Results tagged “african-american” from Reformation21 Blog

A Christian in the Secular Academy

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When many individuals think of the life of a college professor, the general perception they have formed (fueled by articles such as this) is that we only work for a few days a week and have the entire summer "off." Many misunderstand the nature and extent of this profession and are not aware of the various frustrations that are associated with this career. Some of these frustrations are common to all faculty (such as dealing with unmotivated students, extensive university service activities, administrative politics, the 90-100 hour work week, etc.), but there are some challenges and frustrations that seem to be particularly unique for minority faculty members who are also conservative Christians. As I consider my journey over the past decade into the academic life, I thought it would be useful to the reader to provide insight into the life and misconceptions of life within the academy.

As I entered academia with the aspirations of being a Black scientist, I was warned by other Black scientists that my peers will assume that I'm intellectually inferior and that many will be more interested in hearing my views on race rather than science (for those who are interested, consider this article). For this reason, I've made it my aim not to be another educated Black man who spends all of his time talking about race. Contrary to the expectations of many, I've experienced very little discrimination within academia as a Black man because of these convictions.

From Christians outside of the academy, I was warned that the academy has become so dogmatically secularized across all academic disciplines that Christians are usually seen as unwelcomed. Throughout my matriculation in academia, I have heard a few of my peers ask me privately: "Why would an intelligent man like you associate yourself with ignorant Christians?" After articulating the reasons for my faith and confidence in Christ, usually I receive a condescending nod from the hearer, viewing my religious convictions as a form of folk religion. In spite of these rare experiences, I've found numerous believers within the physical sciences. Furthermore, based upon my conversations with academics in other fields, it appears that you are actually more likely to find Christians and those who are sympathetic to the Christian worldview within the physical sciences than what you will find today in the social sciences and humanities. In other words, the physical sciences are not the bastion of atheism as many believe.

When I entered graduate school about a decade ago, it was God's providence that my research group was probably the most ethnically and religiously diverse group within my institution. Contrary to popular belief, we don't have to look to the 19th century to read about scientists who were devout, orthodox Christians. There are still many today who agree with James Joule that "to engage in science, far from being contrary, is compatible with our seeking after God." In contrast, I have often said that the social sciences and humanities are the last bastions of ideological dogmatism within America. This is no longer considered speculation, but there is now empirical social science research to support this. George Yancey, a black evangelical sociologist who teaches at the University of North Texas, conducted a survey in which 59 percent of anthropologists and 53 percent of English professors would be less likely to hire someone they found out was an evangelical. Within the academy, there are strong biases against evangelicals as well as those who are politically conservative.

The condescension towards evangelicals echoes the patronizing attitude towards racial minorities. During off-the-record conversations, the same arguments that I hear humanities professors make about evangelicals sound remarkably familiar to the ways which some people describe Blacks - politically unsophisticated, ignorant, lacking education, intellectual inferior, angry, bitter, emotional, poor, etc. This attitude is easy to enforce within fields in which a Christian worldview shapes the content of one's research, such as the social sciences and humanities. For this reason, young conservative scholars are encouraged to "stay in the closet" until they have obtained tenure. However, since I'm not politically conservative and since I'm a researcher on hurricanes and severe convective storms, this attitude has a much smaller bearing on my academic future.

However, the true challenges associated with being a Christian professor in a secular institution are twofold. First, one of my tasks as a Christian scientist is to de-mythologize science. I've found that many have a superstitious reverence towards physical science research. The ethos of our current age is to hold all external authorities in suspicion; however, when scientific authorities and science evangelists make their proclamations, college students (as well as society in general) tend to nod and agree. It is usually my job to remove the veil from the eyes of many so that they become aware of the limitations and boundaries of physical science.

The primary error that is repeated throughout society is to regard science as a method for discovering truth. This was the common belief among scientists of the 18th and 19th centuries, but very few reputable practicing scientists would today assert that science discovers truth. However, this mythological idea continues to be perpetuated and many are intimidated by the modern equivalent of "Thus saith the Lord"--namely, "it has been scientifically proved!" The modern trends in science education has produced a generation that believes that nothing should be publicly accepted unless it has been scientifically proved and nothing has any claim to be called true unless science acknowledges that claim. To de-mythologize science is to teach others of the inherent uncertainty of scientific conclusions and to learn how to make proper inferences from this uncertainty.

