Resisting the “normative gaze” Part II

Alright. Some great comments from my last post on this topic. Which has led to some interesting discussion in other places. The lead off question:

Will the emerging church be able to resist the historic “normative gaze” of a particular Christian culture that assumes the normativity of European culture and theology?

Notice. I haven’t said that the emerging church has not resisted normative gaze. For me, that remains to be seen. We’ll see. But where were we?

I take my cue from the apostle Paul again:

3The world is unprincipled. It’s dog-eat-dog out there! The world doesn’t fight fair. But we don’t live or fight our battles that way–never have and never will. 4The tools of our trade aren’t for marketing or manipulation, but they are for demolishing that entire massively corrupt culture. 5We use our powerful God-tools for smashing warped philosophies, tearing down barriers erected against the truth of God, fitting every loose thought and emotion and impulse into the structure of life shaped by Christ. 6Our tools are ready at hand for clearing the ground of every obstruction and building lives of obedience into maturity. – 2 Corinthians 10 (Message)

Paul teaches us that there are philosophies, warped philosophies, and barriers erected against the truth of God. I would venture to say that there are practices along with these barriers that do indeed stand in the way of Truth. One of the practices that we are engaged in here is the practice of the normative gaze. Although referred to as an ideal by Cornel West I consider it a practice as well. For gazing requires movement and intentionality. To quote Cornel West again:

“This ideal was drawn primarily from classical aesthetic values of beauty, proportion, and human form and classical cultural standards of moderation, self-control, and harmony. The role of the classical aesthetic and cultural norms in the emergence of the idea of white supremacy as an object of modern discourse cannot be underestimated.” (West,Prophesy Deliverance, p.54)

Basically the classical aesthetic becomes the “norm” for beauty and truth. For a richer genealogy of modern racism check out West’s Reader. I am sure there are other places where this can be found. But what comes out of this is this: the tyranny of a perceived universal over a particular. Thus particularity becomes a scandal. One attempting to speak authentically from their particularity becomes a scandal. This could be do to perceived power. But as a Christian I can only see this as some kind of idolatry. In effect raising one’s ethnicity above others and holding it as the norm for others to follow suit I believe to be a form of idolatry. Jesus once told us that it was a sin to love one’s own family more than Him. Which is startling thing for Jesus to say in our culture charged with jingoism and nationalistic pride.

I wanted to write more but this is where my main thoughts have left me thus far. I have been thinking about some things Stanley Hauerwas has said on the attachments of the old age or aeon and how that is connected to violence and idolatry. For it seems that race-ism is deeply connected to an over-love for family and ethnic heritage than it is of pure hatred of another family or race. We’ll see as this journey unfolds.


Hard Times EC Cohort

Great conversation with some ec cohorts in the D.C. area. I’ll be posting highlights later. Here’s Stephen Shields bulleted list of discussion topics.

This Weekend!

This is going to be a good weekend…I hope. Me and Steve Knight will be making a trek up to D.C. to join in the festivities of the “Worship in the Spirit of Justice” event that will be taking place in the Capitol. We plan on meeting up with some of the people that I’ve only conversed with over the blogosphere. My fellow negroblogian, Rod Garvin, will also be meeting up with us. If you haven’t checked it out…go to Rod’s blog. The brother has been droppin some soulful blogs.

I haven’t forgotten about my last post. I plan on talking about some of the ways, I believe, those of us in this conversation can resist the sin of the “normative gaze”. First I want to follow up on some of the great comments that have been made thus far.

Other things. My man Steve Bush over at Harbinger has laid out some great thoughts about the recent developments in Emergent (e.g. as Tony Jones being named National Coordinator). Like Steve, I believe this is a good direction. We’ll have to see how this plays out. Steve lays out the historical and theological context of the emerging church wonderfully. There are some other links to these developments that are worth reading. Like here and here. Also here.

Resisting the “normative gaze” part 1

Ephesians 6:

10Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. 11Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. 12For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.

Will the emerging church be able to resist the historic “normative gaze” of a particular Christian culture that assumes the normativity of European culture and theology?

This is a question that has been on mind as I reflect on the idea and practice of the embracing church within the emerging church. What is the “normative gaze” and why should it be resisted?

