Christ in Contrast: A Holy Saturday Thought

I live in Philippines, a nation that many of its citizenry describe as the only Christian nation in Asia. (Of course, if “Christian nation” means majority of its citizenry describe themselves as Christian, then Armenia is also an Asian Christian nation— and Georgia, Cyprus, and Timor-Leste also qualify, depending on where one puts the artificial boundaries of Asia.) I was raised in the United States, a country that many of its citizens like to think of as a Christian Nation, or perhaps founded as a Christian Nation.

I really have no interest in either perspective.


Frederick Douglass (1818-1895)

To describe your nation as a Christian nation is to massively demean the adjective “Christian.” I see many problems with my home country and my adopted country. Those problems pain me, but not because the countries are not “Christian enough.” Neither country has effectively modeled Christ…

… AND THAT IS OKAY.  Christ should be seen in contrast to the institutions of the world.

I am reminded of the quote by Frederick Douglass, a former slave:

Between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference — so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt and wicked. … I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ; I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land. Indeed, I can see no reason, but the most deceitful one, for calling the religion of this land Christianity.  (“Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself” and quoted by Greg Boyd in “The Myth of a Christian Nation”)

I am also reminded of the story of Abraham and Jehannot de Chevigny in The Decameron. In that story, a Jewish merchant named Abraham chose to follow Christ after visiting Rome. According to the story… he was so disturbed by the gross immorality of the leadership of the Western Church that he decided that Christianity could not have come from people, but from God. In other words, the ideals of Christianity were so high in contrast the the practices of the religious institution of Christianity, that Abraham to see Christ only in contrast to the established church.

As I am writing this, it is Holy Saturday, or Black Saturday, the full day of Christ in the grave. While there are many theories as to the reason for the atonement (a dubious exercise), it is worthwhile to recall the role of institutions in Jesus’ death.

  • The Institution of Religion charged Jesus as worthy of death. He was seen as a usurper of authority and a blasphemer.
  • The Institution of Governance carried out the killing. While the government lacked the gusto of the religious establishment to have Jesus executed, it ultimately followed the Machiavellian process that governments almost always do– maintain the status quo to its own perpetuity.
  • The Institution of Revolution (if one wishes to think of Revolutionary elements in such a way) appeared happy to rid itself of a disappointment. Jesus entering Jerusalem in a Messianic fashion (or at least in a Judas Maccabeus fashion), was followed by Jesus refusing to embrace political revolution.

All three institutions seek (earthly) power to perpetuate and extend itself. Jesus made it clear, however, that his Kingdom (reign, institution) is not of this world.

In many a Christian sermon, it is said that we are guilty of Jesus’ death because we live a life of sin. Some extend it further, noting that many (most?) of us would have joined in the execution if we were there (as angry pious religious folk, patriotic citizenry, or disenchanted revolutionaries).  It could be taken further still, that our pet institutions would likely have behaved little better than did the institutions in AD30. Our institutions are driven by the same forces today that Jesus rejected, and still rejects.

It is good that Jesus cannot be seen in Religion, in Government, or in Political Action. A Jesus who could be seen in them deserves to be disappointing to people who desire something more than this world offers.

Jesus is seen in contrast. Jesus contrasts self-righteous religious leaders. Jesus contrasts weak-willed self-serving politicians. Jesus contrasts power-hungry revolutionaries. Jesus even contrasts his followers… a naive and cowardly lot.

On Easter Sunday, Jesus reveals who He is, but on Holy Saturday, Jesus reveals who (and what) He is not.




…And Then Sometimes They Just Get It

I teach a class in Inter-religious Dialogue (IRD). Since I am a Missions professor at an Evangelical missionally-minded seminary, I like to challenge the notion that IRD is anti-evangelistic. IRD is not preaching (1-way communication to change someone’s mind) or apologetics (2-way communication to change someone’s mind).  IRD focuses on understanding, but I point out that, much in line with Dale Carnegie, one does not influence another person by trying to win arguments. Mutual understanding builds trust, and opens the door for more effective sharing of one’s own beliefs.

Part of that class was to have my students practice Inter-religious Dialogue. They were to have two good conversations with individuals of another faith.

