Richard Twiss. One Church, Many Tribes: Following Jesus the Way God Made You. Ventura, California: Regal Books, 2000. See here to buy the book.
I wrote about Richard Twiss’ posthumous 2015 book, Rescuing the Gospel from the Cowboys, in my post here.
Richard Twiss was a Native American evangelical who advocated
contextualization: Native Americans worshiping Jesus according to Native
American rituals, such as pow-wows, sweat lodges, dances, and drums.
This view is in contrast with the view of those evangelicals, including
some Native American evangelicals, who regard such customs as pagan or
demonic and believe that Native Americans should leave them behind when
they become Christians.
While I thought that Twiss made important points in effective ways, I was not entirely satisfied with Rescuing the Gospel from the Cowboys.
There were some things that I was hoping he would flesh out more, such
as the differences between Native American religion and white
Christianity, and the original meaning of certain rituals in their
Native American context and how Twiss believes that Native American
evangelicals can appropriate them, without falling into paganism (which
Twiss, too, believes would be a bad thing). In short, I needed an
introduction to the issue, whereas Twiss in Rescuing the Gospel from the Cowboys seemed to me to be building on previous discussions. In addition, while Rescuing the Gospel from the Cowboys
did manifest a passionate opposition to historic injustice and included
anecdotes, it often used academic language that was rather abstract.
I searched on Amazon, and I came across a book by Twiss that came out over a decade earlier, in 2000. This book is One Church, Many Tribes: Following Jesus the Way God Made You. I wondered if this book would have more of what I was looking for, and I requested it from a local library.
One Church, Many Tribes was what I was looking for. It is
introductory, inviting, and down-to-earth. Twiss includes a number of
stories, both fictional ones to illustrate his point, and factual ones.
Twiss had a chapter enumerating differences between Native American
culture and spirituality and white Christianity. In another chapter, he
explains how Native American evangelicals can worship Jesus through
their own cultural expressions without being syncretistic. Twiss did
not really flesh out the original meaning of Native American rituals and
how that differs from the meaning that Native American evangelicals
ascribe to them when appropriating them, but this did not dissatisfy me
as a reader. Essentially, it seems to me, Native Americans would do
certain rituals in honor of other gods before they became Christians,
and they would do those rituals to honor Jesus after becoming
I still have questions, though, or there are areas in which I am
still unclear. For one, Twiss seems to believe, in accordance with
certain Native American cultures, that nature has a personality. In a
poignant passage, Twiss remarks that Native Americans, in reading the
story in Numbers 22 about Balaam’s ass talking, would not be surprised
that the ass spoke, but rather they would inquire what the ass had to
say. Twiss also appeared to be open to the possibility of trees
talking. (I think of the Disney movie Pocahantas.) On the one
hand, Twiss seemed to be suggesting that nature was an expression of
the creator, and that this was how nature could have a personality or
speak: it was essentially channeling God. Twiss was saying that not all
Native American beliefs are “spiritistic, pantheistic or animistic”
(page 94), for there was a monotheistic component to Native American
spirituality, a belief in a supreme being. On the other hand, Twiss
seemed to suggest that nature itself had a personality, in its own
right, and that this is consistent with Scripture: the winds and waves
obeyed Jesus (Luke 8:24-25), and Romans 8:19-21 presents nature groaning
as it awaits and desires release from decay.
Second, on pages 132-133, Twiss talks about burning incense. On the
one hand, Twiss seems to believe that burning incense can have a
symbolic value for Native American evangelicals: that it can remind them
that their prayers are going to heaven, through faith in Jesus. As
Twiss notes, Revelation 8:3-4 likens prayer to incense. On the other
hand, Twiss refers to Plains traditions that the smoke itself can
cleanse, purify, and take prayers to heaven. Twiss does not comment
about whether he considers that belief to be right or wrong, but it does
seem to me that this manifests a difference between a Native American
tradition and Christianity: the former is saying that the smoke itself
cleanses, purifies, and takes prayers to heaven, whereas the latter
would say that Jesus cleanses and purifies, and that through him the
prayers of believers go to God’s throne. I am not saying this to be
closed-minded, but rather to note that this issue would make a good case
study for the larger issue of appropriation versus syncretism, which
Third, Twiss refers to Native Americans who predicted the coming of
white people who would teach them Christianity. I do not know how
reliable these legends are historically. Could they have been developed
after white people came? I vaguely recall reading about white people
who would arrive, and they got the impression that they were expected. I
did an Internet search, and most of the sites that I found took these
legends for granted. Are there any scholars who question them?
One Church, Many Tribes discusses other issues as well.
There is the issue of reconciliation, not only between whites and Native
Americans, but also between other people-groups, and even among Native
Americans themselves. According to Twiss, a number of Native Americans
have been prejudiced against African-Americans, one reason being that
Native Americans felt excluded from the Civil Rights Movement in the
1960s. There is also the issue of how Twiss believes that Native
American evangelicals will be instrumental in carrying the Gospel to
other lands. Many people regard Native Americans as interesting and
exotic, as a result of Hollywood. Communist countries sympathized with
Native Americans because they could point to the United States
oppressing Native Americans whenever the United States talked about
Communist abuses of human rights. Plus, there are many people who want
to believe that they can worship God without completely giving up their
own culture, and a message of contextualization might appeal to them,
according to Twiss. For Twiss, such indicators, and more, not only
indicate that Native Americans may be instrumental in carrying the
Gospel in the future, but Native American evangelicals have already been
carrying the Gospel to other countries and cultures. This overlaps
with a key theme throughout the book: that Native Americans have
something valuable to contribute, within God’s purposes, and that their
contribution should be welcomed rather than dismissed.
Deeper Waters Podcast 10/21/2017: John Walton
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