The “normative gaze”, to borrow from Cornel West, is the idea that white culture (for the purposes of this discussion, Evangelical culture) is the norm for Christian theology and practice. Typically, this is made evident in discussions when the Protestant Reformation is talked about in a way that leaves those in the conversation thinking that the Reformation was the first and only Christian movement in church history. I don’t want to give the wrong impression here. There is much that I appreciate about the Reformation. It is a part of my Christian world. Every Christian tradition I have been a part of has been deeply influenced by the Reformation. From my early days as a Pentecostal to now. I guess I could write my own “generous orthodoxy”. Why I am a Pentecostal/Charismatic/Calvinist/Evangelical/Anabaptist/Liberationist Christian. But back to this idea of the “normative gaze” of Evangelical culture. Where does this come from? This is why I think the emerging church and prophetic liberationist theologies and praxis narration of modernity is key. The “normative gaze” in some forms of Evangelical theology, according to Cornel West, comes from the Enlightenment. Specifically the re-birth of classical greek culture and the emergence of scientism. The Enlightenment aided in the building of a culture, a presupposed universal culture, that would be the norm in philosophy, theology, economics, politics, etc..

“I will try to show that the idea of white supremacy emerges partly because of the powers within the structure of modern discourse – powers to produce and prohibit, develop and delimit, forms of rationality and scientificity and objectivity which set perimeters and draw boundaries for the intelligibility, availibility and legitimacy of certain ideas.” (West, p.49)

For the purposes of this post I want to suggest that Modernity is more than just responsible for absolutist forms of government and theologies. It is also partly responsible for the emergence of the idea of “normative” white Christian culture.

In other words.

When you look upon me do you see an inferior culture? When you see me reading James Cone or David Walker do you see me doing “weak” theology? or “compromised” theology? When you see me shouting and running around the church exercising my existential bodily freedom in the context of black worship in the shekinah glory of Yahweh do you see me engaging in frivolity, catharsis, and emotional absent mindedness? When I say “amen” to the preacha do you see me as one who has ejected “reason”? When I say, dare I say it, “I feel the truth” am I somehow engaging in a less reasonable theology and praxis? When I say God showed up in my prayer closet and spoke to me in a still small voice am I engaging in “heresy”?

More later.

Important Developments for Emergent US

This is from the Emergent US website:

Emergent’s growing influence has been surprising of late, even to those of us who have been hanging around this conversation for years. The requests for co-sponsored events, publishing partnerships, new networks, media requests and even the flood of emails from the website have been overwhelming to a volunteer organization.

Those of us who gathered last week in Northern Minnesota realized that we are facing an important moment: the Emergent conversation is gathering steam, and we need to continue to grow organizationally so we can respond well to the momentum. Thus, most of our conversation was around how can we structure ourselves so as to allow the many individuals who are already contributing to Emergent at various levels better opportunities for engagement and connection. To that end, we’ve decided to redouble our efforts at connection: we’re expanding the Coordinating Group, expanding and strengthening the Board of Directors, and developing a Board of Reference. We’re also working on plans to partner with individual contributors, church partners, and organizational affiliates. All of these plans will be laid out more fully in Emergent/C’s over the summer. But our first announcement comes in the form of the press release below.

Brian McLaren and Doug Pagitt

Emergent Appoints Tony Jones As First National Director

Minneapolis, MN. June 8, 2005 – Emergent today announced the appointment of Tony Jones as its first National Director. The group, which describes itself as “a growing, generative friendship,” has been increasing in both size and positive influence within the North American Church and, increasingly, the Church around the globe. Jones said, “I wholeheartedly believe Emergent will play a catalytic and generative role in the life of the American Church for years to come.” The appointment of Jones is recognition of the need for coordination of the vast volunteer efforts of Emergent.

What is your theological worldview?

I have joined the crowd.

You scored as Neo orthodox. You are neo-orthodox. You reject the human-centredness and scepticism of liberal theology, but neither do you go to the other extreme and make the Bible the central issue for faith. You believe that Christ is God’s most important revelation to humanity, and the Trinity is hugely important in your theology. The Bible is also important because it points us to the revelation of Christ. You are influenced by Karl Barth and P T Forsyth.

Neo orthodox




Roman Catholic


Evangelical Holiness/Wesleyan




Classical Liberal


Modern Liberal


Reformed Evangelical




What's your theological worldview?
created with

Sweet Home Alabama

Heading to Alabama this afternoon for the weekend. The kids will be spending a couple of weeks with their grandparents in the Magic City.

This will be an interesting time. I have never had “all” 50 of my chillens away from me for so long. Especially my baby girl, Deborah. Me and the wife will be able to spend sometime together…alone! Thank you Jesus!

Anyways…I’m still reflecting on this concept of the “embracing church”. This weekend frees me up to re-read some authors I have shelved that deal with the issue of race and Christianity (e.g. Cornel West). I might dig up his Reader. We’ll see.