Most did okay enough. There were some issues:

  • Some really did not talk to those of another faith, but of a different Christian denomination. Why? In some cases, they may have been shy about making a conversation with someone from a different faith. For others, I don’t know. This is a Baptist seminary, and there is a temptation (a very unhealthy temptation in my view) to identify people from other denominations as people of other faiths.
  • Some did a conversation more like a quiz. “Can you answer me these following questions about your beliefs?” and “Okay… thanks for your time. Good day.” That is not the worst thing. Evangelicals sometimes almost revel in their ignorance of other faiths… so I can’t really complain that they took time to listen. But perhaps they could have done more to build relationships.
  • A few quickly fell back into argument— trying to ask clever questions, or make poignant statements that would leave the other at a loss and realize that their faith is invalid. That rarely works. But I know that argument is commonly taught as if it is a great method of sharing one’s faith. Just this morning, I saw a tweet from a Christian author that said something like. “Evangelism today is spelled A-P-O-L-O-G-E-T-I-C-S.” Personally, in a post-modern society, most real (inter-religious or inter-faith, rather than inter-denominational) evangelism should be spelled D-I-A-L-O-G-U-E. But I know that the desire to be clever and “score points” can be strong… and there are valid roles for apologetics.

One student in particular really got my point. When I first started teaching the class, he seemed rather skeptical thinking that I am disrespecting Evangelism. This is not surprising since Dialogue as promoted by John Hick, Raimon Pannikkar, and others on the Relativistic side of the spectrum of Dialogue thought certainly did not support proselytization… and often found it to be anathema, or at least inconsistent with dialogue.

But over time, my student came around to the idea that there may be benefit in using dialogue to reach some people.

He presented a case where it was very helpful. He was having a conversation with a person from another of the Great World Religions. That person was quite cautious and suspicious of my student. My student was very non-combative– he did not preach, he did not argue. They talked about life and faith. Over three or four meetings, they were able to get to the point where they could talk about issues of faith and faith allegiance in a mutually safe environment. The other person decided to become a follower of Christ. My student is now mentoring that person… but is for now cautious in integrating that person into a church. (Sadly, there are far too many horror stories of well-meaning Christians who destroy young Christians from other religious backgrounds because they don’t know how to respond well.)

So does that mean that Dialogue can work in Evangelism. Absolutely Yes. Is it the only thing that works? No, but for a person from a radically different faith background, canned presentations, clever arguments, and polemics are likely to create a hostile response, not the desired response.

My student was thankful for the class because it helped him respond in a way that the other person was prepared to respond well to… rather than react against.

I find it amusing sometimes, and sometimes disappointing, when I teach a class and my students do almost the exact opposite of what I recommend. It is their right, and I don’t really trust professors who feel that their students must mimic their own views and behaviors. Still, one hopes that the students at least struggle with what they learned from the course trying to figure out what to value and practice, and what to set aside….

… And then sometimes they just get it.


Bigamy and Missions

I have fallen out of the habit of getting involved in discussion boards. I guess part of the reason is that over the decades they attract trolls. But even when they don’t they often draw people in based on their ability to type rather than their ability to discuss or think.

Recently, I saw a discussion thread put up by a person I know somewhat who was asking what one does if a missionary leads a man to Christ who has two wives, each wife having children.

A wide variety of answers started flowing in. The answers that I saw fell inuseto three overlapping categories.

  1.  Verse-drop answers. This is where one takes a single verse or passage and suggests that it provides the full answer. Some may  take I Timothy 3:2 or a statement that one of the OT patriarchs had more than one wife, as an answer to the issue. Verse drop answers push people to the extremes. Some used a passage to justify that “Hey, bigamy is no problem,” while it pushed others to the opposite extreme, “the family must be destroyed at all costs.” My problem here is that using just one verse misuses Scripture, and then describes that misuse as the “Biblical answer.”
  2. Feelings answers. Some of the answers appeared to be based on how the person felt about it. If they found bigamy distateful, it must crushed. If there is empathy for the wives and children (to say nothing of the husband/father) there was more of an accommodationist approach.  Feelings are important, but frankly, the feelings of the discussion members are the LEAST relevant of the interested parties. The feelings of the participants are the ones that should be honored. <I live in a region where people eat dog. Feelings may be relevant to the discussion on whether one should eat dog. But it is the feelings of the people who live in places where people eat dog that is relevant, not people far removed from the situation.>
  3. Simple. In this sense, I mean that there did not seem to be much soul-searching as far as struggling with the issue. If bigamy is a problem, one must find a quick answer to deal with it— divorce one, or maintain a chaste relationship with one or both wives. A boss of mine described these as Al Yagoda solutions. Who is Al Yagoda? He is the guy who knows the correct answer without fully knowing the situation.  “Al Yagoda (“All you got to”) do is ______________________.” The problem beyond ignorance is that it is dualistic. Christian morality is never dualistic. There are things that are good and commendable. There are things acceptable but undesirable. There things that are neutral.

