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Cultural ecumenism?

8 June 2008

An interesting thing about the blogosphere is that it provides an opportunity to encounter people of different cultural backgrounds that one would be less likely to meet in real life. The disadvantage is that one meets people out of context. There are words and sometimes pictures, but until one sees people in their context, one is likely to misunderstand or misinterpret what is going on.

Three examples of this are quite recent in my experience:

  1. Black and white Christian bloggers and the emerging church
  2. American discourse on the rich and the poor
  3. The Emerging Church as a post-evangelical phenomenon

1. Black and white Christian bloggers and the emerging church

The first was sparked off by a blog posting by Cobus van Wyngaard, saying that black bloggers were needed in the emerging church conversation. And there is a response by Reggie Nel here. But I think it has roots that go back quite a long way.

I have noticed that in South Africa, and indeed in most of the world, the “Emerging Church Conversation” seems to be mostly among white people. And in South Africa the greatest interest in it seems to be in the white Dutch Reformed Church, as I noted in an earlier post on the visit of Alan Hirsch to South Africa. Certainly it is the NG Kerk that has brought many prominent emerging church spokesmen from the USA and Australia to South Africa. And these emerging church speakers seem to be concerned mainly with post-Christendom Christianity in the West.

A few years ago at the congress of the Southern African Missiological Society (SAMS) there was a flurry of interest in the “Gospel and our culture” movement, which, following Bishop Lesslie Newbigin of the Church of South India, was likewise concerned with the relation between the Gospel and Western culture. Some of us at the SAMS congress queried the use of “‘our’ culture”. It seemed blatantly ethnocentric, and to assume that Western culture was somehow normative, and something that everyone should identify with. We suggested that we should rather speak of “The Gospel and culture”, or, if they were specifically interested in Western culture, they should say so, and not fudge the issue by speaking of “our” culture. The proponents of the movement, however, insisted that the “our” culture should remain, at which point I lost interest. If you are only interested in your culture, and not in other people’s culture, then stick to your Western cultural ghetto.

I’m wondering if that has morphed into the emerging church conversation, or if the emerging church conversation is simply another manifestation of the same phenomenon — Western cultural angst. That might lie behind Reggie Nel’s perception that the white Dutch Reformed Church is more concerned about the decline of Christianity in Europe and Australia than in uniting with their Reformed brethren of other races and cultures in South Africa.

2. American discourse on the rich and the poor

The second thing arises out of a couple of earlier posts, one on my blog, and one on Street Theologian’s blog. It seems to me (and I could be wrong) that behind a lot of American discourse on the topic of the rich and the poor lies a basic assumption, sometimes amounting to an unshakable ideological conviction, that property is more important than people.

This results in statements like “I’m all for helping the poor, but…” And the all important “but” refers to the assumption that property takes priority over people that what’s mine is mine and taxation is far more immoral than not helping the poor.

I find this kind of discourse very difficult to understand, especially when coming from professing Christians.

It is to the secular anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon that we owe the phrase “Property is theft”, but St John Chrysostom said much the same thing centuries earlier, when he said (in a sermon on the rich man and Lazarus):

You should think in the same way [as you think about crime bosses] about those who are rich and greedy. They are a kind of robbers lying in wait on the roads, stealing from passers-by, and burying others’ good in their own house as if in caves and holes. Let us not therefore call them fortunate because of what they have, but miserable because of what will come

In South Africa there has been quite a lot of discussion about the idea of a Basic Income Grant (BIG). This means that everyone would be given a basic grant of income from the public purse, to reduce the poverty of the poorest. The government has not accepted the idea, though several opposition parties have proposed it. There has been debate on whether it is a practical policy, whether it would be possibile to administer it without a cumbersome and expensive bureaucracy, whether it would be cost-effective, whether it would work at all in improving the lot of the poor, and so on. But I get the impression, from what Americans say, that such a debate would be unthinkable in America, where it would not be rejected on political grounds, as a bad or impractical policy, but as something that is immoral  in principle, because it contradicted the fundamental axiom of American life, that property is sacred and takes precedence over people.

Such a principle may not be challenged, not even by God himself, and if God did have the temerity to challenge it, it would be dismissed as the ranting of an unAmerican loser.

