Foundational Myths and Cultural Values

From VincentWiki

Towards an Inculturated Faith for the American Catholic Experience:

A Critical Look At Richard G. Cote’s Re-Visioning Mission: The Catholic Church and Culture in Postmodern America by Dan Paul Borlik, CM March 21, 1997


It was a Tuesday night at Holy Trinity, the only night free for Fr. DePaul, Vincentian pastor of this well-known multicultural parish in Dallas, Texas. “Free,” that is, to attend his first Dallas Area Interfaith gatherings. On Monday nights he was to lead the prayer and “listen in” at the Hispanic Guadalupanos weekly prayers and devotions and their planning of various novenas, cultural events at the parish for the Spanish speaking, and prison visitations.

On Wednesday evenings he was invited (and expected) to “team-teach” (but not to direct) the R.C.I.A. catechesis sessions, as well as “respectfully listen” (but not to speak) at the Catholic Women’s Faith Sharing group (called “Sophia”). On Thursday evenings he was occupied with the Charismatic prayer groups (one English, two Spanish speaking), the Youth groups (one English and the other Spanish speaking), and various other parish groups and committees. And Friday evenings were split among such parish business and planning groups such as the Parish Council, Parish Finance Committee, the Parish Liturgy Planning group (Bi-lingual), and other ad hoc reflection and consultative groups. The busy Fr. DePaul sincerely tried to welcome cultural pluralism and the variety of Catholic faith expressions and spirituality.

Still, often enough these engagements left him exhausted and frustrated. The people in each group were faithful parishioners, well-intentioned and hard-working, but not very numerous or truly representative of the wider parish.

In fact each organization knew little of the other members of the parish and spent most of their meeting time with their own “in house” concerns, rather than with anything approaching the larger issues of the parish or of the various neighborhoods represented at Sunday liturgy. As such groups proliferated at the parish, Fr. DePaul began to wonder about his role as pastor of a parish that seemed to be growing increasingly fractured by such groups, many of them simply struggling to “find themselves.” He had for some time begun to have doubts about his ability to even relate to such a variety of communities in the parish community; he had spent so much of his effort trying to relate to these and other segments of the church community that he wasn’t sure of “which group” he belonged to, if any! Unfortunately his Sunday homilies were reflective of this... Now, was this “Dallas Area Interfaith” going to be another independent group asking for his support and presence as they discussed another set of personal concerns?

However, he was in for a surprise. He noted that the group itself was very diverse: various religious leaders and pastors, some professionals and business persons, a number of working-class men and women, a few single mothers (with their children in the other room), a policeman, a politician, and others. The evening was very well planned and felt like a “good liturgy!” There was a warm welcome by one of the designated leaders (each week was different), a short orientation by another, and invitation for introductions by each of the attending persons. Then began the discussion of the issue of the evening, the growing concern with violence in neighborhoods. It was an energetic conversation since many of those present had personally or had family members who had been victims by at least one incident of violence. After a period of time, another leader asked for the “guests” to speak. This part was the “story-telling” by two people, both recently naturalized citizens, one a Vietnamese, the other an African. The storytellers, well focused and very moving in their halting English, began with a brief description of their journey to the United States, their continuing intense struggles to survive economically, their learning of and growing adjustment to the “American culture”, their decision to become full citizens to “fulfill their dream” of being free in America. Each story also described a similar struggle with street violence in other parts of the city, the initial frustrating attempts of individuals to bring in the police (it appeared that neighborhood violence was their problem!), the subsequent gathering of a few neighbors around the issue, then more involvement, study of the issue, some conclusions and shared commitments, and finally the beginning of change in the neighborhood. The stories captured the group’s imagination and led those present to make some commitments of their own: to come to the next meeting, this time prepared with some more study and information of our own, and to spread the “good news” about our meetings. Before departing all stood for the “Pledge of Allegiance.” Fr. DePaul was surprised to find himself leaving the gathering energized and hopeful.

Upon later reflection he realized that he was moved by the prayerfulness and mutual respect of the gathering, yet little had been said about Jesus Christ in that meeting, no prayer had been uttered, no hymn sung, no collection taken. Still, he had felt “at home” that evening, and somehow had been profoundly challenged as well; something had been stirred in him that could only be identified as “American.” This left him somewhat surprised, for oddly enough he had operated from the belief that his own culture was desperately in need of values, which he hoped the church would be able to provide. He had been inclined to critique the American Way of Life as selfish, narcissistic, and consumed with lust for possessions and power. But now he realized that he had so overstated the weaknesses of his own culture, that he’d become unable to critically view those very parts of his own culture that was able to provide meaning and identity to himself and millions of others. There was something vital and powerful there, but so deeply hidden that he had difficulty articulating it – his own identity as an American. Most challenging was the suspicion that he, Catholic missionary priest so very committed to evangelization in other lands, had yet to learn to speak to the heart of his own culture.

