For Asian-American Christians, The Elephant In The Room…

The following words below are my thoughts alone, and not representative of NG.AC.

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I’ll say it outright. I believe one of the most important things that needs to be addressed among Asian-American Christians is the fundamentalism that pervades our expression of Christianity, propagated especially by the likes of John Piper and his brand of neo-puritan protestantism. Also, I will leave Tim Keller out of this. I think he’s much more reasoned and intelligent with his faith.

Some personal history…

My college church was multi-ethnic in name, but Asian-American in reality. It was also typically conservative in its theology. So naturally, John Piper’s work was standard summer reading. Desiring God would be found on our proverbial recommended reading list, as well as his “secondary” work of Let The Nations Be Glad and Future Grace. However, it wasn’t till my post-college church (very similar in demographics, but more puritan in theology, in comparison to my college church) that I had celebrated and defended the neo-puritan theology that Piper preached. I remember listening to sermon after sermon on my iPod and watching his sermons on the One Day DVDs with delight. Regardless of how embarrassing this is to tell, I even once cheered, yelling “PIPER!!”, when his face came up on display at a 7.22 event I went to about 4 years ago.

However, it was when a white-American couple came to our church that the foundations began to shake. Knowing they were fervent and passionate Christians, seminary-trained, and experienced in overseas missions, I was saddened to hear that John Piper considered their faith as secondary due to their being Arminians (Methodist). Here, in front of me, were two upstanding and wonderful Christians, who were actively being judged and pitied by someone I had looked up to so much. A conflict of interest began to take form within me.

But it was only when I had left my post-college church that I learned the notion of theological idolatry, this idolatry that i had committed for 7 years…

I consider theological idolatry an active assumption of God-ordained certainty regarding one’s theological worldview. One commits theological idolatry when she assumes her interpretation of Scripture is incontestable, as defended by self-referencing biblical arguments. It is this theological idolatry that I believe Asian-American Christians who subscribe to Christian neo-puritanism (i.e. new fundamentalism) engage in. Brothers and sisters, we must exercise humility.

Recently, John Piper’s rhetoric has been crossing my path upon reading about his relative disdain towards multimedia and hateful judgment towards homosexuality. It is these things along with his theological views of gender, culture, and God’s sovereignty that I believe are negatively affecting Asian-American churches.

Drew Tatusko wrote of Piper’s comments to the ELCA:

This sort of “theology” tries to divine God’s pre-destined program for us by picking and choosing natural events that appear to confirm a pre-existing ideological condition. It’s not theology, it’s insurance to justify one’s own ideology.

It is not theology, but idolatry. It is extracting what you want God’s will to be from nature rather than attend to that progressive revelation which may, and likely will, send this sort of Pharisaism asunder. For that is what we learn from Jesus. The more you think you have the Gospel cornered, the more you are relying on your own divinations and ideas. When this happens, as with learning anything new, one is less attentive to revelation. One becomes more attentive to one’s own whims and God looks just like you – an epiphenomenon of your own foolishness and absurdity.

I agree with Tatusko. Furthermore, although I cannot say that it is Christian fundamentalism alone that is driving many 2nd-gen Asian-Americans away from the church, I firmly believe it is one of the key motivating factors. Kelly Chong, an Asian-American sociologist and professor, wrote an article in 1998 surveying the 2nd-generation ministry of two Korean churches in the Chicago area. These churches embraced a very conservative theology, while exhibiting behaviors of conformity, exclusivity, and judgmental behavior towards others not like them. 11 years later, things are changing, but not changing quickly enough to where I can confidently say things are healthy these days.

Friends, my request is that when we preach, teach, encourage, and admonish, we do so with humility and fear and trembling. There is a philosophical notion which states that when we say ‘God’, God escapes our assumptions. Likewise, when Meister Eckhart prayed, ‘God, rid me of God,’ we must do the same. I believe it is imperative that we Asian-American Christians practice theological humility and be militaristic, instead, about love, (hey, militarism and love co-exist easily with Asian-Americans) grace, and justice. This is not a call to teach watered-down theology or preach a culture-neutered gospel. Rather, it is a call to do what Asian-American Christians have the worst time doing while following in the way of Christ, loving the world as Jesus did.

Let’s repent and change our ways, for the sake of our future generations.

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Comments

  1. Steve says:

    It behooves me that writers and bloggers are still hyphenating “Asian-American.” It’s passe to do so. See http://is.gd/2s3sd for the usage of this term.

  2. Andy says:

    Thanks for this post. I resonate with a lot of your experiences.

