Westernized Christ? Or Christianized West?

In my three and a half years of wandering about in Christian academia and my resultant exposure to the broad Christian blogosphere, as well as doing some reading that I’ve been tipped off to, especially by Seth, I’ve come across a few interconnected trends.

To begin with, I was awakened to the massive upswelling of Christianity, Protestant and Catholic, in what is often referred to as the Global South–in other words, all the non-Western countries. Consider Africa, for a moment. In 1900, there were 9 million Christians in Africa out of a population of 120 million, and most of these were in either Ethiopia, South Africa, or were dispersed European colonists. As of the year 2000, there were 380 million Christians in Africa out of a population of 808 million, and both populations have only gotten larger. Protestantism has surged in South America, while China has more Christians than any of the European nations, except maybe Russia. Said Christianity is hot-blooded, occasionally violent, especially when faced with violence (a way of thinking that is theologically problematic, at best), oftentimes short on doctrine and long on passion, and very heavily supernaturalistic, occasionally to the point of making Benny Hinn look normal. It is also extremely heavy on the Prosperity Gospel, and can be mildly theocratic in its leanings.

Along with this, I’ve noticed that there is slowly growing cottage industry of people trying to explain what this means for the Church in the West, and, at least among the academics, the story goes something like this: Well, they’ll be a shock to the social liberals, but they’ll be a shock to the economic conservatives too; also, we just need to accept their seeming oddities and heresies, up to a point, as just being a differing interpretation of the Bible based on cultural differences. It’s still Christianity, just not Western Christianity. This goes along with another trend I’ve noticed, particularly among friends of my friends doing ministry for kids in the ghetto, of not wanting to impose “white, middle-class” standards of conduct upon their charges. It’s the same kind of attitude, one very in keeping with the spirit of the age.

I can appreciate the desire to not want to impose extrabiblical standards that are no more than cultural artifacts upon folks with vastly different histories and cultural memory. What I fear, however, is that we will, in our zeal to avoid such, end up not declaring heresy heresy. The reason why I say this is that Christianity and the West, despite all attempts to separate the two, are inextricably linked, because the West would not be what it is without Christianity.

Pull Christianity out of the West? The West dies: Europe ate itself like Ouroboros after the modernists did their work, and is currently in the process of starving itself to death as the postmodernists do theirs. Take out Christianity and Rome still falls, the barbarians forget everything, and Europe never crawls out of the muck and the mire, aided by the monks who kept learning alive in those dark decades–or, if it does, it takes centuries longer. Take out Christianity, and there is probably no Byzantium. Take out Christianity, and there is probably no scientific method–and if anyone thinks to discuss the Muslim thinkers and scholars who preserved much of the thinking for the West, take out Christianity and there is no Mohammed.

What you have is the Angles and Saxons and Danes and Franks and Prussians and Slavs and Arabs and Bedouin and Vandals and Goths–at least until the Mongols come out of the east and kill everyone, unopposed by castle or Mameluke, for it was the castles built by the Christians that caused the Mongols to decide that Europe just wasn’t worth the trouble, and the former slave soldiers of the Muslim Fatimids who broke the Mongol advance at Ain Jalut.

But there has been Christianity in the West, and Christianity has molded the West, albeit imperfectly, as all the works of men have been. Given these facts, it would not be an unjust question to ask if Christianization inevitably, eventually, brings Westernization, even if you are not trying to Westernize the people. And if you try to stop the Westernizing, how much are you stopping the Christianizing?

That having been said, humility demands to ask how much of Western Christianity has been Westernized. The peoples of the north, who forged out the West from the material given them by Rome and Greece, were a fiercely independent breed, determined to see to their own destinies, brooking no interference from god or man. How much of that has bled into our vision of Christianity, for it is the blood of the north that runs in the veins of most of Protestant America, and the thoughts of the north that shape our view of the world–and, doubtless, our view of the Scripture, for we are imperfect men. How much of the West has its roots in Odin and Thor and Epona and the Druids? And much of our law and philosophy comes from those who sacrificed to that mad pack of rapists, murderers and philanderers called the Greek and Roman pantheons. Great things those two peoples did, and great thoughts they gave us–but how much of it is common grace, and how much of it is a lie from the pit of Hell? And can we separate the two?

I do not have time or space to answer these questions, nor am I truly qualified to do so, beyond the fact that I know these questions must be asked. If we are to be salt and light to all the world, if our salt is to retain our saltiness and our light not to burn out retinas, we must answer these questions properly, veering neither to cultural chauvinism nor postmodern self-flagellation.

‘Til next time,

Lowell Van Ness


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