3. The Emerging Church as a post-evangelical phenomenon

The third thing is that the whole “Emerging Church” thing is fairly circumscribed. I became acutely aware of this when I read a post on Matt Stone’s blog on church growth and evangelism. Matt says that the “church growth” idea promotes a wrong idea of evangelism. But in writing that, he has entirely different circumstances in mind from the ones I picture.

As I understand it, what the “church growth” school are saying is that if you are evangelising and the church is not growing, something is wrong, and that the evangelism is ineffective. One is linked to the other. The response might be to look at the the methods you are using, and the people you are evangelising to see why they are not being effective.

It doesn’t seem to fit in with what Matt seems to see there — that people are preaching a false gospel, and that the church growth school encourages them to do so.

Here again, there is a missing context. Matt has one context in mind, and I have another.

The cultural gap

The three examples i have illustrate the kind of cultural gap that is hard to bridge in the blogosphere. It is even hard to bridge it face to face, but it is much harder in the blogosphere.

In the blogosphere it is much harder to picture the context in which people say things, it’s hard to see “where they are coming from”. It’s so easy to make wrong assumptions, to scratch where it isn’t itching.

One postmodernist writer said that the Rushdie affair showed how dangerous the present state of global development is — communication without community, and I suppose that is what I am trying to describe. As one school of biblical scholars put it, one needs to know the sitz im leben – the situation in life of whatever it is we are reading. And all too often we don’t.

We need a kind of cultural ecumenism to be able to understand each other’s cultures.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. 8 June 2008 2:02 pm

    How to solve this I’m still struggling with this, but I did get the idea that I might have been misunderstood, that what I wrote could quite well have been interpreted as “the whites need to again tell the blacks what to talk about”, while I’m trying to say that we cannot get any further with a all-white conversation, we need to hear the input and critique of non-white brothers and sisters to have a relevant voice in South Africa.

  2. 9 June 2008 4:42 pm

    This is very interesting, and I think you are very much getting at something. Though, I suppose that part of that ecumenism of culture you speak of is simply recognizing that a blogger will have a cultural context different from your own, and thus reading and interacting will entail this difficulty.
    However, the other side of it is on the part of the blogger: I was struck how most of your examples seem to indicate that at least sometimes this gap occurs because the blogger is generalizing beyond her/his context, or might be understood as speaking as if her culture context is a universal context.
    I feel I am well aware that my context and culture affect what and how I write, I am wondering though now how well I communicate that what I write is effected by my context. Granted one can’t give all the context but one I think could give clues and in the very least not write as if what one bloggs will necessarily connect with all contexts.

  3. 9 June 2008 5:57 pm


    I think part of the problem is the medium itself, not just blogs, but all electronic communication. I think the thing that struck me most was the whole emerging church thing, which I first heard of on the blogosphere. It was only much later that I heard people like Brian McLaren and Alan Hirsh speaking in person, and also saw the context in which they were speaking, which I don’t think was their context at all, but it did show the context of those who were listening to them.

  4. 9 June 2008 6:00 pm


    Yes, I can see that what you were saying could be understood in different ways. But perhaps that needs to drive us back a step, and ask what we can all talk about, or is there nothing in common?

  5. 9 June 2008 8:06 pm


    about basic income in the US: the US network is one of the most active in the Basic Income Earth Network BIEN. (BIEN)
    I just started a Basic Income Wiki on


  6. 10 June 2008 12:16 am

    Looking back on two years of blogging, two years in the emerging conversation in South Africa, I do think there is a tendency to look into our own context more and more. And here we find something in common with Christians all over our country. The missional link, talking about the issues of a country, this we have in common I think.

  7. 3 November 2009 10:37 pm

    Religious discourse requires subjectivity acknowledging itself as such, rather than as something more. I recommend the following post:

    • 4 November 2009 8:26 am

      I very nearly marked this comment as spam, since it doesn’t seem to relate to the post above in any way, and seems merely to be advertising your blog, as the post it points to doesn’t seem to relate either.

      I decided to give you the benefit of the doubt, for the moment at least, but it would be good if you could say just how you think the two posts are related.

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