This story is meant to be only suggestive of the ongoing struggle for identity as a Catholic in the United States, especially for a leader in a parish consciously grappling with cultural pluralism in our country. These are struggles not unlike those for leaders and theologians beginning to “do theology” from their own cultures or hitherto excluded experience outside of “the mainstream” of western culture . It would seem to include as many theologies as there are different contexts In Robert Schreiter’s summary of the rise of “local theologies” , he points out that since the 1950’s there has been a growing shift in perspective led by local churches in Latin America, then in Africa and Asia, to find a Christian voice in circumstances quite different than those known in Europe and North America.

While these theologies shared a concern to make sense of the Christian message in local circumstances there were the emerging concerns that 1) new questions were being asked which existing forms of theology could not respond to (ranging from the inadequacy of Western cultural symbols of bread/wine/water to convey the same meaning in some cultures to the question of oppressive regimes in Latin America); 2) old answers to new questions were being seen as paternalistic and unacceptable to local churches who expected to be taken seriously and inadequate to growing numbers of Christians in a pluralistic society; and 3) a new kind of Christian identity was emerging apart from a great part of the traditional theological reflection of historical Christianity, a theology with particular interest in the areas of context, procedure, and history. The result over the years has been a wealth of theologies reflective of particular cultures and local churches, certainly in countries outside of the United States and Europe, but also groups and communities heretofore marginated and excluded from authentic theological reflection.

This is all very exciting and good for it has given an international voice to the voiceless and has encouraged countless groups and individuals to rediscover the power of their culture. But, as encountered in multi-cultural settings (such as many parishes), its changing form and newness it can be terribly confusing as well, especially to those whose leadership roles demand growing skills in what amounts to cross-cultural communication.

Since there are as many theologies as there are groups and contexts in our nation (Feminist, Latin American, Mujerista, Womanist, Asian, African-American, Native American, for starters), can there be such a thing as an “American Theology?” That is, one which reflects the Christian faith inculturated in the American culture as such? Or should there be? If there is, can such a theology be adequate for the needs of leaders and teachers in the ever-changing landscape of the multi-cultural parish?

My interest in the topic of inculturation in the United States is profound and personal. I am a Vincentian missionary, a Roman Catholic priest, white-male, ordained presbyter, Euro-American parentage (Irish/Polish, 2nd generation). My experience in other cultures began as an adult with assignment to a missionary region in upper Guatemala, the Petén departamento. I began my education in Spanish and in Latin American culture at that time. Placed in leadership positions from the very beginning I have found that learning from one’s mistakes, discovering miscues well after the fact, and experiencing great frustration and embarrassment as well as surprising joy and new-found friendships and ways of relating to others are all part of the cross-cultural journey in ministry. Most significant in that journey is the “paradigm shift” from being a teacher and leader to being a student and listener while still in the role as pastor and responsable (initiator and administrator).

Initially such a conversation seems very confusing, even threatening, for it seems to de-stabilize one’s own world and raise questions about such important issues as even the possibility of communication and understanding between people of different cultures, origins, and most of all those of different language groups. But I have found that having my own assumptions challenged and questioned pressed me into a process of deeper questioning as to what are the sources of my own beliefs, their expression and articulation. I believe that the growing insistence of local churches to do their own theology has begun to raise similar questions to groups in our country who have found “classic” theology inadequate to express or explore their faith experience.

Faith in the United States (as elsewhere) is inextricably intertwined in and mediated by culture; the church’s increased emphasis on and growing respect for culture is becoming the starting point for any discussion of evangelization. As a priest missionary intent on evangelization in the Southwest I am guided by Pope Paul VI’s declaration that: “Evangelization loses much of its force and effectiveness if it does not take into consideration the actual people to whom it is addressed, if it does not use their language, their signs and symbols, if it does not answer the questions they ask, and if it does not have an impact on their concrete life. But on the other hand, evangelization risks losing its power and disappearing altogether if one empties or adulterates its content”

Yet the common experience of membership in the same religion, in the same parish calls these individuals and these various (cultural) groups to some kind of profound unity, characterized by cooperation in place of competition, reconciliation rather than rancor. Part of the journey towards a community where Christian unity thrives in an ever-changing diversity of cultures is the conscious development of a local theology which can appreciate, listen to, and speak with and work with those differences. Another part of the journey is to be able to unearth and articulate those experiences, or that cultural context which we might share as Americans, whether we (or our ancestors) arrived by choice or were brought over, whether we are friends and neighbors or find ourselves in deep-seated conflict, whether we are male or female, and whatever our differences be.