The second challenge of being a Christian professor is to be aware of what some have called "the vulgar arrogance of intellectuals." This means that being a Christian professor is no more virtuous a calling than any other. This is a perpetual temptation because there are many academics and intellectuals who use their career as an opportunity to seem greater, better, or smarter than others. As a Christian professor, my calling should be viewed as one that enables me to serve my students more, not to lord it over them. Connected to this temptation is the belief that our calling is more important than others. There are many within the academy who believe that their primary responsibility is to shape the future of the current generation of students. This concept has evolved to the extent that many professors have taken it upon themselves to transmit their own intellectual biases and dogmatism to the next generation (since all other authorities are considered ignorant). This temptation calls me to true humility - not to think of myself more highly than I ought and not to speak confidently about matters in which I am ignorant.

The task of being a Christian professor is marked with numerous difficulties and challenges, but none are insurmountable. The basic disciplines of the Christian life (i.e. such as attending church, reading scripture, prayer, etc.) are incredibly important and useful in avoiding these various pitfalls.


Gabriel Williams (Ph.D., Colorado State University) is assistant professor of atmospheric physics at the College of Charleston and a member of Christ Church Presbyterian in Charleston, SC. He also writes at The Road of Grace. The views and opinions expressed in this article are his own and do not necessarily reflect the official positions of the College of Charleston.

Properly understood, diversity highlights aspects of both the atoning work of Christ (Rev. 5:9) and the economic Trinity (John 3:34-35). The former, in part, underscores the Great Commission (Matt. 28:16-20). It is, therefore, incumbent upon Christ's Church to take the Gospel to the nations. As we do, we will encounter people who are dissimilar aesthetically, culturally, generationally, politically, socio-economically, intellectually, and ethnically. Our cultural blind spots will be exposed, our preferences will be challenged, and our Christ-likeness will increase.

As the diversity conversations continue, there are many areas on which we can focus. How did we get here? That's partly an historical question. There are things in this nation's past that created the division that is clearly evident in the church today. How can we change? That is a strategic inquiry. We must examine our cultural assumptions, hospitality practices, variation within our relationships, and so on. Within the umbrella of that question, one area of supreme importance is that which concerns Lord's Day music. How does our church music promote or prohibit the inclusion of African Americans?

Before briefly examining church music selections, I want to dispel the notion that all one must do is preach the Gospel and leave the results up to God. Although I believe preaching the good news is paramount, no church merely preaches the Gospel. There are cultural accoutrements that may hinder the possibility of growing in diversity. Language (i.e., phrases, Clich├ęs, colloquialisms, etc.) and the ethos of one's church are two examples. If a minister, for instance, states from the pulpit, "We, as conservative Christians, believe that Jesus [insert the good news]," that could cause quite a stir for some African Americans. Like the word diversity, conservative is a buzzword that means different things to different people. In recent history, so-called conservative Christians did not allow African Americans to worship with Anglos on the Lord's Day. Professing conservative Christians helped institute the practice of redlining. Today, it seems that some conservative Christians are more concerned about life inside the womb than life outside of the womb. The Westminster Larger Catechism (WLC) requires both. (See WLC 135). Language, therefore, can hinder diversity within one's church, and we need each other to help uncover those areas that might prohibit those for whom Christ died from entering our Presbyterian and Reformed Churches. (For an explanation of the ethos element of our church cultures, here is a talk that I gave at the 2016 PCA General Assembly. It may be helpful).

What about our church music may promote or restrict the diversity within our congregations? As I write this, I'm specifically referring to areas that contain a high African American demographic. If the area in which the church building is stationed is predominantly one ethic group, the church-gathered should reflect that. Those areas are decreasing more and more, however. According to some reports, the United States will be a majority-minority nation by 2044. In the meantime, how should we be thinking about church music? Even within the realm of exclusive psalmody, our music can hinder or promote diversity.

One area we must tackle, as it relates to church music, is our assumptions. What do African Americans like and prefer? Based on numerous conversations and multiple Facebook posts, it seems that there is growing consensus, particularly among whites, that African Americans prefer gospel music. That genre of music has a rich heritage within many African American churches. Whether Baptist, Pentecostal, or African Methodist Episcopal, you can be certain that on the Lord's Day, your souls will be uplifted with a vibrant and biblical choral selection. However, simply because many black churches sing gospel music does not mean all black churches sing gospel music.

