Identity and Ethnicity

Among the problems that the American of today faces is what political scientists call Balkanization and academics call identity studies. Americans are seeing themselves less as Americans, and more as hyphen-Americans, and often as aggrieved hypen-Americans, Americans second, and minority identity first. Voting patterns reveal groups voting at rates approaching those of Soviet Republics, predictable at 80-90% on the basis of skin color, marital status, ethnic identity, or sexual preferences. Political philosophy, character, and accomplishments mean little when identity politics take over. What a given politician will do for my group means everything. All other considerations take a back seat. America, the America of the Declaration, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, the America of shared values and the common good, disappears. Group identity takes over.

What happens when identity politics seep into the church (which the world’s philosophies inevitably do)? Then theologians and clergymen begin to think increasingly in terms of race, ethnicity, and gender. No longer are we “mere catholics,” as the Puritan Richard Baxter would have us known. Instead the conversation (and agitation) is about whether each group is properly represented, honored, and utilized. Objections begin to arise to the domination of “dead white males,” and living ones, in the life of the church.

Let me provide an example. It has become a truism among some to identify traditional Reformed worship as “western.” Its stodgy order, its music, its wordy intellectualism, its emotional restraint, are all “western.” This is stated as an accusation needing defense by traditionalists. Reformed worship is western, and so, because the church’s membership is increasingly made up of non-westerners, the church needs to adopt non-western ways. This, it is said, is a simple matter of fairness. Non-western music, instrumentation, and emotional expressiveness need to be incorporated into the life of the church. Moreover, only those with a western bias would fail to see the necessity of this. I see three problems with this line of thought.

First, why should Christians care about the gender, ethnicity, race, or age of the source of its thoughts and practices? Why would the church want to evaluate its practices on the basis of skin color? or gender? or class? These are worldly categories that we are meant to transcend in Christ. Is it not the case that in the church we are neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female (Gal 3:28)? Is it not our motto (borrowed by our American founding fathers), “out of the many, one?” We are “one new man” in Christ, transcending our worldly differences while not obliterating them (Eph 2:11ff). We no longer evaluate each other based on worldly categories (see Jas 2:1ff). We are to “know” or “regard” (ESV) no one “after the flesh” (2 Cor 5:16). If eighteenth century Germans and nineteenth century Brits were particularly gifted at musical composition, why should we hesitate to recognize this? Why fail fully to utilize their contributions though other ethnic groups may be “under-represented” according to the quota–obsessed? As to the source of the church’s beliefs and practices, as long as they are godly and gifted sources, who cares?

Second, does this classifying of the church as “western” stand up to scrutiny? It certainly doesn’t in terms of the church’s theology and practices. Did the Scottish Presbyterians invent psalm-singing, or did the ancient monks of the Egypt desert? Was expository preaching an innovation of Calvin, or did he find it in the ancient church fathers Origen (c.185–254), considered the “father of biblical exposition,” and Chrysostom, whose “plain style” expositions profoundly influenced Calvin? Did the English Puritans invent extemporaneous prayer, or did they find it in Justin Martyr’s Apology, dating about 155 A.D.? As for church songs, our hymnal includes lyrics contributed by Clement of Alexandria (c.150–220), an Athenian but also a longtime resident of Egypt; Gregory of Nazianzus, of Cappadocia (see below); Prudentius (348–413), a Spaniard; John of Damascus (c.655–c.750), a Syrian; Andrew of Crete (c.660–740), a Syrian; and Joseph the Hymnographer (c.810–886), a Sicilian. Some contributions are very old and from unknown sources. The Gloria Patri dates to the second century, the Gloria in Excelsis to the fourth century, the Te Deum also the fourth century, the Liturgy of St. James (from which “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence” was derived) from the fifth century, and so on. Musical contributions may be found from Hebrew, European, American, Hispanic, and African-American folk traditions. What exactly do we mean by western?
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