Publishing Date: April 27, 2021
Pages: 208 (Hardcover)
Most folks who have been around an evangelical church for any amount of time have heard a few verses often quoted: Jeremiah 29:11 (“…for I know the plans…”), John 3:16 (“…for God so loved the world…”), and 1 Corinthians 9:22 (“I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some”). Where we might fall short is in studying both the context and the implications of these powerful words. In her new book, Dr. Michelle Ami Reyes dives deep into the scriptural truths of becoming all things, sharing the urgency of this biblical practice. She also gives a framework for approaching the work of creating lasting connections, something which can seem daunting.
Reyes lays out the complex factors and assumptions behind foundational ideas like “culture” and “stereotyping,” reminding us that these discussions “must begin with our mental processes, because beliefs lead to action” (29). She doesn’t leave the reader stuck there, though, as she gives hope through the reminder that “how we define cultural stereotypes also impacts the kinds of solutions we deem necessary moving forward. If we can begin to see cultural stereotyping as a mindset and as a process by which we filter out information about a person and reduce them to a label we can manage, then we can start holding the mirror up to ourselves” (31). Reyes ties both our beliefs and actions together in a way which allows us to follow Paul’s example in following Christ (1 Cor 11:1). We submit our false beliefs to God, asking him to change our hearts. We seek to find new ways of interacting with others, trusting the Holy Spirit to guide us in seeing others with clear eyes.
One framework that Reyes gives for avoiding stereotyping while not avoiding people is to remember that “each individual is like every other human being, like some other human beings, and like no other human being” (35-36). The “New Way Forward” (38) that she proposes is to avoid stereotyping and honor folks by “giving them the dignity of defining themselves” (41). This is the way forward which we learn from the example of Jesus—what Reyes calls “the theology of cultural accommodation in a nutshell” (55)—we strive to sit with cultural differences, sit with the reality of our own discomforts, and remind ourselves that we humans are not the standard. Indeed, “no one person or cultural group is the standard…” (62), which means that “no one person gets to place a higher value on his or her own cultural identity” (62). Rather, when we have the heart of Jesus, we can follow his example of really seeing and loving people. Reyes sums up the tricky practice of contextualization with a clear call: “To be all things to all people means showing Christ in ways that make sense to the other person, not in whatever way makes us most comfortable” (65).
As with many books that I read, my one pushback comes from what I view as a “monoethnic normativity,” the idea that folks are either white, or people of color, with no in-between. To be clear, I admire that Reyes, who is herself multiethnic, has chosen to embrace what I call a “solidarity identity posture” (Mixed Blessing, 114), where she identifies most closely with her ethnic minority heritage (her mother is Indian American, and her father is “Anglo American”). This posture allows her to push back on negative assumptions about Indian Americans, to advocate for justice, and to follow Paul’s call in the first part of 1 Corinthians 9:22: to become “weak,” to align herself with the marginalized. I love that she writes not just for white folks, but also specifically addresses “Sisters and Brothers of Color” (80), but I was surprised to hear her say that “when you, as a minority, are engaging with white people, your aim should be to avoid code switching” (81), given that we multiethnic/mixed folks are people of color who often instinctively and necessarily engage in code switching. Reyes does acknowledge that “for people of color reading this, I know that some of you might feel more white than Brown…maybe your skin tone is lighter, or your family’s names were anglicized at some point in your past” (19), but she goes on to say that “as people of color, we need to start by admitting and acknowledging that we are not white” (19). This is not necessarily true for those of us who are Mixed with white heritage and find ourselves in a more “shifting identity posture” (Mixed Blessing, 116) of code switching and fluidity, or a “singular identity posture” (Mixed Blessing, 122) of both/and, person of color and white. Again, the world is not made of monoethnic people—Jesus himself was multiethnic and multicultural: Jewish with Moabite, Canaanite, and Hittite heritage.
Overall, Becoming All Things is a gracious, winsome, helpful book which will bless the pastorate and laity alike. Full of insightful stories from her own life and the experiences of others, there is an impressive combination of deep biblical exegesis and practical suggestions for moving forward in multicultural relationships. Reyes begins her book with the kind exhortation for us all to “…be encouraged. You can do this. We can do this. And we can do it together,” (xxiii) and she closes with a similar call: “Don’t quit. None of this will be easy. But we can press on and be patient. We run the race for the promise of God’s reward. And it will be worth the effort” (166). I will say the same about reading and applying Becoming All Things in our daily lives: it is an easy read in that it is full of well-written prose and compelling kindness, but it will require the reader to push forward when idols of comfort and ease are brought into the light. But in the end, that is what we are called to do as followers of Christ, and Reyes’ book is an indispensable part of that journey for our multicultural age.
Full Disclosure: Chandra Crane, the writer of this article, knows and has collaborated with Michelle Ami Reyes, the author of the book being reviewed, on both of their book launches. ↩