Homer Simpson, Folk Christianity and “Religio-Magic”

Homer Simpson
Homer Simpson (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The following is a quote by Tony Campolo in the Foreward he wrote for the book “The Gospel According to The Simpsons: The Spiritual Life of the Word’s Most Animated Family” by Mark I. Pinsky (Westminster John Knox Press, 2001).

In Homer, we find still another form of Protestant Christianity. He is one of the best examples of what sociologists call ‘folk religion.’ He is the kind of religious person who goes to church regularly, but is in reality more into a religio-magic belief system than into anything that resembles biblical Christianity. For Homer, God is like a parachute he hopes he never has to use, but he wants God to be there, just in case. When Homer is in deep trouble he turns to God and begs for miracles, but when miracles do happen, they do not make him into a man of faith or deep more convictions. Once a crisis is passed, Homer’s thinking about God is over. God, for him, is somebody you bargain with in times of trouble, making all kinds of promises to change (which are never lived out), if God will just deliver on a needed miracle.
The anthropologist, Bronislaw Malinowski, in his book, “Magic, Religion and Science,” explains some key differences between religion and magic. Magic, he says, is an attempt to manipulate spiritual forces so that the supplicant gets what he or she wants, whereas in pure religion the individual surrenders to spiritual forces so that those forces (i.e., God) can do through him or her what those forces desire. Given these definitions, Homer is certainly into magic rather than religion.
Do not go too hard on Homer Simpson…  If you ask probing questions, you quickly will learn that most church members are into some form of religio-magic Christianity. For instance, I remember my Sunday School teacher telling me when I was a boy that, if I wanted my prayers to be answered, I had to make sure that I ended them with the right words– “In Jesus name, Amen.” Without that “magic” formula I was told I would be unlikely to get the desired results. My teacher led me to believe in a petty God who could look down on people who were begging for help and say, “I really would love to meet your needs, but you didn’t give your prayers the proper ending.” God, for Homer, is a great big Santa Claus in the sky who gives people what they want if they just remember to state things with the right incantation.

It has been noted by many that  part of the appeal of the Simpson’s TV series is not that it is a Christian show, but rather that it recognizes the impact that religion has on society (pretty much every society if you include non-organized faith groups). Additionally, the show expresses religion (and its adherents) honestly, often showing the warts that we would prefer to hide. A lot of “cultic” groups have the reputation for trying to control their image to the public, but Christians fall into that same trap far too often as well. In a supposed attempt to protect God’s reputation, we express “righteous” anger for others pointing out our (group and individual) foibles. However, we need “external audits.” Internal audits are often too generous and protective to be suitably honest.

Homer, frankly, expresses a very common Christian attitude… even that of committed Christians. Involved with seminary life and seminary training I regularly meet people that believe that praying “In Jesus Name” forces God to do what they want (a religio-magic or incantational understanding), rather than stating that they will act as ambassadors of, and according to the will of, Jesus (the Biblical and, according to Malinowski, a pure religious understanding). Some try to grab “Biblical promises,” often out of context, to try to convince God that He has been caught in a trap of His own words to do what they want, rather than recognizing the promises as expressions of His own will that challenges us to conform to them. Some believe that their prayers must be said as affirmations, as if the very praying has already made it happen. They fear that expressing any uncertainty whether God has done it or will do it, messes up the formula, rather than understanding that we are limited in time, space, and knowledge, and that God knows better than to give us the bad stuff simply because of our ignorance and foolishness. Some believe that they must bargain with God. “God, do this for me and I will do…. for You.” Often this doing is something personally unpleasant… as if God appreciates our grabbing hold of some form a random unpleasantness (often little more than sympathetic magic) thus convincing Him to respond favorably to balance out the Universe.

To be honest, I fall into the trap of being Homer as well, sometimes….

Here is the question. In missions, we are seeking genuine conversion. But what do we convert to? Many of those being reached are animistic either in primary belief, or in an underlying worldview. As they become Christians, there is the temptation to combine this religio-magic with Christianity (syncretistic) or maintained as a dual faith. I believe this is a problem… but is it realistic to squelch the confusion from the beginning or see such a phase as transitional?

