Personal Stories, Shattered Faith, Theology — March 2, 2011 at 6:05 pm

Amazing Grace: Personal or Corporate?

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Attending a mostly white evangelical College as an African American male with roots in the historic Black church resulted in a paradoxical shift in my Christian faith. It was a time that I matured spiritually while simultaneously growing increasingly disillusioned with evangelicalism.

My parents were not in a position to attend college. Their segregated, underprivileged, African-American high school lacked the social capital to connect students to higher education. So it was meaningful to see their children receive that opportunity.

Nevertheless, as I walked the halls of my university, I grew disillusioned and disappointed. Challenges to the status quo were not accepted. The culture failed to recognize, let alone converse with, the Black church, where I base a part of my spiritual foundation.

Entering college, I had hoped for an intellectually honest and theologically robust discourse on the social gospel, liberation theology (both Black/Exodus and Catholic), and biblical justice, but found none. I felt alienated because I identified with the Democratic Party (and felt I had to defend that it wasn’t because I was black). I hesitated to share my appreciation of some Marxist and democratic socialist ideals.

Coming from a family that made less money than the annual cost of tuition, I wanted to see a humanizing conversation about people who are poor, but found the poor often referenced as an “other”, a project, or a ministry.

Even though my parents were theologically conservative, the evangelical culture was foreign to me. My primary experience with the faith was brokered through fundamentalists like E.V. Hill, Charles Stanley, and other conservative Christian voices filling the radio in my home.

The Christianity I grew up in was primarily about conservative theology, with a smattering of the Black Church, rather than mainstream evangelical culture. I communed with other Black folks who were not so conservative and even dated an Episcopalian without my family expressing concern. Cultural identity-politics just didn’t play a big role in my native community.

It wasn’t until college that I even interacted with evangelicalism. Prior to this I was simply a Christian.

Stepping into this new evangelical culture was a complete system shock. People lived and spoke a brand of Christianity that I didn’t recognize (and that didn’t recognize my heritage) but, nevertheless, attempted to define my social existence, my faith, and my spiritual DNA. It felt colonial. It hurt me. It scarred me. I didn’t feel known.

I’ll never forget listening to John Newton’s classic hymn, Amazing Grace, in our mandatory chapel services. Its various layers of meaning, and even its history, serve as parables for the dissonance I experienced in college.

From my childhood, I remembered this hymn, as many do, a personal proclamation of God’s abundant grace, freely given to individual sinners. But it was also a corporate expression of the social liberation that emerges when people renounce social and corporate transgressions.

On one hand, it was a song written by a slave trader to express his need for God’s grace to redeem his soul and grotesque actions. On the other hand, it was also song that my church sang from the bowels of their soul, both thanking God for the social salvation from America’s original sin of slavery and hoping for God’s grace to reach spiritual and physical salvation.

Many of my evangelical peers in college missed these deeper shades of meaning.

Together we sang Amazing Grace in the context of our individualistic relationships with a personal God, rather than also singing it as a corporate expression of God calling us out of, and saving us from, collective sin. It was no longer the great song I grew up with, so I did not sing it from my soul. I had known it as an expression of God’s Kingdom come. At school, it was a proclamation that the King of grace was my personal patriarch.

Despite some of my grievances, college was not a horrible experience. I treasure the opportunities that were given to me, and I am ever thankful to God. I was introduced to some wonderful Christian writers and thinkers during these years and I met some of my most important friends.

Moreover, I don’t want to give the impression that evangelicalism does not have some wonderful and valuable elements.

While I am not comfortable being called Evangelical, it has, along with my fundamentalist childhood, become a valuable part of my spiritual journey. To deny this strand of the Christian tradition would be to deny parts of who I am. So I am both an insider and an outsider and as such hope to bring evangelicalism into a fuller, more robust Christian expression — not only so those within it can benefit from its strengths, but so that those unfamiliar to or disillusioned by this tradition may find comfort in the truth and spirit of what it means to speak the good news of Jesus Christ.

