Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Fine Dining or Dumpster Diving: A Paradigm for Activist Theology

swasti.verma@gmail.com, 10 June 2012

As the cultural ground shifts under our feet, the church often gets caught up in these tectonic quakes — unnecessarily so.  Much of our stress is due to an inadequate theology.  Not that our theology is wrong as far as it goes.  It’s just that it has further to go.  Most Christians I talk to define theology as, “The study of God.”  While I affirm this definition, it leaves out the cultural and historical context in which we study God.  A broader, more comprehensive definition is, “The application of God’s Word by persons in every area of life.” (Dr. John Frame) This includes the study of God.
By Khalid Aziz    

In our Western context, several valuable methods of doing theology have developed such as Exegetical theology and Systematic theology.  However too often I have seen a tendency to think that all theology that can be done has been done.  This is a short step from relying on theology more than on the Word of God itself.  The scope of the Bible covers all of reality while the scope of theology is limited.  If the Bible can be compared to a movie, our theology would be one frame from it.  
Theology can be approached from at least two perspectives.  In terms of epistemology — what we should know about God, and in terms of ethics — how we should obey God.  Theology can also be done on both sides of human intelligence.  The cognitive side — involving conceptual knowledge and the intuitive side — involving perceptual knowledge.  If the epistemological approach is ‘Side A,’ then the ethical approach is ‘Side B.’  Similarly, the cognitive would be ‘Side A’ and the intuitive, ‘Side B.’  

Historical Examples

Western theology developed under the challenge of unbelieving philosophy and science.  To defend and communicate the faith, it had to be translated from its concrete apostolic language into a “technical idiom.”  It was mostly concerned with epistemological issues involving cognitive knowledge — an example of ‘Side A’ theology.

African American theology developed under the challenge of oppression (slavery, Jim Crow, racism, etc.).  The over-arching challenge for African Americans was the injustice and dehumanization they experienced.  They identified with the Old Testament people of God in similar situations.  In the antebellum South, it was Israel in Egypt and in the antebellum North, Israel in the Exile.  African American theology was mostly concerned with ethical issues.  In the South, it was more intuitive than cognitive because Blacks had no access to formal education.  In the North, more cognitive than intuitive because Blacks had access to formal education.  One great legacy of African American preaching is Narrative theology — the application of the basic patterns of biblical life situations.  These were examples of ‘Side B’ theology.

Cultural Captivity

When Christianity functions properly in culture, the church will clearly communicate a transcendent scriptural message.  By God’s grace the culture will already embody some beliefs and practices that agree with Scripture.  I call this the “interface.”  However, aspects of culture at variance with scriptural wisdom compose “cultural sin.”

The more Christianity falls short, the more it becomes dysfunctional.  It becomes confined to the “interface.”  Its transcendent scriptural message becomes muted and “cultural sin” sets the agenda.  The result is a failure to fully address both manifestations of sin — “people sin” where individuals consciously do wrong (‘Side A’) and “cultural sin” imbedded in time honored conventions, protocols and customs (‘Side B’).  This is where Christianity falls into cultural captivity.

Any Christianity in cultural captivity is un-Christian.  From the perspective of those impacted by cultural sin, Christianity in cultural captivity comes across as anti-Christian.  This partly explains the hostile response to Christianity from many young men in the ‘hood.

Mistakes of the Past

In the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, some in American Christianity made the mistake of conflating biblical hermeneutics (the art or science of interpretation) with the Bible itself — a hermeneutic that was strong on ‘Side A’ and weak on ‘Side B.’  When they were confronted with ‘Side B’ issues their hermeneutic could not address, they assumed that these issues were beyond the reach of Scripture.  As a result, they looked to secular theories and ideologies for answers.

Eventually, they abandoned the Bible as the Word of God — the basis for solid theology.  They ended up with a pretend theology based on biblical connotation words emptied of their meaning.  While focusing on “cultural sin” they lost ability to recognize “people sin.”  Such “theology” was subject to the whims of secular political and social fads.  In this situation, the Christian voice merely parroted the secular voice — a voice that became superfluous.  This is cultural captivity.

Evangelicals in the 20th Century reduced orthodoxy to ‘Side A.’  They had “people sin” in their cross-hairs but they tended to ignore “cultural sin” (‘Side B’).  As a result, their ability to address “people sin” was weakened as “cultural sin” grew unchecked.

Eventually “cultural sin” gave cover to most “people sin.”  The only sin they addressed fell outside the cultural realm.  In essence, they trivialized sin to things like individual “drinking,” “smoking” and “chewing.”  Hence, they became subject to “cultural sin.”  In the end, they lost their prophetic voice, their integrity and their credibility.  This is also cultural captivity.

