The wild diversity of Christianity

A short (5 min.) talk for an adult class in which I talk about some stereotypes of Christians, and then suggest listening to the wild diversity of Christian music as a way to get past the stereotypes to begin to understand something of the wild diversity of the Christian religion….

Click on the image above to take you to the video.

Below is the uncorrected text that I was reading from (I diverged from the text a bit, but this is most of it):

So let’s imagine a stereotype of an American Christian. Here it comes: A slick white guy on T.V. preaching to a big Christian mega-church. Yup, we know that guy is a Christian. And those people in his congregation? They go to Bible study and they own their own Bible, and they seem more likely to vote Republican than your typical Unitarian Universalist.

But what about that Black Jehovah’s Witness that knocks at your door and wants to talk with you? Those Jehovah’s Witnesses live in our collective mythology as a stereotype of Christians, even all we tend to remember about them is that they come door-to-door, or stand on street corners. What’s less known is that they are one of the most racially and ethnically diverse religious groups in America. It’s also interesting to note that they are not trinitarians, and they don’t celebrate Christmas.

Here’s another stereotype of an American Christian that’s immediately recognizable: The liberal do-gooder mainline Protestant. Barack Obama is one of these. Before he became president, he was a member of a United Church of Christ, or UCC, congregation in Chicago. My cousin who’s a UCC minister joked to me that “UCC” stand for “Unitarians Considering Christ,” which may not be far from the truth because when it comes to most thing, the main difference between us is that she’s willing to talk about “Christ” and I’m not.

One more immediately recognizable stereotype of an American Christian: A Black minister speaking out and protesting against the evils of racism. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is the paradigmatic example, but there are plenty of Black ministers who have been very active recently in the Black Lives Matter movement.

It turns out that we have a lot of stereotypes of American Christians. Don’t forget the Amish farmer driving a buggy on the back roads of Pennsylvania; we know he’s a Christian. And the hardcore Habitat for Humanity volunteers, like Jimmy Carter; we know they’re Christians. And on, and on.

Unfortunately, at the moment, one of the most prominent stereotypes of an American Christian is the Christian nationalist who wears a MAGA hat and waves a flag at a Donald Trump rally. The funny thing is that according to some sociologists, many of those Christian nationalists actually score low on religiosity: many don’t belong to a church, and don’t follow any Christian spiritual practices. I think I’d argue the Christian nationalism, like its close relative the prosperity gospel, is actually a new religious movement or alternative spirituality which rooted in Christianity, but it’s not clear whether it can in fact be classed as part of Christianity.

It should also be noted that for anyone who has ever had a bad experience with a Christian, a prominent stereotype of an American Christian is going to be whoever it was that gave them that bad experience.

What I hope to do in this talk is to pry you away from all these stereotypes, both good and bad. Stereotypes are incredibly useful — we humans rely on stereotypes to help us get through day-to-day life — but stereotypes are also limiting. By limiting our understanding of American Christians to four or five stereotypes can blind us to the wild diversity of American Christians. American Christians are diverse in belief — beliefs range from Christian atheists (yes, that is a real category) to fundamentalists. Christians hold to diverse theologies, include a wide variety of progressive theologies such as feminist and womanist theologies, queer theologies, Black liberation theologies, as well as a wide variety of conservative theologies. Christian worship practices range from silent meeting for worship by Quakers to Pentecostal mega-churches with jumbotrons and amplified music. And the races and ethnicities of American Christians include just about every group that you can think of.

To try to get us past some of the stereotypes, so we can see the wild diversity of Christianity more clearly, I’m going to suggest that we take a look at — or really, take a listen to — the wild diversity of Christian music. In order to place some bounds on the subject, I’m going to limit myself to Christian groups that have representatives in the San Francisco Bay Area. Admittedly, that’s not much of a limit; we live in an amazingly diverse area; remember that a third of all Palo Alto residents, where our congregation is located, were born outside of the United States. In some cases, the music is used in the worship service of some Christian group; in other cases, the music is intended for use in worship; and in some cases it’s both.

If you’d like to listen to this music in more depth, I’ve set up a YouTube playlist with samples of the music I’m going to mention in the next video….

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