Random thoughts on black Christianity

There has been some great discussion on race and Emergent (actually American Christianity at large). This has been on my mind for the past couple of weeks. I am glad to be able to throw out some of my thoughts about the issue of race and American Christianity. But I want to throw out some random thoughts that I jotted down on the plane while flying out to Seattle last week. Don’t hold me to these thoughts…they just sort of came up. One of the pathologies I find in mainstream black culture and church is a lack of self-criticism. Bill Cosby makes a few comments about some of the negative pathologies happening in the black community he becomes a lackey for the Neocons and an instigator of class struggle in the black community. The dude is a comedian for God’s sake! Of course Cosby is more than just a comedian…he is a cultural icon. But still I think we can be over-reactive sometimes. Of course my little rant that I’m about to spit may very well be reactionary as well. I guess reacting is inescapable. Here’s my thoughts riding on a beam of the black Christian experience…at least mine.

1. Perhaps the black church and black theology are over-determined by the attainment of personal and individual liberty. What some may call “freedom”. It could very well be that the quest for freedom, which has serious merit given America’s racist past and present, has overdetermined the missional self-understanding of the black church and its theology.

2. In doing so the ideology and consequent beliefs and practices of American-styled individualism has screwed up a communal and missional understanding of the black Church’s role in American society.

3. This is displayed in the growing insurgence of neo-conservatism in some wings of the black Church.

4. What some of my Emergent brothers and sisters don’t understand is that the black church has not been immune to the individualism prominent in Western culture. As evidenced by theologies of self-fulfillment and materialism that are gaining a larger audience in the black Church.

5. While there still remains a trace of solidarity and communal resistance practices within strands of the black Church it is becoming quite obvious that the quest for a particular kind of freedom has messed up and eroded contemporary black Christian life from its rich legacy.

6. The quest for a particular kind of freedom has opened the back door to the negative pathologies of capitalism. The break up of community(and family), the deformation of desire, and the reduction of the gospel to individualistic/consumeristic accounts of salvation.

7. The gospel becomes baptized into the ethos and pathos of American individualism and capitalism un-critically. Salvation gets reduced to an issue of personal financial success and achieving human potential. Thus privileging the individual over the common good…something foreign to the African contribution to American Christianity. Rosa Parks could have stayed home and read Fulton Sheen.

8. Such over-determination makes it difficult to create social spaces where empathy and solidarity towards others can be cultivated and formed.

9. In the black Church’s quest for American freedom we have cut ourselves off from a rich theological/ecclesial heritage that sustained us during slavery up until the Civil Rights movement.

What to do?

That’s next.

Race and Emergent Part II

I have never had this many comments before. I want to thank everyone who has contributed to the discussion. Many of the thoughts presented here have given me cause for further reflection on this very important issue. One of the fruits of this discussion, for me, was signing up with the Embracing Church site. It is a site maintained by Jay Vorhees.

Here is a re-cap of some of the comments that stood out in my mind and ruminated on.

Jose : “i also think we need to think of diversity beyond the # of blacks, latinos, etc. Attending some event. The issue is whether the above mentioned folks will be included into the think tanks, praxis, and theological expression of the movement itself.”

I have thought about my own experiences with this issue. I have been in church situations where it was proclaimed that this church was said to be “multi-cultural” or “ethnically diverse”. My first question and I admit it is a difficult one was this: is the leadership diverse? Then we started to deal with the culture of the church itself. What was the dialogue like? Had the leaders researched and discussed the particular histories and cultures of its diverse congregations? Did the leaders understand the particular issues that confronted its “ethnic” members when they were outside of the four walls of the church, in the world? Had the leaders read more than just dead white theologians, pastors and thinkers? So I feel you bru…and this is something I have to be totally honest about. I can’t tell you the frustration I feel sometimes when I am discussing particulars issues like “Reformation history” or the theology and thought of the Patristic heritage of Western/Eastern Christianity…and when I bring up people like John Perkins, David Walker, Martin Luther King Jr., J. Deotis Roberts, and a whole host of black theologians, pastors, and thinkers and I hear crickets chirping. That’s why I am encouraged with some of the people in the emergent conversation…there seems to be a critical dialogue with the church in all its forms…as what my man described as “deep ecclesiology”. But I am looking forward to the organic and natural emergence of people of color in this dialogue in regards the theology and praxis of Emergent. And like you said…there are many already who are trying. And many in other countries. That’s why I have to give it up to Brian McLaren when he discusses post-colonial theology and praxis and the growing relationships globally in this emergent conversation.

djchuang: Another way to look at the problem of racism at the root of the church in America is: it’s a Protestant/Evangelical problem. Where the church parish or congregation is formed geographically, like in the Catholic and Orthodox church, there is no white or black or yellow or red church. So maybe its endemic to how we do theology that we have racially segregated churches.

