In an effort to reconcile history and increase cultural competencies, Christian institutions and churches confront both their bookshelves and their interpretations of Scripture.
The highest percentages of religious commitment among Christians can be found in sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and the United States, according to a study by from the Pew Research Center. Sixty-eight percent of the United States, 89 percent of Ghana, 94 percent of Honduras and 80 percent of Ecuador rate their Christian religion as very important in their lives. However, the predominately white culture of the American evangelical church leaves many pastors and students questioning their theological sources and perspectives.
Drew Brown, while a student at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary, wrestled with the lack of diversity in his theology courses. Among the 34 books he was assigned for his seven classes, only four were written by people of color. “Without realizing, every book I bought was another brick in the wall dividing my whiteness and maleness from others, cementing me into a racism that still blurs my vision from the truth of Christ,” Brown said in Relevant Magazine.
For a paper in David Vila’s Honors New Testament class, Anna Noden, junior English education major, chose the topic of slavery in Scripture. “I had read about those chapters my whole life, but I had never really thought about them, especially from the lens of history and how they were used to justify slavery in the U.S., Britain and other places,” Noden said. “Just the fact that those verses were preached to enslaved people as ‘You need to accept this. Look, God even says you do.’ That got me thinking, ‘Does Paul believe that? Does God believe that?’”
Noden worked to include diverse perspectives in her research in order to have a full picture of slavery, both in American history and in the New Testament. “I started thinking about what people group this specific topic would mean the most to or impact the most and I was like, there’s no way I can just read white sources on this,” Noden said. “That’s not going to give me any well-rounded view, so I started looking for African-American theologians at the library and I found some great books.”
For a paper in her Poverty and Welfare in American History class with Trisha Posey, Noden used the “Africa Bible Commentary,” which revealed to her the important of intentional research. “It’s so refreshing to look at it because it’s like, ‘Oh my goodness, I never even thought of it that way because the way this particular culture in Ghana reads this verse and it connects to their culture in this way. It just opens up the Bible in a whole new way. I’m grateful that the library has that,” Noden said.
James L. Hawkins, marriage and family pastor at New Heights Church in Fayetteville, said that Christians should not only use diverse sources but also, they should look at their interpretation of Scripture. “We can all benefit from how each cultural group connects with God and each other,” Hawkins said. “Each cultural group needs the insight of others to help them see the fullness of the Gospel beyond the limited scope of their cultural group.”
In examining one’s cultural narrative, Hawkins said that Christians must look at both the good and bad portions of our history. “In Germany, they actually have iconography depicting the Holocaust, saying ‘We did this, and we don’t ever want to go back. Nobody in modern Germany did that. However, as a country, we own it.’ In America, we struggle to make that. We don’t do that well, I believe,” Hawkins said. “But in order to do that, we have to take that as a communal issue, in order to be able to make progress forward communally. If we are saying, ‘I as a white person didn’t do it. I don’t have to be a part of the process,’ as African-Americans, it still does affect them, and they have to handle it by themselves, then we still remain divided.”
Other pastors have asked Hawkins how they can improve and take action. “Don’t do anything until you can see the world differently. Not many pastors have taken the time to see the world differently, even within the context of America,” Hawkins said. “For some evangelical pastors, they’ll say, ‘I see the world differently because I went on a trip to such-and-such country in Africa’ or ‘I went to Haiti’ or ‘I went to Asia.’ That’s great, but can you deal with the pain and our own issues here in America?”
Looking at the pain of American history, Hawkins said that political ideologies can influence how we read and live out Scripture. “The problem comes when the bodies of other people have become politicized. We can’t be with other people’s pain. It becomes a political point,” Hawkins said. “While I don’t agree with abortion and would say the Bible speaks against it, I can say I am furious though for what’s happening to the ladies who are going through making that choice. It’s not easy and something’s going wrong. If I politicize what’s going wrong, I can’t feel her pain.”
Hawkins said that we must be willing to be guided by God rather than our own cultural viewpoint. “The contemplative nature of certain ethnic groups, or … emotive expressions of some other ethnic groups, we can embrace that under the banner of God’s kingdom ethos rather than being like this is what African-Americans do or this is what upper-class whites do or college educated, affluent white church does, or a lower socio-economic Hispanic church does. We keep breaking that apart instead of letting it come under the culture of the kingdom.”