Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Coming Together in the 21st Century: The Bible's Message in an Age of Diversity -- Review


COMING TOGETHER IN THE 21st CENTURY: The Bible’s Message in an Age of Diversity.  By Curtiss Paul DeYoung.  Foreword by Cain Hope Felder.  Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 2009.  xiv + 232 pp.


    You know the old adage: “11:00 on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour of the week.”  Diversity is something Christians talk a lot about, and yet we seem to find it difficult to cross the ethnic, social, gender, racial, color, economic boundaries.  Often we seem oblivious to the obstacles we place before people seeking to come into the community of faith.  One question might be why this is the case, and another concerns what might be done.  Curtiss Paul DeYoung,  a White male from the United States of America teaching at an evangelical university in Minnesota, seeks to engage these questions by offering the church a biblical theology of diversity. 

    Coming Together in the 21st Century first appeared in 1995, but much has occurred in the past fifteen years, and thus a newly revised edition has been released.  Since I’ve not read the original, I’m not always sure what is new and what remains of the original – though there are chapters, such as the roundtable featuring Brenda Salter McNeil, Richard Twiss, Jean Zaru, and Allan Aubrey Boesek, that has been added to this edition. 

    What is important to note is that this is a biblical theology of diversity that emerges from an evangelical setting.  This is seen in part with assumptions of Pauline authorship of Ephesians and the Pastorals.  That said, this is anything but a traditional reading of scripture.  And while not standing at the center of the conversation, DeYoung does broach the issue of inclusion of gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgendered.  The very fact that he, as an evangelical, is willing to raise the issue is a good sign that the conversation about diversity is broadening, and difficult questions that we’ve tried to evade are now on the table.  The same is true of the brief, but important, conversation about disability.

    It would be safe to say that DeYoung’s biblical theology has been influenced by his mentor at Howard University Divinity School, Cain Hope Felder.  Although being White, he has tried to look at Scripture from an Afro-centric perspective.  When it comes to Jesus, he challenges our portraits of Jesus the man, portraits that reflect the dominance of Northern Europe, but do not reflect the realities of first century Palestine.  DeYoung asks us to trade our Scandinavian Jesus for one that is Afro-Asian.  He wants us to recognize that Jesus’ ancestors would have included Africans as well as Asians – with not a drop of European blood present. 

    Why is this important?  He writes that “People of color need to visually see that Jesus was not white.  Although the messages of the colonizer, the slaveholder, and the white supremacist were lies, the image of a white Jesus is deeply embedded in the psyche (p. 62). 

He goes on to note the relevancy of an Afro-Asiatic image of Jesus for people living in the non-Euro-American context.  By seeing him in a different form, Jesus becomes less of a stranger and also less of an oppressor.  Therefore, Jesus becomes the one representing the God of all the nations.  This offers a greater opportunity for reconciliation to occur across racial and cultural lines. 

    In the course of the book, at times by inviting other contributors into the conversation, DeYoung allows us to re-envision our faith, and see how it can take on new forms.  Thus, we hear from Native American, Asian, Palestinian, and African voices.  We hear from men and from women.   He notes that there was cultural validity to envisioning Jesus in European guise.  The problem is that this visage became the definitive one. 
 
    Frank Yamada and Leticia A. Guardiola-Sáenez, both biblical scholars, offer a chapter entitled culture and identity, that is quite helpful in our attempts to navigate both our own context and the biblical one.  There is at least one commonality between first and twenty-first centuries – the peoples of both centuries must deal with culture and identity.  These may be different, but the reality that they exist is not different.  In order to develop a biblical theology of diversity, we have to address the realities of our own culture and identity. 

    The book not only deals with ethnic/cultural issues.  There is a chapter written by Mimi Haddad that deals with gender issues in the church.  This chapter looks at Paul through the lens of Galatians 3:28, a passage that has been helpful to many evangelicals who have sought to get beyond culturally defined roles. 

    This is the key to the book really.  There is a strong affirmation of the biblical text and its authority for individual Christians and for the church.  What the author and contributors hope to do is distinguish between the good news that continues to speak to our world and the cultural contexts that reflect a different era. 

    In the end, the hope is for reconciliation, for breaking down the walls that we put up.  Noting that Scripture isn’t always clear – indeed often provides conflicting voices – if we can begin to unpack the text, to understand the cultural contexts, we might be able to move forward.  As I read the book, the most important point for me, was the reminder that Jesus’ cultural/ethnic identity may be different from the one handed on to me.  It was a call to re-imagine Jesus, both in ways that reflect the likely historic identity and the one that transcends through the ages all boundaries. 

    As he concludes the book, DeYoung writes:

    We live in a world where the need for reconciliation has never been greater.  To sustain efforts at reconciliation, the cadre of artisans must multiply beyond a few “called” individuals.  The urgency of the task is great!  The Bible’s message, in this age of diversity, is an invitation to come together at God’s table of fellowship and to go forth into the entire world as God’s artisans of reconciliation.  (P. 181).
   
    To aid in the use of the book for engaging congregations in the work of reconciliation, Robin Bell has provided a fairly extensive “Group Reflection – Action Guide.”  Bell is a longtime partner with DeYoung in ministries of reconciliation and currently teaches at Northwestern College of St. Paul, MN.

    This is a most worthwhile book for personal reading and for congregational study.  It will, especially the chapters on Jesus’ ethnic identity, prove challenging and transforming of one’s identity and perspective.  I would say that, while the author is definitely speaking to an evangelical community struggling with its understanding of the biblical message, those of us on the more progressive side will find our own preconceptions challenged.  Thus, it is a must read.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

I hope for a day soon when those who today feel they are too different to be accepted- realize they are sorely needed. They have stories and spirit we are longing for. What could be more affirming than to see those we once failed, and failed to understand or value lead us to increased insight and faith? Practice a pleasantly surprised expression for the day each one summons the courage step into our holy places. David Mc

Steve Spreitzer said...

Bob,
Thanks for this informative review! Met you several years ago soon after your arrival in Troy, when Padma and I visited your house. From your blog, FB posts and emails I see you are rocking.
Peace be with you,
Steve Spreitzer
MI Roundtable for Diversity & Inclusion