Twiss, Richard. 2015. Rescuing the Gospel from the Cowboys: A Native American expression of the Jesus way. Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Richard Twiss (hereafter RT), a Sicangu Lakota, died in 2013 at the age of 58. This book began as a doctoral research at Asbury Theological Seminary. He was the author of One Church, Many Tribes and, with his wife Katherine, founded Wiconi International.

RT was concerned about whether or not there was “an Indigenous contextualized expression of the Christian faith among the tribes of the United States and, to a lesser degree, Canada” (p.15). He first defined contextualization as “a relational process of theological and cultural reflection within a community—seeking to incorporate traditional symbols, music, dance, ceremony and ritual to make faith in Jesus a truly local expression” (15). He was looking for an insider’s view, opposed to what he saw as Christian mythology and paternalism from the outside. Somewhat later he was reluctant to use the word contextualization.

Chapter 1, “The Creator’s presence among native people” can be summed up with RT’s comment that the colonial proclamation of the Gospel was blinded “to the already existing work of Creator among Native nations of the land” (22). Consequently, many Native people reject Christianity because it is seen as the “white man’s religion” (23).[1]

In this chapter the author comments negatively on some early missionary attitudes, practices and terminology, for, as we are reminded on the back cover of the book, “The Gospel of Jesus has not always been good news for Native Americans.”

RT recounts the story of the Boarding Schools that saw all Native customs as evil and disallowed the use of the Indian languages. In this way the “colonial cultural forms, expressions and worldview values” became a part of the children’s’ heritage (25). The author is of the hope that his book “will enhance the existing body of literature on First Nations decolonizing contextual efforts in North America” (27).

RT discusses the issues of syncretism and Westernism and notes that for most Christians syncretism is always a negative concept. He discusses the fluidity of meanings that surround it, and, quoting Harold Roscher (a Cree), asks “So, is translation another component to syncretism?” (30). RT would like to consider syncretism as the process of “blending, adding, subtracting, changing, testing and working things out”, which is not in violation of orthodoxy or Scripture (33).

Syncretism means mixing, and yet as the author points out “We mix music, ceremony, language, art, symbols, vocabulary, fashion, ideologies, nationalism and cultural metaphors constantly” (34). Further, if all non-Christian beliefs are wrong, what do we say about Paul’s speech about the Unknown God in Acts 17:22-34?

And what about American nationalism—isn’t it a form of syncretism in some churches when we fly both the Christian and the American flags?—a form of “theologically informed nationalism” (37). Drawing from Andrew Walls, RT mentions some other aspects of syncretism in our culture, such as, expansionism, finance, organization with business methods, and the American way of addressing problems and finding solutions.

However, RT is not simply a critic, he wants “to discover what initiatives are being made in the direction of contextualization” (his italics, 42). He uses the “innovation diffusion model” to help understand how the Gospel was spread by opinion makers among 500 tribes speaking 200 languages. He also wants to know how people make decisions to adopt innovations so that some pattern can be identified for a mission strategy for contextualization. For deliberation, he examines the seven stages presented by Rogers (1983) for change agents.

One major item of expression is the arts and RT notes that there is “a need for missionaries to reflect critically when considering the various forms of Native artistic expression” available, such as dances and ceremonies (51). He enhances and enlarges his concern for contextualization by collecting stories about Native Americans feel about various matters. But, even here, as he does “research”, he notes that the parameters are set by Western scholarship, which is “inextricably linked to European imperialism and colonialism” (57 and quoting Linda Smith, a Maori). RT also notes that when studying theology the Creator “was reduced to a systematized set of propositional truth statements” that were assigned authority (59).

The chapter concludes with five discussion questions, for example, “How has your own cultural background shaped your views on mission work—or on syncretism?”

Chapter two, “The colonization, evangelization and assimilation of First Nation people” is not pleasant reading. It outlines some of the atrocities that missionaries and colonizers have committed against the Indians since there were first contacted by the Pilgrims in the 1600s.

RT comments on “manifest destiny”, how it was first used and how it has affected the white man’s burden and approach to missions.

He sees the Indian as “caught between”, transitional or in liminality, between a rejection of rituals and practices considered Indian and pagan and a new understanding and acceptance of them in the process of Gospel contextualization. The Indian population (2,476,000, as of the year 2000) was then 78% urban (67). Indians may engage in traditional practices (such as long hair, body paint, Native dress, dances and powwows), but these take place mostly by visits to the reservations.

Early missionary attitudes often saw the Indians as “poor, wild creatures under the power of Satan in chains of darkness (72). This follows the idea of “aggressive realism” such that “nature should be conquered for the good of humanity” (77). RT gives a story of how he resisted colonization in his own life, ultimately rejecting that “old things had passed away and all things had become white” and instead sought to follow the Native culture in ways of music, dancing, drumming and ceremonies (82).