Here is what I mean… When I was young, I was taught a prayer that I should say. It went like this:

Dear Jesus, Help me to be a good boy. Thank you for a good mommy and daddy. And thank you for dying on the cross for me. In Jesus Name. Amen.

As a child, I said this… religiously, without variation. As I grew older, I started praying longer prayers, but still ending with this basic formula. Eventually, I let myself go of the formula. I still end my prayer with ‘In Jesus Name, Amen” not because of obligation or theology, but habit. In fact, I rather prefer, theologically speaking, the Trinitarian formula, but some people get bothered because it “sounds too Catholic.”

Anyway, is it wrong that I believed that I HAD to pray one way? Maybe or maybe not. Maybe as a young believer I needed something simple. Perhaps what was good was that I was given something simple, but was in a nurturing environment to learn, grow, and adapt.

Missions Research and Practice, the Great Divide…

WARNING!! A technical story to follow… feel free to skip the blue section if you wish.

The cover page to Søren Kierkegaard's universi...
The cover page to Søren Kierkegaard's university thesis. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Many years ago, I was a mechanical engineering student. My expertise was in material  science, particularly as it pertained to material response to stress. I did my master’s thesis in the creep rupture response of pultruded glass-reinforced polymer-matrix composites and how they are affected by notch sensitivity and thermal aging (chemical and physical aging). Being a bit less technical, I took some specialized fiber glass, drilled different size holes in it and hung weights on them in different heating environments to see when they fail. I wrote my thesis. I was shocked to discover how little information was out their on the research I was doing (that is nice in a sense since I was supposed to be researching in fertile soil). However, the little research I found disagreed somewhat with my results. The other research came up with a linear (straight line) approximation of the results. Mine was more curved… exponential. And when I looked at the data the other researchers used, it was clear to me that their data was more exponential than linear as well. So I came up with an empirical formula to describe creep rupture.

Why am I telling you this?  That thesis is probably on a shelf in two or three places in the world and most likely read by no more than 4 or 5 people total in the last 13 years. The results actually would be quite useful if they could be verified. Follow-on testing might contradict my results (creep rupture tests are notoriously difficult and the data is extremely limited). But if my results could have been verified, the information would be useful in the polymeric composites industry and in safety/failure analysis.

But almost certainly, the thesis is gathering dust (perhaps rightly so) and not being added to the knowledge base of the engineering world. 

<Okay, it is safe to begin reading again.?>

I am mentioning this because I am reading a dissertation on short-term mission pre-field training. It is quite interesting (to me at least). However, I have seen so many dissertations earn their researcher a doctorate but then simply became dusty books on shelves.

Many theses and dissertations rightly deserve to become forgotten… used by a few researchers for obscure bibliographic references or to act as a guide for structure and formatting. However, some have something relevant to say and should be integrated into present thought and practice.

Of course, (and mentioning nothing new to anyone here) one problem is lack of value of theses or dissertations as a vehicle for change. The language and style is unappealing and its form of dissemination tends to lead to their obscurity. What to do?

A.  One can change the format to make it more popular or at least understandable by those without a highly technical background. However, to do this while maintaining the rigor and hurdles of the process is a question. Can the final output of doctoral level research be a popular book while maintaining the proper oversight and high research standards? A lot of popular books are written. Much are little more than propaganda of the writer’s opinions and agenda. Can a dissertation be understandable and easily adaptable to the real world while maintaining the high level of academic standards. (Doctoral programs and masteral programs have probably been “dumbed-down” more than enough already.)

B. One can maintain the dissertation as it is but improve accessibility. This is done a lot with accessibility of papers through electronic databases accessible via the Internet. However, the structure of the dissertation can still lead to its obscurity even if it is physically/electronically accessible. Even if put into a more accessible form (like book, video, digital presentation) it is possible the good can be lost amidst the mediocre. Additionally, a lot of good papers come from obscure corners of the world where electronic forms are not produced and disseminated.