    Growing up in a Korean American church similar to how Chong described, I developed from a very young age this, for lack of a better term, “liberal radar.” I had a handful of authors (John Piper chief of them), pastors and retreat speakers that were to be “trusted”– and anyone who spoke about something different, confusing or perplexing I would internally categorize as “liberal.” I wouldn’t ever challenge or debate them, but politely nod and ignore all they said, especially if they were a peer. As older friends developed in their faith and joined churches or ministries that were unfamiliar to me, in our youth group we’d quietly label them as “fallen away” or just disregard them as off the map, because they had morphed into a different species of Christian and couldn’t fit into my Korean American church sub-culture paradigm.

    Now I should say my leaders never explicitly condoned this “liberal radar” — it was my own creation– but I think there was implicit support for it with comments like, “don’t go to this seminary, its too liberal.” or “don’t read this author they aren’t Biblical (whatever that was supposed to mean).” And being a good Asian American youth group kid, I listened to whatever my leaders said.

    I think that started to change when I was displaced at a campus without a strong Korean church and the best option for me was to be part of an Asian American campus fellowship that had some slightly different theological perspectives (which at the time felt like an chasm). After a few quarters of judging and condemning the group, I had what I thought was a brilliant epiphany: these people love Jesus but have different views, maybe I can learn from them.

    I think through that struggle, I’ve started a journey of exploring my faith, rather than protecting it; discovering God rather than putting Him in a box. I’m thankful for my Asian American Church experience, but it was only part of the puzzle. It saddens me to see some of my Asian American friends and fellow ministers, after just a few years of seminary, become arbiters of theological truth and orthodoxy rather than humble students in awe of the mystery of God.

    Anyways, all this is to say, AMEN to your post. Keep it up.

  3. Calvin C says:

    (Hey Andy)

    I too was fairly captive to Asian American Christian hyperconservatism and attended a Piper-adoring, predominantly 2nd gen Asian American church in college.

    I disagree that hyperconservative neo-puritanism is an “elephant in the room” for Asian American Christians. I think there is a large crowd of hyperconservative, neo-reformed Asian American Christians who also prefer “colorblind” ethnic homogeneity in their worship environments — or know no alternative. There is strong a danger in these environments of lack of self-awareness and syncretism masquerading as conservative, correct theology. Often people in these environments aren’t even aware that their worship and prayer styles and even some of their theological leanings differ substantially from most of American evangelicalism.

    For people like Andy, you, and me who have moved out of these environments and mentalities, I think “wounded lover,” “misunderstood,” or “frustrated” better characterize our relationship and mentality toward these ministry cultures — while those in them are often unaware of their bias at all. Even though I hold to fairly conservative theological views on Scriptural authority and Reformed soteriology, I’d come across sounding like a gender-and-ethnic-studies-majoring liberation theologian if I spoke my mind around many friends who continue to worship in these settings (or those who most recently worshipped in such settings before leaving the Church).

    Hyperconservatism (theological and political) is a problem for all of American evangelicalism that is certainly strongly felt in Asian American settings. When I first visited Andy’s multi-ethnic, justice-seeking Evangelical Covenant church in Chicago I remember thinking “wow… we [Asian Americans] have GOT to get out of hyperconservative denominations and hyperconservative captivity.”

    I had a great conversation with Prof Soong-Chan Rah a few weeks ago on how hopefully more moderate Reformed/Presbyterian denominations that are evangelical like the EPC, CRC, and RCA can become a destination for Asian Americans. As Asian American Christians, we easily “double compartmentalize” our faith: first ethnically and second only for our personal salvation as a result of American evangelical conservatism. Transformationalist, non-angry Calvinism as espoused by these denominations — that of Ridderbos, Kuyper, Vos, and now Mouw — can provide the theology for a faith that holistically engages self and society while building upon the Reformed framework that Asian American Christians are often raised in (or have been exposed to through their hero John Piper).

  4. Calvin C says:

    PS – I actually think Tim Keller espouses this brand of Reformed theology, as well, despite being in a fairly conservative denomination.

  5. Joshua Uy says:

    “I consider theological idolatry an active assumption of God-ordained certainty regarding one’s theological worldview.”

    You sound pretty certain of your own theological world view even accusing people who disagree with you of idolatry (6 times): a capital crime worthy of being cut off from the people of God in Old Testament times. Strong words for somebody who is supposedly espousing “theological humility.”

    Is it possible that it is okay within the body of Christ to have some folks who feel strongly convicted about a systematic theology and other who are not? I guess you have no room for those who disagree with you. I’m amused.

  6. jadanzzy says:

    Joshua,

    Thanks for your comment. I’m not advocating a non-neopuritan theology to be the better theology. What I hope for is for conviction to be one’s own conviction and not a mandate. I can believe certain things, but if I cannot hold to them lightly and be prepared to drop them, then I’m holding onto something man-made. So please, by all means, believe in a theology based on systematizing the bible like an encyclopedia. See, we can disagree. But disagreements are all that should be experienced. None of us get it right.

