Religion as Societal Parasite?

Religion has an important role in society. Emile DurkheimImage result for parasite among others have recognized that one of the roles of religion in a society is to safeguard it. It provides the support and underpinnings of a culture’s worldview. As such, it provides the norms for behavior as well as interpretation of experience. In a sense then it is true that religion does provide a conservative force preventing change. However, hopefully, it does not simply prevent change or idealize the past or present, but identifies principles that center our behavior. Religion commonly takes on the role of arbiter of change and conflict.

Therefore, at its best, religion is a benefactor to society. This role as benefactor may change in a multi-cultural, multi-religious setting… but the role doesn’t disappear.

Consider, however, another scenario. This was referred to by Alan Tippett in his book, “Missiology” (in Chapter 14).

“In passing, however, I may suggest that even in our modern society, if religion today seems to have become dispensable, it is probably because the Church has come dangerously near to forgetting its responsibility to society and has concerned itself too much with its own survival. It is just as this corresponding point of time, when the witchdoctors turn from being social “benefeactors” to being social “parasites” that the populace of animist societies turn to Christianity.”  (Tippet, 161)

Consider the story of the Longhouse Religion of the Iroquois. It has been suggested that part of the growth of this religion, based on the revelations of their prophet Handsome Lake, came as a revitalization movement. The former religion was polytheistic and led by shamans, and supported the worldview and values of the people. However, around the time of Handsome Lake, the people were inundated by vices from European settlers and pushed back economically, and militarily. As such, they were under great cultural stress. However, the political and religious leaders of the Iroquois, the supposed benefactors of their society had become corrupt, given into the vices that were destroying the people, and now had a parasitic role in the society. The Longhouse Religion came as a revitalization movement but also as a conversion movement. It was a monotheistic movement and supported a strongly ethical standard for the people. Despite the differences from the previous faith, it in many ways better supported the Iroquois’ self-understanding and values than the previous faith. It took on the role of being a benefactor to the people rather than a parasite.

Ezekiel 34 speaks of a similar thing where the “shepherds” of Israel, both political and religious had taken on a parasitic role in society.   I would recommend reading the whole passage, but I will put here the first 10 verses:

The word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel. Prophesy, and say to them: This is what the Lord God says to the shepherds: Woe to the shepherds of Israel, who have been feeding themselves! Shouldn’t the shepherds feed their flock? You eat the fat, wear the wool, and butcher the fattened animals, but you do not tend the flock. You have not strengthened the weak, healed the sick, bandaged the injured, brought back the strays, or sought the lost. Instead, you have ruled them with violence and cruelty. They were scattered for lack of a shepherd; they became food for all the wild animals when they were scattered. My flock went astray on all the mountains and every high hill. They were scattered over the whole face of the earth, and there was no one searching or seeking for them.

“Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord. As I live”—the declaration of the Lord God—“because My flock has become prey and food for every wild animal since they lack a shepherd, for My shepherds do not search for My flock, and because the shepherds feed themselves rather than My flock, therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord!

10 “This is what the Lord God says: Look, I am against the shepherds. I will demand My flock from them and prevent them from shepherding the flock. The shepherds will no longer feed themselves, for I will rescue My flock from their mouths so that they will not be food for them.

Today, we see religion in many forms. We see it providing group identity and supporting high values that are to be attained to. As such we see religion still being a benefactor. But we also see religion corrupted by power, coercive, and self-serving. Rather than step on toes and point out places and ways religion (very much including Christianity among the other faiths) has often moved from being a benefactor to being a parasite, I would just suggest the following question:

If the church is worried about losing influence in society, it is better to ask the question of whether it is being seen as a hoarder of human blessings (wealth, power, etc.) or a channel of God’s blessings.

 

Fulfilling Culture

H. Richard Niebuhr wrote a book that has become a seminary classic: “Christ and Culture.” Actually, it was a series of lectures that were compiled into a book. Niebuhr suggested five major philosophies or categories as to how Christ can interact with human Culture. The five are:

  1. Christ Against Culture
  2. Christ Of Culture
  3. Christ Above Culture
  4. Christ and Culture in Paradox
  5. Christ the Transformer of Culture.