C.  One can require that students produce both a thesis/dissertation and a more popular adaptation. This sounds good, but setting up a new requirements can stretch out the training process even longer than it already is.

I am not seeking to solve a problem here. Ideally, the graduate  (with support of the learning institution and mentors) will develop accessible, clear, and relevant versions of the research that can be utilized to affect change.

However, I think genuine improvements are possible. I have taught a class in church growth (master’s level) where I gave a doctoral dissertation on the church growth movement as a reading assignment. It was clear and informative. So, I think even the old musty dissertation can be made readable if it is allowed to be done creatively.

In Christian missions this is especially important where mission strategy and policies are often developed “intuitively” or empirically by committee with questionable basis (theologically or otherwise). Good missions research can be a big help if allowed to percolate into the broader discussions of strategy and best practices. Of course, that requires that missions dissertations be good as well. I have read more than one dissertation in Christian work where the conclusions seem to be simply the belief system of the writer because they seem to disagree with (or are at least unrelated to) the research findings.

Metaphorical Theology in Missions

The Lord is my Good Shepherd
The Lord is my Good Shepherd (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was reading some of “Models of God: Theology for an Ecological, Nuclear Age” (strange title) by Sallie McFague. It has a chapter on Metaphorical Theology, and it seemed to me that it has much to say about Missions Theology. While I am aware that there have been some honest attempts to develop a real Missions Theology, most of what I have seen is little more than an attempt to “prooftext” the behavior of missionaries. I doubt that I will be part of the correction in this area… but I do hope to look at Contextual or Narrative or Metaphorical Theology on a level beyond the obvious. At this point I am probably still dwelling in the obvious.

Dennis Nineham (in the epiloge to “The Myth of God Incarnate” quoted by McFague) says that people…

“find it hard to believe in God because they do not have available to them any lively imaginative picture of the way God and the world as they know it are related. What they need most is a story, a picture, a myth, that will capture their imagination while meshing in with the rest of their sensibility in the way that messianic terms linked with the sensibility of first-century Jews, or Nicene symbolism with the sensibility of philosophically-minded fourth-century Greeks.”

The obvious implications of this is that people in the modern or post-modern or globalistic or pluralistic world picture God and that picture does not fit with their worldview. This disconnect leads them, naturally, to unbelief (or at least agnosticism). Or another way of saying it is that people invent an unbelievable god, and rejecting their own creation, reject God.

Gordon Kaufman has written a lot on God as symbol, not rejecting God, but recognizing that there is a difference between the “Available God” (a picture or image of God that we create in our minds) and the “Real God” (the self-existent One). Once we get a firm understanding of the difference between the “God Who Is” versus the “god we construct” we can see the problem that people today have.


But whose fault is that? If people view God as violent, uncaring, and judgmental, are we justified to blame them for the poor image? If people view God as kind of grandfatherly— kindly, doting, and a bit out of touch– can we condemn those with such an opinion? I would suggest that we as missionaries, theologians, Christians, have failed when we cannot develop an understanding of God that is both true and relevant.

An obvious (even necessary) way of doing this is through metaphor. A metaphor is a word or phrase that is used correctly in one context but applied to another context. When we say “The Lord is my Shepherd” we are taking the image of a shepherd, a keeper and protector of sheep, and relating it to God (and relating us to the sheep). Obviously, in many ways God is very much unlike a shepherd… but on some level the concept helps us understand God (if, at least, we understand what a GOOD shepherd is like).

Jacques Derrida notes that metaphors exist somewhere between nonsense and truth. Take the good shepherd example. On many levels it is nonsense to say that God is a shepherd. Clearly, He is not so employed. Clearly, He neither looks like a shepherd nor, in most ways, behaves as a shepherd. Yet on another level, it is possible that the image of God as a good shepherd expresses a profound truth about God that we would have trouble fathoming without this symbol/metaphor

Metaphor then provides a bridge between:

Context “A” ————— Metaphor ————— Context “B”

Is Not ———————— Metaphor ————– Is

Nonsense ——————- Metaphor ————– Truth

Sometimes a metaphor is found to be relatively stable, coherent, comprehensive and broad in scope. At that time, we might no longer talk of it as simply a metaphor, but as a model.

