Four Books I am Reading Now

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I don’t buy a lot of books. The availability of Christian books that I am interested in here in the Philippines is limited. I also have limited resources. So I really feel fortunate when I ordered four books that were delivered a few weeks ago. All four I have found to be very useful. I don’t read cover to cover very often, I am not a reading ‘machine’ as some I know, but it looks like I am on a trajectory to reading all four completely.

  1.  “The Minister as Diagnostician: Personal Problems in Pastoral Perspective” by Paul W. Pruyser (1976). This was my least risky purchase. We have a Pastoral Counseling center here and we train in Clinical Pastoral Education. Pruyser’s book is written from the perspective of a psychologist at the Menninger Clinic, but for church ministers. He noted that pastors training in hospital chaplaincy tended to utilize the diagnostic language (and to a limited extent criteria) of psychologists. He suggested that there are diagnostic categories that are more appropriate, and more within the skill set of ministers. The language choices he uses I don’t find particularly intuitive. However, the seven basic categories for diagnosis I believe are quite useful. Some have noted the challenge of applying these categories in practice, but I believe Pruyser’s work is a good starting point. Looking forward to reading the entire, short, book.
  2. One Gospel for All Nations: A Practical Approach to Biblical Contextualization” by Jackson Wu (2015). This was my second safest choice. I enjoy Wu’s posts, many of which are related to this book, so I was pretty sure it would something I would find valuable. It has proven to be so far. I suppose I am curious about the title which speaks of “Biblical Contextualization” while the body of the book speaks of two types of contextualization– “Exegetical Contextualization” and “Cultural Contextualization.” Perhaps the author is linking Biblical with Exegetical, or the two contextualizations are seen to constitute “Biblical Contextualization.” Or maybe, the publisher chose the title. This is far less than a complaint… simply a comment. Positively, it looks at contextualization from a more Asian perspective. Living here in the Philippines, that is important to me. Additionally, it seeks to move from theoretical models of contextualization to a practical path to contextualization.
  3. “SCM Studyguide: Theological Reflection” by Judith Thompson and Stephen Pattison (2008). This was more of a leap of faith. In clinical pastoral care, we seek theological reflection in our trainees. Many struggle. Far too often, what is thought of as theological reflection is little more than verse-dropping (“This case reminds me of Psalm 23”). Other times, there is a failure to be truly reflective– simply reiterating what one already believes. This book is well-structured and deals with a number of forms of theological reflection. These methods are thoroughly orthodox in that the book does not advocate a “create your own theology” view. It seeks to connect and relate one’s faith tradition with experience. Already I find it useful, and am incorporating some of the ideas in a chapter on this topic in our upcoming book, “The Dynamics of Pastoral Care”– a sequel to “The Art of Pastoral Care.”
  4. “SCM Studyguide: Pastoral Theology.” by Margaret Whipp (2015). This book is done by the same publishing house as the previous one, and is a part of the same book series. The series is Anglican, and while the examples used in both books tend to draw from this tradition, they are broadly applicable to other Christians. This book I have only gotten into the earliest chapters, but so far I find it very valuable.  The previous book, Theological Reflection, is more structured, and I like structure. However Pastoral Theology as a subject is far less structured than many other categories of theology (systematic, biblical, philosophical, etc.), so I can hardly complain. Again, this book I am already finding inspirational for our training programs here, as well as for our newest book. Looking forward to finishing it.
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Quote of Myth, Meaning, and Ministry

One of my students put a great quote in one of his papers for our Cultural Anthropology class.

“Myth is a perceived truth which is immeasurably bersgreater than concept. It is high time that we stop identifying myth with invention or simply human imagination, with the illusions of primitive mentality. The creation of mythis among peoples denotes a real spiritual life, more real than any concepts and of rational thought. Myth is always concrete and expresses life better than abstract thought can do; its nature is bound up with that of symbol. Myth is the concrete recital of events and original phenomena of the spiritual life symbolized in the natural world, which has engraved itself on the language, memory, and creative energy of the people… it brings tow worlds together symbolically.”

