Fine Dining or Dumpster Diving: A Paradigm for Activist Theology

The knowledge derived from secular ideology will always look foolish when compared to the wisdom derived from Scripture.

The ideologies and theories of today are not radical enough to carry the freight of contemporary issues, but the Bible is more than adequate for the task.  After all, it is “God-breathed,” therefore it “is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness (II Timothy 3:16).  The knowledge derived from secular ideology will always look foolish when compared to the wisdom derived from Scripture.


As the cultural ground shifts under our feet, the church often gets caught up in these tectonic quakes — unnecessarily so.  Much of our stress is due to an inadequate theology.  Not that our theology is wrong as far as it goes.  It’s just that it has further to go.  Most Christians I talk to define theology as, “The study of God.”  While I affirm this definition, it leaves out the cultural and historical context in which we study God.  A broader, more comprehensive definition is, “The application of God’s Word by persons in every area of life.” (Dr. John Frame) This includes the study of God.

In our Western context, several valuable methods of doing theology have developed such as Exegetical theology and Systematic theology.  However too often I have seen a tendency to think that all theology that can be done hasbeen done.  This is a short step from relying on theology more than on the Word of God itself.  The scope of the Bible covers all of reality while the scope of theology is limited.  If the Bible can be compared to a movie, our theology would be one frame from it.

Theology can be approached from at least two perspectives.  In terms of epistemology — what we should know about God, and in terms of ethics — how we should obey God.  Theology can also be done on both sides of human intelligence. The cognitive side — involving conceptual knowledge and the intuitive side — involving perceptual knowledge.  If the epistemological approach is ‘Side A,’ then the ethical approach is ‘Side B.’  Similarly, the cognitive would be ‘Side A’ and the intuitive, ‘Side B.’

Historical Examples

Western theology developed under the challenge of unbelieving philosophy and science.  To defend and communicate the faith, it had to be translated from its concrete apostolic language into a “technical idiom.”  It was mostly concerned with epistemological issues involving cognitive knowledge — an example of ‘Side A’ theology.

African American theology developed under the challenge of oppression (slavery, Jim Crow, racism, etc.).  The over-arching challenge for African Americans was the injustice and dehumanization they experienced.  They identified with the Old Testament people of God in similar situations.  In the antebellum South, it was Israel in Egypt and in the antebellum North, Israel in the Exile.  African American theology was mostly concerned with ethical issues.  In the South, it was more intuitive than cognitive because Blacks had no access to formal education. In the North, more cognitive than intuitive because Blacks had access to formal education. One great legacy of African American preaching is Narrative theology — the application of the basic patterns of biblical life situations.  These were examples of ‘Side B’ theology.

Cultural Captivity

When Christianity functions properly in culture, the church will clearly communicate a transcendent scriptural message.  By God’s grace the culture will already embody some beliefs and practices that agree with Scripture.  I call this the “interface.”  However, aspects of culture at variance with scriptural wisdom compose “cultural sin.”

The more Christianity falls short, the more it becomes dysfunctional.  It becomes confined to the “interface.”  Its transcendent scriptural message becomes muted and “cultural sin” sets the agenda.  The result is a failure to fully address both manifestations of sin — “people sin” where individuals consciously do wrong (‘Side A’) and “cultural sin” imbedded in time honored conventions, protocols and customs (‘Side B’).  This is where Christianity falls into cultural captivity.

Any Christianity in cultural captivity is un-Christian.  From the perspective of those impacted by cultural sin, Christianity in cultural captivity comes across as anti-Christian.  This partly explains the hostile response to Christianity from many young men in the ‘hood.

Mistakes of the Past

In the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, some in American Christianity made the mistake of conflating biblical hermeneutics (the art or science of interpretation) with the Bible itself — a hermeneutic that was strong on ‘Side A’ and weak on ‘Side B.’  When they were confronted with ‘Side B’ issues their hermeneutic could not address, they assumed that these issues were beyond the reach of Scripture.  As a result, they looked to secular theories and ideologies for answers.

Eventually, they abandoned the Bible as the Word of God — the basis for solid theology.  They ended up with a pretend theology based on biblical connotation words emptied of their meaning.  While focusing on “cultural sin” they lost ability to recognize “people sin.”  Such “theology” was subject to the whims of secular political and social fads.  In this situation, the Christian voice merely parroted the secular voice — a voice that became superfluous.  This is cultural captivity.

Evangelicals in the 20th Century reduced orthodoxy to ‘Side A.’  They had “people sin” in their cross-hairs but they tended to ignore “cultural sin” (‘Side B’).  As a result, their ability to address “people sin” was weakened as “cultural sin” grew unchecked.

Eventually “cultural sin” gave cover to most “people sin.”  The only sin they addressed fell outside the cultural realm.  In essence, they trivialized sin to things like individual “drinking,” “smoking” and “chewing.”  Hence, they became subject to “cultural sin.”  In the end, they lost their prophetic voice, their integrity and their credibility.  This is also cultural captivity.

The Current Context

Today there is much debate among Christians, who are theologically trained at leading Bible-believing institutions, about how to address serious social issues such as racism and marginalization — issues that cannot be fully addressed without ‘B’ sided theology. Unfortunately, their theological training, as robust as it is, was derived from a contemporary Western tradition where the ‘B’ side is weak or nonexistent.  The result of this was a theological imbalance.  To achieve balance, the ‘B’ side needs to be developed.  If done right, ‘Side A’ and ‘Side B’ will seamlessly coalesce into one consummate theology.

Many well-meaning Christians oppose the idea of ‘Side B’ theology.  They fear the introduction of humanistic heresies (dubbed by some as “liberalism”) that infected American Christianity in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries.  Certainly, refuting all heresies should be a major concern for all of us who follow Christ.

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