Reviewed by Chris Smith.
Soong-Chan Rah’s recent book THE NEXT EVANGELICALISM: FREEING THE CHURCH FROM WESTERN CULTURAL CAPTIVITY is an insightful and challenging book. What the title does not convey (thanks, undoubtedly to an editorial decision) but what Rah emphasizes throughout the book is that by “Western cultural captivity” he means “WHITE Western cultural captivity.” While noting that the demographics of the Church are rapidly shifting away from the North American orientation of the past and toward “a southern and eastern hemisphere-centered Christianity” (12), and that even the Church in North America is rapidly becoming more diverse, Rah also observes that the leadership of American evangelicalism is still almost completely white and male. Thus, Rah writes seeking “reconciliation and renewal” among God’s people. Overall there are many powers that Rah wrestles with here that other authors — including myself at times — have unmasked (individualism, consumerism, imperialism, etc), but the most convicting of his points is the prevaling whiteness that is driving Christianity in North America. This point is driven home most poignantly in his chapter on “The Emergent Church’s Captivity to White, Western Culture.” Here he observes that, generally speaking, the leadership of the Emerging Church is still largely white and largely male. He observes, “Dialoguing on race for most white emergents, becomes a luxury, not a necessity, as it is for many people of color” (119). Rah’s chapter critiquing mega-churches and the church growth movement in general is excellent and is well-worth the consideration and reflection of the Church. Rah’s work is disturbing in that it sheds light on the multitude of ways that churches in North America have been held captive, ultimately calls us — in the book’s Conclusion — to confession and repentance. THE NEXT EVANGELICALISM would be a perfect companion to J. Kameron Carter’s recent epic theological work RACE: A THEOLOGICAL ACCOUNT, elaborating in a more accessible fashion, on the theological history of racialism and racism that Carter has so compelling set forth in his work. Both authors share a vision of a future Church that is necessarily more diverse. In Carter’s words, they agree that:
[A]s a twenty-first-century discourse, Christian theology must take its bearings from the Christian theological languages and practices that arise from the lived Christian worlds of dark peoples in modernity and how such peoples reclaimed (and in their own ways salvaged) the language of Christianity, and thus Christian theology, from being a discourse of death – their death (RACE, 378).
Despite the many conflictions of my own theology and praxis, I believe that Carter and Rah are right, that North American churches are held hostage by their Westernness and whiteness and need to come to confession and repentance. Jesus often proclaimed that he had come to set us free (cf Luke 4:16-21, etc.), but in order to be free in our twenty-first century North American context, we need first to recognize and repent of the unjust institutions to which we have been enslaved. There are few books that take on this brutal and yet essential task with the clarity and the compassion with which Soong-Chan Rah has crafted THE NEXT EVANGELICALS. I highly recommend it, for those who have the courage to face the mammoth cultural manifestations of our sinful state.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com