For example, according to McFague, “God as Father” is more than simply a metaphor, but can be thought of as a model. However, a model does not mean that it is any more real… it just means that it is broadly useful. God is not literally my father… yet God can be understood effectively in a broad set of situations through the metaphor/model of an idealized father.

Metaphors for God are useful, but they can lose their power. When Jesus spoke of God as His (and our) Father, this was a shocking new idea with little support within the Hebrew Bible. It’s power was tied to that shock value. Once the idea becomes comfortable, it risks becoming trite, it can become theologized, it can become a definition. Embracing the Fatherhood of God as a definition has led to much foolishness at times. Some have tried to explain why God can only be thought of as a Father and not a Mother, or how God is “male” and not “female.” I am not suggesting a feminization of terms for God. Many of those who seek to do this seem to be seeking new definitions rather than metaphors, or are purposely rejecting church heritage. New metaphors will certainly always challenge the past, but a respect for our heritage is also important… it is part of who we are. Metaphors can drift into heresy by misdirecting people so as to obscure the God Who Is, or by being taken as literal and so, again, obscuring the God Who Is. We often talk about Jesus as Prophet, Priest, and King. However, only one of these is literally true. Jesus was a prophet. However, Jesus was not literally a priest or a king. Rather, the terms “priest” and “king” are useful metaphors for certain aspects of the nature and role of Jesus.

Looking at this post, I realize that I am meandering. As I said, I am thinking through a lot of this with still more questions than answers. I can say this. We need to spend less time explaining old metaphors for God and then blaming people for not understanding them. We need to find effective metaphors for God that challenge and shock, that open the eyes of people today to understand who God is. In doing this, we risk being misunderstood, and we risk being thought of as heretical. However, effective metaphors will bridge the gap between the “God Who Is, ” present-day culture, and our faith heritage.

If this was easy, everyone would do it. But it is not easy… it requires a good understanding of who God is, an emic understanding of post-modern culture, and a divinely inspired creative imagination.

Chin Tribe: A Case Study of Contextualization

This post is based on the notes from a number of students of mine from the Chin tribe. I don’t have first hand experience with the group… just insights from  my students. I believe, however,  the items they mentioned provide some insight in healthy or critical contextualization.

When Christian missionaries arrived in the region of the Chin (in modern-day Myanmar) they found an animistic tribal society. It is possible that these missionaries first noticed the negatives. This would include belief in a world of evil spirits and spirits of departed ancestors that must be appeased through killing animals (and in some cases revenge). They may also have seen the practices of headhunting, mistreatment of women, and the ravages of alcoholism.

Today, the Chin tribe is mostly Christian. How did this happen? The nearby Burmese have had relatively few conversions to Christianity.

One obvious suggestion would be that Christian missionaries reaching out to the Chin people were especially good at their job, as compared to those reaching out to the Burmese. Another possibility was that the Chin people had a culture that was more conducive to respond to the Christian faith.

 A. Despite the obvious differences between Chin culture and Jewish/Christian culture, there were a number of major similarities. First, they believed in life, followed by death, followed by afterlife. This differs markedly with other groups in Southeast Asia that believe in reincarnation. Second, they believed in “heaven.” The place they believed in was called “Misi Khua” or Abode/village of the dead. They also believed in atonement. A cattle liver was needed by the departed to enter Misi Khua. The sacrifice of a pig or mythun (a local bovine) was also needed to make peace between enemies or quarreling families, and appease dead ancestors.