There are five questions at the end of the chapter and two are paraphrased here: 1) What was it that hindered the early missionaries so that they could not really contextualize the Bible? What still hinders us to act in the same way; 2) How could the activities leading to the genocide of many of Indians be done in the name of Jesus?

In Chapter three, “Sweating with Jesus: Stories of the Native Experience”, RT devotes several pages to outlining his own story (94-105). He states that he is “technically five-eighths Lakota with French, English and Scottish blood”. His parents were divorced and he lived for 7 years on the reservation before his mom moved to urban settings, following the advantages economically that the Federal Government offered. Richard grew up speaking English and knows only a few Lakota words and phrases. His mother was a staunch Catholic but he was not—he was admittedly pagan and with Indian aspirations, so later he joined the American Indian Movement, was briefly jailed, resorted to drugs and alcohol and moved around (Oregon, Alaska and Hawaii, where he was converted–not in church but in a rural setting, crying to God for forgiveness). And “At that movement an incredible thing happened: The effect of the drugs left, the fear disappeared, and a most awesome sensation of peace literally flooded my being from the top of my head to the bottom of my feet. I felt clean, forgiven and filled with joy. (103, his italics).

However, RT was advised by well-meaning Christians to forget his Indian-ness and adopt the Christian culture. He later married Katherine (a non-Native American). And “I spent many years wrapped up in discovering how critical contextualization can help inform and improve our efforts at evangelism” (105).

RT quotes Babacar Fall (2003): “Life histories and other oral sources are an essential element of African historiography and ought to be integrated into the history curriculum of African institutions” (91). The same, of course, holds for American Indian stories and It follows that “highly contextualized individual judgments on the part of the researcher” should be insisted upon (105). RT creates several, what he calls shared sweat-lodge ceremonial experiences from several individuals, as a way of telling stories of how their Indian identity was disregarded by themselves, churches and church leaders, but how they eventually came to know Jesus and identified with their status as Indians. One storyteller put it this way: “I was speaking with a tribal woman one day and I said, ‘I am part Indian’ and she said, ‘Which part, your leg? You are either are or you aren’t’. So that was the day I embraced my culture” (125).

One of the discussion questions asks how the stories affected your views—reminding us that the narrative in this chapter is the “heart and soul’ of this book” (129).

Chapter four is called “A view from the hill: Emerging Native expressions of the Jesus way”. Here RT shows how the contextualization movements have been growing. The “contextualization innovators” are using various communication and organizational networks in the process.

In a sense this is new because for many years, even centuries, native believers were not, for example “allowed or encouraged to write new praise or worship music in their own language utilizing their own tribal instruments, style and arrangements” (153). They simply translated Western music into their own language and used Western musical instruments—disregarding their own worldview assumptions about singing and drumming. Slowly, however, an “indigenous hymnody” began to emerge, demonstrating a “spiritual renaissance” (163).

There is, of course, great pockets of resistance to any such accommodation of native styles, often labeling them as “syncretistic” and accommodating. The missionary influences that decried any participation in “culture” die hard.

RT mentions a number of Native conferences and gatherings that have attempted to address the issue of contextualization, for example: Christ and Culture: Missionary Influence on the Plains Tribes: Gathering of the Five Streams; YWAM; Christ, Culture and Kingdom Seminar; and the Northwest Native Women’s Conference. There have also been additional issues to discuss, such as theological education and leadership, ministerial inequality for Native scholars, and native self-theologizing. Institutions involved include the National Native Bible College, the First Nations Institute, the North American Institute for Indigenous Theological Studies, and the Nazarene Indian Bible College. Some groups, for example, Promise Keepers, have been negative about the contextualization of Indian movements.

Getting their material published by well-know publishers has been somewhat difficult for Native Indian authors. Instead they have had to resort to self-publishing, certain Christian magazines (Mission Frontiers magazine), or, in one case, their own periodical: the Indian Life newspaper.

The Trinity Broadcast Network, the 700 Club, the Urbana Missions Conference of InterVarsity and the International Bible Society (with The Jesus Way New Testament) have also given their support to the Native ministries.

From the six questions RT lists at the end of the chapter, I paraphrase two: 1) How might you perceive and describe contextualization in a Native American church? 2) What steps can a person in a Western theological institution take to develop an indigenous theology?

