Redemption and Old Rundown Buildings, Part 1

I was raised up on a hill in the Allegheny foothills known as Woodchuck Hill. While in many parts of the world civilization/development is taking over land, here things have gone the opposite way as old farms disappeared, people moved to the cities or to where jobs were, and the forest took over.

On the hill (a part that is curiously known as Emery Hill… although part of the same hill) was an old house. The picture above is not the house… it is somewhat smaller but looked at about that level of disrepair back around 1970.

When I was around 4 or 5 years old, we would, on occasion, drive by it (it was not on our main route to town). I would look at it and say to my mom, “That house is falling apart. I sure hope that it will be fixed up before it is too late.” 

On one occasion of the many times I expressed hope that that house would be repaired., my mom said with exasperation, “Robby,” no one else in the world ever called me Robby. “Robby, that house will never be repaired. It is too far gone. No one will ever fix it up. You just need to accept that.” I don’t remember if I cried… but I recall feeling very sad.

Something strange happened. A few hunting buddies in the city decided to buy the house and turn it into a hunting lodge. They repaired it, fixing the roof and repainting it. Over 40 years later it is still standing.

For years… decades… afterwards, when my mom and I would drive by that place, she would say to me, “Robby, do you remember that old place. That was the place you loved as a child and didn’t want to see fall apart. I tried to tell you that there was no hope for that old house… but you were right, and here it still is. Isn’t that wonderful!?”

And I suppose that is wonderful. Sometimes we need to be reminded that there is hope when things seem hopeless. I suppose that is why I love shows that take old houses or old cars and bring them back to life.

There is something beautiful in redemption. One form of redemption is restoration. The taking of something and bringing it back to what it was meant to be. A house is restored to a house and a car to a car. With people… restoration involves taking ruined lives and bringing them to what they were supposed to be. Ecclesiastes says

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.

 

In missions, there is should always be more building up, planting, healing, and sewing… redeeming through restoring.

How the East Sees the West

Originally posted on Global Theology:

The presence of multiple perspectives within the Christian faith is not a new invention of the 20th century. The split between the Western (Roman Catholic, then Protestant) church and the Eastern Orthodox church is well traveled by Christian historians, yet an understanding of the churches which grew from this cultural differentiation is not as common. In the infograph below, several theologians who are considered to be pillars of Western Christian thought are examined through an Eastern Orthodox perspective. (One of these three pillars is so esteemed, he even garnered an entry in our recent World Cup of Theologians – Augustine of Hippo!)UnsungInTheEast1-514x1024This infographic originally appeared at www.russianchristianclassics.org, a blog exploring Russian church history, the relationship between Eastern Orthodoxy and Western Christianity, and introducing Russian Christian leaders to an English-speaking audience.

For more information about a leader in the Orthodox church, see our post on an interview with…

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Studying Chinese Christianity: From a Transplanted Foreign Religion to an Indigenous Chinese Religion

Originally posted on Global Theology:

     “Numerical expansion in Chinese Christianity in the last couple of decades has occurred at an unprecedented rate. A rate which continues to surprise and alarm some of those observing it. It’s surprising partly because of the ambiguous history of Christianity in China, a history marked both by a high level of cultural and political engagement by the Jesuits in the 17th century, and by a very unashamed alliance with foreign interference and colonial power in the 19th century. In spite of that, China is moving towards having the largest Christian population in the world. A safe guess would be 50-80 million Protestants in China today.”*
     Contemporary China is experiencing a big revival of Christianity, despite strict governmental controls on religions. At its current pace of rapid growth, China could have the world’s largest population of Christians

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The Problem with Prophets… a Missiological Look

Prophet Elijah, Russian Orthodox icon from fir...

The Prophet Elijah  Image via Wikipedia

The term prophet is used in different ways by different people. Technically, a prophet is simply someone who gives the message of God… outside of the local church hierarchy. But it is commonly used by people as someone who “gives new and authoritative revelation to the people.” While I don’t care for this definition (neither do I like the present use of the term “apostle” that has to do more with 3rd century than first century usage) but we have to accept the reality that a word means how it is used by the people.  Humpty Dumpty said (according to Lewis Carroll)  “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” But for shared conversation, we have to agree on meaning on some level.