<If you want to read a VERY BRIEF description of each category one can go to an article in Focus on the Family HERE. The first half of the article is beneficial. The second half was a waste of time as the article writer feels the need to demean Niebuhr as a “liberal.” Apparently, because he is liberal, he should not be trusted, while D. A. Carson (who is less liberal) is more trustworthy. I have trouble with this. First, trusting a person because of how closely he conforms to your preconceived opinions is a dangerous road to go down. As a second point, Niebuhr’s categories are a framework. As such, they are useful or not useful, rather than true or false. Judging a framework on who established it is kind of foolish if you get right down to it.>

I find the categories rather useful. I think that the first two categories (Christ Against Culture, and Christ Of Culture) are simply wrong. However, the remaining three have potential value. So I am adding another expression here with a bit of caution. But here it is:

Christ Fulfilling Culture

This one is not distinctly different from one or more of the latter three categories. Rather, I like this expression because it gives a better image of what I think Christ’s role is in terms of culture. To me Christ Transforming Culture is a good descriptor of Christ as one who takes what exists and makes it better, but does tend to focus more on the role of changing what is bad over the role of preserving what is good. Christ and Culture in Paradox is good and I think it fits well as a term with Bevan’s description of countercultural theological contextualization. However, the expression focuses on conflict… and that is a bit too simplistic. Christ Above Culture is good in that it makes clear that Christ and Culture are not equal— Christ has priority. However, in every other way, the term is unclear.

I prefer the expression “Christ Fulfilling Culture.” It suggests the idea that in Christ the work started in culture is completed in Christ… or that in Christ culture can become what it was meant to be, rather than what it is. Culture is generally (but not universally) understood to develop organically to meet the needs of a group as well as the individual members of that group. Culture guides behaviors and interpretations so that people can meet their holistic needs (physical, psycho-emotional, social, and spiritual) within a society as well as to attain human potential/flourishing. As such, culture IS because culture seeks to be good. However, culture always falls short of its lofty goals. Culture always ultimately fails to satisfy completely the felt and real needs of the group— because it is a construct of flawed humans in a flawed world. Christ, then, fulfills or satisfies what was dissatisfying in a culture.

Consider a couple of stories that point me in this direction.

Story #1. I was talking to one of my students who is of the Kachin people. The Kachin people are a group of tribes in Northern Myanmar, and parts of China and India. He was describing the beliefs of his forefathers. He noted that the Kachin people believed in one supreme creator god. They believed in the fallenness of man. They believed that God had given a message to the people but that message was lost. They believed in the need for sacrifice for reconciliation with God. When Christian evangelists came from the Karen tribe to their people, large numbers responded. However, many of them did not see themselves as leaving the religion of their ancestors. Rather they saw the Christian faith as fulfilling or completing the religion they already had. They now had the message they lost, and the completion of the sacrifices, through Christ.

Story #2. Acts 15, the Jerusalem Council, was a major event where an important issue was decided. Do Greeks have to become Jews to become Christians? The end result of the council was “NO.” Christ’s message is relevant to Greeks in the same way it is relevant to Jews. Christ fulfills the Jewish Religion and Culture, and Christ fulfills the Greek Religion and Culture. As such, Christians may behave considerably different in many key ways and still be understood as living according to the will of God. In the end, I feel that fulfill best expresses this.

What Do We Do With All Them Pagan Holidays

Image result for pumpkins halloween

Okay. I am here to help. Social media gets pretty confusing around Halloween time. People are, again, saying how evil it is for Christians to celebrate the day. In a few weeks more articles will come out talking about how Pagan Christmas is, and then three months later the same for Easter. No one complains about American Thanksgiving– a harvest festival much like those practiced by Pagan cultures around the world. If you don’t find that strange, consider that Halloween is lambasted annually for being related (a bit loosely) with Samhain, a Celtic harvest festival, after all. And no one seems to complain about the “Fourth of July” despite its use of fireworks— a pagan instrument used by cultures for centuries to scare away evil spirits. With all of these inconsistencies, I would like to offer a bit of help to know how best to deal with all of these different “pagan holidays.”

I would like to suggest a range of Christian responses or non-Christian responses to the issue of celebrations. <Note: for the last 15 years I have lived in the Philippines where Halloween is not celebrated much, being a distant second to Undas or All Souls Day. Therefore, I haven’t had involvement in Halloween in many many years. You can decide if that makes me a better or worse opinion.>

Possible Good Christian Responses.

#1.  Celebrate every day. All days are created by God so every day is holy and worthy of celebration.

#2.  Celebrate no days. Arguably this is just the same as the previous one. To celebrate each day means to treat each day as no more special than any other. So, in essence, one is celebrating or honoring no day as special. Since primitive Christianity gave us no days that MUST be honored above other days, celebrating no days is certainly a viable option.

#3.  Celebrate some days. This one probably needs to be sub-divided.

#3A.  Celebrate those days that have become considered to be “Christian Holidays.” As Christians we share a common heritage— a two thousand year heritage. When we celebrate Christmas, Easter, Palm Sunday, Lent, Pentecost, Epiphany, and many many other days in the liturgical calendar, we connect in some small way with our brothers and sisters in faith around the world and across time. That seems a good enough reason by itself to celebrate. I don’t feel like we have to triplecheck to make sure that no pagan, neo-pagan, or satanic group is trying to lay claim to the day. If Christians decided to view July 19 (to grab a day somewhat at random) as a new Christian holiday, I don’t think we have to be worried that some group has already messed it up.