  7. Joshua Uy says:

    By the way, I have no idea what you mean by neopuritan theology. That’s okay. I agree wholeheartedly with the concepts of love/humility and I would add meekness, mercy and peacemaking (Beattitudes). I hope Christians read their Bibles, develop strong convictions that they hold onto tightly with humility, openness and love. (Ephesians 4:1-16)

    I am so tired of Christians seeing other Christians as enemy and using such strong language to lambast and denigrate one another. Maybe you’re right, I have no idea. But your blog post reminds me of a kid who hits someone because he was hit first.

  8. Sam says:

    jadanzzy: It seems you and Piper have different epistemologies. It seems that Piper believes that finite, fallen people can know “some” things about God with certainty (because God reveals them and enables them to know) and you believe finite beings can never know anything about God with “absolute” certainty – hence the call for humility and “hold[ing] to them lightly”.

    You write “But disagreements are all that should be experienced. None us get it right” – but that is precisely the difference between your view and Piper’s: Piper believes believers can get it right (and therefore preaches, writes, and talks as if he does have the truth) while you will humbly “hold to them (that is man-made theology) lightly” and simply let everyone cultivate their own conviction.

    Please let me know if I captured your thoughts correctly.

  9. Geoff Chang says:

    If there’s one thing I’ve learned through church history (and reading debates on the internet!), when dealing with matters of controversy, the discussion too easily and too often devolves into fruitless ad-hominem attacks, rather than dealing with the theological issue being discussed.

    It seems to me that your problem with Piper is not so much his theological position, but his “hateful”-ness, judgmental attitude, “disdain” for people, etc… After all, your concluding request is not for a particular position, but simply for greater humility among AA’s, etc… And so your problem with Piper is basically his prideful attitude in his ministry.

    Now unless you have special insight into the man’s heart (which I doubt), I don’t know how in the world you can make your accusations with any validity.

    Why not, instead, deal with any particular theological disagreements that you might have, without resorting to attacks on the person? I suspect, anyways, that this is at the heart of your problem with Piper.

  10. jadanzzy says:

    @sam, if I am to be certain of God, then it will be that Jesus, the incarnate God, is the redeemer and hope of all humankind. I’m sure that Dr. Piper and I agree on that. In terms of letting everyone cultivate their own conviction? That wording seems odd to me. I’m thoroughly opposed to relativism in that truth is whatever it wants to be. I do believe, however, that truth, by nature, is subjective. My subjective truth, then, is this: Truth is Christ and Christ is Truth. When it comes to interpreting scripture, however, I would appeal to an open source philosophy.

    @Geoff, I wanted to make clear that theological differences will always be had. Although I do have theological differences with Piper (and the Neo-puritans), my issue is still with his posture. You are correct in assuming that I do not have special insight into his heart. But I’m not speaking about pride. I’m speaking about certainty, which can stem from pride, but is not equal to it. I can only speak to his posture of certainty. Whether his certainty comes from a place of pride, I cannot say. I can say, however, that with Asian Americans, pride and certainty are our proverbial goiters.

  11. Mike says:

    “I’m thoroughly opposed to relativism in that truth is whatever it wants to be. I do believe, however, that truth, by nature, is subjective.”

    Can you explain this statement a bit more? What do you mean when you say truth is “subjective”? If you and I are each the final arbiter of what truth is to us, then how is this different from relativism?

  12. Anakainosis says:

    I’ll jump in on this last note re the subjective nature of truth. I do not speak for jadanzzy, however. Nor am I particularly well-learned in the philosophic underpinnings of subjective knowledge, but I can tell you that from my understanding at least, it is distinct from total relativism.

    I think relativism is the idea that truth is only in the eye of the beholder. “That’s true for you, but not for me” reflects relativism. The sky is blue to me but yellow to you. In a sense, relativism may still operate on modernist foundational principles: if it is yellow to you and blue to me, that means it’s NOT yellow to me, and it’s NOT blue to you. You’re not “wrong” from our collective standpoint, since relativism bounds the authority on which we can determine truth, but you’ll never be “right” from my shoes, either.

    Subjective knowledge and truth in a postmodern context, however, does not necessarily impugn on the integrity of another’s knowledge. If I may cite some of the influences on my thought, removing the binary nature of truth and thinking of it as a symphony rather than a single melody (see Poythress, “Symphonic Theology”), or a Christian mosaic rather than one coat of paint (see Grenz, Franke “Beyond Foundationalism”), may result in a diversity of subjective truths in tension may paint a more complete view of an infinite God (Franke, “The Character of Theology”).