dj. I think you are on to something here. I was reading some stuff by Cornel West and there is a passage in his book Race Matters that I can’t recall the exact page. But he talks about how “race” is a modern invention borne out of the Enlightenment. So your thought here got me to thinking how foundationalist theologies, philosophies, and absolutist politics fed into the rise to racism. Such as how the notion of universal reason became the mantra of the Modernist project…and in conjunction with that how “whiteness” became the norm by which Western culture judged other particular cultures. The tyranny of the “perceived” universal over the particular. Or rather the reign of a particular over the particulars.
And part of the reason Catholic/Orthodox churches seem somewhat unscathed by the seeds of racial division may have to do with the fact that they learned and did ecclesiology out of a tradition that proceeded the notion of a universal “white-culture-as-norm” for centuries. That isn’t to say that Catholicism and Orthodox bodies were immune to these issues…which I don’t think they were inasmuch as they adapted to some of the cultural products of the Enlightenment. Something to further reflect on there. Why has Evangelical/Protestant culture become victim to the racial divides in a more pronounced way than say some of our Catholic and Orthodox brothers and sisters?

david: The question of why the movement is mostly white is a question of who has interest. The “Emergent” movement seems to be another movement in the white church to catch up to society and reach the people where they are.

There is some truth to what you are saying but I think Emergent is something bigger than that. I see in Emergent a shift away from theologies, philosophies, and practices that privilege a particular culture over others. So while there may be many black churches that may not be participating in this specific discussion some of the issues being addressed in this conversation are relevant to the black Church. And trust me there are many black Christian leaders that are having similar discussions we are having in the Emergent conversation.

The white church has continually faced the problem of being outmoded and unable to keep pace with the times and issues of the people. The black church, in my limited experience, and observation, has been more able to adapt to the moment, reaching people with the context of today more readily. Thus, the need for an “Emergent” movement within the black church is redundant. The black church is already current, dealing with the problems, issues and advances of society on a daily basis more often and more specifically than the white church.

I believe there is much in Emergent that resonates with particular forms of black Christianity. I don’t want you to get a idealistic picture of the black Church. Some would argue that the post-Civil Rights black Church is being taken over with theologies deeply influenced by some of the negative effects of capitalism. That’s what partly brought me to this conversation. I saw theologians and pastors attempting to grapple with stuff I see taking a strangle hold on the black Church. Such as theologies of crass materialism, hyper-individualism, and in some cases American exceptionalism (which is another issue altogether). There is a growing conservative shift within black Christianity that is literally scaring the hell out of me. The black Church has not been totally immune to a theology of empire as some would have us believe. Although the black Church has historically been a site of resistance and cross-bearing in our culture it is becoming more and more less so. That’s part of the reason I am here.

Another issue as well and I will acually end my comments here with a thought about something. I think those that have been nurtured and fed and discipled by the black Church can find a hospitable dialogue partner with Emergent. In reading Hauerwas, one of the theologians that has deeply influenced many in this conversation, I have gained a deeper appreciation for St. Augustine. St. Augustine, an African (ok…North African) by the way, serves as a cautionary tale for young conscious black leaders in the body of Christ. Augustine got me thinking about the issue of freedom. I think part of the reason why we have many of the pathologies we have in the black community is because we have gone passed freedom situated within a theological narrative and ended up with a notion of freedom that looks more like Kant than the Exodus or Jesus. Freedom during slavery up until the Civil Rights meant freedom from tyranny…in a very real way. But this understanding of freedom was deeply situated within a very nuanced understanding of the Exodus story and Jesus’ suffering and resurrection. Not so today. Freedom becomes an end in and of itself. Which I think is dangerous. Which I think serves as a cautionary tale for young black Christian leaders like myself who want to see the end of political and economic oppression. I believe that many black Christian leaders have allowed an American-styled ideal of freedom to overdetermine their ecclesiology and theologizing. Don’t get me wrong here. I think the history tells us why “freedom” looms large in black culture and language. But what has happenend, in my little estimation, is that we have grabbed hold of a notion and practice of freedom in many of our communities that is no longer situated in a theological narrative that sustained and gave us hope during and after slavery…up until the Civil Rights movement. It would have been extremely difficult for a black Christian to discuss “freedom” without mentioning “God”. It seems now that we have allowed freedom, a particular appropriation of the term, to overdetermine our theological discourse and practice….thus allowing some of the negative effects of living in a society that doesn’t situate freedom within a theological narrative and a society that is feeling the negative effects of capitalism…such as the deformation of desire. In many cases, but obviously not all, freedom went from tasting the goodness of the Lord to tasting whatever the hell I want.

My comments here are just one small piece of the puzzle. I could be wrong as two left shoes here. But this is what I am seeing. And why I think Emergent is an excellent ecclesial space to talk about these issues.

Enough..this post is entirely too long.

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