Theological Education Overseas

I recently wrote a short article for The Fellowship of Baptist Educators. The article is located Here.

This particular organization supports American seminary professors giving of their time to teach at Bible Schools and Seminaries overseas.

Missions that focuses on theological education is a bit controversial.

  • For some, it is a poor use of resources. A few years ago, a major mission agency that I had some tangential involvement in, began to decimate, and then destroy its program for seminary training overseas. The argument was that focus should be on placing resources into work with Unreached People Groups. The lack of logic here seems stunning to me. If one is seeking to reach unreached Asian groups, the best use of resources seems to me to be training Asians to reach them. Perhaps the underlying logic is that they could get more giving from supporters if they got some quick numbers (and training pays off in the long-term more than short-term). Or perhaps there was the underlying belief that Jesus is “returning any day now.” But if Jesus is returning very soon, our role is to serve faithfully and with excellence, rather than focus on short-term projects. And if Jesus is not returning soon, then education makes even more sense.
  • Others, however, can be concerned about theological imperialism. This appears to me to  be a more valid concern. Often theologians go overseas and do more in terms of indoctrination than education. Here in the Philippines we find people arguing about KJV versus NIV, or whether Halloween is a good or bad holiday— things that really should have ZERO relevance here. Others seem more interested in promoting their own denomination or their own theological spin (Whether it be some form of Pentecostalism, Reformed Theology, Complementarianism, Nuothetic Counseling, and so on) rather than empowering locals to have their own contextualization of the Christian faith.

While this second point has some strength, I still feel that theological educators are a good thing.

  1. If we accept that the church has a spiritual unity, then we benefit from communication, in instruction from each other. We grow through each other. This occurs, however, if their is humility from all parties, and mutuality (all sides learning from all sides).
  2. Theological imperialism occurs with or without instructors. Horrible theology flows from 1st world countries to majority world countries continuously via TV preachers, radio preachers, books, brochures, podcasts, and websites. So often friends of mine here quote some TV preacher and talk about how wonderful they are. Even when the person is not so bad, it becomes clear quite fast that their trust in this talking head has short-circuited their own Biblical and Theological process. I end up giving some vague response that I hope will cover up my real feelings about the preacher and his/her beliefs without actually lying. A good theological instructor can help a student develop tools to analyze and develop their own theological perspectives. Sadly, in this globalized setting, localized theology will not develop by removing instructors. Someone will fill the void… often someone who should be critiqued and found wanting.

 

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A Short Visit Home After a Long Time

In my newsletter to supporters I noted my visit to the USA after an absence of many years and some of my thoughts of the changes I have seen. Some liked this, so I am sharing it here, with some additional stuff that did not go into the newsletter for the sake of length.

Being the first time to visit the US in 6 years (not counting a 5-day quick-trip in 2013), one gets a chance to see how things have changed in the US. It seems like changes in the US are less extreme than in the Philippines. Still, some things are noticeable. Some of them are positive or neutral:

  • People are more focused on health and exercise than they were before. Fitness centers appear to be quite crowded a lot of the time, and less people heavier than me I see walking around. (6 years ago I felt quite small with so many BIG people walking around… much less on this trip.)
  • More food choices are available for those with food allergies. So many types of nut milks are available in the stores now, as well as gluten-free products. We were shocked to have great gluten-free pretzels on the plane ride over to the US, and even more shocked to taste a wonderful gluten-free chocolate cake at Wiltsie Community Church. Who knew? I visited Yoder’s Market in Madison, Virginia. What was once a small little store has now become like a Mennonite “Whole Foods” with all sorts of healthy foods and products (with just enough unhealthy foods to make it interesting to me).
  • In some level of conflict with the health food thing, we were thrilled to discover that Mallo Cups are back in production at Boyer’s Candies in Altoona, PA, and we had the wonderful treat called “Sponge Candy,” a Western New York specialty for the first time at Peterson’s Candies in Busti, NY.
  • Lots of help-wanted signs all over the place, even though mostly for entry-level jobs. Even places that are very economically depressed (like where I was raised) had lots of entry-level jobs available. My friends there told me it was because “no one wants to work.” I am not sure if that is reality or not. My son, who decided to live in the United States for awhile, quickly found a job as a server in a Filipino restaurant in Virginia Beach, earning low wages, I suppose, by US standards, but would be a dream come true for many from the Philippines. Of course the cost of living in the States is HUGE compared to the Philippines… but still Joel should be able to save money if he sets his mind to it.
  • Much greater use of credit cards and debit cards in transactions. Some people appear almost surprised when one pays with cash. This was the first time I had ever used a credit card utilizing chip-technology. I had to admit to a couple of store clerks lacking a skill that every American over the age of 8 or 9 knew— but soon I figured things out. I also had to websearch how to use a car with keyless ignition that I rented. I did not want to tell the clerk that I did not know how to start a car.
  • Most people I met were quite friendly. Even the lady who took care of me at the DMV when I renewed my driver’s license was nice. I told my son Joel to expect less friendliness in the US than what he was used to in the Philippines. Friendliness is a cultural characteristic in the PI. But Joel and I were surprised at the general friendliness. It seems like a bit of a different form of friendliness than we find in the Philippines, but haven’t quite figured out to identify the difference. It is much like the issue of families. The Philippines is known for a strong family-orientation in contrast to the US. And this is quite true. However, Philippine families will often do horrible things to their own members that would be shocking, and sometimes criminal, in the US. And this behavior is considered rather normative. I haven’t quite figured out how to resolve this seeming contradiction.