Self-described prophets cause problems in missions. Here is why.  A prophecy is supposed to be the revelation (message) of God. So is the Bible.

Which one takes the place of supremacy? When I was in the military, documents there have a section on supercession. That is, where there is conflict in military documents or regulations, which one is to be followed. Most Christians would say that the Bible is the standard by which prophecies must be judged (there seems adequate Biblical support for this both in the Old and New Testament). But consider what happens in practice.

A message has several components. Among these are:

-Content-

-Source Context-

-Recipient Context-

-Feedback (clarification, interpretation)-

-Transmission (medium)-

Suppose the content of the message in the Bible is radically different from the message of a self-described prophet?

For both, the recipient context is the same (the culture of the hearer) for a given situation. However, the source context is radically different. For the “prophet,” the context is local and contemporary. For the Bible, the  context is distant both in locale/culture and in time.

Likewise, the transmission is radically different. The transmission is short for the “prophet”. It might be as short as from mouth of one to the ear of another. For the Bible, the transmission is through many centuries of copyists. Further, the feedback is greatly different. The “prophet” can provide immediate and authoritative feedback/clarification/interpretation of his own “prophecies”.  The Bible was written millenia ago so clarification and interpretation is through others living today, and no reputable Biblical scholar would describe his own interpretation as absolutely authoritative.

What is the result? In practice, to accept a “prophet” as being authoritative today means to replace the Bible’s authority with that of this “prophet”. When content differs, it can argue that we don’t understand the source context of the Bible. Or one can argue that the transmission of the Bible was flawed. Or one can argue that interpretation of the Bible is in error. On the other hand, since the “prophet” lives in the now, and can provide his own interpretation, he provides his closed loop of authority and reliability.

Of course, one might argue that the advantages that the prophet today has over the Bible should make one question why we rely on the Bible.

Ultimately, it boils down to ultimate authority and reliability. From an authority, standpoint, the Bible is not authoritative because it claims to be the Word of God. Many books make similar claims, and many prophets (of many flavors) claim to serve as God’s voice. I would argue, that it rests on the resurrection of Christ. Jesus made very bold claims about his own authority, and even his divinity (I think even those who would argue about divinity would agree that many of his statements would be so interpreted by the listeners at that time). He was then crucified… arguably an appropriate divine judgment for one who was guilty of false prophecy and blasphemy. However, the resurrection demonstrates that he wasn’t under divine judgment, but in fact had divine approval. So we take Jesus’ message seriously as having divine authority. That would include the Hebrew Bible (that Jesus declared as authoritative), his words in the Gospels, and the words of his immediate followers (in the New Testament). More subjectively, the Holy Bible has been found reliable by millions over 2000 years. Not a bad track record.

The authority and reliability of self-styled prophets is often lacking… often circular at best. I am thinking of one here in Asia. He makes a lot of generally vague open-ended cries of judgment on people unless they repent. When something bad happens that can be loosely linked to one of his statements… it is used to suggest authority and reliability. When even these vague statements cannot be linked to any calamity, it is not seen as questioning authority and reliability, but evidence that the potential victims repented.

Is this a problem in missions?  You bet! Consider some history. If one goes back to the founding prophet of Islam, one sees the same problem. The Bible/Injil is revered, but is not used as an authoritative text. That is because the content of the Bible disagrees on many points with the two authoritative documents of Islam. Mormonism has a similar situation. Its prophets created their own three authoritative texts to add to the Bible. However, these three are placed  over the Bible in authority… once again because of clashing content. Islamic and Mormon scholars study and use the Bible, but for interfaith dialogue and apologetics, not for seeking an authoritative message from God (Allah/Elohim).

Of course, the Quran and Book of Mormon (and more) have aged considerably and are now also prime targets themselves. But “new prophets” are today a great challenge on the mission field. In the Philippines many of these self-styled prophets have arisen. A common theme for many of them here, strangely, is the focus on the New Israel or the New Jerusalem. Perhaps, since the Philippines is described as the only “Christian” nation in Asia (ignoring Georgia, Armenia, Cyprus, and Timor L’este as well large regions in Indonesia, India, Myanmar, and South Korea)  the idea of the Philippines either being the New Israel, or being the site of the New Jerusalem, is oddly alluring. A similar belief swept through Great Britain and the US in the past… but its appeal appears to be on the decline.

