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.


15 thoughts on “Resisting the “normative gaze” part 1

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  1. Ant,

    this post is prophetic.

    i also have pentecostal roots and it’s interesting how the things that i’ve run away from in the cultural expression of my theology,was shunned and looked down as emotive and fanatical. now it is something that i look upon with appreciation. in the past, it was this existential encounter with God that kept me in the faith. it also wasn’t what the preacher said (head knowledge), but the demonstration of power that i witnessed and experienced…

    in our postmodern context people are looking for something they can embody, and live out. and in worship i find that my ethnic expression, or as Latino theologian Justo Gonzalez states, my “perspective of God through Latino experience” greatly influences my expressions to God. so whether we look at pre-modern, orthodox worship, or postmodern expressions of it, i find that my greatest connection to God can sometimes come when I dig up the “raices” (roots).

    jose h.

  2. I just want to tell you that I appreciate the issues you raise and the clarity with which you depict them. One of the dangers of blogging is the general idea that all it is is a stream of consciousness and so there are some pretty bland and goofy ones out there. Your posts are well-thought out and often challenge me to think more creatively. What’s more is that I apprecaite your willingness to let others in on the dialogue you begin.
    Thanks and blessings,
    David Camphouse

  3. brilliant and prophetic. i grew up in australia and am familiar with a lot of names involved with the EC church down there and make no mistake, the normative cultural gaze applies as well. the evangelical church in australia has a very non-immigrant look about it, especially at leadership levels and the EC seems in danger of replicating that.

    my hope and prayer is that as these emerging netwroks solidify they will take seriously the task of critically addressing the church culture they have received, and not just let these sorts of identity issues pass by unadressed.

  4. thanks for these words. i have grown up in the “white man knows best” world and am trying to get a broader picture of the world and the kingdom. being a good suburbanite, growing up in a good suburban school and suburban church i have only seen the kingdom from one small view…i realize each day how small that view really has been…

    new to your blog and look forward to learning from you more.

  5. anthony,
    at the Mn summit we talked about how important it is that we extend bout our understanding and embrace of diveristy along gender, race, age, soicioeconomic and theological lines. i would love it if you were involved in the diversity stream of emergent’s upcoming efforts. jay v. (who i am working with on a new event) mentioned he has contacted you, looking forward to connecting as well. shalom, susie

  6. From a non-speaking in toungues Pentecostal/Charismatic/Baptist/Liberationist/Would-Be Emergent (if they do in fact escape the “normative gaze”) Christian, I want to put out this warning: Watch this negro – he’s dangerous, LOL!

  7. Anthony — I enjoyed this post, man. After growing up in a legalistic church tradition and discovering freedom in Christ, I started out on a spiritual journey of exploration a number of years ago. Today, I find myself in a place that’s “emergent” and also (at least somewhat) “charismatic” — so this was a special to me. I’m interested to hear more from ya later about all this. Hope we can meet in Charlotte some time. Peace!

  8. preach it, brotha.
    the only way that this won’t continue to be the “normative gaze” for the emergent church is if we get on our knees and repent.

  9. I have no idea whether you’d consider this a valid option – but in looking for a theology that doesn’t have its roots in Europe and was not influenced by the Reformation, would you consider looking at Egyptian Orthodoxy? It seems like you could compare Coptic theology to more recently revised practices and get an idea for what has and hasn’t been changed by Modernity.

  10. jon,

    that is a complex question you ask. Even if I considered Egyptian Orthodoxy or Coptic theology I still would be an heir of my negro Christian experience here in the Western world. We are who we are and what we have been. I have never been in Egypt…never been Coptic. Of course I could imbibe the catachumen of these particular Christian traditions but it wouldn’t change the context in which I have done theology. I would still be a North American negro doing Christian theology…it would just be one more thing added on. That is not to say that I wouldn’t find authenticity in these traditions. I probably would. I have just come to an awareness of the recent conversion of Albert Raboteau, a black theologian and religious studies professor, to Orthodox theology. I see a similar shift in myself. Where I am at now is this. I am at a place where I appreciate the fact that Christianity is a 2,000 year old argument, conversation, tradition. I am not at a place where I would allow one tradition of the faith or one cultural expression to overdetermine my practice of the Christian faith.

    I think Coptic or Orthodox theology is worth looking into. Many Christians in the West I find to be anemic in their appreciation of this part of our Christian heritage.

    The issue for me is not about getting away from the Reformation. The Reformation and European Christianity was not a totalizing evil. I hope I didn’t get that impression. Just like any form of Christianity it has its vices and virtues. There is much that I appreciate in the Reformation and European theology. Many of the great leaders of the Black church were deeply indebted to white Christians. King was deeply influenced by the writins of Bonhoffer, Barth, Tillich, and social gospeler Walter Rauschenbusch. All of whom were heirs of the Protestant Reformation from one degree to another.

    What I’m looking for is an expression of Christianity where we do not allow the social, cultural, and political imaginary spaces of the world (e.g. nationality, race, and gender) to overdetermine and rigidly demarcate the body politic of Christ.

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