<Stated by Nicolas Berdaev in “Freedom and the Spirit.” Quoted by Samantha Lichtenberg in “Experiencing Samoa Through Stories: Myths and Legends of a People and Place.”>

I found that this particular quote has been used in a number of books and articles– and deservedly so. I appreciate the value of myth. Of course, when I say that, I invariably have to add the note, that the term myth makes no assumptions as to historicity or “truth,” An accurately described historical event can be a myth as much a work of imaginative fiction. To see this, though, one has to understand that the term “myth’ has many meanings. In common parlance, it often means “old stories about things that we know ain’t so.” Berdyaev here is using the term more as a literary or theological term.

However, I have come across many a theologican who will say that the term “myth” does not imply ahistoricity… and yet they act in their writings as if it does. Because of this, I prefer to use the term “mythic” rather than “myth.” A story, regardless of it being true or false, accurate or inaccurate, historical or ahistorical, can serve a mythic function— resonantly explaining and justifying core cultural values.

There is a clear link here, I believe, between Berdyaev’s view of myth and Ricoer’s view of metaphor.

Ricoer sees metaphor not as figurative or imaginitive language, but as a link between two terms— one abstract and one concrete. Meaning is found in the tension between the concrete and the abstract.

Berdyaeve sees myth not as imaginative fictuion, but as a link between abstract thought and concrete narrative. Meaning is, again, found in this tension.

I have heard it said that allegory is an extended metaphor. From a syntactical standpoint, that makes sense. However, from a functional standpoint, I think the argument could be made that myth is an extended metaphor. That also clarifies things in another way. The concrete object in a metaphor can be real or non-real, much as the concrete narrative of a myth can be historical or ahistorical.

Berdaev also connects myth with spirituality. If one identifies spirituality as the overlap of power and meaning (in line with Paul Tillich) this is certainly true. Myth empowers and is empowered by the culture within which it resides, and likewise is embued with meaning from, and provides meaning to that same culture.

In Christian ministry we need to create myths, and parables. We need stories that resonate with the respondent culture– affirming and challenging the values of that culture.

More stuff on Myth and Parables in my book “Theo-Storying

The Cult of Ares

A few months ago, the movie “Wonder Woman” had as the main villain, or villain behind the villains, Ares, the Greek god of war. Some were surprised or disappointed by the choice of actor to play that role. They felt that the character did not fit the larger than life image of what they pictured as a God of War. Yet, in Greek Mythology, Ares was looked down upon by most Greek storytellers. Outside of at Sparta and a few cities in Northern Greece, he was rarely worshiped. Most of his stories were ones involving his humiliation. He, siding with Troy, lost in the Trojan War against Athena, who sided with the Greeks. Athena was linked to the “glorious” side of war, while Ares was linked to the thuggish side— always linked with his relatives– Fear, Terror, and Discord. The Greeks normally did not see Ares as larger than life. Rather, he was smaller than life.fig_ares_fig03

I feel the movie was successful in its image. It was nice to have a seemingly pleasant, somewhat unassuming man, be Ares– evil secreted within the mundane. Likewise, the fact that Ares showed up hiding in the public arena on the side of the “Good Guys” should give one a reason for pause. Further, Ares is not portrayed as the master controller of mankind, but a rather petty manipulator of already flawed, violent, sinful humans. Of course, all of these characteristics can be applied to Satan. The devil doesn’t make us do much of anything… we ultimately do it to ourselves. The devil may not look as we expect, and may even not be working with the people we think of as the bad guys.

Christians have struggled with fascination with war… but have also struggled with it. Jesus told soldiers that they should behave in a just manner, but did not say they can’t be soldiers. On the other hand, the early church often felt that military service was incompatible with being a Christian.

From my own denomination, the following is a line from the latest version of their articles of faith (Baptist Faith and Message, 2000). It is not meant to be creedal… although some treat it as such.

It is the duty of Christians to seek peace with all men on principles of righteousness. In accordance with the spirit and teachings of Christ they should do all in their power to put an end to war.