Is this a big problem or a harmless novelty? In some cases, it is clearly a problem. One of these prophets has set himself up as the new Christ. Another has done the opposite… lowered Christ to his own level. Others have very strange beliefs but time will tell whether they are damaging, harmless, or even helpful in God’s mission. When I arrived in the Philippines, Christian churches were sharing a “prophecy” given by an American “prophet” that spoke as to how the Philippines would be a great nation of Christians spreading His Word throughout the world (I have long since forgotten the wording). Is this prophecy? motivational affirmations? shameless pandering? I don’t know.

Are there prophets today? Sure, there are people that give God’s message to the people. Are there people who give new and authoritative revelations from God to the people today. I have my doubts. And even if there are… I think doubt is a very good thing. A healthy reliance on the Bible and a healthy skepticism of self-described prophets is needed both at home and in the mission field.

Mythology and Theodicy in the Visayas

My son is taking a class “Mythology and Folklore” at his university here in the Philippines. They have been studying some creation stories here in the Philippines. Some are etiological, while some are more entertaining. One struck me especially. It is “Tungkung Langit and Alunsina”… a creation story from Panay Island.

A number of Philippine Stories can be found at Visayan Mythologies

I am using the story from the blogsite:

Once upon a time when the earth was but a shapeless, formless void appeared the god called Tungkung Langit (“ Pillar of Heaven”) and the virgin goddess of the eastern skies, Alunsina (“ The Unmarried One”).
The old Visayan folklore states that Tungkung Langit fell in love with Alunsina. After he had courted her for many years, they married and made their home in the highest part of heaven. There the water was always warm and the breeze was forever cool, not a bad weather was in sight, and the couple was happy. In this place in the heavens, order and regularity began.

Tungkung Langit was a loving, hard-working god. He wanted to impose order over the confused world. He decided to arrange the world so that the heavenly bodies would move regularly. On the other hand, Alunsina was a lazy, jealous, selfish goddess. She sat at the window of their home all day doing nothing but brush her long beautiful hair. Sometimes she would leave her home, sit down by a pool near the door, and comb her long, jet-black hair all day long. One day Tungkung Langit told his wife that he would be away for some time. He said he must make time go on smoothly and arrange everything in the world and did not return for a long time. Alunsina thought he was off to see a lover, so she summoned the breeze to spy on Tungkung Langit. Tungkung Langit caught the spying breeze and he became very angry with Alunsina. After he returned home, he told her that it was ungodly of her to be jealous since there were no other gods in the world except the two of them.
Alunsina resented this reproach, and they quarreled all day. In his anger, Tungkung Langit drove his wife away. And with that, Alunsina suddenly disappeared, without a word or a trace to where she went. A few days passed, Tungkung Langit felt very lonely and longed for his wife. He realized that he should not have lost his temper. But it was too late, Alunsina is gone.  Their home which was once vibrant with Alunsina’s sweet voice, his home became cold and desolate. In the morning when he woke up, he would find himself alone. In the afternoon when he came home, he would feel loneliness creeping deep within him.

For months Tungkung Langit lived in utter desolation. Try as he did he could not find Alunsina. And so in his desperation, he decided to do something to forget his sorrow and win back his wife’s favor. So he came down to earth and planted trees and flowers that she may notice it, but she still didn’t come home. Then in desperation, he took his wife’s jewels and scattered them in the sky. He hoped that when Alunsina should see them she might be induced to return home.
Alunsina’s necklace became the stars, her comb the moon, and her crown the sun. But in spite of all his efforts, Alunsina did not return home. Until now, as the story goes, Tungkung Langit lives alone in his palace in the skies and sometimes, he would cry out for Alunsina and his tears would fall down upon the earth as rain and his loud voice, calling out for his wife, was believed to be the thunder during storms, begging for her to come back to their heavenly palace once more.