A local theology, in order to be a “true” theology, must reflect one’s times, one’s culture, one’s current concerns as well as the spirit and message of the gospel. Those issues it struggles with are both reflective of and derived from the experience of a people in a particular context . As such it works from many assumptions (implicit or explicit) important to that cultural experience. It names the issues, conditions and directs the discussions as largely “in house”, and it may be as transparent or as opaque to “outsiders” inasmuch as it is or is not in dialogue with another culture. As we are discovering in our pluralistic world, a theology that sees itself as classic or universal runs the risk of being blind, impoverished, and even oppressive… unless it is also auto-critical and is able to “see” its limitations as regards other cultures and it’s own inadequacies as a contextual theology “out of context.” Each local theology is an important way for a local church (i.e. the church of a culture or country) to reflect on it’s faith, it’s inculturated faith.

I offer this study of some particular issues in the very basic question of inculturation in our American church, both guided by and in critical conversation with Richard Cote’s insights and discussion in Revisioning Mission: The Catholic Church and Culture in Postmodern America.

I will briefly present his major points around the crisis of mission and identity in the American church, explore his presentation of a new, metaphorical approach to the task of inculturation in America and discuss his “nuptial union” metaphor for that dynamic relationship between faith and culture.

His choice of the “Frontier Myth” will be considered critically as well its cultural values used in his analysis of the American culture. I hope to draw some conclusions as well as raise some questions helpful for future inquiry and reflection. My primary interest is pastoral, that is directed to those “in the field” of actual pastoral leadership in such settings in the United States. The overall purpose of this essay is to better understand the relationship between our Catholic tradition and our American culture and to critically study Richard Cote’s methodology for a truly inculturated faith. In so doing, I hope to highlight some fundamental insights and ideas which could be part of an American theology, as well as some of the obstacles to any such theology explicitly intent on somehow including (rather than excluding or changing) the growing number of “hyphenated” or distinct cultures in a faith community.


Richard Cote’s Re-Visioning Mission is a positive, stimulating exploration of the notion of inculturation as essential to the mission of the church both ad extra (to other cultures) and ad intra (“in house”) for the United States.

Emphasizing the present experience as an “epochal paradigm shift from modernity to postmodernity,” and “assuming that the risen Christ is still Lord of history,” he suggests a new approach to the inculturation of faith along with its corresponding spirituality, one of “real theological hope rather than one of ecclesiastical ‘containment’…in tune with our changing times…and tailor-made for an exodus/pilgrim people about to enter a new historical landscape.” His understanding of “mission” is extensive and holistic, The task of a post-modern theology of mission would be to show how each basic church activity (proclamation, catechesis, professing the faith, liturgical praise and thanksgiving, witnessing, fellowship, service, and dialogue) is a constitutive act and celebration of mission.

Cote notes that the church has neglected to “translate” and “ground” its symbols and symbolic rites in the actual structures of our social existence. This is critical for Christianity to survive in the post-modern world and retain its identity and integrity. These symbols need to be recovered, revitalized and reappropriated, or “set free” in order to do what living symbols can do for us. In order for this to happen the church must first “dispel the myth of urban irreligion and …the idea that the artifacts of technology are less capable of mediating God’s grace than nature . He blames the “covert distrust of the city and of everything connected with its ambiguity and artificiality” for impeding an “imaginative approach to urban ministry” while a growing majority of people are born in and live in cities. Second, for these symbols to be vital and to be “able to possess us”, they must be “reset” constantly within the structures of social existence, and not overly restricted by an overzealous, authoritative, or dogmatic “teaching” church which could spell the death of the symbol. “Faithful imagination,” an important notion for Cote, is “that imaginative dimension which not only adheres to faith at certain times or on special occasions, but is a constitutive element in every act of real theological faith, hope, and love.”