#3B.  Celebrate those days that are culturally or civically significant that are not “anti-Christian.” We are part of a culture and a community that goes beyond the church. We are not only citizens of heaven, but citizens of nations, and products of history. Therefore, days that honor civil institutions, or historical events certainly can be celebrated. In fact, if Christians do not celebrate these, it could be argued that this makes Christianity alien to the culture and foreign to the nation in which it exists. Christianity is suppose to fulfill culture, or perhaps subvert it, but certainly not destroy it or ignore it.

#3C.  Celebrate those days that are one’s neighbors celebrate even if they are “non-Christian.” We know meat offered to Zeus is not tainted by Greek gods. We know that each day is created pure and good by God. We can redeem any symbol we wish, and we can avoid any symbol that we are uncomfortable with. If Christians were able to “Christianize” an instrument of torture, murder, and shame (the “cross”) we can certainly Christianize or redeem any symbol. The roots of symbols have no power any more than Zeus has power.

Possible Bad Christian Responses

  1.  Picking one of the options above and then telling every other Christian that it is the only moral choice. You can exercise your freedom in Christ or not, but it is not your place to tell everyone else what they can and cannot exercise.
  2. Listening to one-sided religious salespersons and taking what they say as the “gospel truth.” Most concerning to me are those who are taking the words of alleged Satanists as the truth when it comes to Halloween. Think about that statement– Why would we? In fact, we are missing the point. Those humorous quotes of Satanists expressing shock that Christians celebrate some aspects of Halloween are not understood for what they really are. They are attempts by a fringe group to appropriate a Druidic (non-Satanic) holiday and then push Christians away from celebrating All Saints Day, and All Hallows Eve. Of course, some Christians go the other way and assure us “It is all harmless” because… well, they did it as kids so it must be okay. I feel we can do better than this.

It seems like the articles that show up on social media right now embrace a certain ignorance and a touch of cowardice. I think we need brave scholars in Christianity, rather than ignorant cowards.

 

 

Empowering Leadership over Empowered Leadership

Years ago I went to a conference on Multi-site churches. Most of those who had mega-multisite churches were Independents— not part of a denomination. But one of the main speakers did have a very large church that was multi-site and was part of a denomination. During the Q&A time, an acquaintance of mine and from my denomination, asked this pastor a very relevant question. It was, “As a megachurch leader but also a member of a denomination, what would you like for your denomination leadership do to help you be more effective in your doing your ministry?” Since the acquaintance of mine was in denominational leadership, it seemed an especially relevant question.

The megachurch pastor said at first, “Stay out of our way.” But then he laughed and said he should give a better answer than that. He then said, to the effect,

The difficulty that denominations have is that they are led by pastors. It makes sense that the leaders of groups of churches should have previously been leaders of churches. But there is a problem with this. You see, pastors are “vision-people.” That is, they embrace the role of guiding the church in the way it should go. They gain a vision of where the church should go and then try to instill that same vision in the membership of the church. That is fine, but when they move into denominational leadership, this tendency doesn’t go away. They still seek to be the visionary people. Now, however, they start to see the various churches in their denomination as the tools to carry out their vision.

But this is the problem, because churches already have visionary leaders and have their own vision which is appropriate to their own “Church-DNA” and setting. What is needed is denominational structures and leaders who do not see individual churches as the tools to carry out their own denominational vision. Rather they need denominational leadership that identify and affirm the visions of individual churches and embrace the idea that the denominational structures and leadership are tasked to help empower individual churches to execute their own visions.

At the time I thought that was a pretty insightful image… and I still do. I also think it is somewhat unrealistic. If the ministry as a vocation promotes visionary people (we tend to think the religious leaders SHOULD be visionary)… and ministry has a hierachical structure, it is hard to imagine a system that promotes vision up to a certain level, and then supports empowerers above that level. It is like expecting politicians to actually be “servants of the people” when the finances and process of move to higher levels politically require being a servant to political and financial allies.

But imagine for a moment if a system could be developed in missions that follows the ideas of the quote above.

Imagine a mission agency that seeks to support the vision of missionaries within their organization rather than seeing them as pawns to be mobilized for their own vision?

Again, these may be a bit unrealistic. However, I think that at least there is a possibility of some modest changes that can be done so that hierarchies can empower rather than disempower and embrace vision from others rather than crush it.

  • Set up a structure that embraces training, and supporting the troops on the ground to carry out their task. Reject a military war model of a group of generals far removed from the front lines moving around troops.
  • Seek top-level leaders whose vision is more about empowering others rather than being empowered by others.
  • Seek to establish patterns that affirm empowering leadership at the lower levels so that at the higher levels the pattern and process doesn’t have to change.

