Mind the Gap

How long ago was it that you last read a book written by a woman? How about one written by someone with a different skin tone than you? What about one written by someone whose native language is different from yours?

As widely-read as you may be, natural biases and supply and demand often combine to make your reading list an echo chamber—you only hear variations on your own voice. My seminary booklist for the semester of my writing is quite extensive, but every one of my books is written by a white man. I found two authors whose native languages differ from my own, but they were still educated under the same systems in the States.

Do we not miss a richness when we choose to learn only from those within our own culture, who already share our ideas?

I sometimes feel starved for the perspective of a female professor, or the lively teaching style of an African American brother. I can’t help but wonder if I would understand a Bible story better if it were taught by a Middle-Easterner, or if my concept of Christian suffering would have more staying power if it were informed by refugee.

Theology in particular is one discipline which suffers much at the hands of this diversity drought. Seven or eight years ago I sat in a college classroom learning about theology from a professor I still respect very much. He taught us about systematic theology—the study of all Christian doctrines and beliefs and how they harmonize into one unified, biblical system. For all his strengths, my professor did not teach me that culture and society radically shape each individual’s theology. He taught me that the theology I was learning was all there was—the creeds, the councils, the theologians like Augustine and Aquinas, all of them fed into one stream I shared, sitting in that college classroom with squeaky desks. And I did share in that stream, that culture of resources and thinking, but little did I know the other streams I could access.

My understanding of the uniformity of theology began to crack a little when I lived in Bulgaria and worked with the Roma people. All of the sudden, the Five Points of Calvinism were far less important than what the ‘baptism of the Spirit’ meant, and whether or not it was biblical. My friends were outside of the traditions of Western Christianity, and their spiritual landscape was vastly different than my own and the teaching I had encountered. They had questions I couldn’t even begin to answer. My white theology wasn’t good enough. And I slowly began to realize that what I had been taught was systematic theology was really just my white Christian heritage. There was nothing wrong with it as an individual perspective, but it certainly wasn’t the only perspective to be had.

Since that time, I have sought out teaching on cultural theology. All of us Christians come to the Word of God from a starting point. Whether we come as women or men, poor or rich, single or married, or whatever our color, we bring ourselves to the table just as we are. We can’t help but see the world of the Bible through our own eyes, because what other eyes do we have? If we’re wealthy and well-situated we identify with Abraham, Nicodemus, or Paul. Women are drawn to the stories of the Woman at the Well, Esther, and Ruth. Minorities see how God cares for the oppressed and demands social justice. And slowly but surely, the stories we are drawn to shape our understanding of who God is and how he interacts with us. Little nuances in culture, character, and past shape how we understand God.

Now, notice that I didn’t say my culture shapes who God is. Our differences do not give us license to fashion a God suitable for us, because God is exactly who the Bible says he is. Period. But our differences do explain how a black brother or sister might understand God’s zeal for freedom better, how a woman could understand God’s care for the voiceless better, or how a persecuted brother or sister may better understand what Jesus meant when said to count the cost. Our experiences mean that certain stories are more precious to us as individuals or because of our cultural identities. Certain Scriptures resonate with our emotions because our experiences help us see ourselves in stories someone else might struggle to identify with.

These cultural differences lead to differences in belief and practice that emphasize certain traits of God over others. These theologies even have labels, but they’re whispered in the corners or condemned from behind a lectern as ‘different’ or ‘distortions.’ Liberation theology. Black theology. And the F-word of good, Southern Baptists: feminist theology. All of these variations and more have some redeeming and praiseworthy qualities. They have valid perspectives on real biblical content. But any of these theologies alone, even white orthodox theology, can spin into disproportion when taken without balance from other cultural views. We need our brothers and sisters who are different than us to help us balance what we understand about God from the Scritpures.

We must dialogue between our theological perspectives. When we pad our rooms and our discussions with people like us, we miss the gift of diverse cultural perspectives God gives us. If our divisions of culture and sex are reflections the image of God, we each form an integral part of His Body here in the Church.

I asked before if we missed richness by cloistering together in like groups. I believe it’s more than that. We miss wholeness. When God created male and female, he created them both in his image, both as a unique representation of his qualities and character. When redeemed, our cultural differences are like that too. Our cultures and their resulting theologies uniquely reflect aspects of God’s character, and when we cut ourselves off from ideas outside the ‘mainstream’ we consign ourselves to a small corner of a masterpiece, never to see the whole painting by the Master.

So what do we do, brothers and sisters?

We have to mind the gap. Intentionally seek what you’re missing out on. Read a book by someone whose name you can’t pronounce. Listen to sermons, podcasts, or blogs from someone with a different skin tone or eye shape than yours. Learn from voices with richer and more colorful tones than your own. Make the most of opportunities to widen perspectives and voice the unsaid.

Try this sermon for starters, dear brothers and sisters. Don’t be defensive, but listen. Really listen. And try to put yourselves in the shoes of someone who has had to walk twice as far as you to be heard.

Charlie Dates: Overcoming Divisions

Mind the gap.