In developing a working understanding of inculturation, that special dynamic relationship of “Faith and Culture” (the conjunction is key!) Cote begins by pointing out some questionable assumptions about inculturation: 1) “Inculturating Faith” is more a priority in Africa/Asia/Latin America where traditional cultures are being understood as treasures. But “evangelizing our secular culture” is the mandate for Western Europe and United States – as if people could change their culture at will with the Church directing those changes; 2) “Ecclesial assimilation” is sometimes confused with Inculturation of faith. They are very different, and the second is much more demanding; 3) Either faith or culture needs to dominate in this relationship. But, he counters that the transcendent gospel and the complex human culture each have essential roles. Neither accommodation or adaptation, genuine inculturation, Cote asserts, is that “real process” that will first “seek out and fathom the deepest level of a culture, that dynamic myth (treated later on) and that the pastoral praxis of inculturation has…to do with the deeper, hidden, and more pervasive levels of a culture…as a genuine dialogue between equals.” His approach to this relationship is the “root metaphor” of Christian marriage or nuptial union, the symbol of the loving union of a man and woman. Cote’s notion and use of metaphor is important. He follows Ricoeur’s sense of it as an “impertinent predication,” insisting that it is first of all a clash of meanings embedded in language through which hidden or largely ignored aspects of things are revealed. His choice of this particular metaphor is no less important. He agrees with Mark Johnson’s insights springing from extensive interviews with married couples:

“Our very experience and understanding of marriage is metaphorical, and the language we use to talk about marriage is just one manifestation of the underlying metaphors. For instance, the MARRIAGE IS AN ONGOING JOURNEY metaphor… such systematic metaphors reach deep down into our experience and understanding of marriage, and so they involve consequences for actions in our daily lives …[such as] goals for the marriage, expectations for oneself and one’s spouse, criteria for evaluating the health or success of the marriage, and the range of (morally) permissible responses and actions sanctioned or suggested by the underlying metaphorical mapping.”

Cote finds himself in good company in applying such a metaphor to the relationship between faith and culture. It was used to speak of the union between Christ and his church (the church fathers), that of the soul with its God (Origen), and others in a rich, long tradition. He lists some of the pastoral insights or correctives suggested by this nuptial metaphor: 1) it suggests an alternative to “evangelizing cultures” with its emphasis on the union being forged between faith and culture, and “redefines the challenge of evangelization in terms of dialogue and marriage counseling rather than of confrontation and perpetual antagonism; 2) it won’t ask who dominates in the process and mission of inculturation - the gospel or the culture? Only equal partners, remembering how the Word of God embraced human equality to become “like us in all ways, except sin. 3) it offers the advantage of an in-depth relationship rather than a more superficial association or collaborative partnership. It seeks the deepest possible co-penetration between faith and culture; 4) it has the “spouses” (husband/wife, faith/culture) retaining their autonomy, integrity and freedom, however deep their communion; 5) it emphasizes that the inculturation process begins, continues and ends with the surprise of love – an affective dimension very accessible to those other than mission specialists.

Cote spends a great deal of time pinpointing misconceptions about culture throughout Re-Visioning Mission, which get in the way of inculturation. He is especially intent on distinguishing between ideologies (such as consumerism, hedonism, materialism, narcissism) found in society and that which fundamentally determines the culture. Such ideologies, while found in the outer, more visible layer (semiotic domains) of a culture, do not describe the real “national character” or cultural “soul” of a people, nor what they deeply aspire to as a people. Russian culture cannot be equated with Soviet communism, nor can American culture with capitalism or any other “ism.” They are not constitutive of a culture, even if they do co-exist with and find a “home” in a culture. The same misconception can be had (more often from the “outside”!) about Christianity. He points out that Karl Rahner showed why Christianity itself is not an ideology, even though some ideologies are found there (“transmanence” where what is ultimate, infinite and pervasive in all spheres of life is absolutized or totalized to the loss of those things finite and penultimate – church leaders are very susceptible) . But in his analysis of culture he develops the concept of “dynamic myths” which will be looked at more closely.


The central part of Cote’s thesis is built on his visual metaphor for culture, the “inscape” of an iceberg to describe a culture’s various levels – some hidden, some visible – and their dynamic, inner inter-relatedness. The layers don’t just “sit” on one another (like a multi-layered wedding cake) but are “dynamically interrelated, the deepest fourth level (dynamic myth) giving rise to the third level (fundamental cultural values) which inspires and informs the more “manifest” second (semiotic domains) and the first (art). This upward directional flow within a culture should not be ignored. For example, when the church has approached inculturation through what “meets the eye” at the visible and phenomenal surface of the cultures in the mistaken belief that surface “adaptations” of Christian faith to culture could bring about eventual in depth transformation of that culture, the church has been badly disappointed. The real challenge is to “expose the heart” of the gospel to “the heart” of a culture, so that their “foundational myths” be somehow open and laid bare to one another.

