Between four worlds

by Anthony Bradley
Posted on Wednesday, March 30, 2011, at 4:17 pm

A few years ago I was scolded by a woman in an evangelical church for not having read much of C.S. Lewis' work as a child. While I watched her shake her head I was shamed into thinking that my Christian upbringing was deficient. I suppose there was an expectation that every "good Christian" kid raised in the church should know Lewis. But her assumption was offensive to me because it ignored the simple fact that I was raised in the black church where the writings of C.S. Lewis are largely unknown. I wonder if this woman had understood that many blacks who now attend evangelical churches were most likely not raised in white evangelical churches, would she have had an attitude of grace instead of disappointment? The truth is, black evangelicals have the difficult burden of having to navigate between four worlds: the several hundred-year-old, well established black church universe; the evangelical church subculture; mainstream black culture; and mainstream Anglo-oriented American culture.

When I am around my black friends and family in the black church I get weird looks if I am unaware of what is happening in the black gospel music scene or if I'm unfamiliar with the latest teachings of one of the black megachurch pastors. I am expected to be able to sing along with Fred Hammond, Hezekiah Walker and LFC, Vanessa Bell-Armstrong, Lisa Page-Brooks, Kirk Franklin, and others. I am expected to be familiar with the ministries of pastors like Dr. H. Beecher Hicks, the late Bishop G.E. Patterson, Bishop Charles Blake, E. Dewey Smith, and so on.

Black evangelicals are also expected to be well acquainted with white evangelical subculture icons like C.S. Lewis, Charles Spurgeon, John Piper, Tim Keller, and books like Pilgrim's Progress. There are also the hymns and contemporary artists with whom blacks are expected to at least be familiar with, like "Fairest Lord Jesus," "Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing," Twila Paris, Michael Card, Michael W. Smith, Natalie Grant, Third Day, and so on-even if they do not necessarily like them.

Mainstream black culture is a completely different world, where blacks are expected to be well aware of the latest issues raised by Tavis Smiley, Cornell West, Kevin Powell, and; the latest buzz on either the Tom Joyner or Steve Harvey morning radio shows; or the latest film by Spike Lee. Not to mention that recent television shows like Are We There Yet?, The Great State of Georgia, and Let's Stay Together should remain in the cultural awareness holding tank just in case you're at a party.

American pop culture is much easier to navigate, because, regardless of one's racial subculture, we're all saturated with the music and films that emerge from Hollywood. Most everybody saw Black Swan, The Fighter, Inception, and True Grit, right? And we are all familiar with Lady Gaga, Lady Antebellum, Katy Perry, Justin Bieber, and Ray LaMontagne, right?

But for black Christians, navigating between these four worlds can be time-consuming and challenging. Even thinking about all this makes me tired. In the end, I am making a public plea for patience and grace for blacks coming into evangelical circles, because what many evangelicals consider standard and normal for all Christians simply is not. Black Christians should not be shamed because they were raised in a world, a very different one than the evangelical mainstream, and have to spend time navigating between four worlds concurrently. At times, it's simply exhausting.

Anthony Bradley

Anthony is associate professor of religious studies at The King's College in New York and a research fellow at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty.

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