When this post first appeared in January 2008, there was an interesting discussion at the now-defunct Reformingchurches.org on what it means to be black and Reformed. As a white guy with a long interest in black culture (my grammar school and Jr High had a significant black population and I spent an unusual amount of time in the “black” sections of Omaha as a kid playing ball) and an even greater interest in seeing the Reformation spread to every tongue, tribe, and nation, this is a question of great importance to me.
More significantly, this is a question of great importance to the Reformed churches. 11-13% of the population of North America has African roots. After a long hiatus between reconstruction and the civil rights movement, Reformed theology is beginning to penetrate this community again—this time voluntarily. How it receives the faith now will likely determine the relations between the African American community and Reformed theology for a long time. For example, if Reformed theology is received and understood primarily as being “the five points,” then the Reformed movement among black evangelicals will become just as truncated as the Reformed movement among white churches has been for most of a century. Reformed theology is much more than the five points of Dort.
Of course this is part of a dialogue stimulated by books by Anthony Carter and Thabiti Anyabwile and now by a number of websites and blogs. All of this is encouraging. One of the central questions raised in the discussion linked above is how to relate North American, urban “black culture” to Reformed worship. That discussion leads to conversations about how and what Reformed congregations in black should sing.
In one review, by Eric Redmond, black Reformers are called “neo-radicals.” Here’s an even more radical idea than some of those put forward in the discussion at Reformingchurches.org. Rather than discussing which traditional “white” and “black” hymns and songs to use in black churches, why don’t black and white churches together abandon ALL the extra-canonical hymns? I told you it was a radical idea.
Every non-canonical hymn is just that, non-canonical and bound to a particular post-canonical cultural setting with all its assumptions and baggage. There is a divinely inspired songbook that is also situated in a time and place. but that songbook is canonical, and inspired, and not bound up with the post-canonical history of oppression or reaction to oppression. It reflects the experience of all of God’s people in all times and all places. There isn’t a single worthy objection that can be made against it because it is inspired by the Holy Spirit, it is the Word of God, and it is intended for use in public worship. Where do you find this amazing, divinely inspired songbook? It’s in the Old Testament just after the book of Job and just before the book of Proverbs.
You want songs about deliverance from oppression? Come to the Psalter. You want songs of ecstatic joy? Come to the Psalter. You want reflections of the deepest and saddest and most tragic human suffering? Come to the Psalter. You want songs about the Savior? Come to the Psalter. You want songs about his suffering, death, resurrection, and ascension? Come to the Psalter. You want to sing the name of Jesus? Come to the Psalter (every time we sing the name Yahweh, we sing the name of Jesus. His name means, “Yahweh saves.”). You want to sing the songs of the people of God in all times and all places? You want real catholicity? Come to the Psalter!
The way beyond the impasse presented by the necessary culture clash created by trying to choose between your extra-canonical hymns and “their” extra-canonical hymns, between the “good” contemporary songs and the “bad” ones, between the old hymns and the new, between the fast songs and the slow, is to sing the Word of God to appropriate tunes from yesterday and today.
We did it last Sunday morning in the LA metro. We had a precenter (someone who starts the song) who had perfect pitch and an amazing voice, and we sang the Psalms the way Reformed people did 450 years ago, a capella, and it was glorious. I wasn’t imposing my culture on anyone and they weren’t imposing their culture on me. We were all joining in with God’s people, using God’s Word, to praise the one Savior who has united us all in one body, with one baptism, confessing one faith and we did it representing more cultures than I can report here. White folks were not the majority. It was glorious. It was semi-eschatological. We really were every tongue, tribe, and nation praising the one Savior and anticipating glory.
Yes, we sang using tunes that have a cultural setting. Fine. Pick different tunes. I don’t care, so long as they are appropriate to congregational singing. African tunes? Great! Go for it. Celtic tunes are no more sacred than Booker T and the MGs. I don’t know if we could set a Psalm to “Green Onions” (doubtless the coolest song of all time) but if it can be done, do it and let’s get on with it.
This comment from Lawrence prompts further thoughts:
We are splitting hairs. My point is that continually berating our society for something we aren’t doing anymore is foolish. Every society on earth had benefited in some way from slavery. And slavery continues to exist. Trying to make this into a hate American argument just fuels the segregation debate. And if I am not being clear. You, sir, are just as much a race baiter and segregation enabler as anyone else with this nonsensical argument about slavery issues that no longer exists.