Chapter five, “From Colonization to Contextualization” allows some Indian innovators to speak to the inventions involved in contextualization. On the whole, the leaders were not from tribal reservations and RT lets them tell their stories of the changes in worship that have taken place in their urban settings. He chooses those he believes are “best suited as innovators to introduce and negotiate new contextualization efforts” and they are multi-cultural and “can navigate the Anglo, Native, urban, and reservation cultural worlds as interpreters” (192). These are “cultural insiders” and without them “there will not be genuine contextualization, only modifications or surface level adaptations of the cultural, theological and ecclesiological status quo, or outdated paradigm of ministry and mission” (194). They are from mixed homes (Native-Non-Native parents) and mixed blood acting out their ministry in primarily and urban context. However, the movement back and forth between the reservations and urban world forms a major pathway for new ideas (212).

RK summarizes the work of David Skates (1981) who studied the Navajo churches to see what had made them grow. He centered on the “traditional clan system” and documented how the churches had grown from 38 in 1950 to 255 by 1978. (RT does not provide later figures.)

In response to criticism, RK says that “In our generation, critical contextualization and our understanding of syncretism must be reshaped, reformed and adjusted by the biblical insights from the wider community of Native believers” (206). Often it seems that it is wiser (and easier?) to plant a new church than to reform an existing one.

Finally, consider this question from RK’s list at the end of the chapter: “these stories illustrate that without intentional breaking away from colonial Christianity decolonization—true realized freedom for Indigenous people and the Indigenous church—will not happen” (213).

Chapter six, the final chapter, is called “Looking Down the Road: The future of the Native Church”. As RK remarks, “More than four hundred years of missions cannot be undone” and its effects “will linger for decades to come” Rather, his hope is to “encourage and empower the next generations of Native followers of Jesus who are growing disillusioned with that old wineskin” (216).

This will not be an easy task because there has been “very limited success” in the efforts of non-Native people (218) unless, of course, we define success as the absorption of the Indian population into the Western mainstream. Nevertheless, RK believes that native innovative thinkers are emerging, inspired as they are, “by a handful of courageous Native leaders who worked for many years to see these innovations accepted in their denominations or networks” (218).

There are many challenges: several denominations have dissolved their Native districts, churches are losing their youth, and some of the late adopters are not insiders but, rather are learning adaptations “apart from tribal community” (219).

There are a number of long-term implications: 1) a formalized network or coalition of ministry leaders needs to be formed so that Native leaders have a greater voice; 2) there must be an interest in social justice issues so that the Gospel makes sense in real-life matters; 3) young indigenous leaders need to be mentored and equipped to implement change.

RT also believes that a new definition of contextualization—a word that he uses now sparingly or with hesitation—should be formed. For its replacement he suggests “ways of doing story” (223), recognizing the crucial part that peoples stories play in illustrating how important innovation in a cultural context is.

I close my review with this quotation: “…you must tell our story and express all the pain of our history. You will hear our bright hopes and our painful deaths. Weep with us and sing with us. The pain will be so deep its only consolation is in our Creator” (230).

Appendix A contains some final words on indigenous education and theology and Appendix B is a short essay called “What should we call you?” in which RT comments on the various terms I have referred to in footnote one at the beginning of this review.

There is also a Glossary, numerous scholarly notes to accompany each chapter and a bibliography of 163 entries. I mention a few that seem interesting to pursue:

Browner, Tara. 2002. Heartbeat of the people: Music and dance of the Northern Powwow. Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Deloria, Vine. 2003. God is red: A native view of religion. Golden, CO: Fulcrum.

Fali, Babacar. 2003. Orality and life histories: Rethinking the social and political history of Senegal. Africa Today, Fall/Winter, pp. 55-65.

Jacobs, Adrian. 1999. Pagan prophets and heathen believers: Native American believers in the God of the Bible. Privately published.

Jenkins, Philip. 2004. Dream catchers: How mainstream America discovered Native spirituality. Oxford, NY: Oxford U. Press.

Neli, Stephan. 1990. A history of Christian missions: The Pelican history of the church. Vol. 6. Baltimore: Penguin Books.

Rogers, Everett M. 1983. Diffusion of innovation. Fifth edition. NY: Free Press.

Sanneh, Lamin O. 2003. Whose religion is Christianity? The Gospel beyond the West. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

Scates, David R. 1981. Why Navajo churches are growing: The cultural dynamics of Navajo religious change. Grand Junction, CO: Navajo Christian Churches.

Smith, Craig Stephen. 1998. Whiteman’s Gospel. Winnipeg, MB: Indian Life Books.

Tinker, G.E. 2008. American Indian liberation: A theology of sovereignty. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.

Zahniser, A. H. 1997. Symbol and ceremony: Making disciples across cultures. Innovations in mission. 6th ed. Monrovia, CA: Marc.


Some Personal Reflections:

Reading a book like this caused me to think about many things in the churches I have shared in during my life. First of all, the very small country church in Northeastern Pennsylvania, a denomination called Bible Protestant at the time. It was a breakaway of the Methodist Protestant church, which in turn was a breakoff from the Methodist Episcopal Church. The Bible Protestant church that I attended later became simply the Bloomingdale Bible Church and I understand that its name has subsequently changed. We were a bunch of fighters from the very beginning, divided according to points of view on who ruled the church and how independently biblical and fundamentalist we thought we were.