The issue brought up is very real world. In many parts of the world, bigamy is practiced. In some cases it is a sociological necessity almost. What is the cost of following Christ. Does it include destruction of the family? In some parts of Africa, Muslim missionaries are expressing Islam as an attractive alternative to Christianity because polygyny is not condemned. Also, in many cultures, to have the father reject a wife and her children would have severe consequences on the entire family. Obviously, one does not come up with answers because it is practical to do so. But arm-chair answers don’t really help. Our family had a family living with us. She was a second wife of a Muslim Imam. She followed Christ, and she decided that to do this, she must take her children with her and leave the broader family. Did she do the right thing. I have no idea… and probably you don’t either. The children became devout Christians, but they wanted to maintain connections with their father, over the objections of their mother. Was that good or bad?

I would suggest a different set of considerations.

  1.  Theological. Rather than verse-dropping, find what the whole of Scripture says about a topic. For polygyny, the Scripture has a lot to say. In the Old Testament, many of the the patriarchs had more than one wife. Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormons, grabbed that fact and suggested that God approves of polygyny… or even mandates it. However in the Old Testament, with the possible exception of Levirite marriages, polygynous relationships are spoken of negatively. Almost all stories of polygynous marriages have problems and the problems almost always relate to the polygynous aspect of the family.  On the other hand, bigamy, having two legal wives does not seem to viewed as fornication or adultery, so it is doubtful that one could apply verses rejecting adultery to the situation. In the New Testament, a church leaders should be a “one woman man.” This short phrase has been abused immensely I know a pastor who married a divorcee. He was told he could not serve as a pastor because of I Timothy 3:2. I am at a loss to see he violated the “one woman man” principle here. Regardless of what that phrase means in different circumstance (clearly suggests not being a flirt or unfaithful, but does it mean must be married, and does it reject the possibility of a pastor being a “one man woman”?), certainly the phrase appears incompatible with a polygynous marriage. A proper theological view on bigamy would look at all of this… but much much more. Simply verse-dropping is an abuse, not use, of Scripture.
  2. Sociological. Why does bigamy exist? Is it because of infidelity? Yes, in some cases. Here in the Philippines there is a surprising number of men who have a family in one town and a different family in another town. In some cases, both families have legal status (even if only because of paperwork error). In other cases, a man or woman works overseas and has a second family there. In these situations, loneliness may drive the activity, while in others the reasons are hard to ascertain. (To me, to maintain to separate families just seems like a form of self-abuse.) In other cultures the reasons can be different. In many family or clan-based cultures, there are very important reasons for bigamy. Where property and status is maintained by clan name, it is important to have an heir. The levirate marraige is part of this. Also, where there is a lot of warfare or other forms of killings, a society may have a shortage of men, so bigamy puts a salve on one aspect of a sociological blight. On the other hand, where the number of men and women are equal, polygynous marriages result in a large number of young men with a shortage of women. This creates its own catastrophic results. For some Christians, it seems irrelevant to consider sociological issues. But we must consider them, since God does. The Semitic culture of the Old Testament had polygynous marriages because of the clan system and a shortage of men. It is understandable then that bigamy was permitted but also discouraged. In the New Testament, sexual infidelity was rampant, but formal polygynous families were rare. The social drive for such families was not present generally, and there was no mention of accommodation for bigamy. God’s attitude did not change, but the context did. That leads to the third aspect.
  3. Contextual. Morality in the Bible is deontological (based on law), teleological (based on expected results), and contextual (based on the cultural setting). The Bible says “Do not murder.” This is a basis for deonotological ethics. “Love your neighbor as yourself.” This is not really deontological, since it is far too broad to be legally instructive. This is teleological, if you think about it. Do acts that your neighbor would be expected to find beneficial. “Dress modestly” is a contextual guideline. It is not legally instructive since it is not clear what would qualifies as modest. Rather, modest dressing depends on one’s culture. I live in the Philippines, and Filipinos dress much more modestly than many other groups. I was in Coron recently on a tour, and there were many Filipinos, Chinese and Europeans, as well as a few Muslims. The female Muslims were covered to a degree that would make it difficult to enjoy the sweltering weather, it seems to me. The male Muslims dressed  more in line with the Filipino or Chinese men. The Filipinos dressed fairly modestly, keeping most of their skin covered (this is as much driven by a desire to avoid being tanned by the sun as it is modesty). The Europeans often dressed in ways that would be deemed scandalous by the other groups. The Chinese were in between the Filipinos and Europeans. “Modesty” is complicated in a multi-cultural setting. However, it definitely varies in different cultures.