Let me begin with the last claim, that “slavery issues” no longer exist. I think only someone who hasn’t been on the receiving end of deeply embedded prejudice can think that the “issues” are “over.”
Things have improved dramatically. The upward social and economic mobility of black Americans has never been greater. The opportunities have never been more plentiful, but if you ask a black person if the “issues” are gone, you’ll probably get a funny look.
For the purposes of this blog, however, I’m less interested in the general social question as I am interested in how the visible, institutional church deals with this complex of issues. To be sure, the issues are not hermetically sealed. What happens in the culture affects the way we think about issues in the church and the influence of the culture doesn’t suddenly drop off when we walk into the narthex. Suspicions we hold about people who are different from us cling to us as we hear the call to worship.
Black leadership in the civil kingdom is more or less commonplace now, but as I was reminded recently by This American Life, it was only 20 years ago that white democrats actively opposed Harold Washington’s run for mayor in Chicago despite the fact that he was part of the “machine.” More to the point, however, is the fact that there is very little black leadership in confessional Reformed churches.
All things being equal, would a predominantly white congregation call a black man to be their minister? That’s a tough question. Still, it’s a real question. Could a predominantly white, middle-class congregation overcome their fears to call an African-American minister if he was the best qualified candidate? It’s a hard test because, as has been noted here before, there aren’t very many African-American confessionally Reformed pastors (because there aren’t many black seminarians at WSC and the other confessionally Reformed seminaries) and changing that fact will probably take a long time. The confessional Reformed (NAPARC) movement is still so tiny and culturally cut off from the black community that it’s probably easier to send missionaries overseas than it is to bridge that gap, so that’s what we do.
The rest of the post is bizarre. I wouldn’t comment on it except that I think it illustrates where a lot of folks are in our churches. I have listened to Rush and the other conservative talk shows (Laura, Medved et al)—though lately, since I’ve discovered how to listen to podcasts I’ve been listening to a sports-talk show from Omaha—so I think I understand why this fellow says what he does. I don’t “hate” America. This isn’t about “blaming” America. I think the post confuses the two kingdoms. I’m not proposing any great “social” change to the civil kingdom. I’m talking about the visible, institutional church that represents the kingdom of God and I’m talking about what needs to happen within the visible church for it to begin to fulfill part of the mission to proclaim the gospel to every part of the earth. I’m not proposing any “social gospel.” If, however, we were going to reach an unreached people group (as the missiologists say it) we would study that group, its history, circumstances, language etc. Further, if the church seeking to reach that people group had a history with them and was regarded with suspicion by the people group, that would also have to be part of the accounting.
That’s all I’m talking about here: making an honest accounting of the issues that a mostly white, mostly-suburban movement (NAPARC) faces in reaching black Americans with the Reformed faith. This hardly constitutes “race” baiting. This isn’t about white folks feeling guilty. This isn’t about manipulation of feelings at all. Repentance isn’t really about feelings at all. It’s about a change of attitude, stance, and a change of action. It is a dying to self and a living to Christ.
Those groups (of whatever ethnic background) who have not heard the Reformed faith do not need us to “feel” anything. They need for us to do something. We need to train Latino and African-American pastors who can plant churches in those communities and they need for us to examine our own hearts to see if we’re ready to receive them when they do come into our churches. Will we look at them and wonder what they’re doing “here” or will we receive them as we receive everyone else. Further, we need to break down, in our own congregations, the remaining racial tensions and barriers just as we need to overcome our idolatry and covetousness and other sins. I’ve been in groups of Reformed Christians (ministers) where racist jokes have been made.
As to benefitting from “slavery,” the claim begs the question. It assumes that what British and North Americans did was morally, economically, and socially identical to other forms of slavery. As far as I know, it wasn’t. That’s why it was called the “peculiar institution.” It was man-stealing and Reformed Christians were complicit in it. The more we try to justify our complicity in it the less credibility we have with those we’re trying to reach.
Exodus 21 clearly sanctions certain forms of slavery. Exodus 21:16 also just as clearly prohibits man-stealing. It’s a violation of the law of God to do what we did. 18th and 19th century-Brits and Yanks were in receipt of stolen people! It’s not just an “Old Testament” thing. 1 Tim 1:10 lists “slavers” (man-stealers) in a list of gross sins: “sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine… ESV).”
A few blog posts aren’t going to change anything, but I hope it’s helpful to think, pray, and talk through some of the issues.
Related Post: The Legacy of Dr Martin Luther King
[This post first appeared in 2008 on the HB]