Soong-Chan Rah, The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2009). $15.00, 228 pages.
While reading The Next Evangelicalism by Soong-Chan Rah, my emotions went through three stages: anger, acceptance, and ambivalence.
First, anger: The thesis of Rah’s book is that the evangelical church in America must be liberated from its “Western, white cultural captivity” and replaced by “the next evangelicalism,” which is multicultural. According to Rah, Western, white culture is individualistic, consumerist, materialistic, and racist. And it pervades Anglo evangelicalism, both in America and wherever Anglo evangelical influence has spread. The Anglo evangelical church focuses on buildings, bucks, and butts in the pew rather than on the holistic, transformative power of the gospel. To be perfectly frank, as a middle-aged, American, white male, I was none too pleased to see my church, my country, and my culture run down in this way.
Then again, as a pastor, I’m used to taking vociferous criticism in stride. I always try to hear the truth behind my critics’ words, not matter how much they’re making me angry. And that brings me to the second stage my emotions ran through: acceptance.
No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t escape the conclusion that Rah—to a significant degree—is right. The American evangelical church is declining, or at least its Anglo component is. David T. Olson documents this fact in The American Church in Crisis. But as Rah points out, the non-Anglo component of the American evangelical church is thriving. This is true in my own denomination, the Assemblies of God. Our anemic growth as a denomination is largely explained by the explosive growth of the Hispanic churches within our denomination.
Not only is the Anglo evangelical church in America declining, it is guilty—in various parts and to varying degrees—of practicing an individualistic, consumerist, materialistic, and racist form of Christianity. Why do we focus on personal evangelism rather than also on social transformation? Why do we think the three B’s—buildings, bucks, and butts in the pew—are indicators of a church’s success, if that’s even an appropriate word for a church to use? And why do we presume that non-white culture is a mission field that needs our contributions and competence, rather than the other way around?
Third, ambivalence: The Next Evangelicalism piqued my anger, at least in part, precisely because it hit so close to home. But if I could take off my middle-aged white guy hat for a moment, and remove my pastoral collar too, I’d like to put on my academic robes and point out three flaws in Rah’s analysis. It is overbroad, tendentious, and inconsistent.
Overbroad: Here’s a joke that makes a serious point:
An older Jewish man and a younger Chinese man are sitting in lounge chairs on the deck of their cruise ship. The Jewish man rolls up his newspaper, gets out of his chair, walks over to the Chinese man, and proceeds to repeatedly hit him over the head with the newspaper. Triumphantly he proclaims, “That’s for Pearl Harbor!” The younger man angrily asks, “Why did you do that? I’m Chinese!” But the older man replies: Chinese, Japanese—they’re all the same.” A few minutes later, the younger man rolls up his newspaper, gets out of his chair, walks over to the older man, and proceeds to repeatedly hit him over the head with the newspaper. Triumphantly he proclaims, “That’s for the Titanic!” Bewildered, the older man angrily asks, “Why did you do that? I’m Jewish.” To which the younger man replies, “Iceberg, Goldberg—they’re all the same.”
Rah speaks of “Western, white culture” as if the various histories, cultures, and traditions of the historical epochs, people groups, and nation states within it are all the same. Is there a direct line of descent between Plato and Britney Spears, between high culture and popular culture? Are there no differences between the French, the Greek, and the English, let alone among the British, Scottish, and Irish? Is traditional Southern agrarianism the same thing as traditional Yankee industry? If I wrote a book describing, let alone critiquing, “Asian” culture with such overbroadness and lack of historical nuance, my guess is that Rah would cite me as an example of Western, white insensitivity.
But icebergs and Goldbergs are not the same.
Tendentious: Rah identifies the harmful aspects of Western, white culture with the culture itself. Are individualism, consumerism, materialism, and racism part of Western, white culture? Sure. So are socialism, volunteerism, asceticism, and egalitarianism. Why doesn’t Rah mention these countervailing tendencies within Western, white culture? Why is the picture of that culture unrelievedly negative? Would Rah accept an unrelievedly negative portrayal of African culture, of Asian culture, or of First Nations culture?
Furthermore, haven’t some goods arisen out of Western individualism, consumerism, and materialism? (You’ll notice I leave racism off this list.) Critique individualism all you want, but if you’re going to be overbroad, don’t fail to mention that human rights is a Western preoccupation. Critique consumerism all you want, but if you’re going to be overbroad, don’t fail to mention that the number one food crisis of the American poor is obesity, not starvation. Critique materialism all you want, but if you’re going to be overbroad, don’t fail to mention that Western culture has elevated the living standards of the poor to historically unheard-of levels.
In my opinion, this doesn’t come up in Rah’s analysis. If it did, it would significantly change the picture he is drawing of Western, white culture.
Inconsistent: Rah’s portrait of Western, white culture is overbroad and tendentious. It’s also inconsistent.
At the end of the book, Rah implores White, western evangelicals to listen to African American, Native American, and immigrant Christians. I think this is both reasonable and right. They are brothers and sisters in Christ, and they are increasingly the face of evangelical Christianity in America. We have much to learn from them about holistic ministry and the inequities of the American experience. They also can teach us about how to practice church as a community, not just as a gathering of individuals on Sunday morning.
So, on the one hand, I again agree with Rah. But on the other hand, why is the portrait of Western, white culture unrelievedly negative while the portrait of these other cultures is unrelentingly positive? Perhaps it is because Anglo evangelicalism is the dominant partner in the American evangelical enterprise, and as the dominant partner, needs the greatest correction. But correction does not mean the total negation of the one culture nor the total affirmation of the others. It requires a balancing off of weaknesses and strengths.
Speaking of imbalance, I haven’t been balanced in my criticism of Rah, have I? I dedicated a far greater proportion of this review to critique rather than concurrence. So, for the record, I do concur with Soong-Chan Rah. American evangelicalism is changing. And that can be a good thing, if we experience liberation from cultural captivity and walk freely in the paths of Jesus—humbly, openly, and together.