6 Comments

  • Wow! Thank you for writing this article. Thank you for writing with such an open heart. I can really identify with your perspective being African American myself. I have never attended a theological seminary, but am an avid student of the Bible. My recent exposure/introduction to the “Reformed World”, was a refreshing experience relative to my past background – Charismatic Non-Denominational/Black Church experience. The heavy focus on Word-based expository preaching has been an eye-opener in and of itself. Teachers like Mark Driscoll and John Piper have been my steady sermon diet for the past 2 years. Strangely enough though, after two + years of being steeped in what I term highly doctrinal and sound biblical teaching I began to notice a lack of focus or a somewhat blatant skipping over of social elements in the gospel. As time has passed my euphoric exhuberance with this reformed version of the gospel has been dampened by my “black experience” roots that informs my social concern for the least among us. As biblical as they are (Piper and Driscoll) I too have been incredibly disappointed by their lack of focus toward the obvious biblical mandate of caring for the oppressed, poor, needy, and upholding justice. I’m right there with you on your appreciation of SOME Marxists and Socialist leanings. However, it’s easy to to feel out of place when others quickly reject or pass off these biblical ideas as a “social gospel”.

  • Though we obviously come from different backgrounds, it sounds like some of our observations/experiences are common. You’ve articulated a few things I haven’t been able to put into words. Thanks.

  • Thank you for your thoughts and their honesty. You’re certainly not alone. As a Reformed-Presbyterian-white-middle-class-conservative-American, I too felt on the “outs” of my evangelical university.

    That being said, clearly we disagree on the “orthodoxy” of the social gospel. What are the boundaries of right belief? When do we say, “You’ve passed beyond a Biblically defined Christianity?”

    Thanks.

    • Michael,

      I don’t have a response to your questions right now, but I just want to thank you for your comment. While clearly differing with Josh on what you believe to be orthodox, you have shared what you also have in common, and responded with an honest question to gracefully promote dialogue. In the wake of this weekend’s twitter/facebook/comment fest on the Rob Bell/John Piper controversy, I hope to see more comments (and responses) like this on this site. Less bickering, more honest searching and grace-filled disagreement.

    • Michael, I definitely see your concern with moving beyond the boundaries of Biblically defined Christianity. I also know that the term “social gospel” has reemerged in the past few years via political talking heads (especially Glen Beck), who single handedly reintroduced the term as a “bad word” in Christianity. I would argue that even though the new and mangled social gospel term has gotten a bad name amongst many conservative evangelicals it’s still very biblical. By allowing their faith to be informed from a political perspective rather than the other way around they have a perverted biblical worldview (on this one topic). If we read starting from Leviticus through Deuteronomy, as God lays out the law to his people, elements of the social gospel are repeated and stressed. God’s care for justice, fair treatment of foreigners, the poor, the widowed, the orphan is very clear. These same concepts are echoed through the NT as well (see James, end of Galatians, the synoptic gospels, and on and on). Regardless of the new conotative definition of “social gospel”. It would be easy to argue that the gospel itself, or the good news is explicitly “social” (definition being – related to human society and it’s members). Jesus explains that the whole law is summed up in loving your neighbor and loving God. I think that’s a similar argument to what the author is trying to convey here. Is the gospel (not just salvation) only a personal devotion or does it involve the body of Christ as a whole? It’s both. If we look at Jesus life he often had private prayer time alone and that was obviously of supreme importance. However, when he was with people (disciples, crowds) he touched them, he healed them, spent whole days preaching to them, fed them, spoke with women in public (which was a social taboo), washed the disciples feet, and ate with them. He is the ultimate example of what a “social” gospel looks like. Of course, none of this should come as a surprise because Christ was the fulfillment of the law. The persohttp://recoveringevangelical.com/2011/03/amazing-grace-personal-or-corporate/nal devotion thing is easy to default to because it’s just that, EASY. It’s the other parts that are much more difficult to fulfill (sermon on the mount), if someone sues you in court and takes your shirt, give him your shirt too, OT- don’t reap your whole field but always leave a portion for the poor (Lev 19:9), Is. 10:1-3. “Woe to those who enact evil statutes, and to those who continually record unjust decisions, so as to deprive the needy of justice, and rob the poor of My people of their rights… Now what will you do in the day of punishment, and in the devastation which will come from afar?”, James 5:1-6. Come now, you rich, weep and howl for your miseries which are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted and your garments have become moth-eaten. …Behold, the pay of the laborers who mowed your fields, and with you have withheld, cries out against you; and the outcry of the harvesters has reached the ears of the Lord of …Sabaoth. You have lived luxuriously on the earth and led a life of wanton pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter.
      Social Justice is biblical. Whether people want to acknowledge it or not is a separate issue. God bless.

  • I second Andrew’s note! Seeking to understand is the key to all of us growing together and creating a community where people who are different and hold different views can learn from each other in a Christ-centered way.

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