So what about Bigamy. Should a man with two wives and children with each wife, be required to dump one wife and children? I can’t see that. The Bible doesn’t require that, but does require a man to take care of his wife (wives?) and children. One should not ask a person to explicitly sin to avoid a doubtful sin. One must figure out the sociological dynamics going on. Christianity is meant to be transformative. In the Cordilleras here in the Philippines, Christianity has done much to end “headhunting”– honor killings, violent rites of passage, and clan warfare. This transformation has reduced the sociological need for polygynous families. Such transformation does not change the past, but should work towards a better future. Polygynous families (regardless of deontological constraints) is damaging where the number of eligible men and women are equal. Since God made men and women in approximately equal numbers, where war is low, polygynous families have little justification– moral or otherwise. One must look at the context.

The Bible clearly attacks moral infidelity and fornication. These can be challenged supraculturally. But polygynous families are not so clearly addressed. Joanne Shetler speaks of her time with the Balangao people. When asked that she condemn the chewing of betel nut, her response was that the Bible does not clearly condemn betel nut. On the other hand it clearly rejects gossiping. So for now, she will focus on what is clearly condemned and withhold judgement on the other matter.

In a missiological setting, it is possible to avoid the extremes of wholehearted rejection and full acceptance. It can be seen as undesirable but acceptable. It can also be seen as transitional. That is, polygynous families may be seen as a relic of a time of war and misery… something that will fade as the culture transforms.



Some Seeds Take Longer to Grow

I spoke as the graduation speaker at Aurora College of Intercultural Studies. I spoke on Acts 1:8 (a pretty typical verse for a missionary training school). I suggested that the focus on Power is unnecessary. Rather,

If one embraces God’s Purpose, one has God’s Presence and God’s Power

I used two stories from the Bible. One was Samson who had great power, but generally rejected  God’s purpose. His life was ultimately forgettable except as a cautionary story for children.BA65580-56a6d3745f9b58b7d0e5001c

I also used the story of Moses who was given a purpose by God in Acts 3 and 4. When Moses waffled, God assured him of His presence. Then after further trepidation on the part of Moses, God gave him empowerment (spokesman, God’s word, snake stick and water to blood).  Moses, embracing God’s purpose, saw some success during his time, and eventually became a worldchanger.

However, as a third story, I used the story of Justinian Van Welz. I have commented on him before HERE.

His story is actually an odd illustration of the above statement. Van Welz (1621-1668) became a deeply devote follower of Christ. Prior to that, he was apparently pretty nominal in his allegiance to Christ.

But everything he did was a failure. His family thought him a fool. His church thought him a heretic. His friends thought him a dreamer. He left as a missionary for Surinam and died within two years died.

How could this be an example of God’s Presence and Power?

That’s because Justinian was a seed planter. He tried to convince those around him to be involved in missions. Few expressed interest. He developed something he called a Jesus Loving Society. When one looks at the concept, it was essentially the same as the Missionary Society proposed by William Carey 150 years later. In fact, supposedly Carey was familiar with the work of Van Welz. He was also able to inspire some later generations in missions (including today).

Van Welz was a pioneer. He planted seeds that would take scores of years to bear fruit.

This is not unusual. William Carey and Adoniram Judson were pioneers. They both spent many years serving without success. Both were blessed to live long enough to see some measure of success.

It is true, however, that many will not live long enough to see the seeds they planted bear fruit.


The Truly Ignorant


I was talking to one of my students while having coffee. He is getting ready to graduate and he admitted to me that he is not the strongest academically. I think it would be fair to say that on a certain level there is truth to that. But on a couple of levels this is decidedly untrue.  First, he has been one to take his learning and really apply it. So many I know simply don’t do it. Some seem to have a disconnect between their learning and their behavior… such that they appear to be unaware of that disconnect. Others perhaps are aware of the disconnect but stubbornly refuse to be affected by their training. My student really has applied his learning. That is extremely commendable, and one I can feel great pride in over one who gets high grades but in all other ways gains little from education.,

Second, he has truly embraced his ignorance. Now that sounds a lot like a back-handed compliment, or back-handed insult, but it is not. Let me try to explain this. Consider two students (whose names are completely made up). One is Tom, and the other is Mark.

