Shepherds in Atlanta

The other day I was talking with a theologian friend. She was telling me about a recent church experience, where the local worship band sounded just like Hillsong. Despite hailing from Atlanta, they even adopted a quasi-Australian accent, distinctively drawling the pronunciation of “God.” The experience was jarring for her. Out of place, by definition.

This was one example of a widespread phenomenon: cut-and-paste Christianity. On this model, a particularly successful cultivar from one place (usually coinciding with a center of empire) is transplanted wholesale onto alien soil. Bands in Atlanta sound like Hillsong. Pastors sound like Tim Keller, or Francis Chan, or whoever. An aesthetic, a theological emphasis, a lingo, an institution like Sunday school or small groups proliferates virally like a box store franchise.

It’s easy to spot the errors in this mode of operation. Cutting and pasting expresses a lack of confidence in God’s presence in every place. It makes God favor one place or people (again, usually coinciding rather suspiciously with political and cultural centers of power). It disempowers God’s people, because it shortchanges their local faith and ingenuity for someone else’s.

What is harder to articulate is the alternative to this model. That is what my friend and I talked about: what a truly indigenous and not imported theology would look like. What would a theology – or range of theologies – look like that took the places, people, and problems of Atlanta as their basic material for reflection?

A few caveats. First, obviously, this line of thinking wouldn’t discard scripture or the patrimony of Christian theological terms. We must still exegete. We must still fill out the meaning of God, Christ, humanity, sin. But instead of bringing all the important past performances of these wholesale into our Atlantan practice of discipleship – like a Hillsong cover band – we would make sure each exegesis or each theological concept was keyed to our place and our moment. God would be the God of Atlanta – what does that even mean? Christ would be the Christ of Atlanta. Humanity the humanity, sin the sin of Atlanta.

Second, I am the wrong person for such an enterprise. I’m not a native. And more crucially, I am not directly impacted by the city’s major struggles. I do not have an insider’s view of Atlanta’s long and barbaric history of racism against black Americans. I am not amongst the impoverished. I speak the dominant language of commerce and education rather than the numerous languages of recent immigrant communities. My personal religious commitments dovetail with southern civil religion (evangelical Protestantism), rather than belonging to an occasionally suspect minority religion in Atlanta like Islam or Sikhism. I have a second-hand understanding of the city’s LGBTQ community. A truly Atlantan theology would speak from firsthand wrestling with and hoping in God from within these histories and these struggles. I can only learn from and amplify such voices.

Third, maybe the question about a genuinely indigenous theology is still misguided. “Atlanta” may still too generic, encompassing an irreducible diversity of communal histories and languages. There may be no good way to stand back from, say, Passion City Church (majority white evangelical church) and Ebenezer Baptist (historic black congregation) and Bethany UMC (first and largest Korean church) and try to say something integrative about following Jesus in Atlanta. Perhaps the thought experiment itself is already too much a product of an imperial subjectivity that aspires to encyclopedia: taking proprietorship of everyone else’s history and organizing it for display like a 19th c. museum.

But I still think the question is interesting, and theologically instructive. What would it mean to think hard about the good news that God raised Jesus – with an eye to Atlanta’s specificities? its wild commercialism or its status as a powerhouse of black education and politics? its rising Asian population? its influx of young white professionals? its iron walls of racial segregation? its gentrification or its incoherent construction projects? its endemic commuter culture or famous traffic congestion? its excellent eateries or its profusion of strip clubs?

To dream of such an indigenous theology is to believe in the translatability of the good news: to affirm that Christ is as much at home here and now as in Galilee there and then. One metric for success in translation is its unintelligibility elsewhere. In other words, a theology of Atlanta would be truly indigenous when its features wouldn’t make sense in another locale. I’ve been reading Zechariah lately, and I took odd comfort from a passage in chapter 11. The text is full of shepherds – three shepherds, a foolish shepherd, the chapter’s author as shepherd. The study notes in my Bible admitted that no one really knows what all these shepherds are referring to. But in a way, the very inarticulacy – the untranslatability – of the passage attests the seriousness of God’s engagement with the context these words first addressed. The text spoke so uniquely to its moment that it doesn’t make sense elsewhere. I dream of belonging so thoroughly – both to God’s good news and to my own time.

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