I do not know. Have Orientals, say Korean Presbyterians, come up with a new theology and a new way of doing it?

Again I appreciate your taking the time to respond as well as the response itself.