In college I attended the college church and I remember practically nothing about it. During summers when I worked in Detroit I attended Baptist churches, but I don’t remember the brand. I do know that in Joice’s church, in Pontiac Michigan, which I attended for over a year, was Conservative Baptist and that they had broken off from the American Baptist.

I was in California for a year studying and while there I attended the Church of the Open Door, in that we were using their facilities. That is all I remember.

After California, Michigan and living in New York, we attended a college “Bible” church, where the sermons were more for students—but that is all that comes to mind.

In all those churches we used their denominational hymn books, followed their prescribed order of services, rituals and attended church suppers. In my county church we saluted the American flag and said the Lord’s Prayer every Sunday morning. We had no choir, Sunday School was taught by women, and the only attraction I remember was the occasional ice cream social at the church hall.

In Australia and New Zealand we attended Baptist, Brethren, Anglican and House churches. We spoke at other denominations, such as the Methodists. All had their own hymn books and rituals. For example, communion was quite different in each.

We lived in Papua New Guinea for many years and the services at our missionary center were Neo-Baptist, with occasional innovations and our own hymnals, supplemented by “The Armed Forces Hymnal”, a gift from a retired Colonel in our midst.

Away from the center we attended mainly Lutheran churches, an occasional Catholic one and services at smaller “non-denominational” mission centers. The “indigenous” churches we attended mirrored the denominations that formed them. I cannot recall much contextualization of the Gospel, despite it taking place (usually) in the vernacular. The order of the service (including liturgies, the church calendar, etc.), the choice of songs, the architecture of the buildings, were all superintended by the denomination.

So where does “contextualization” fit in the PNG church structure? I am not sure. There is indigenous leadership to be sure, but it looks very much like that of the mother church where they were trained. There are pastors’ conferences, revivals, baptisms and songs and movies, but they all look suspiciously like they were imported from the outside. There probably are attempts to revitalize the church and import certain innovations like healing services, but it is unlikely that any vestiges of the “old” life (like blowing on the person) would be permitted.

There are some caveats: the Lutheran missionary in our area used vernacular tunes and words to open the service, there were guitars and a worship team who sometimes appeared on a “platform” of the church”; various bird-like symbols hung from the rafters, and so on.

Behind the scenes there was some indigenous theologizing going on: dreams were used to identify causes of problems, like in the old days; the Holy Spirit had many characteristics of the ancestral spirits in terms of power and place; prayer could be supplemented with the ritual killing of a pig or chicken, and so on.

Early on at the mission stations, all preaching was done in Tok Pisin by means of interpreters. The congregation heard the Word of God in the vernacular, but filtered through a paraphraser who added or modified the spoken message considerably. Sometimes we would be called upon to speak or explain a point, but mainly we were there as Bible translators and worked closely with only a few people and generally not the pastors.

I’m not sure exactly what modifications could be make for contextualizing the Gospel, but here are some thoughts. One major area would be in the songs that are sung at sing-sings, which among the Kewa, are major cultural events of dancing and pork distribution. When I observed the occurrences, the songs were sung by clan clusters, mainly men, marching in rows and singing antiphonally. The songs were challenges from one clan group to another, provoking, challenging, insulting, but never using words from the Bible, for such singing and dancing was considered “heathen” by the church leaders. It always seemed to me that it would be possible to construct songs that could be sung that represented the joy and truth of the Gospel. Not having that kind of ability, I never did anything to encourage change.

Another area would be in story telling—the people love to tell and listen to stories, but accomplished tellers also like to change and modify them. Why not allow some of the classic Bible stories to be told with some modification to fit the local situation and problems? Instead, Bible stories come from the denominational or group canon and are judged for authenticity and value by how closely they stick to the original, despite its irrelevance to the particular culture.

One area of accepted and desired innovation is in electronic gadgets: people apparently enjoy to “listening” to the Bible (or “watching” it), rather than reading it. Reading is tough, it takes long hours of practice and hard work. On the other hand, anyone can listen to the NT being read on an audio device and it can be done any time, any where. I suppose there are, or will be, readings with denominational comments, personal opinions and challenges as well.

And so the world changes, but the Cowboys still rule much of it with their horses and guns.

June, 2015

[1] In Appendix B, RT explains the words and terms that are used by various groups and in different contexts to describe his race: Indian, American Indian, Native and Native American, First Nations, Aboriginal, Métis/Metis of Canada—“Half Breeds”, Eskimo—Inuit/Yupik/Inupiat, Indigenous, and Indian Country. He seems to prefer Native American and Indian.