B. There are some obvious redemptive analogies. One of these is the atonement as listed above. The necessity of a liver to be allowed to enter Misi Khua (“heaven”), or the use of sacrifice (pig or mythun) to make peace and forgiveness where there is enmity, relates well with the sacrifice of Christ to achieve forgiveness and peace with God. A second one is Shah-Nu. Shah-Nu is the gatekeeper to Misi Khua. To enter “heaven” one half of cattle liver would be given to Shah-Nu (the other half given to one’s grandfather and grandmother). Christ describes himself as the Gate, in which no one can come to the Father except through Him. So Christ is both the gatekeeper and the sacrifice. The third redemptive analogy is the “Suutpi.” The suutpi is the centerpost in a traditional chin home. It supported the bulk of the weight of the structure. It also separated the “outer” portions of the house from the inner portions. Additionally, there is a curious older custom. If a person murders a member of a family, if he can get to the suutpi of that family house and embrace it, he will be accepted by the family and taken in. The suutpi also can remind one of Christ as the “chief cornerstone” (the most important support member for a house of a different construction). Additionally, embracing/accepting Christ will break down animosity and result in being part of a new family… a family that we have caused a member’s death.

C. Despite redemptive analogies and cultural similarities, there will always be places where creativity in missions is needed. Sometimes missionaries try to solve the problems, but often it is the local believers that are best suited to address the concerns. One example is in the area of greetings. Hospitality was often shown to visitors with alcohol. While alcohol in itself is not a problem, alcoholism became a problem for many of the people  So how does one hold onto the good of the tradition of hospitality without risking problems with alcohol abuse? Gradually, it became accepted that coffee and tea were acceptable substitutes for alcohol for showing hospitality. A second example, had to do with a dead relative. The dead had to be appeased for 7 days to ensure that no evil would come to the family or village. Within the Christian reinterpretation, the 7 days of vigil were maintained but not to appease the dead, but to provide an appropriate form of mourning for the departed and care for the family. A third example is in the area of theology. In the Chin language, there is a term for body (pumpi) and a term for spirit (kha), but no specific term for soul. In the end, the word for “life” (Nuntakna) was used for the soul. This proves quite useful. All animals and people (dead or alive) have a body (pumpi). Living animals and humans have life/soul (nuntakna). However, humans are unique from animals in have a spirit (kha). This not only works logically, it helps with Bible translation.

This is just a simple (and hopefully somewhat accurate) look at contextualization. But here is a key point. Much of the old belief system of the Chin people is gone… simply a matter of cultural history, so who cares about these issues? In my mind, there are at least two major reasons these are important. First, it helps the people recognize that Christianity is NOT a foreign religion. The Chin people had elements of divine truth in their culture (whether developed themselves or given as a preparation for the gospel by God, I will leave to others to speculate). Christianity did not destroy the belief system of the Chin people. Rather, it fulfilled it. It recognized the truth in their culture, and destroyed the fears and entrapments that their culture also had. Second, the better we see the power of God in cultures and the value of sensitive missions work within cultures in the past, the better we can gain insight as we share Christ’s message to fulfill other cultures and peoples.

Theology is a living bridge between God’s divine and unchanging revelation and the living changing culture of a people group. Critical Contextualization simply recognizes the necessity to connect, theologically, the Word of God with a people’s culture— flexibly, tentatively, and dynamically.

Great to Good Christians

A few years ago I read an article in Christianity Today called “’Great to Good’ Churches” (by Eric Swanson, 2003). I suppose it was a reaction to or at least a reflection on Jim Collins’ book “Good to Great.” It noted a “mid-life” reflection that many churches go through– a transition from seeking success to significance, from being great to being good.

Within this context, being great means:

Baguio Grand Mosque
  •      Great preaching
  •      Great facilities
  •      Great statistics
  •      Great music
  •      Great programs
  •      Great finances

These define, in many ways, success. Yet, just as many people discover in their mid-life one can be successful and yet live a life that is generally insignificant, many churches question the value of greatness.

Some begin to wonder if it is better to be “good” than it is to be “great.” But what might be some of the characteristics of a “Good” church?