    I think knowledge being subjective respects the integrity of other people’s knowledge and punts on anyone being a final arbiter of truth. Indeed, I think a humble, Christian view on the subjectivity of knowledge confesses that there IS such a thing as truth, but its fullness escapes our finitude on this side of heaven. In other words, its inability to be arbitrated (?) to complete comprehension does not make it any less true, but indeed, motivates inquiry and conversation.

    I’ll stop right there, because I think it’s a conversation based on fundamental premises that I can’t articulate with perfect accuracy. But I would point to an exciting new work from Franke:

    http://www.amazon.com/Manifold-Witness-Plurality-Living-Theology/dp/0687491959

    More rambling from me in a separate response.

  13. Anakainosis says:

    I am one who has moved away from the foundationalist nature of the “hyperconservativism” that is, indeed, present in many Korean and Korean American (unhyphenated) ministries from the 90’s and 2000’s. A deconstruction into why that is the case is a fascinating story, but not on point at the moment.

    I do recognize how constraining the culture can be resulting from some of the manifestations of puritan-esque principles. This can be constricting, even life-robbing. I’m not sure if I’m ready to say that such attitudes are the invariable result of the theological belief system. It’s possible, but I know enough handfuls of loving “puritan hyperconservatives” to fly in the face of such a judgment.

    In any event, I count my evangelical spiritual heritage as my own. I appreciate the importance of spiritual discipline, I continue to believe in substitutionary atonement, and hold Scriptures as sacred text that speak to generations through the Spirit’s authorship (room to interpret here, of course). I acknowledge my finiteness but I still embrace God’s story in my life and do not reject it. However, I do want to shake loose the constricting manifestation promulgated by many typical Korean American churches’ cultures.

    In terms of theological challenge and conversation, for me, the people who have challenged my theological framework have always been able to do so from a posture of humility and love. I hope to join their ranks in challenging our framework and perhaps see one day a body of some diverse views, exemplifying love, respecting disagreement, and welcoming the tension as testimony to the mystery of God’s infinite nature. Indeed, my prayer is that it will give rise to even more wonder and worship from the hearts of believers, that God would be at work crafting a church with such radically varied beliefs.

    Out of that theological humility and love, perhaps an informed humility and love would also impact the lives of believers in the Asian American church. That would be great; we have burned enough people.

  14. jadanzzy says:

    I will defer to Anakainosis here as his reply capture precisely the difference between blatant relativism and radical subjectivity. I want to stress that I never said we are the final arbiters of truth. I merely said that I experience a subjectivity in my truth. A fork to me is a dinglehopper to Ariel. I, however, believe in a God who has final authority (what that looks like specifically I do not know). Thus, God is the only final arbiter of truth. However, like Paul says, we see but in a mirror dimly. We see only in part. I believe in faith (as opposed to assuming in fact) that God sees in full.

    Hope that helps.

  15. Wayne Park says:

    Great dialogue and kick-off @jadanzzy…

    ok, on a diff note here, what’s really interesting is how asian christians debate. Much of the dialogue here sounds almost philosophically Greek in its tenor, orthodoxy, theology, etc.. mine own included.

    It’s just funny how if someone reading this knew nothign about us they would’ve thought we were a Platonic school or something, we Asians debate so classically.

  16. randplaty says:

    @Sam is right on. This is an argument about epistemology at its core. That doesn’t mean that the argument is not about humility because humility is intimately related to epistemology. In this case, it is clearly a modern vs. postmodern epistemology as evidenced by Anakainosis’ reference to Grenz and Franke.

    With regards to truth, @Anakainosis points out that truth is not binary. Derrida would deconstruct the false binary of true and false.

    What this means practically is that the Bible is not the Koran. The Koran was written propositionally. It attempts to be contextless and to apply to every situation. The Bible was not written as such and it is a mistake to make the bible into an encyclopedia. Even the epistles, which were written propositionally, are still epistles. They were written to a particular audience and address very particular concerns. The ten commandments are outlined as a part of a historical narrative. Why are we attempting to systematize and universalize truths when the bible itself was not written that way. It’s as if we don’t think the bible is good enough for us.

    This is what I believe but I acknowledge that others do not believe this. The problem I have is that there is absolutely no dialogue. I have never had the opportunity to sit down with a “neo-puritan” and have this dialogue and see where they are coming from. When I try to, they only say, “that’s dangerous” and then the conversation ends. That’s what frustrates me.

  17. Thank you so much for sharing. This statement …I consider theological idolatry an active assumption of God-ordained certainty regarding one’s theological worldview. One commits theological idolatry when she assumes her interpretation of Scripture is incontestable, as defended by self-referencing biblical arguments. …
    helped clarify my thoughts.
    Press on for Jesus!

  18. Mick Turner says:

    Without reservation, I find this article to be one of the finest and most well-reasoned posts I have read in quite some time. May the Master continue to bless you in all that you do.

    Mick Turner

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