Recently, one of our elder candidates and I visited an African American church (an Independent Baptist church). Three things were notable. First, he was one of only about three whites in the entire building. Second, he knew more of the hymns than me. This man happened to be brought up in an Independent Baptist Church. Third, the congregation only sang hymns and they sang them at a slower pace than I'm accustomed to singing them in a PCA setting. You could neither clap your hands nor sway your hips to them! In short, African Americans are as diverse as the color of our skin. We do not have a preference for only one genre of music.

Among some blacks, there is a growing trend to rearrange hymns. The words, "Come thou fount of every blessing, tune my heart to sing Thy grace," sound quite different in standard measure on a piano than accompanied by a guitar and played with more of a neo-soul flavor. Consider also the modern hymn "The Power of the Cross" by Stuart Townend and Keith Getty, Doxa recently rearranged it. You can clearly hear and feel the difference.

All of this is an extended way of saying that we must be careful--in our pursuit of fostering God-glorifying diversity by means of musical selection--not to presume that African Americans necessarily prefer a certain genre of music. Requiring complete cultural assimilation will work against you. Nevertheless, as you ponder potential musical changes in your Lord's Day service, it might be a good practice to speak with African Americans in your community. If they are a part of a congregation, ask them what kind of church music they are used to and/or prefer. Use that as a barometer for any changes you may consider making in your congregation. You can also speak with other African Americans in your denomination or federation. Receive general input from them. I'm certain it will be helpful to the process.

We have highly valued music since the start of our church plant. Not wishing to make assumptions about the genre of music preferred by those who were coming, I asked our members to submit the top 5 church songs that they would like to sing in worship (and, I continue to ask new members this question). From these lists, we then selected some of the songs that we believed were robustly biblical and that we could sing congregationally. In our context, this process has worked quite well. Members of our church feel that they have a hook on which to hang their cultural hats. Music is a terrific way to address--not to ignore--the preferences of the people and love our neighbors as ourselves.

Listen Up White America

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TMZ online (I did not post the link because some images may be inappropriate) recently published an article titled, "Chuck D: Listen Up White America...We Ain't Ni**as.'" Chuck D, if you are unfamiliar, is a rap artist who had his heyday in the 1980's. He was a part of a group called, Public Enemy. For some time, his music was extremely popular in certain communities. Now, however, depending on which online websites you visit, you hear his name every so often.

In TMZ's article, Chuck D was responding to Suge Knight's recent claims that we should banish the phrase, "African-American." Knight, a record label CEO (also once popularized for working with Tupac Shakur), believes that the term "African-American" is inaccurate. "I'm not from Africa," Knight expressed. While Chuck D agrees that the phrase "African-American" is not an ideal term, "ni**a" surely is not a good replacement, whether the word ends with "er" or "a."

As Christians, these types of conversations may appear foolish, but for many of us this type of dialogue is a reality. What should we call ourselves? Many employment applications call us "African-American." When you scroll down the list of choices, not many other ethnic groups are identified by a hyphen. 

As if that were not enough, some of us wonder what you call us? Let's not fool ourselves. The "you" in the aforementioned sentence is "whites." Although I have not conducted any statistical analysis, I do not believe it is a leap of faith to suggest that the majority of persons frequenting this blog are white. I do not mention that to be offensive but to state a potential reality.

I have been called a "ni**er." The unfortunate reality is that it was not by a man holding on to his confederate roots in Virginia but by a (white) peer who attends a reformed church. You might wonder if he was joking when he used the term. My response: does it matter? You can read more about what has been said to me and how I have been treated here.

This is not a guilt trip but an introduction to a 6-part series that I hope to write beginning in either January 2014 or February 2014. If the Lord tarries and grants me life, I want to open a conversation--one-way initially--that highlights some of the difficulties that I, as a...black?--face in Presbyterian and Reformed circles. I am not alone regarding my concerns. I have had numerous conversations with "black" Presbyterian pastors about the current state (or lack thereof) of ethnic and cultural diversity in Presbyterian and Reformed churches. These conversations normally expand to a host of other issues.

I hope that the coming series will be understood in the manner I think I am providing it, not one laden with guilt but one that exposes certain realities; one that will also provide some suggestions for change. I hope the response is not, "Oh, not again," but, "Yes, we need to hear about this and change things for the glory of God." 

May the Triune God receive all the glory as we delicately talk about these issues.