  •      Manifests the fruit of the spirit (love, joy, peace, etc.)
  •      Seeks to be a good and transforming neighbor in its community
  •      Focuses more on giving than accumulating
  •      Expresses tangible kindness to those who struggle both in and outside the church
  •      Demonstrates corporate humility and hope
  •      Sides with the weak, downtrodden, and innocent— promoting social justice by example

In short, a good church exudes a Christlikeness that evidences itself in… well… goodness.

But I have also been thinking about this on a more individual basis. Should missionaries… should churchmembers… should Christians seek greatness or goodness? This issue kind of hit me from two stories from over 20 years ago– one from where I now live, and one far away that I visited.

Story #1. I was given a report of some missionaries from a large mission organization. I don’t know these missionaries since they have moved on, but served in my present home of Baguio City, Philippines. One of the highlights they listed in their work in Baguio was to join with local church leaders in successfully preventing a big mosque from being built in the city. Thousands of Muslim Filipinos have been moving up from Southern Philippines to escape from the violence, poverty, and political corruption in that region. They come to Baguio, an open city, in hopes of a better life for themselves and their children.

While the missionary report from the 1980s listed that as a success story (keeping out a mosque), it was clearly short-lived. I presently live close to two medium-sized mosques, and there are a couple dozen tiny mosques in the city as well. But it got me thinking. As a Christian missionary, I do not believe in the divine origin of the Quran (or the Hadith for that matter). I, likewise, don’t personally value having a mosque in my neighborhood. As such, I suppose I could see why some missionaries might fight to keep a mosque out and “pat themselves on the back” for having (briefly) achieved that end.

But then, I remembered another story…

Story 2. Back when I was in the US Navy, I had the great privilege to visit Egypt. Particularly, I got to visit a few times a small but growing city in there. In that city was one Coptic Christian church. Speaking with an Egyptian Christian, I learned that this church had grown greatly, and was bursting at the seams. The building was too small for its congregation. They had requested the right to have bigger facilities to meet the needs of their congregation, but they regularly were refused.

I never really had the opportunity to investigate the issues there. I was told that since the end of British occupation, it has been difficult to get permits to construct or expand church buildings. Regardless, it occurred to me at that time how ridiculous it is for community leaders to oppose members of their own community to worship in accordance with the convictions of their own hearts and faith.

In my way of think, people who do that sort of thing are clearly not being good. Good people don’t seek to legislatively crush a people’s hopes for a suitable place to worship according to their own faith. But that brings me back to Story 1. I was forced to realize the move to prevent mosque construction in Baguio was similar. <I do realize that sometimes building can be fought due to the specific location. One might argue that building a mosque at Ground Zero in NYC, or next door to the Church of the Nativity, or on the Jewish Temple Mount would be or was… disrespectful. I am talking about those who sought to prevent the building of a mosque anywhere in Baguio.>  Good Christians don’t do that.

Now don’t get me wrong, I REALLY am not attacking these missionaries from the 1980s. For one thing, I don’t know them enough to judge them. Second, I would hope to receive grace rather than judgment from others in what I do as a missionary.

But the main thing is that I believe these missionaries were seeking to be Great Missionaries, rather than Good Missionaries.

So what makes Missionaries Great?

     -Spiritual Warriors
     -Kingdom Builders
     -Contenders for the Faith
     -Highly Pious
     -Proudly Exercising their Gifts of the Spirit.

All of these are fine… but I do wonder if we need a few less “great” missionaries, and a few more “good” missionaries. Likewise, maybe we need a few less “great” Christians, and a few more “good” Christians.

What are the characteristics of good Christians? The same as good Churches:

  •      -Manifest the fruit of the spirit (love, joy, peace, etc.)
  •      Seek to be a good and transforming neighbors in their community
  •      Focus more on giving than accumulating
  •      Express tangible kindness to those who struggle both in and outside the church
  •      Demonstrate humility and hope
  •      Side with the weak, downtrodden, and innocent— promoting social justice by example

In short, good Christians exude a Christlikenss that comes from… well… goodness.