The Arts

Losing Your Cultural Accent

Jemar Tisby

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.

5 thoughts on “Losing Your Cultural Accent

  1. Erica

    My question, then, is what does this look like? It’s the same question I had after reading Anthony Carter’s “On Being Black and Reformed”. What does speaking the truths of reformed theology in the African-American cultural language (with its many dialects) sound like? Which points of doctrine do African-Americans need to be framed in their own cultural context for them to make sense?

    Besides the question of God’s sovereignty in relation to the suffering of African-Americans, past and present, what other unique questions are being asked by African-Americans that can be addressed by Reformed theology? Or, I guess, even more specifically, do these questions necessitate the reframing of these truths?

  2. Justin - Crucifix & Politics

    Good point. Maintaining sensibilities our your culture is important. At the end of the day, we have to be able to communicate effectively with the culture and you can’t do that if you’re not in tune. In order to bring something to the culture, you have to be connected to it.

  3. Kenneth Pierce

    Jemar, I enter this with a bit of fear and trembling. You know where my heart lies, so I trust it will be taken in that regard. I think you are making some assumptions about the white world that, when a white person makes them about the black world, are mistaken. The first is that white culture is somehow all “anglo” and monolithic. You’ve been among the midwestern Dutch, and you’ve been among Southerners. Those cultures are incredibly different. I’d add a third to my experience, and that is Appalachian. Very different. This is also true in our theology and it’s why you see different emphases among the Dutch and Scots theologians, tensions between the Scots and the English, and the Dutch and the French. You cannot equate Dutch and German culture without offending at least the Dutch. Calvin was French, Turretin was a Swiss-Italian, a’ Lasko was Polish, Vermigli Italian, Heppe German, Zwingli a German Swiss.

    Skin color, particularly outside the deep South, as a cultural indicator standing alone, is very superficial. Why did Rwandans kill each other? Hutu and Tutsi, I would imagine, do not see themselves as one culture. There is, I would surmise, a very different black experience for those born into affluent suburban families in a northern metropolis, than those born in Hermanville or Indianola MS. Martin Luther King, Jr. enjoyed profound advantages because of his family’s emphasis on education that caused a lot of black pastors to look on him with great suspicion (people forget his own denomination split over him).

    I guess, what I would ask, is that you are very careful, in posts like this and your previous one, not to self-segregate. Many of us are expending not a few tears and paying not a small price to try to fight for a place for the insights of African-American thinkers and cultures in the broader Reformed movement. We want your voices, we want your theologians, we want your historians, we want your insights. We understand that we have been blind and want to see. But, when you talk about an “indigenous” black theology, that smacks more of James Cone than of MLK. It can seem (though I know this is not your intention) like “We are fighting for a place at the table, and, now that we have got it, we’re saying ‘no, thanks.’

    Brother, in Christ, there is no color. The church supersedes all barriers of color, class, race, nationality. It is this that the false gospel of communism mimicked from the church –it very effectively erased cultural and ethnic barriers by its ideology. I would fear that you may end up in a very different place than you intend if you head down this road, and if not you, then those you pave the way for. While not as drastic, it is not completely dissimilar to the divide between MLK and Stokely Carmichael (though, I am careful to add, I am not at all suggesting that you are even hinting at anything violent or separationist). My sole point of analogy is that MLK fought and died to give his people a place at the cultural table, only for the next generation to say “we don’t want it.”

    I would plead: let brothers of whatever color fight alongside you. Let’s all work for a table where all the cultures of the world are represented with their insights, not building a separate theology of one cultures experience, but rather a cohesive one that challenges all our cultural idols, enriched by the cross-pollination of theological integration.

    What can African Americans bring to this discussion? I would suggest, it is not a distinctive “theology.” Maybe I’m old fashioned but I’m a bit jealous for definitions. Reformed theology can be spoken with different accents, different emphases and nuances brought out, but you can’t argue for a “new” theology without something expressly contradicting the old. As I read your other post, I kept thinking, “I don’t think he means theology, I think he means ethics.” I would be jealous of that distinction. In my PhD work on Southern Presbyterians and race, it is the Reformed ETHICS that were sorely lacking (and let’s face it, evil and wrong). They weren’t wrong about the doctrine of God, soteriology or Christology. They were dead wrong in how they applied it. Theology is the knowledge of God. It is the truth; it’s not fungible, though it is certainly expandable.

    At any rate, I’m rambling. A few thoughts. Look forward to getting with you on this.

  4. Ray Turner

    It seems being scholarly is not so esteemed in black culture. Reformed theology has a nature that is highly analytic.Black people embracing the reformed approach often find themselves in the same boat as black engineers, doctors, scientists etc… They develop their minds among mostly white or foreign peers occasionally coming across another black person on the same path to which they respond inside with a giddy “YOU TOO!” Worship requires the careful thinking that characterizes reformed theology but also the exultation in the heart over what comes from that careful examination. Black culture in the past has been champion of bearing the soul and thus a model of exultation in God. This is largely due to the amount of suffering just being black brought about. Much of the doctrines of reformed theology were embraced although not clearly named and defined. These days it seems black culture is losing the soul it once had as the level of suffering has gone down compared to the past. A robust theology needs to fill in where eminent suffering has dissipated. Good theology needs to be brought to the culture in its language but black culture needs to learn some new words too.

  5. Anthony Darrell

    This is a very good article that exudes sincerity and consideration of a line of thought that I have battled with for quite some time. Thanks for writing this.

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