What is dynamic myth: the deepest level? It is basically a story of how a people came to be and think of themselves as a distinct people. It marks a “break”, a displacement of imposed rules and values, with what has gone before, is a new view and interpretation of the laws of nature, is the “cultural soul” of a people and (like the individual soul) is restless, forever dissatisfied, and profoundly open. These dynamic myths offer a fourfold dynamic for us: 1) they eliminate fear, giving us the “courage to be” (Tillich); 2) they explore and reveal, moving us to a sense of awe and gratitude in relation to the mystery dimension of the universe;” 3) they unify and bring coherence to those contradictory aspects of life which constantly threaten to polarize or divide us such as heaven/earth, matter/spirit, female/male, sacred/profane, life/death, conscious/unconscious, obedience/autonomy, etc.; 4) they mobilize, they “insert” us resolutely in our natural and social environment, to participate and make a difference in it. They allow us to live the tensions of human life more creatively, and so enable us to forge a renewed human community and a new future.

The “frontier myth” is Cote’s choice of dynamic myth for America. The term is taken from Frederick Jackson Turner whose essays on American history were considered by professional historians as “the nearest approach [they had] to an estimate of the pioneer spirit in American history.” In his classic essay Turner presented the frontier as “a field for the serious study of the economist and the historian”, expanding the notion as the out edge of the “wave” of westward expansion, the meeting point between savagery and civilization. He distinguished this westward expansion from the nations early history of “how America modified and developed [European] life…[and how] European germs developed in an American environment.”

The “wilderness masters the colonist” rather than the other way around, “strips off the garments of [European civilization] and arrays him in the hunting shirt and the moccasin. At the frontier the environment is at first too strong for the European man, who eventually changes the frontier but is also changed by it. So beginning with the Atlantic coast as the frontier of Europe, each settled area westward took on more of the frontier characteristics, but growing steadily less European and more “American.” Tyler’s thesis outlines the development of a nation effected profoundly by the frontier, “free land” in essence, promoting democracy here (and in Europe), producing an individualism and an society that is a primitive organization based on the family. The frontier produced a people who tended towards being anti-social, showed antipathy to any direct control (especially taxes), and whose individual liberty was sometimes confused with the absence of all effective government. Tyler credits the frontier with the American characteristics in, among other areas, its intellect: coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and inquisitiveness, that practical, inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients; that masterful grasp of material things, lacking in the artistic but powerful to effect great ends; that restless, nervous energy, that dominant individualism, working for good and for evil…, that buoyancy and exuberance which comes with freedom. “What the Mediterranean Sea was to the Greeks, breaking the bond of custom, offering new experiences, calling out new institutions and activities, that, and more, the ever retreating frontier has been to the United States.” This centrality of the frontier both in its historical significance to the development of a nation, but also it’s continued “imprint” on the collective experience of that nation’s people is why Cote claims it as a dynamic myth.

Cultural values are “clustered” around the dynamic myth which is somehow a part of our being, whether we are conscious of it or not. These values, still very dynamic and foundational, are both beyond “strict empirical verification” but are also subject to a ever growing pool of opinions. How do we know what they are? Cote wants us to be very circumspect, with erring expected on the side of caution and restraint, whether consciously held or not, as we search for them underneath all the commitments we have made in the past, the way we own up to them and stand ready to be identified by them. We have to “own” them if they are to be our cultural values. Cote offers some criteria to help uncover our basic values with some reliability.

1) do the exploration of the culture with others, committing oneself to sharing (repeatedly) with others of our culture, learning to develop a “listening heart” in order to hear the Christ already in it, making a list of (shared) core values, and including an “outsider” for etic interpretations and insights to help us test our assumptions;
2) use the criterion of “multiple attestation” (a term used by N. Perrin and biblical scholars) by testing each value in question to see how it finds expression in more than one semiotic domain (religious, athletic, economic, social, judicial, political, etc.) to determine its chances of being an authentic “core” value;
3) apply the historical criterion of “displacement” , a central experience and concept to Cote – “as American as apple pie…and as indigenous as anything we might point to in the American experience” to determine how the cluster of our basic values holds up in those times of greatest dislocation or displacement in our history;
4) pay special attention to artists. They hold a preeminent role in culture since what happens in their creative imagination on the one hand is likely to be taking place in the “fiery furnace” of a culture on the other. Artist are “in touch” with what is hidden in ourselves, and exceptionally free about telling us. They ought to be seen and listened to as a “privileged criterion” for evaluating our fundamental values.

