I’ve been auditing a class on Lesslie Newbigin over at the seminary, and it’s the reading I’m doing today to prepare for tomorrow night’s class that’s prompting me to write this. This week we’re reading Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture. Newbigin continues to blow my mind, particularly with new insights into the true significance of parts of the Church’s work. This week Newbigin’s inspired me to reflect more on The Upper Room’s hope to become a multi-ethnic/multi-cultural church. Up until now, most of our conversation about “why” we want to be a multi-ethnic church has been answered by “because we’re supposed to be.” We point to Acts 2 and Ephesians 2 and Revelation 7 as examples of how the early church pursued unity across cultural barriers. We’ve also talked a lot about the importance of overcoming the racism latent in Pittsburgh’s culture. But reading Newbigin has reminded me of yet another reason why becoming a multi-cultural church matters: We need to become a multi-ethnic/multi-cultural church so that we can understand the Gospel more fully.
As Newbigin points out in Foolishness to the Greeks, the Gospel is never without a cultural context. We cannot speak of “the Gospel” in abstract. Because all of life is embedded in culture and because our culture shapes the way we see and understand the world, we can only speak of the Gospel as it is articulated within different cultures or languages. Thus in a neighborhood like Squirrel Hill, the Gospel is manifest in different ways in each of the different cultures where a Christian community exists: there’s the white-middle-class-academic-Gospel, the Russian-immigrant-Gospel, the messianic-Jewish-Gospel, the Korean-American-Gospel, the African-American-Gospel, and so on. This is good, because for the message of Jesus to be understood, it must be fully translated into and articulated within each cultural context.
We’re still missing something, though, because once the Gospel becomes embedded in our own culture, we end up with a Jesus who may look too much like ourselves. While contextualization is necessary for communication, we risk misunderstanding the Gospel, or ending up with a truncated understanding of it (such as the reductionistic message often preached by white evangelical American churches). But if the Gospel is incarnate in every one of these different cultures, then each culture can proclaim the Gospel to each other culture in a way that enriches and strengthens each culture. To quote Newbigin: “Each side, perceiving Christ through the spectacle of one culture, can help the other to see how much the vision has been blurred or distorted” (Foolishness to the Greeks; Eerdmans 1986 p. 9). This means that we need each other to sharpen and correct each other’s understandings of the Gospel. Our understanding, and thus our proclamation, of the Gospel is partial, broken, fragmentary, and in need of exposure to the Gospel incarnate in every other culture for healing and correction of the very message we preach.
I think this perspective is important to have for two reasons as we strive toward becoming a multi-ethnic church. First, it places the focus on Jesus rather than on ourselves or on cultural differences which could otherwise be objectified and stereotyped. We seek this because we seek Jesus – not because we seek to justify ourselves, or be do-gooders, or rectify our white-guilt. We seek the Risen Christ at work among all peoples of this earth so that the Risen Christ would be glorified. Second, it requires humility. True reconciliation between cultures can’t be forced. It won’t come out of arrogance or pushiness, but postures of confession, contrition, and honest humility may open us up to reconciliation. To seek to understand the Gospel more fully through encountering it in another culture requires teach-ability – a willingness to not be the expert, to be humble, to place oneself in a posture of confessing our need for understanding.