A Man From Three Cultures

A Man From Three Cultures

Paul is among one of the most well-developped and well-rounded characters in the Bible. In his story, we get to see one person from multiple angles, and several sides of his identity. He was Jewish and held to that very strictly in a religious sense. (See Acts 8, Philippians 3:4-6) He was a literate man - a reader, a writer, and a speaker of the Greek language, and he was familiar with Greek philosophy and culture (Acts 17). He was a Roman citizen who lived in the Empire and understood the laws of the land (Acts 22:22-29). All of these overlapping identities put him in a unique position to relate cross-culturally to many different cultures within his world in the time of the Roman Empire.

Just like Paul, many people today have different identities or cultures at the same time as their Christian one. The Gospel doesn’t destroy all of these cultures, but rather our cultures can be colored by and harmonize with the gospel. Our membership in other communities doesn’t keep us from being Christian, it allows us to be Christians in those ways, in those spaces. Jesus' vision for his world has always been a multicultural one - where every tribe, nation, language, and people group would hear of his gospel and reshape their ways around the cross.

Paul didn’t stop being Jewish when he became Christian. He didn’t stop knowing about Greek culture, and he didn’t stop being a Roman citizen when he became a Christian. None of those things contradict Christianity. But being a Christian meant Paul would live as a Jew who believed the Messiah had come. He would study Greek philosophy from a Christian perspective. And he would live in the Roman Empire in a way that honored Jesus.

Being a Christian doesn’t look one certain way. Paul went to great lengths in Romans 14, 1 Corinthians 8-10, and other parts of the New Testament to emphasize that people might approach certain issues differently because of their culture, and emphasized over and over again that the faith was to be shared equally by Jewish and Gentile people (Romans 1:16, Ephesians 2:11-22, Galatians 3:28). The book of Acts narrates how different people groups begin to be brought into the Christian faith: Jewish people with cultural ties to Persia, Media, Elam, Mesopotamia, Cappadocia, Asia, Pontus, Phrygia, Pamphylia, Egypt, Lybia, Crete, and Arabia (Acts 2:9-11), as well as Romans (Acts 10), Macedonians (Acts 16:11-15), Ethiopians (Acts 8:26-40), and others.

While some in the early church struggled with this newfound fact of a multicultural "people of God," many also found it enriching and beautiful - as well as an effective way of mobilizing people to spread the message all over the world. Paul was not the only factor in making cross-cultural witness happen. The church of Antioch (in Syria) had a metropolitan congregation and multicultural leadership (Acts 11:19-26, Acts 13:1).

Multiculturalism became non-negotiable in the theology and spiritual practice of the early church. It is a constant theme revisited throughout the book of Acts, and in the Epistles of the early church leaders.

So what happened to multiculturalism in Christianity?

As many people know by observation today, modern Western Christianity has a fairly difficult struggle with multicultural integration, to put it lightly. The history of Christianity especially in the United States of America is stained by the evils of slavery, segregation, and oppression. But more than this, the impact of Christianity on the world has been shaped by conquests and colonization. Many people in various countries have been introduced to Christianity while being occupied by foreign powers. While many people from such countries today enjoy and practice a genuine Christian faith, there are some painful memories associated with it in the background that continue to have an effect.

It is important for us to allow scripture to interpret the times we live in, and give us some much-needed perspective. The New Testament gives hints at various spots that a great "falling away" would take place in future Christian history (Mattew 24:12, 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12, Revelation 12-13), and we know that in the middle ages, Christianity spread throughout Europe and developped in a very imperialistic, institutional direction. A movement that had begun among the lowliest peasants was now being enforced from the palaces of emperors, popes, and magistrates. Even the Protestant Reformation had it's own part to play in continuing and extending the violence and insensitivity of Christianity in the world.

And the trajectory of historic Christianity from the first century, through the middle ages, leads us to today.

"People wonder, "Is he woke or just a new slave?"
Old religion, he just covered it with new chains
Choppin' out the church, he ain't real, he fake
He divisive, he don't rep the King, he just want the fame
Aw man, now they actin' like I'm suddenly political
Told me shut my mouth and get my checks from Evangelicals
Boy, my momma raised me, on Angela and Eldridge
Chuck Berry made it, but the credit went to Elvis
Know you never knew that, know you think I'm too black
I just think I'm too real, I grew up on 2Pac
You grew up thinkin' that the Panthers was some terrorists
I grew up hearin' how they fed my momma eggs and grits
"'Crae, they say you should follow in the steps of King"
I say, "You've forgotten how they shot him in the streets"
I ain't really changed, it's the same old rebel
Still a radical, I'm passionate, it's just another level (leggo!)
AT told me I should fight back
They don't like that (they don't)
Just know if you rock the boat you better have a life raft"
(Lecrae, "Facts")

Martin Luther King Jr., Black Lives Matter, & American Christianity

Conservative Calvinist theologian Mika Edmondson wrote an intriguing article back in 2016 - right around the time when a number of highly publicized public shootings of unarmed black men were taking place, and the Black Lives Matter movement was gaining notice. He offered his perspective as a black theologian on the ideological similarities and differences between BLM today and the Civil Rights Movement of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s day.

