Tuesday, October 23, 2012
More From Jay Case's Unpredictable Gospel
Jay: Hmm. I don’t know if I can give an adequate compare/contrast in less than 320 pages. But I’ll say this: there is a lot of diversity and complexity out there. Different individuals working for different evangelical traditions in different cultures around the world in different eras….it gets complicated. What they have in common is evangelicalism. Thus, I see some general patterns, stemming from those evangelical commitments, which play out in diverse ways. I use a common four-part historical definition of evangelicalism (the need for a personal commitment to Christ, biblical authority, the command to evangelize, and an emphasis on the atoning work of Christ) as the foundation to explain missionary actions. In their own way, each of these four characteristics creates paradoxical dynamics in the evangelical relationship to culture, power and influence. And so…well, readers will have to buy the book to figure out how that plays out.
Jared: Do you think any of your conclusions or arguments about missions would be surprising to many evangelicals? To secular-minded readers? If so, what would these surprises be?
Jay: Evangelicals who aren’t deeply acquainted with the missionary movement might be surprised to discover that missionaries have always been lousy at converting large numbers of people. There are important dynamics of power and culture at work here that explain why – and they won’t surprise evangelicals who are familiar with the missionary movement. Evangelicals might also be surprised to find out that world Christianity has had an impact on American evangelicalism. For instance, a movement of Christianity in Burma among the nomadic Karen people in the 1840s and 50s directly influenced northern evangelical support for African American colleges in the American South in the 1860s and 70s. I argue that, essentially, without evangelical movements of world Christianity in Asia, Hawaii and Africa in the early 19th century, we wouldn’t have colleges like Morehouse, Spelman, Fisk, or Howard. It’s a strange connection. However, I believe that movements of world Christianity have affected American evangelicalism and American culture, via the missionary movement, in ways that we just haven’t noticed because we haven’t ever thought to look for them.
Secular-minded readers might be surprised by my claims that missionaries tended to be less racist and less ethnocentric than any other group of Americans in the 19th century. That includes most intellectuals and academics from that century. Now, before evangelical readers get too triumphant about this, I should explain that it wasn’t because evangelical missionaries were naturally more ethical on these issues than other Americans. They carried plenty of racism and ethnocentrism with them to other cultures. But there were dynamics within the missionary engagement that challenged missionaries (consciously or unconsciously) to adjust their practices and thinking about people from other cultures. Unfortunately, few evangelicals thought deeply or systematically about these things, so they didn’t always effectively implement insights into later policies. So missionaries kept making similar mistakes over the years. We evangelicals have been much better at promoting active ministries than forming careful theology.