The true remedy for the war spirit is the gospel of our Lord. The supreme need of the world is the acceptance of His teachings in all the affairs of men and nations, and the practical application of His law of love. Christian people throughout the world should pray for the reign of the Prince of Peace

The wording is a bit vague, but still generally commendable, I suppose. But among the Baptists, and many other Evangelicals, I have seen the other side. There are a lot of Hawks among Conservative Evangelicals. Back in 1984, I attended a big conference in Washington DC, “Baptist Fundamentalism ’84.” Definitely not my scene but I played saxophone for Cedarville College Symphonic Band that performed one of the days of the conference. We were not performing the day of President Reagan’s speech, but were in the audience. During his speech, several people stood up on the left side of the hall raising a banner yelling “Bread, not Bombs!!” “Bread, not Bombs!!”

Quickly, they were grabbed and ushered out of the hall. A couple of my fellow bandmembers were sitting in the vicinity of the protesters. They said that as the protesters were manhandled roughly, some Baptist Fundamentalists spat upon them.

It kind of makes you think— or at least it should. Why would Christians behave in a manner that was so inconsistent with Christ’s call to love everyone… including enemies? And, why would these Christians be so angry about a slogan that seems so obviously commendable. I served in the military for a few years, but even I can see the good sense in identifying food as a greater human priority than military armament. Even in the closing chapters of the Cold War, that really should have been obvious. Of course, maybe the crowd was incensed that a speech was interrupted. Frankly though, the protesters did much to make the conference much more interesting.

I feel that many in the crowd were part of the cult of Ares. More recently, many Christians on FB seemed to be so angry that some players are not standing up for the US National Anthem in NFL and NBA games. I can’t really connect to the concern much. I live in the Philippines, so we don’t do the US National Anthem– rather we do the Philippine National Anthem. Even though I am a foreigner, I would never consider sitting down for the “Lupang Hinirang.” My goal is that “whatever state I am, therein to be content”… and respectful. But why would Christians be getting disturbed about whether one stands or sits (or anything else) during the National Anthem… or whether they say or don’t say the Pledge of Allegiance. As a Baptist, the Anabaptists are my spiritual siblings. Many of them refuse to participate with these rituals on the belief that they are idolatrous,  or violate the call of Christ not to make vows. Why would so many Christians become so angry about things that would put us in conflict with fellow Christians? One might say that it is about Patriotism or Nationalism. But really it is not about that, but conforming to societal norms… or actually conforming to a very specific vision of what some wish to be a societal norm. That, of course, begs the question of what that vision is.

The US is interesting because Patriotism is often linked so much with war. I read a little article recently (I hope it is true… there is so much opinions reported as actual news). It showed the history of having the national anthem played at games goes back to World War II, and the having players be seen to respond to the National Anthem goes back to Department of Defense military recruiting. (You can read the article and decide for your self HERE.) Of the four major patriotic holidays for the US are Presidents Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Veterans Day, three of those are dominated with war themes.

I am not a pacifist, but things seem a bit out of control. In recent years I have had a number of people say to me “Thank you for your service to our country” when they found out I served in the Navy. I never had that happen during my time of military service, or for many years after that. Frankly, I did it as a job and as a duty.  I feel good about my time in the Navy, but I believe that through my role in Christian ministry I have been much more involved with real service to my country, and many other countries than I ever did through my time in the Navy. Maybe as Christians we can try to find a balance between the extremes of the Vietnam War period (people spitting on War veterans) and this time of jingoism.

I remember sitting in a church in the US when the pastor suggested that the right to bear arms be considered by Christians to be a non-negotiable viewpoint along with the divinity of Christ, the Trinity, and salvation by faith. That view certainly is some weird sort of syncretism, and “The Cult of Ares” seems as good as a term to describe this loose mixture of Christian virtues with a weaponized Americanism.

I feel like this blogpost is a bit rambly… but it is still an area that I am thinking about. Ultimately, however, any view of Christianity that follows a Jesus who is anything other than the “Prince of Peace,” does need some soul-searching. The gods of war (note: the gods of war, not those who serve) are more deserving of ridicule and humiliation, than of adulation— much like Ares.