Tom has learned a lot of things. He has gone to class and embraced his training in Biblical Studies, Missiology, Ministerial Leadership, Systematic Theology, and more. Tom comes out of his training experience knowing lots of stuff. In fact, pretty much anything you ask Tom, he will give an unambiguous answer. Tom is “The Answerman.”

Mark, on the other hand,  came out of the experience very differently. He wrestled with the process. He struggled with some interpretations of Scripture passages and doctrines given in class by professors who were appeared not to be afflicted by any sort of doubt.  He finds that he is full of questions. When he asks others some of these questions at school he gets strange looks. Some, perhaps, wonder why  they would have to answer questions that “everybody knew.”undebatable.” Others could look quizzically at him wondering how a person who calls himself a Christian could not have this long ago clearly resolved. Mark is “The Questioner.”

I have known many people are Answermen. In fact, I often feel the temptation myself. I think there are different types of Answermen.

  • KISS Answerman.  KISS stands, as you probably know, for “Keep It Simple, Stupid.” They have a few simple answers for pretty much everything. For example, some give the answer of “It’s God’s Will” for many many things. Why is their suffering? Why does God allow sin to linger? Why are some saved and others not?  Seem seem to have picked up their theology from car bumper stickers (God is good all the time.  Let go and let God) The problem is that such reductionism is not so much  an answer but a way of squelching questions.
  • Boxed-in Answerman. The boxed-in Answerman has a clear understanding of what is inside his box. He, however, is completely unaware of what is outside of his own knowledge-base. His “world map” has boundaries and beyond those boundaries is nothing.  Essentially, he is ignorant of his own ignorance.
  • Naive Realism Answerman. Naive Realism is the philosophical view that what one perceives is reality.  I will apply it here. A NR Answerman is unable to or unwilling to recognize that his own beliefs could differ from reality. Such a belief about reality is certain naive.
  • Fear of Doubt Answerman.  This person believes that admitting to doubt is wrong, and so denies such doubt.  I remember seeing a Tweet by a pastor that said that doubt was tantamount to blasphemy. While I am sure that further discussion would have clarified that he thinks some forms of doubt are acceptable, even healthy, I struggle to think of any use of the term “doubt” that would be blasphemous. I suppose on might argue that doubting God’s goodness or love is blasphemous, but characters in the Bible (especially the Psalmists) openly doubted these qualities about God. God appeared to take no offense.
  • Sub-culture Answerman. Some do not separate their answer from the “party line” of their denomination, or their school, or some other sub-cultural group. If they doubt, they certainly never share such doubts. And many sub-cultures promote such conformity. I remember taking Systematic Theology in seminary, when our professor was teaching the various views of the atonement. He was not particularly demanding as to what we should believe. That was nice. However later, I discovered that many Evangelicals felt that only one of those theories was true, and all of the others were false. I found that strange since pretty much all of the ones we studied could be quite supportable both Biblically and Theologically. Also, the one that was supposedly the “Evangelical” view appeared to have some doubtful aspects. It was hard to see why a legal metaphor would be seen as more Evangelical than other metaphors of the atonement in the Bible.

When I speak of doubt, I am not promoting a “believe nothing” attitude. I am also not recommended staying in a cloudlike state of unending doubt (such as the being known as God in the Hitchker’s Guide to the Galaxy series. Doubt should, however, be given its due. Doubt provides the foundation for faith. Doubt is also the foundation for exploration and for theological development. All good theology is contextual and contingent.

A friend of mine liked to visit a JW family and talk Bible and theology with them. The matriarch of the house claimed to fully understand EVERYTHING in the Bible. Could she? I doubt it. Most likely she had symptoms of any or all of the categories above. Perhaps she had the reductionistic “KISS” viewpoint, linked to a boxed-in naive realism. Perhaps her denomination pressured her towards a sub-cultural fear of doubt as well. Regardless, she had nothing more to learn because she BELIEVE that there is nothing more to learn. That’s rather sad, when you think about it.

A well-educated person should recognize his or her limitations. In fact the better the education, the clearer the insight one should have in one’s own limitations. Good education doesn’t always provide one with better answers— but it should always lead one to better questions

Knowledge should not puff up. The truly ignorant are those who are unaware of their own ignorance… closely followed by those who try to hide it.