Culture is a lot like language. Most of us grow up as native speakers of one language. A few blessed people are bilingual or become fluent in even more languages. Any of us can learn an additional language, but it takes intense study, constant practice, and it gets more difficult as you get older. Most of the time complete immersion is the best way to learn a new language.
If culture is like language, then as an African American exploring Reformed expressions of theology, I am acutely aware that I may be losing my cultural accent.
The Reformation’s Culture Historically
We can trace Reformed theology all the way back to the Bible. After all, most of us believe that Reformed theology is simply biblical theology. But the theology we generally reference as “Reformed’ is highly influenced by the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century and later periods.
Throughout its history systematic, written formulations of Reformed theology have been overwhelmingly produced by white, educated, Anglo males. In expressing Reformed theology they did so in their native cultural language. When you try to use those same cultural expressions in another context, though, much is lost in translation.
What are the components of traditional Reformed cultural language? One component is that it is written. Not much of the theology we call Reformed has been passed down in oral form. And as Dr. Carl Ellis teaches, it is a theology that emphasizes the cognitive and epistemological dimensions of theology whereas other cultural languages give prominence to the ethical and intuitive side. The technical jargon used may be alien to many outside of traditional Reformed circles. The questions that Reformed theologians address, oftentimes focused on issues of personal salvation and holiness, may give short shrift to issues of systemic and institutional injustice that affect others more acutely.
Becoming Culturally Bilingual
When I learn Reformed doctrines in the cultural language of middle class, educated, white males I am learning a language that, if not completely foreign, has a far different dialect and accent than the people I desire to serve. And there’s nothing wrong with speaking a different cultural language. It’s no more wrong than speaking Italian or Greek or French. It’s just the way we understand each other in our own cultures.
But anyone seeking to do cross-cultural ministry, especially those like African Americans who share a hard and distinctive history, must be vigilant about keeping up with their native cultural language. It is easy to spend so much time immersed in an environment that when we emerge we find that we’ve lost the ability to effectively communicate with our own culture.
African Americans, like all cultural groups, must stay in tune with the core concerns of their own kinsmen. They must learn what questions different sub-cultures of Black people are asking. They must use the theological tools they gained in a culturally foreign land and bring them to bear on the issues that most affect their home culture. And they must learn to read the Bible in a new cultural language without forgetting their first cultural language. Too many gifted African Americans have been rendered unintelligible to their own communities because they learned theology in a foreign cultural language and forgot their native tongue.
We can appreciate and even enjoy learning Reformed theology from its current cultural perspective. There is much to appreciate in Reformed theology as it stands. But as we ethnic and cultural minorities seek to do theology in our native contexts we must be intentional about spending time with the people like the ones we want to serve. In this way we can become culturally bilingual and move between multiple cultures expressing God’s truth in the heart languages of many.