As to some actual American fundamental values, Cote, using the above criteria, offers four, Being Free, Being Strong, Being Enterprising, and Being Innovative, to illustrate his following points:

  • They are eminently spiritual values, something we are and not something we have;
  • They are all fundamental in that there is a kinship among them – they “hang together” even if one might predominate over the others in different settings;
  • They are intrinsically good, i.e. if properly evoked and appealed to, they can serve any gospel imperative

Mindful of his chosen “optimistic approach” towards culture, dynamic myth, and core values, Cote calls into question the rampant social criticism, within and from the outside (e.g. Vatican) as often not focusing upon a particular flaw in our culture but questioning the whole fabric of contemporary American culture. It is the secular despair or fatalism that he objects to most emphatically.

The final two chapters help one to see where Cote wants to go and what he has done with his respectful and optimistic approach to American culture, his more critical approach to the church (at least in her historical tendency to stay on the surface of culture), his model of nuptial union for inculturation, his initial discussions of American dynamic myths and cultural values, all in the context of the “present transition from modernity to postmodernity.” He notes that three new mission priorities have surfaced already: 1) From an anxious problem-oriented church to one that radiates hope; 2) from a church trying to unilaterally transform U.S. culture to one wanting to evangelize the marriage union between faith and culture, and 3) from an “exclusive” church to an “inclusive” one.

In short, this “crossing the post-modern divide” period is a transition, demanding a new exodus/desert spirituality. We will need to re-vision our conventional image of God from utilitarian, demanding, but perhaps “non-necessary” and irrelevant God to an non-imposing, extravagantly generous but unobtrusive God who frees us to love as God loves. We will need to re-visit mystery and mysticism which opens us up to unexpected and inexhaustible depths in ourselves, our faith and our world, giving mission priority to Mystagogy over Pedagogy as the author puts it, in order to respond to the growing spiritual hunger in our culture.

For instance, expanding the “special” approach of spiritual directors and “soul friends”, or traditional “diaconal” functions of distributing food to the hungry. The church’s approach must be recognizable and pervasive – another catechism will not do. The author calls for the imagination to create “go structures” in the parish in which “come structures” tend to predominate, which might mean a creation of something like visiting and boundary crossing, of becoming the “guest” rather than the “host”, as Jesus did. Critical to this spirituality will be the willingness to embrace the “quest for integrated wholeness” through the recognition of the interconnectedness of all things and all life. Cote ends his discussion with a chapter on “ambiguity” which he proposes as an integral dimension of a vital faith itself. The deep, almost completely hidden realities and dynamics of culture and of faith and the questions arising from them need to be “befriended” and “lived with”, “held preciously and tenderly” for his mission spirituality.

He cites a growing acceptance of ambiguity by psychologists (a sign of highly adaptive, creative people), the manifold attestations of ambiguity throughout our faith tradition, and the centrality of ambiguity in our experience of faith. Cote emphasizes this last area for, unlike clear concepts and teachings, it has to do with our foundational experience of an initiating God: “Conviction and decision to believe, after all, depends not on what the church possesses or displays but on the inner promptings welling up and bursting forth within us of God’s playful and absolutely free Spirit.” He encourages the church to recover its role as mystagogue to become more inviting, more able with the language of mystery and of religious imagination in order to invite us to “cross over and beyond” what meets the eye, to initiate us into the mystery “by which we live and move and have our being.”