On this last point— Imagine a missionary who seeks to work with local leaders by empowering them to do what God has called them to do.  This would be quite different than the more common method of a missionary coming in with a clear vision of what he or she wants to do and seeks to find local allies who can be brought in to serve the missionary’s vision.  Imagine a church pastor who sees himself as one who as an empowering leader seeing the church as a priesthood of believers, and works with the church rather than rules over the church.

Who knows…. it just might work.

Update to Theo-Storying

I finally got around to revising Theo-Storying: Reflections on God, Narrative and Culture. I expanded one chapter, and added an entirely new chapter. The new chapter is on the use of stories for theological reflection. I alsotheostorying fixed a number of little errors from the earlier edition. Curiously, I was able to keep it the same number of pages because I adjusted the formatting slightly. This allowed me to keep the same cover. I don’t know why… but I like the cover.

For some reason I had a bit more trouble with Amazon this go-around. For the E-book version, it wasn’t accepting my .doc file. I ended up sending my .pdf file. Amazon Kindle doesn’t really recommend using .pdf because the results apparently can be a bit “wonky.” However, I saw no more “wonkiness” with this version than the normal e-book result. But hopefully later we can solve that problem. With the paperback version, it was different. Everything went in smoothly, but then Amazon said I need to verify that I hold the copyright. I don’t think I gave them any reason to doubt that, so not sure the problem. Then I found that the Edit button is disabled… so I can’t (yet) fix things. However, when I went onto Amazon, it looks like the new version of my book is there. So not sure what is going on… but it seems like it doesn’t really matter to the end user— just me.

In some ways, Theo-Storying is my favorite book. That is because it is the only book that I wrote because I wanted to write it. This is not strictly true. It is the only book that I wrote because I wanted to THAT I FINISHED. Other books I finished I wrote because of it being my dissertation, or because my wife or I are teaching a course and we wanted a book for students here in Asia that covers the topics in a way that is appropriate for the trainees.

 

How to Keep Them Talking???

I was looking at a blog of one of my favorite Asian theologians. His blog is on Patheos. Patheos appears to be a webspace that allows bloggers (especially theological or religious) to reside. I am not sure if they allow the bloggers to be monetized, but there are an awful lot of advertisements. Much of the advertisers are really, Really, REALLY SKETCHY. Personally, I am not interested in clicking on an advert to get a prophecy from my personal angel. If my personal angel wants to tell me something, he/she can email or PM me like the rest.

One advertisement caught my eye, however. It said.

How to shut up an atheist in 15 seconds flat.

Click Here to Find Out How

A strange whim came over me and I clicked on it (something I never ever ever do).  It said,

Atheists silenced by “Adam Gene” discovery.

A new blessing for every Christian American.

It started to try to open up a video for me to watch… but I dumped out before that happened. I wasn’t convinced I was interested. First of all, it is apparently for Christian Americans and most of the people I minister with and to are Christian Asians. Second, if this “Adam Gene” is such a wonderful thing (“a new blessing”) shouldn’t it be a new blessing for atheists? Do Christian Americans really need a new blessing? Let’s not get greedy…

Not having watched the video, I have to guess what is being said. I guess they are saying that there is something that someone labeled the “Adam Gene” in the human genome whose character is so self-evidently inexplicable from an non-theistic evolutionary perspective that a committed atheist will be completely dumbfounded and have no retort to this. And this discovery can be explained adequately in 15 seconds or less. Without knowing what this new blessing is (which I guess must actually be an “old blessing” since it is given the moniker “Adam”), I still have my doubts. Worldviews are generally quite resilient to opposing views, and evidence is rarely as “In Your Face!!” as proponents think it is.

For me, however, I am thinking more about an advert for Patheos that would be a bit different. It could be something like this:

Atheists

I feel like this would be much more valuable and interesting. I feel it sounds clickbait-y enough. Adding “in 15 seconds flat” is overkill, and I think disingenuous as well. When a person clicks on it, they are taken to a list. Perhaps the list could look something like this:

  1. Let them know that you are genuinely interested in what they believe.
  2. Listen actively and intently to what they say, seeking to not only understand what they believe but also why they believe it. (Talk less, listen more.)
  3. Demonstrate to them that you genuinely care about them as fellow human beings; and see each as an individual person, not a label or category.
  4. Make it clear that the care you demonstrate to them is not contingent on them coming around to your way of thinking.
  5. Invite them to share their faith journey to atheism. Seek to understand and empathize as much as possible with the feelings involved in that process.
  6. Dispel the stereotype that you as a theist believe that they, as atheists, must be bad people.
  7. Agree with them in areas that you can honestly agree, Don’t pretend certainty on things that you can’t be certain about.
  8. If asked to share what you believe, do so with humility, gentleness, and respect.

I would like to think that following such a list would be a blessing to Christians (American or otherwise) and Atheists alike.

Quite an improvement in my view.