The Current Context

Today there is much debate among Christians, who are theologically trained at leading Bible-believing institutions, about how to address serious social issues such as racism and marginalization — issues that cannot be fully addressed without ‘B’ sided theology. Unfortunately, their theological training, as robust as it is, was derived from a contemporary Western tradition where the ‘B’ side is weak or nonexistent.  The result of this was a theological imbalance.  To achieve balance, the ‘B’ side needs to be developed.  If done right, ‘Side A’ and ‘Side B’ will seamlessly coalesce into one consummate theology.

Many well-meaning Christians oppose the idea of ‘Side B’ theology.  They fear the introduction of humanistic heresies (dubbed by some as “liberalism”) that infected American Christianity in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries.  Certainly, refuting all heresies should be a major concern for all of us who follow Christ. 

The “social-concern-leads-to-‘liberalism’” narrative, however, does not apply in every case.  The African American church has wrestled with ‘Side B’ theological issues for centuries, yet humanistic heresies did not emerge in this context.  It is true that some Black church leaders recently have imbibed these heresies, but the origin of these heresies lay outside of the indigenous African American theological context.

Those who resist ‘Side B’ theology often do so, believing naively that existing ‘Side A’ Christianity is sufficient — a captive Christianity that peacefully co-existed with Jim Crow in the South and institutional racism in the North.  Obviously, this approach is a non-starter, especially for the advocates of the ‘B’ side.

Those who seek to develop the ‘B’ side do so because they see the insufficiency of American Christianity in its present state.  Generally, two approaches have been followed, 1) to synthesize (splice together) ‘Side B’ from secular theories and ideologies or 2) to theologize ‘Side B’ through a fresh application of biblical wisdom.

The synthesizing approach appears to resemble the approach of non-Evangelicals of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries.  However, instead of conflating the Bible with a bad hermeneutic, they tend to view “theology proper” (with a strong view of Scripture) in ‘Side A’ terms.  Accordingly, it does not appear that they have any plans to abandon the Bible as the Word of God.  On the contrary, they seek to be biblical by uncritically co-opting language and terminology from today’s theories and ideologies.

I have learned the dangers of this approach through observation and from bitter experience.  These dangers are two-fold, 1) to the general public, this language and terminology does not necessarily have the “Christian” meaning assigned to it when it is co-opted, and 2) the concepts expressed are often originally intended to articulate anti-biblical presuppositions and to drive thinking in that direction.  This needlessly muddies the waters within the body of Christ, contributing to confusion about our legitimate social concerns.

For the committed Christian, the synthesizing approach often has unwanted consequences.  For example, it can lead to our own form of cultural captivity where the transcendent biblical message is suppressed or subsumed under non-biblical agendas as we descend into an abyss of theological vs. ideological schizophrenia.

The theologizing approach (applying God’s Word....) is more challenging than the synthesizing approach because it requires ‘thinking outside the box’ in the Western sense.  However, this approach is much more stable and consistent.  It requires letting the Bible itself criticize our theology and reorder our categories rather than the other way around.  It requires taking our cultural and historical contexts seriously — letting it drive us to ask God honest questions, looking to the Bible to correct and answer them.  It requires seeing the whole biblical narrative as revelation and not just the data it contains.  In the spirit of the Black preaching legacy, the application of basic patterns of biblical life situations is essential.

While this theologizing approach might seem to be more demanding, there is a clear advantage to it.  We often forget that most of the Bible came to us as narrative, in concrete language with great concern for the ethical side of theology.  Likewise, the propositional portions of Scripture are also in concrete language with a strong emphasis on ethics.  In other words, the Scriptures in their natural state are mostly ‘B’ sided.

Not Radical Enough

Today’s secular theories and ideologies are woefully inadequate to address today’s issues — cultural, social, economic, etc.  Yet by common grace they can and do give us useful insights.  It is not necessarily wrong to borrow terms from these sources, but it is unwise to use them without clearly spelling out what we mean and what we don’t mean when using them.

Critical Race Theory (CRT), for example, has helped us see the key role race plays in human conflict.  However, CRT attributes the root cause of human conflict to race.  The Bible, on the other hand, has a more radical analysis.  It reveals where racism itself comes from.  It is the result of judging other races by the standard of one race.  Other examples include sexism judging the other gender by the standard of one gender, culture-ism judging other cultures by the standard of one culture, etc.  These are all derived from creature-ism, judging everything (including The Creator Himself) by the standard of the creature.  This all began when the first humans rebelled against God by attempting to distinguish good and evil, not by God’s Word which reveals His character, but by human opinion.  