  1. Cote’s wide ranged probing for a “fiery furnace” hidden in the American culture and his positive, hopeful approach is welcome and very stimulating. It is an antidote to what feels like oppressive “harping on the blemishes” or even condemnation of the American culture as something of an obstacle to Christian life. His distinctions and insights about the nature of culture are excellent and well documented, and very hard for this man to dispute.
  2. I believe that Cote is correct in his thesis that the current and growing serious tension between the Catholic Church (or least many of her international and national leaders) and the American culture has prevented a genuine conversation between faith and culture in the United States. The church’s growing experience and wisdom from efforts of evangelization in traditional cultures in Africa and Asia, as well as the developing voice and distinct identities of local theologies in these continents as well as in the church of Latin America is pointing ever more to the importance of a mutual, respectful, and open relationship for dialogue and mutual conversion of both the sending church and the receiving church.
  3. His suggestion of, development of, and defense of Marriage or Nuptial Union as the root metaphor for reflecting on and understanding the relationship of faith and culture (or for the process of inculturation) is good. As realities they are certainly both dynamic, mysterious, and seem quite parallel. Certainly Cote’s idea of a “good marriage” as it develops in stages is compelling as well as his emphasis on mutuality and mystery as central and proper attitudes and imposition, unilateral-ness, adaptation, and imposition as leading to breakdown, divorce and even violence. What I found most favorable about the “for the long haul” process is the openness and creative possibilities of the resulting inculturation. For instance, in “listening” to American culture the church may well be challenged to probe more deeply into her own Tradition, countering the culturally expressed need for “wholeness” with a “Mystagogy” rather than “Pedagogy.” In this way the “partner” church can be the passionate embodiment of/bearer of our deepest longings, rather than a confrontative, grouchy parent.
  4. I found his central theological mystery of the Incarnation to be well documented and, as he developed it, quite inclusive of Redemption. I think that he is right to use the Incarnation as the central mystery to explain and reflect on inculturation.
  5. His model of culture, the “inscape” of the iceberg to help visualize the parts and their inter-related-ness of culture (art, semiotic domains, cultural values, cultural myths) is accessible and creative. The need for culture and faith to relate to each other from the deepest levels in order for true inculturation to take place is well explained and visualized.
  6. Finally, his “bravery” with embracing (or at least re-assessing…) ambiguity as a potential grace and opportunity is both correct and welcome to those of us whose intuitions have concluded as much.

Cote’s book is a marvelous and helpful effort at re-enkindling the fires of evangelization through a re-visualizing of the church’s mission in America. Yet, why is it that I don’t feel like celebrating yet? Let me begin with a few basic comments.


  1. Cote’s concept of “American culture” is itself absolutely key. If it is an American culture, its dynamic myths would seem (to me) to be present and dynamic in every American, or will be soon. This would of course include men, women, those of immigrant origins (with the exception of the Native Americans -- not usually their own label, by the way--aren’t we all?), African-American, Asian-American, Hispanic-American, and so on. And if those dynamic myths and cultural values neither “eliminate fear, reveal, unify, nor mobilize” an admittedly “American” individual or group, then who determines what is American?
  2. The particular choice of “Frontier Myth” as American culture’s dynamic myth seems to me very problematic. Its “cluster values” have (and would seem to continue to) compel one group of Americans to meaning and action but at the great cost of other Americans. In today’s more critical “re-telling” of the American story we are learning the disastrous consequences of “following one’s dream.” I find it difficult to discount these effects as nothing more than the “viruses” of ethnocentrism, individualism, racism as if these realities had no part in our shared history of a developing nation. What was adventure and freedom to the wagon-train pioneers and speculators meant exile and genocide to many native tribes. What was self-reliance and ingenuity to the rancher and entrepreneur meant dispossession and thievery to the Mexican/Spanish rancheros. In short, Cote’s choice of dynamic myth of American collective consciousness seems to have limited the primordial “self-image”/world-view/new creative mindset to an Anglo-Saxon, white, male, and historically questionable version of it. And to insist that this Frontier Myth is the dynamic myth of the American culture (something Cote certainly does not do, by the way) would be nothing less than oppressive and reprehensible to many Americans. To offer it as one dynamic myth seems reasonable but it certainly does not seem to include or transcend as many “ethnic” or other groups as Cote would seem to want. But the question remains, is the Frontier Myth one dynamic myth present today in the American culture? Perhaps.
  3. The author’s suggested process for determining “core values” in chapter 8 is very helpful and seems more than feasible. The very 3rd criterion of applying the criterion of “displacement” assumes that we agree that our fundamental American values stem from the dynamic myth of the “frontier”, and that our core values “cluster” together there. Agreed. Still, I have to ask about who agrees that these are “our values.” There is no reference to an enriching and discerning conversation in the author’s own suggested determination of core values or dynamic myth? One has to ask then, “who decided?”
  4. Cote emphasizes the quality of every dynamic myth to mark a “break” with what wisdom or traditional norm that has gone before, that it “constitutes something a liberating ‘rupture’ with the past and a new way of thinking and imaging. Might not one be forgiven to think that the current struggle in our culture -- multiple American groups seeking expression of identity and inclusion into the wider society-- be such a “break” (rather than “cultural dissonance”) When is a break “liberating” and not destructive?
  5. The creation of an identity in an internationalist, multicultural context, which is what many of our urban centers have been, “takes in” much more than the prevailing cultural myths and values. Such an identity, however complex, in all the more rich, and undisputedly “American”:
“I am what I am.
A child of the Americas.
A light-skinned mestiza of the Caribbean.
A child of many diaspora, born into this continent at a crossroads.
I am Puerto Rican. I am U.S. American.
I am New York Manhattan and the Bronx.
A mountain-born, country bread, home-grown jibara child, up from the shtetl, a California Puerto Rican Jew.
A product of New York ghettos I have never known.
I am an immigrant
and the daughter and granddaughter of immigrants.
We didn’t know our forebears’ names with certainty.
They weren’t written anywhere.
First names only, or hija, negra, ne honey, sugar, dear.


