I recently saw a TikTok video that struck a satisfying chord. In the video, a Generation Z/Zoomer young woman is dancing to “Big Energy” by Latto. As she dances, she notices a Millennial woman (played by the same woman) staring at her.
|Rev. Mark Schaefer|
Congregation of St. Thomas the Doubter
May 22, 2022—Easter VI
“This is actually our song,” the Millennial says. “Hear it?” Whereupon “Fantasy” by Mariah Carey begins to play, and the same hook and beat can be heard in that song. “Literally no one cares,” the Zoomer responds.
The Millennial then notices a Gen-Xer (played, once again, by the same woman), standing there rolling her eyes. Finally, the Millennial yells, “What?” whereupon the Gen-Xer presses play on her boombox—yes, boombox—and the same song, beat, and hook begin to play. Only it’s “Genius of Love” by Tom Tom Club. From 1981 as the Gen-Xer points out, beginning to dance to this 80’s jam much to the dismay of the Millennial and amusement of the Zoomer.
There are some things that are familiar now that we forget that they’re actually not the original version of something. Many younger folks are not aware that Ocean’s Eleven was a remake. There are many more songs that are actually covers of the original than you realize. Many of the covers are more famous than the original.
But it’s not just with movies and music that we forget about the older versions and imagine the one we know to be original.
Western Christianity is like that.
Christianity has become so synonymous with the West that it’s hard to imagine that Western, European Christianity is actually the cover song, the remake of the earlier Eastern religion.
And that remake began in the scripture lesson we heard read earlier from Acts.
II. THE TEXT
In the sixteenth chapter of Acts, we read that Paul has a vision during the night of a “man of Macedonia” pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” After the vision, Paul and his companions “immediately tried to cross over.”
There they meet a certain Lydia who is a “worshipper of God”—likely a Gentile who was drawn to the Jewish faith but had not converted. She is receptive to their message and so they baptize her and her household and stay with her for a time.
Now, this is a detail that might seem incidental—Paul has, after all, traveled to many different places around the Mediterranean. What’s so important about Macedonia?
Well, it turns out, Macedonia is the first place in Europe that Paul evangelizes. Prior to this, Christianity had been an Asian and North African movement. It’s important to note that for the next several centuries, the center of gravity for Christianity would remain in Asia and North Africa, with four of the five ancient Holy Sees—Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem, and Alexandria—all located in Asia and North Africa.
European Christianity was the new variant.
III. THE EUROPEAN CONTEXT
That can be hard to remember. Especially when European history seems dominated by Christianity. From the conversion of Constantine to the Holy See in Rome, to the medieval saints like Francis and Thomas Aquinas, to the intertwining of the church with the feudal political structure, the Holy Roman Empire, the Spanish Inquisition, the Protestant Reformation, the 30 Years War, Vatican II, and on and on, one can be pardoned for thinking that Europe and Christianity are interchangeable. Europe is Christian and Christianity is European.
So dominant is this view that we can forget that Christianity had vibrant Asian and North African branches for centuries. In his book, The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia–and How It Died, John Philip Jenkins recounts the millennium of Christian history that is now all but unknown to most Christians because of their assumptions about Europe and Christian history.
This matters because it can be hard for us in the West to remember that our versions of Christianity were not the original version, but an adaptation. A cover. A remake.
This process began early on. Not long after Paul converted Lydia and her household, he gave a speech in the Areopagus (or Mars Hill) in Athens. There, he invoked a statue to “an unknown god” and proclaimed that this unknown god was the God of Israel, who had been made known through Jesus Christ. This would not be the last time that Christianity would adapt to the pagan culture of Europe to proclaim its message. In fact, under Pope Gregory the Great—the same pope who had music categorized and standardized (we know it as Gregorian Chant)—issued directives allowing priests to adapt pagan traditions as they saw fit to make conversion to Christianity easier.
The ancient Celts worshiped the sun. It is no coincidence, then, that the Celtic Cross has a circle in it, representing the sun. The celebration of Christmas was equated with the Yule, a pagan celebration in Northern Europe that had a long history. Many of the Yule’s customs, including the Yule log and the Yule tree, have become near essential elements of Christmas celebrations. This tradition continued with Europe colonized the New World. Mohawk Indians had a seven-day mourning tradition that became part of the Catholicism their community practices.
The lesson to be taken from all of this is that as inclined as we are to think that the version of Christianity we know and are familiar with is the norm, it’s really just the adaptation of Christianity to our context.
I am convinced that there are a great number of Christians who imagine that the Bible was written about a hundred years ago in Kansas by a White Presbyterian. They seem incapable of understanding that the faith they know is an adaptation to the culture that they grew up in. And that failure to understand has consequences.
First, they begin to equate their own culture with the Gospel. Because they don’t see that the Gospel was adapted to their culture, they are incapable of extracting that culture from their faith. Because they equate their culture with their faith, they attach to their cultural expressions religious significance—and that can get problematic, especially when they start ignoring the requirements of the Gospel in favor of their culture. There are strains of American Christianity that emphasize the American more than the Christian and, within that, the White American above everything else.
Second, when people are called to evangelize, they often imagine that they need to export their cultural interpretation along with whatever religious teachings come with it. This actually becomes an obstacle to evangelizing because instead of meeting people where they are in their cultural context, we require others to become like us first before sharing the Good News with them.
IV. ALL THE CONTEXTS
But that’s not what Paul did. He didn’t make Lydia become a Palestinian Jew before becoming a Christian. When he spoke before the Areopagus, he did not invite them to undergo conversion to become Israelites. He found something in their existing understanding that he used to help them to see where God was among them.
This was the lesson that famed missionary E. Stanley Jones learned from his time in India. After a disastrous turn there as a Methodist missionary, Jones came to understand that his failures had been because he had been trying to bring Christ to the Indians. He came to understand that his task was not to bring Christ to the Indians but to help them to see where Christ already was among them. This insight formed the basis of his book Christ of the Indian Road, which became the missionary guidebook for generations of missionaries after him.
Those of us from the Wesleyan tradition have Wesley’s three-fold understanding of God’s grace. The first part of that three-fold understanding is the Prevenient Grace—the grace that “comes before.” In Wesley’s understanding, this grace invites us into relationship with God and is everywhere present, to everyone, at every time.
If that is true, then those with whom we would share the gospel do not have to become like us in order to receive the message. That grace is already present in their lives, in their cultural contexts, in their communities.
Sure, it may require different metaphors and different images to communicate the message, but so what? Christians have been doing that for millennia. From the time that Paul crossed over to Europe, people of faith have been meeting others where they are, using the symbols, metaphors, and practices they were familiar with in order to communicate God’s love and grace.
Christianity is so often used as a badge of tribal identity these days that it can be hard to remember that it is a universal faith. That the story of God’s people is greater than any one people or group. Indeed, as Revelation reminds us:
After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb,Revelation 7:9
We are called to go into all the world. Not to replicate ourselves, but to share God’s love. Not to insist that everyone practice, or understand, or even believe in the same way, but that everyone love alike, and reflect the love of God into the world.
There will be times when we are called to go over to Macedonia, and our task will be to see where God is already at work there and to help others to know that God who has already known them.
During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.
We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days. On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” And she prevailed upon us.