 

The Timeless Church

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We talk of the local church, and the universal church. The local church is the community of faith, while the universal church is the Body of Christ or Bride of Christ, depending on your metaphor of choice.

Baptists, of which I am lumped, often tend to focus on the local church. I like the idea of the autonomy of the local church. Frankly, however, the local church doesn’t really matter all that much if there isn’t a spiritual unity among all communities of the Christian faith.

The unity of the church is identified in metaphors (body and bride), as well as rituals. In the Eucharist, the unity with Christ is shown through the eating and drinking of the elements. but it is also done as a group… suggesting community. Paul connects baptism with uniting with the death and resurrection of Christ. However, baptism appears to be identified with unity of all believers as well. The (Matthew version of) the Great Commission suggests this. Ephesians 4:4-5 points to baptism as linking all believers. The metaphor is taken even further in I Corinthians 12:12-14 where the spiritual unity of the church is described through the metaphors of being immersed in the spirit (like Baptism) and drinking of one spirit (like Eucharist). This passage doesn’t only describe the unity of the church, but also its diversity. Both unity and diversity are vital to the church.

But I believe it is valuable to consider the church as a unity not only in space, as described above, but in time as well. Romans 14:9 states “For this reason Christ died and returned to life, so that He might be the Lord of both the dead and the living.” The dead in Christ are seen as equal with those living, and sharing in the having the same Lord. I Thessalonians 5:10 says a similar thing, “He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him.” Personally, I find it interesting that the Eucharist connects the past with the present and future.  I Corinthians 11:26 notes that “For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup (PRESENT), you proclaim the Lord’s death (PAST) until he comes (FUTURE).”

Okay, that may not be compelling, but for me, I think it is better to think of Thomas Aquinas and Charles Spurgeon as part of the church rather than having once been part of the church. Here are a few thoughts related to the idea that the church exists as a unity in both time as well as space.

  1. We should study church history, not only for practical experience, but because they are family. They are as relevant to who we are as the church today.
  2. Restorational movements, and movements that ignore much of church history in preference for the “primitive church” or the recent church, has done much to ignore God’s work in the world.
  3. We should recognize that we are the bridge between the past church and the future church.

This last point is actually quite important. Far too often, Evangelical churches ignore this point, acting on the presumption that not only are we theologically in “the last days,” as we have been for almost 2000 years, but that we are in the “last minutes” of the church age. This presumption seems ill-advised, especially since Jesus seems to make it clear that trying to time Christ’s return is bad. The parables of the faithful steward and the 10 maidens point to being prepared for a long wait. Rather than assuming that the church today is spiritually childless, we should plan for spiritual children, grand-children and great-grandchildren, preparing for the church of the 22nd, 23rd, 24th, and 25th centuries (and perhaps farther still).

To fail to prepare for the church of the future is disrespectful of our spiritual forefathers who prepared and trained us. It is also unconscionable to plan NOT to disciple the next generation, and transform communities, on the presumption that Christ is returning very very soon. Further, since each of us are only a few skipped heartbeats away from seeing Christ, we should be planning for this inevitability rather than something that will happen someday, but with no certainty of happening in our lifetimes.

 

Why I Love Teaching Church History on the Mission Field

As I have been visiting churches during our home assignment (furlough), I am occasionally asked why I teach church history in Thailand. “Do they really need to learn church history? Don’t they need the Bible more?” The answer to both questions is , “They do.” In a full-orbed approach to discipleship, Christians need to know some history too… even on mission fields where Christians are few and far between.

Source: Why I Love Teaching Church History on the Mission Field

Personal Note: I love the list, but I would add a #7.  The Church is Timeless. By that I mean that it is not correct to say that St. Thomas, Pope Gregory the Great, Teresa of Avila, Martin Luther, William Carey, C.S. Lewis, and Mother Theresa USED TO BE part of the Universal Church. Rather, they are a part of the church. To study the history of the church is as no less relevant than to study the present church. The church then exists in both time and space. I plan to expand on this soon… maybe in my next post. We will see.