To me this is a great story from the aspect of theodicy. How does one deal with the concept of a benevolent Creator designing a world of suffering? One option is to get rid of the Creator… but, frankly, the world sure appears to have evidence of design in it. Even many of those who have gotten used to describing cosmogeny and history in terms of accident and natural (predictable) processes seem to drift into thinking of these processes as having a certain planned efficiency to them. Another option is Dualism where the world has two competing powers in conflict. It is hard, however, to reconcile the seeming orderliness of the world with such a chaotic formation and maintenance of the Universe.  So if we accept a single Designer, must we assume such a creator as being weak or somewhat evil?

The World, in the above myth, was created by Tungkung Langit, a single god of order. Although there is a female godess here… the godess is not part of the creation (either positively or negatively) but rather the motivation for creation.

The Visayan Creation described is an act of love and sorrow, of loss and of hope. The world we live in has order, beauty, and suffering. The suffering, however, is not without hope.

To me, the Creation story in the Bible is highly etiological. It’s primary role is in telling us why we live in the world we live in, and who we are with respect to each other, creation, and our Creator. It also explains why there is suffering in the world. However, there is still somewhat lacking. After all, if God is omniscient, all-powerful, and all-righteous, the whole mess should seemingly have been fixed before it started. For me, the Creation story in the Bible is not fully satisfying until one ties in the story of the Cross. Once we bring this story in, we find that God did not simply create a world with suffering, but God is one who suffers with us. But that suffering is not meaningless… but motivated by love and directed towards hope.

“Tungkung Langit and Alunsina” reminds us of the truth we learn from the Gospels. Suffering and loss are not what what distances us from God but what draws God close to us. Suffering and loss, love and hope, are brought together in the Cross.

The Supreme Parable

Lesslie Newbigin

Quote of Lesslie Newbigin.  “The Open Secret,” chapter 4:

The supreme parable, the supreme deed by which the reign of God is both revealed and hidden, is the cross. When Israel rejected Jesus’ call to repent and believe the good news of the reign of God, there were two roads which (humanly speaking) he might have taken. One would have been to withdraw with his disciples to the desert and there, like the contemporary communities of which we know from the Qumran documents, pray and wait for God’s action to establish his reign. The other would have been to take the way of the contemporary “freedom fighters” and seek to establish the messianic order by force. Jesus did neither. He led his disciples right into the Holy City at the season dedicated to the memory of national liberation. He chose a mount, however, that suggested a humble royalty, a kingly meekness. He challenged the leaders of the nation at the very center of their power, and he accepted in his self the full onslaught of the powers that refuse the reign of God. Here is the supreme parable: the reign of God hidden and manifest in the dying of a condemned and excommunicated man; the fullness of God’s blessing bestowed in the accursed death of the cross. 

I believe this parable applies to Christians today as well.

1.  Some love the HAWK form of Christianity. Triumphalistic, “Onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war.” Spiritual warfare and Power Encounter as primary tools of ministry. The zealots/sicarii of the 1st century are alive and well.Some appreciate real weapons of war. Others may not use weapons but maintain the attitude of war.

2.  Some choose the DOVE approach of Christianity. For me, this is the radical separatism of some. The focus is on purity and perfection. The Essenes of teh 1st century are also alive and well with groups today that fear the surrounding culture and pull back to a defensive position.

Both of these are “anti-culture.” (3.) One might suggest that the Herodians of the 1st century are alive and well. Although we don’t know much about them, we may assume that they were cultural accommodationists…letting politicians and political movements greatly influence their own form of faith. (4.) Some might argue the Sadducees as being a bit similar in practice… pragmatists first, people of faith second. Generally, I think most Christians in the countries I have spent time in are accommodationists and pragmatists… although Hawk and Doves have their place (especialy in the US).

Jesus should be a challenge to all four groups. Challenging culture, but not anti-cultural. Subversive but non-violent. Pure but culturally interacting.

Later in the same chapter:

‘In what way has Jesus brought the reign of God near?’ Negatively I have said it has not been done by the introduction into history of a power which is manifest to the natural perception of men and women and which will therefore progressively overcome and eliminate the powers which oppose it. Positively I have said that the coming of Jesus has introduced into history an event in which the reign of God is made known under the form of weakness and foolishness to those to whom God has chosen to make it known, and that it is made known to them so it may be proclaimed to all.

Missions would do well to follow Jesus not these other popular models.