If Cote’s thesis is sound, and if marriage can be the root metaphor for understanding inculturation, where to next? Is there only one dynamic myth that can truly connect us with our shared past and changing present experience, all of us? Might we look for a few more dynamic myths? -- ones which spring from the rich varieties of cultures which are becoming “American” at least in their hyphenated state?

I believe that Cote is correct to insist on the church’s probing for and openness to the deep, hidden founding myths of a people. From our growing awareness of the need for local theologies and their unquestionable richness for the global church as well as the scars to cultures which were ignored or manhandled through forceful and one-sided efforts at evangelization (Native cultures in the Americas for instance) such a mutual conversation would seem absolutely essential to inculturation.

However, I believe that a dynamic myth is itself open to change from other quarters than from the church, that it is “in the making”, particularly for our pluralistic American culture. The Genesis myth itself shows how complex a dynamic myth can be, for it is actually two (or more) narratives intertwined and yet is only one of various “founding myths” for the Jewish culture, the Judeo-Christian religion, and various other cultures and religions. Others, such as the Abrahamic Odyssey, the prophecies for Isaiah and Jeremiah and others, the Judges (men and women), the Kings (especially David), the narratives from Wisdom and poetry and Psalms are all essential for probing and understanding how a people understand themselves at the level which I think Cote speaks.

The point is that for a founding myth to be a dynamic myth it needs to be present in the collective consciousness of a people. Perhaps there is one dynamic myth shared by all Americans, but I would be suspicious of the Frontier myth as a candidate. There have been numerous actors in our history, not merely victims of discrimination and exploitation whose stories have yet to be absorbed – and their descendants make up a growing majority in our nation. Our young people are eager to listen; they want to learn about the hardships and humiliations experience by their parents and grandparents, they want to understand the victory of survival, they want to decide their own heroes. And, as Virgilio Elizondo points out, they need their own ethnicity

in order to be actors in today’s and tomorrow’s America.


The power of a culture is accessed and renewed in the telling of and the listening to its stories. Perhaps that culture’s sins and demons can be exorcised as well in a fuller re-telling of its stories. In America we have many stories which, in their telling, may well give all of us a way to listen to each other and to re-discover a primal unity through the painful process of repentance and reconciliation, as well as reliving adventure and exploration.


Primary Sources:

Bevans, Stephen B. Models of Contextual Theology. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Press, 1992.

Cenkner, William (edit.). The Multicultural Church: A New Landscape in U.S. Theologies. New York, NY: Paulist Press, 1996.

Cote, O.M.I., Richard. Re-Visioning Mission: The Catholic church and Culture in Postmodern America. New York, NY: Paulist Press, 1996.

Luzbetak, S.V.D., Louis J. The Church and Cultures: New Perspectives in Missiological Anthropology. Maryknoll, N.Y.: 1988.

Schreiter, C.PP.S., Robert J. Constructing Local Theologies. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1985.

Takaki, Ronald. A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America. Boston, MA: Little, Brown and Company, 1993.

Turner, Frederick Jackson. The Frontier in American History. New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company, 1962. (Copyright and first published by Frederick J. Turner in 1920).

Secondary Sources:

Cherry, Conrad (edit.). God’s New Israel: Religious Interpretations of American Destiny. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1971

Yuhaus, C.P., Cassian (edit). The Catholic Church and American Culture: Reciprocity and Challenge. New York, NY: Paulist Press, 1990.

Faragher, John Mack, (edit., commentator). Rereading Frederick Jackson Turner: “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” and Other Essays. New York, N.Y.: Henry Holt and Company. \