While he notes a number of important points of comparison between the two movements, Edmondson gave special attention to a common element that made both the Civil Rights Movement and Black Lives Matter necessary: the lack of willingness on the part of conservative Protestant Christians to affirm the value of black people, both in years gone past and in the present day. He points out especially the fact that Martin Luther King Jr. himself was a student of primarily Liberal theology - rejecting a number of doctrines that many Christians would consider core theological commitments. But he frames this fact in a very important context:

It grieves me deeply to say that King simply could not have attended conservative seminaries like The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary or Westminster. Since conservatives were not using their theological resources to affirm the equal value of black life, King critically engaged the liberal theological sources that were. (Edmondson)

On the same day, Dr. Albert Mohler, the President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, published an article responding to Mika Edmondson - expressing support for the conclusion of Edmondson's article: that Christians must take the claim that "Black Lives Matter" very seriously.

Albert Mohler's response had some sobering and severe moments of clarity:

"Dr. Edmonson [sic] is actually quite adept at asking the hard questions. Why, he asks, when Martin Luther King Jr. was looking for theological groundings for racial equality, did he have to go to a liberal seminary and study under liberal professors to find help?"

"Why could he not attend The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary or Westminster Theological Seminary, he asks. Though even in those days Dr. King could have attended either seminary, neither was then a welcoming place for a young black minister.1 That truth is a savage judgment against our institutional honor.

I am increasingly convinced that the stain of racial prejudice and the historical sin of slavery may be a permanent stain God intends for our nation—and, more pointedly, my denomination and my seminary—to see daily, lest we forget."

However you want to think about history, it is very clear that the state of Christianity in America in the 20th and 21st centuries has been and continues to be a far cry from the ideal set forth in the Bible when it comes to valuing racial and ethnic equality, and cultural diversity. But while many might consider that these are "political" discussions that ought not to be thought of as affecting the everyday life of the church, we can see how an unwillingness to interact with and value other people can become damaging to the life of the church.

Lecrae, His Fans, John Piper, and Jesus

"Now these people swear they own me, sendin' out threats
Told me keep my mouth shut, told me be a Stepin Fetchit
I will not oblige to your colonized way of faith
My Messiah died for the world, not just USA
They say, "Jesus was Conservative"
Tell 'em, "That's a lie"
No, He not a Liberal either if you think I'll choose a side
They say, "'Crae, you so divisive, shouldn't be a black church"
I say, "Do the math, segregation started that first!"
Hey, you want unity? Then read a eulogy
Kill the power that exists up under you and over me"
(Lecrae, Facts)

Lecrae is a fairly well known rapper whose influence on Christian music has been notable for the last ten years or so. For a long time, he was a beloved darling of the Christian music scene who went as far as to perform self-conscious songs affirming his white fans, thinking of them almost like family.  Right around the time when Dr. Edmondson would take to writing his article, Lecrae took to social media to express the sorrow and stress that he was experiencing after seeing footage of multiple shootings. Rather than sympathy and concern, many of his fans lashed out against him, telling him that he was being divisive and that he was losing sight of the gospel. Lecrae became disillusioned, hurt, and momentarily struggled to hold on to his faith because of the deep sense of abandonment and betrayal he felt.

How easily people forget Paul's own sorrow and concern over the loss of his Jewish brothers and sisters back in the first century! How easily people forget that people dont' just lose their connection to their culture of origin when they become Christians. Paul's ministry was not effective in spite of his Jewish-Greek-Roman identity, but because of it. Likewise, Lecrae and others like him have an impact because they hold onto their heritage and community.

"They love Lecrae until he's black."

After 2016, Lecrae, his 116 Clique, and Reach Records began to break some of their ties with culturally white evangelicalism, and their music began to more openly express and explore themes directly relevant to the experiences of African Americans. Lecrae himself began collaborating more with "secular" hip-hop artists and building cultural bridges to those whose experience more directly mirrored his. His 2017 album "All Things Work Together" expressed his struggle to keep his faith, and his ultimately enduring belief that above all else, God still cared about him and his people.

