When Native American Richard Twiss (1954-2013) committed his life to Jesus, white men told him that he must leave his Indian way behind and live like white Christians. They told him to burn his drums and his feathers. They told him that when the Bible says there is neither Jew nor Gentile, it also meant that there is no longer “Indian” either – he should just be like them. And for twelve years of his early life as a follower of Jesus he lived as a white Christian, tucking away his Indian self because it was abhorrent to God.
This summer (2015), Richard’s dissertation was posthumously published, Rescuing the Gospel from the Cowboys: A Native American Expression of the Jesus Way (IVP, 2015). This book marks both his academic journey as well as his life’s journey to let that Indian live and to let Jesus lead him as fully himself. Many Indians view Christianity as a white religion in America and it is difficult to separate “Christianity” (as a world religion) from the history of colonization and abuse of Native Americans in the United States. A major part of this problem is that colonizers and missionaries told Indians that their “way” (culture) was from the devil, and that they had to forsake all of that to be saved.
Richard spent much of his thought and energy on finding a Native American way to walk with Jesus, to “rescue” the gospel from white assimilation. How can Jesus be at the center of Indian culture and thought for those who follow him? How can the Holy Spirit be present in Indian sweatlodge gatherings and pow-wows? Richard was not content to give up when he was told that mixing “Indian” with Christianity inevitably meant syncretism (blending of gods and religions). Trusting Jesus means believing he could be present and work powerfully within Indian culture.
This is a provocative, engaging book. It brought me to tears. It challenged many of my assumptions. I did not agree with every jot and tittle of Richard’s approach to contextualization, but this is a book every thoughtful Christian should read. Pastors, missionaries, and educators in particular need to chew on the issues Richard raises about contextualizing the gospel in light of the many cultures and peoples in the world, not least those who have been condemned and silenced and forced to “unbecome” themselves, whether under the authority cowboys or others.