Book Write-Up: One Church, Many Tribes, by Richard Twiss

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 Christians.

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 Twiss addresses.

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.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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