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An Age of Diversity

By December 1, 2010 No Comments

I moved to Nashville, Tennessee, in 1969 into a working-class white-flight neighborhood with large lawns and small houses. Today the neighborhood includes African Americans, Koreans, Vietnamese, Iraqis, and Latinos. The signs along Nolensville Road are in many different languages. You can still get barbeque, for which I am grateful, but you can also get falafel, kim chi, and tacos, for which I also am grateful.

The Bible’s Message in an Age of Diversity is the subtitle of Curtiss Paul DeYoung’s book, Coming Together in the 21st Century. Coming Together Cover That we live in an age of diversity is a fundamental assumption of the second edition of this book, first published in 1995. The percentage of whites in the U.S. is declining rapidly, although we do not yet know how the definition of “white” will change over time. Advances in communication and transportation continue to shrink the globe. Slowly, inevitably, a change in power relations among members of various racial, ethnic, and national groups is emerging. Decolonialism is slow, but it proceeds, and it changes the church as it goes.

Changes in the church inevitably yield changes in interpretation of Scripture. Many new voices have emerged over the last forty years, offering perspectives beyond those of the European men who controlled biblical interpretations for centuries. DeYoung brings a number of those voices together in this book. Yes, the marginalized must see themselves in the Bible. Yes, those in power must understand the central role of the marginalized in the text. Yes, it is enriching for all of us to read Scripture from outside our own cultural context, for we learn more about our own traditions, our common humanity, and the Bible itself. For example, Mimi Haddad’s lengthy list of women in leadership in the early church (chapter 4) is striking, illustrative of how our beliefs about gender and leadership blind us to what the Bible actually says. Following George Tinker, DeYoung notes that while the primary Western question of the Scripture is “When?” the primary Native American question is “Where?” For the non-Native believer, hearing a new question about Scripture allows us to “ask both questions and thereby gain a fuller understanding of the Kingdom of God” (page 47).

For DeYoung, no less is at stake than the vitality of the church:

In this age of diversity, we have the opportunity to breathe new life back into the message of God found in the Bible, and revitalize its potency for our world. We need to be set free from narrow and sometimes oppressive ways of interpreting the Scriptures and be challenged to embrace a multicultural approach. (5)
De Young begins by deconstructing the Aryan Jesus of the last 500 years, arguing that Jesus was “Afro-Asiatic” physically and culturally. This a necessary step for the non- European majority of the church, but also for the European minority, freeing us from our ethnocentrism and reminding us how colonialism distorted the gospel message.

DeYoung even takes time to discredit racist myths like the Curse of Ham. Sadly, this is still necessary. I was asked a serious question about the Curse of Ham in an RCA church in West Michigan not many years ago. The question illustrated, in part, how little biblical instruction we get on questions of race and culture, and how deeply the American church is still embedded in colonial assumptions and perspectives.

Some assume that multicultural means multicolorful-ism, adding new skin tones without making real change. DeYoung, however, calls for a deep understanding of the Scriptural call for liberation and justice, for significant structural change in church and society. Following Cain Hope Felder, DeYoung notes that Western Christians have been like the Israelites invading Canaan, wanting “to worship the God of their liberation but not develop a society that followed the liberating principles of God” (119). The bulk of the book, including chapters and essays written by scholars who are women and/or people of color, develops this argument thoroughly and carefully. Readers expecting ten quick and easy steps toward cultural diversity will be surprised. The change DeYoung has in mind is much more far-reaching, and much more powerful, than adding a praise song with a salsa beat or buying children’s Bibles with multiracial pictures. DeYoung calls for Christians to preach a gospel fully freed from the colonial agenda of racism and privilege–much deeper change than most readers probably expect.

It would be less than charitable to say that DeYoung skirts the issue of sexual orientation. He acknowledges it in a couple of places, and argues that Christians should have diverse friendship networks that include gay and lesbian people. But the topic receives nowhere near the attention of racism, sexism, and classism. If a third edition is published fifteen years from now, DeYoung may well speak more openly about sexual minorities as marginalized people. If the conversation has advanced during that time, however, it won’t be as a result of this book.

In many other ways, however, Coming Together in the 21st Century is a prophetic book that rightly places the call to multiculturalism and liberation in the center of the gospel, and serves as a useful corrective to the myriad ways we still work and worship in a church warped by colonialism and its apologists.

Charles Green is a Professor of Psychology at Hope College, where is also directs the Phelps Scholars Program, a residential and academic experience for students interested in issues of race and culture. He and his wife, Fonda, worship at New Community Fourth Reformed Church in Holland, Michigan.