Evangelism and Colonialism are not the same thing. Evangelism seeks to redeem a culture. Colonialism seeks to erase it. Evangelism is based on the idea that Gods common grace is active in every culture, thus no culture is 100% depraved. Colonialism is based on the idea that the enlightened culture is superior and is responsible to change all the other evil cultures around it which it views as 100% depraved. Evangelism is the naked gospel. Colonialism is cultural elitism. Evangelism says "Jesus is the only way. Follow him." Colonialism says "Western European values are the only way. Adhere to them." When we mix these two what do we end up with? Sermons on how other cultures are evil, books on why Hymns are the only "godly music", attacks against styles of music and dress not rooted in eastern European thought, the insistence that Western high culture is somehow holier than every other culture (ex. classical music is somehow holier than every other kind of music). What this does is erode a cultures uniqueness and beauty. It ignores the complex development of their customs, values and practices. It narrows everything down to "demon worship" or "savagery". It forces indigenous people to wear suits and ties in order to worship God and to adopt expressions of worship so foreign to their minds that in the end we have not simply converted them, we have subverted them as well. As a Latino I often wondered, why do we sing hymns and demonize our own cultural music? Don't get me twisted. I love hymns. But what happened to the music of my island? Was it not good enough? The only answer I got was that it was carnal music with roots in African pagan worship whose entry into worship reflected a moral decline and was evidence that the "world was coming into the church". In other words, my culture was 100% depraved and thus needed to be subverted by the holier "Western high culture". It wasn't until I got older that I learned that it wasn't only the church that thought this way.
Negermusik ("Negro Music" also referred to as "degenerate music") was a pejorative term used by the Nazis during the Third Reich to signify musical styles and performances by African-Americans that were of the Jazz and Swing music genres. They viewed these musical styles in a racist fashion as inferior works belonging to an "inferior race" and therefore prohibited (the Nazis promoted German composed classical music such as Beethoven as "good music"). The term (Neger/Degenerate music), at that same time, was also applied to indigenous music styles of black Africans.
So I have begun to wonder, is the combination of colonialism and evangelism the true entry of the "world into the church"? Is the current cultural rejection of the church - oddly combined with an endearment to the person of Jesus - the results of this unholy union? Is the perpetual racism that exists among us rooted in this deeply entrenched mental grid we have come to view as normal? And how do we demolish this grid without swinging too far in the other direction?
|Degenerate Music: A reckoning by state council H. S. Ziegler, PhD|
The gospel never accommodates culture. It challenges it. And any element of a culture that is contrary to the way of Jesus is something that culture will have to wrestle with and put away. But that's much different to colonialism which assumes that because an indigenous culture worships some god or idol then they are 100% depraved. What many westerners don't realize is that our culture is also idolatrous. Only our idols are far more deceptive because they are ideological idols. Western culture worships individualism, consumerism, elitism, and intellectualism. Not to mention we have been deeply formed by the culture of Romanism. So if African idol worship results in - say - a particular style of drumming that must be rejected by believers how does western idol worship play into this? Does it impact the way we do classical music, architecture, education, community etc.? I'm not an "everything goes" kind of guy. But what I have observed is that Christian culture and Eurocentric values have been conflated almost to be the same thing and if you want to be a good Christian you have to be a European first.
Some suggest that the way to go about cultural evaluation is to look at the "fruit" of a particular practice to determine if it is good or not. I think that's a good approach but still a bit dangerous. The reason being is human bias will always be willing to see negative fruit in a cultural practice that is not its own. For example, lets talk about rap. I'm not a fan of rap music but non-urban cultures tend to view rap music as "criminal" or "thug" music. And while much of rap music certainly glorifies this kind of stuff seeing it as criminal is a gross oversimplification. When you study the history of blacks in America you'll find that when slavery ended one of the first things that took place was the criminalization of blacks in the broader culture. They were pictured by the media as being inherently decadent and dangerous. The Jim Crow era and other institutional policies made it impossible for blacks to get a home loan so the ghettos grew. Because of the low socioeconomic structure of their neighborhoods, schools had little funding and resources which resulted in poor education. With poverty, bad education, and overall cultural mistreatment came the rise of crime. Rap, which was a lyrical style that gave blacks a voice in a country where they didn't have one, came to reflect the experiences of its artists - most of which was crime and poverty. To non black/ urban cultures rap became associated with crime. But as you can see the story is much deeper than that. Rap is just a lyrical approach to poetry that gave blacks a voice in a society that marginalized and oppressed them. But now we just associate it with crime and think its evil. So this is why even the fruit approach has to be done with caution. Again, an outside culture doing the "evaluating" will always be more willing to see negative fruit in something without looking at the whole picture.
Now of course, there is a danger in that in reacting against cultural subversion we end up in the opposite ditch which means we refuse to thoroughly and honestly assess a cultural practice and deem it automatically valid in the name of diversity. That I perceive could lead to even more problems. I use music as an example because it tends to be the aspect that is most clearly seen. However, there are many others. For example, cultural elitism has kept the western church from truly recognizing its own spiritual lack. Many Eurocentric congregations would be quick to demonize something in another culture they deem unholy (like rhythmic music), but would never imagine demonizing the individualism that has led to the break down of true community in so many modern Western churches - for example. So I offer this, not as an Achilles heel to these conversations but as an oft ignored aspect. I like Tim Keller's advice in his book "Center Church" where he says that Christians should approach culture with cautious and critical enjoyment.
I'll be doing more research on this in the coming years. In the meantime, I have no interest in finding some sort of argument to excuse anything and everything. I think all cultures are depraved by sin but I also believe that God's common grace means they are not 100% depraved. So that impacts, to some degree, how I view diversity in the church when it comes to things like dress, music, architecture, social structures, family structures etc. To say that we should just leave culture alone is silly. In the Latino culture there is a lot of superstition and the men tend to be very sexist and male dominant. Should we just shrug our shoulders and say "hey that's just their culture"? Other cultures marry girls off as young as 11 or 12 years old. Should we just ignore that? Some cultures use music to enter transcendental states. Should we ignore this? Of course not. What I am suggesting is that the solution is not "just embrace Eurocentric values and expressions and you will be a truly holy christian". We need to challenge culture with scripture but allow the Holy Spirit to mold their practices toward heavens culture (which is not the same as Anglo-European culture) rather than impose our Western ideologies on them.
For example, I am a Puerto Rican from New Jersey. I grew up inner city during a modern to post modern transition. My culture is urban not country or Euro or suburbian. When I gather with believers who have this Eurocentric vibe where true worship can only be done with chellos and violins I enjoy it because I love diversity of art but I also feel out of place - like I'd never fit in there because that's just not my culture. Some may say my taste just needs to change, but why? Is my taste unholy just because it isn't Eurocentric? This is where things get hairy and the implications are huge when it comes down to a united mission and evangelism before the final crisis.
So those are my thoughts.
image source: ibid