116 Been Real

Another conservative pastor named John Piper - one who had a relationship with Lecrae and appeared in sound samples on various songs from Reach Records/116 artists - wrote an article entitled "116 Been Real" expressing his continued support for Lecrae and affirming the legitimacy of Lecrae's faith. He quoted Lecrae's own words directly:

If I turn my back on white evangelicalism, who am I? If we disagree on . . . Black Lives and social justice, and I’m not getting pats on the back from John Piper, then who am I now? . . . For years that had been what was shaping my identity. . . . If I’m not the evangelical darling, who is Lecrae? . . . What if they get upset? What if they don’t like me. It took blood on the ground for me to say, “I don’t care what you think. People are dying.”

In response to Lecrae's journey, Piper had this to say:

I know young men whose disillusionment with “white evangelicalism” was not as painful as Lecrae’s, and yet they threw the brown baby of Bethlehem out with the white bathwater. They’re done with Christianity. Done with the Bible. Done with Jesus — except the one they create to fit their present political mood. That could have been Lecrae. [...] It didn’t happen. I don’t think it will happen. Lecrae is not an adolescent. His faith is not secondhand. I am thankful for that.

An Ocean of Outsiders

We have only begun to scratch the surface when it comes to people who have been maligned, harmed, misrepresented, and even erased by the influence of culturally-insensitive Christianity. Just as the early church did in the first century, so we must learn to do today - to see the world in multicolor, to recognize family and friend in the faces of strangers, to see beauty in differences, and to believe that God can be honored and worshipped in various cultural forms equally, without preference for any one.

Lecrae summarized the theme of this all very nicely. "[Lecrae] can be true to his cultural roots and still embrace his faith which has been colonized and stripped away and made to be very Western and Eurocentric. . . . No. No. No. You can’t have that. It’s for everybody. Jesus ain’t American."

Christianity shouldn’t destroy cultures, but it should bring new life to cultures by bringing out the best in them. Living like Jesus means becoming part of the real world and serving that community. Jesus was an outsider who experienced ultimate rejection, but did so in order to give this world wide and all-embracing acceptance. Jesus is the truest picture of who we all are meant to be. No matter what our culture is, if we reflect Jesus, we will find who we truly are and change the world.

Study Questions

  • Read all of Ephesians 2. How does Paul connect justification by faith with ethnic equality and unity?
  • Read Acts 10. How does prejudice factor into this story? What lesson did Peter learn during this experience? How did he recognize that God was truly with Cornelius?
  • Read Romans 9:1-5. Describe the different emotions that Paul expresses when he talks about his own people and their relationship with God. How does he feel? Think of an instance where you have felt similar feelings of empathy for your own people, when you have felt empathy for someone else's people group, and when you have seen someone from a people group other than you own experiencing grief for something they were going through. How can we have more empathy for the suffering of others?
  • Read Genesis 12:1-3, Genesis 22:15-18, all of Romans 4, and Galatians 3:13-14. If God's promises to Abraham and his "offspring" are fulfilled ultimately in Jesus, why - according to these passages - must racism always be completely incompatible with Christianity?
  • Seventh-day Adventists have historically taught that the second Beast described in Revelation 13:11-18 represents the fusion of secular political power and the social-religious influence of the Christian church in the United States of America. This is the beast which will ultimately enforce the infamous mark of the beast - 666. Typically, Adventists see the first beast (that the second beast wants everyone to worship) as the Roman Empire in the middle ages.
    • In what ways might the combination of religious and political influences in the United States create a situation that repeats some of the evils of medieval Christianity? What leads you to those conclusions?
    • What are some ways that Christianity throughout history has behaved in a "beastly" manner? Do you know some from personal experience? What do you think God thinks of this?
  • Compare yourself to Paul. Paul belonged to some cultures because of his biology (he was born Jewish), and some because of the circumstance of his birth (being born a citizen of the Roman Empire), and some because of his socialization (he grew up in a culturally Greek town). What are cultural groups - whether by birth, or heritage, or interest, or association - that you belong to? You can think on as big or small of a scale as you like. How can you express the gospel in culturally appropriate ways in those circles?


Further Reading:

  • Sleeping Giant was a hardcore band with members from Redlands, California, and from Salt Lake City, Utah. They were known for their passionate preaching from the stage, belief in healing miracles, and radical friendliness to people who would have been considered members of an "altnernative" culture. Their song "Lantern" speaks about Christians in underground punk, hardcore, and metal subcultures who often feel abandoned by the church - left to figure out their path of discipleship on their own. This is one example of passionate Christianity being lived out in a culture that may seem alien to mainstream church culture.
Disciples of an orphan world, left to find our way alone
How dare you all point at my kind, from the safety of your Father's home?
We were never born to fear
Religion left Your children here
I will fight to end your shame
I know my Father and my name

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