Another example of secular ideology is today’s “Intersectionality.”  The concept of true Intersectionality originated in the Word of God.  Biblically speaking, there are two expressions of intersectionality, general and covenantal.

General intersectionality is the interconnection of all people regardless of race, class, gender, etc., rooted in their shared image of God as the basis for resisting and overcoming obstructions to human flourishing.

Covenantal intersectionality is the preeminent interconnection of all people regardless of race, class, gender, etc., rooted in their shared union with Christ as the basis for demonstrating redeemed humanity to the glory of God. 

Today’s “Intersectionality” is defined in the Oxford Dictionary as: “the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage.”  This concept is problematic because it does not have a realistic view of fallen human nature, for example:

1.  It focuses on obstructions to human flourishing rather than humanity itself.  The essence of “humanity” is left up to human opinion, but human opinion is subject to the flaws in human nature.

2.  It fails to provide a sufficient lens to distinguish between what affirms humanity and what negates humanity.  Because of this, the “intersectional” community becomes unstable.  It forces all in it to affirm all ways of life, including counter-productive beliefs, lifestyles, behaviors, etc.

3.  Surely, there are real discriminations and disadvantages that must be resisted and overcome.  But today’s “intersectionality” tends to reduce real disadvantages and discriminations to perceived ones.  This may seem harmless at first but eventually there will be no basis to distinguish between real disadvantage and imaginary disadvantage.

4.  As “perceived disadvantages” are overcome, the “intersectional” community falls apart.  For this “community” to remain viable, perceived disadvantages must be maintained, increased, or exaggerated.

The ideologies and theories of today are not radical enough to carry the freight of contemporary issues, but the Bible is more than adequate for the task.  After all, it is “God-breathed,” therefore it “is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness (II Timothy 3:16).  The knowledge derived from secular ideology will always look foolish when compared to the wisdom derived from Scripture.

“Food” for Thought

The task before us can be compared to where we eat on the path of prepared food in a five-star restaurant.  The food begins its journey from the kitchen of the master chef to the table of the dine-in guest.  After the meal, the leftovers are thrown into the dumpster.  

The theologizing approach to ‘Side B’ — fully applying God’s Word in every area of life and culture is like dining on a sumptuous meal specially prepared by the Master Chef.  A nutritious, delicious dining experience indeed.

The synthesizing approach to ‘Side B’ — uncritically splicing together co-opted language and terminology from secular theories and ideologies is like piecing together a meal from the dumpster.  Yes, it is possible to survive by eating out of a dumpster, but there is a great danger of food poisoning.

For decades, I have been passionate in my fight against racism, marginalization and other surrounding cultural sin.  I also appreciate and admire all who seek to speak out prophetically against these evils.  However, I must ask, ‘How will we continue to carry out this noble task, through fine dining or dumpster diving?’


  1. For an audio recording which contains similar ideas from Dr. Ellis: http://www.barkerproductions.net/shop.asp?action=details&inventoryID=319552&catId=29892

    Thank you Dr. Ellis, such helpful thoughts!

  2. This reminds me of how the world should view us as believers...

    "If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you: 'A servant is not greater than his master.' If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours. But all these things they will do to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me.
    John 15:18‭-‬21 ESV

    Thank you for this perspective Dr. Ellis!

  3. This is a good word doc. You mentioned that in the 20th century, evangelicals reduced orthodoxy to Side A. This reduction seems to still be with us in the 21st century conversations on race, class, justice, etc. Do you agree with this assessment? If so, how do you see this reduction manifesting itself in our current evangelical context, and how ought we engage the conversation in a way that moves us forward in health and unity?

  4. "Theological" syncretism, becoming so prevalent these days, lurks in the dumpster, and negatively impacts our churches. Synthesizing theology is very messy.

  5. Interesting the article should see Theology as an activity in Epistemology and Ethics. To me, that's exactly what divides us Catholics from Protestants.

    Before the Reformation, Metaphysics was the basis of Theology (and still is today for us), and taking into the realm of Epistemology and Ethics (starting with Ockham's Nominalism), derailed it, and precipitated a whole different worldview - based in the idea the intellect can reach truth - not a reform at all. Hence the obsession with apologetics.

    If you can argue someone into faith, you can argue them out just as easily, as they say...

  6. Carl,
    How does the debate between 2KT and Transfomationalism figure in your activist theology? Do you take one side or the other or do you use a hybrid of both?

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  8. Couldn't be written any better. Reading this post reminds me of my old room mate! He always kept talking about this. I will forward this article to him. Pretty sure he will have a good read. Thanks for sharing!Dumpster rental

  9. Dr. Ellis, I wasn't familiar with you prior to reading this post, however, I plan on getting familiar with your writings and I plan on reading your books. Thank you for this timely post.