There were some more negative things I saw as well.

  • The biggest thing I saw was a much greater level of FEAR wherever I looked. Sometimes that Fear was shown with the more obvious symptoms. At other times, it was seen disguised as Anger or stylized Patriotism. There was a clear fear of losing (individual or group) power. I am hoping that by the next time I visit, more people understand that power is something to be eschewed, not hoarded.
  • News coverage in the US is abysmal. People I talk to in the US fully agree that news coverage there is bad, but then add that their own favorite source of news coverage is good. But they are wrong. They are all bad. The “badness” is not just due to spin or perspective, but lack of coverage. I live overseas so I wanted to listen to international news. There is no international news on TV in the States. On TV they have two types of news– American news that occurs in the States and American news that occurs outside of the States. News that is not directly related to American political or military interests is simply not shared. While I was home, the only news on TV that I saw that was International and not directly related to American interests was the volcanic eruption in Guatemala. The only major exception to this was on radio where NPR (national public radio) did actually have International news. Some of my friends would probably disapprove of NPR because of its “political slant.” But if providing a political slant is problematic, it is much less problematic than not reporting news at all. I struggle to reconcile this with news in the Philippines where its International news coverage is often quite excellent, and often far better than its home coverage. (Of course being a local journalist in the Philippines can be a dangerous thing.)
  • It seems as if Memorial Day (a celebration much like Undas in the Philippines where one honors friends and relatives who have passed on before) has now become another Veteran’s Day. I am a veteran of the US Navy so perhaps I should feel good about that… but there already is a Veteran’s Day. I cannot see why we need two. I juggled my schedule to make sure that I was not preaching on Memorial Day, and I attended a Filipino church in Virginia Beach (ICCVA) that did not confuse faith and patriotism. That was nice.

Regardless, it was a joyful trip, meeting a lot of old friends, and even a few new ones. It also had its bittersweet moments— cleaning the stone monuments of relatives at the cemetery, being unable to visit people who have died over the previous 6 years, being struck by changes in places that make them feel less like home. A couple of churches I visited appeared to be struggling not to die having lost much of the younger generation. I also visited some churches that are full of vigor and growing. The stories of the death of the church in America is clearly exaggerated, but I suspect that Christians may have to learn to adapt to trends where the church will lack the honor it has had in the past (much like in many other parts of the world). I think this is part of the fear of many I met during my visit… but the church has commonly been stronger when operating in an atmosphere of dishonor.

It was nice to be home for three weeks. Home, however, is a tricky thing. I recall the gospel song, “This world is not my home, I’m just a passin’ through…”. But our home is still here… and in missions I have several homes. Ivory, NY was my first home, then Virginia Beach, VA, then Charlottesville, VA, and finally Baguio City, Philippines became my fourth. Having more than one home can make one feel a bit rootless— always a stranger in a strange land— and yet, it also gives one connections in many places. It is, in some ways, a joy to have several homes.

Inter-religious Dialogue as a Tool

I have recently, finally, started working on my book on Inter-religious Dialogue (IRD). I should not have been so slow. I will be teaching the course starting in October (2018). This is the third time I have taught the course, but this will be the first time with my own text. I hope to have at least a rough draft ready by then.

The following is the rough draft of the Introduction.

Imagine that you have a toolbox. Imagine you are a carpenter, and in your toolbox you have only one tool — perhaps a hammer. Can you build a house only with a hammer? Poorly at best. Can you hammer screws? Again poorly. Other tasks are likely even worse — leveling, sawing, drilling, and more. The results would be poor. The carpenter would be exhausted and the constructed house would be a disaster.

A wise carpenter has three things:

  • A toolbox with a variety of tools of the trade

  • Skills in how to use each of the tools effectively

  • Wisdom to know which tool to use for each task

Now imagine that each Christian has a toolbox of skills associated with serving God. Some tools may be spiritual disciplines such as prayer, bible study, witnessing, and mediation. Other tools may be less specifically religious such as teaching, polemics, argument, encouragement, and counseling. Having a wide variety of skills/disciplines is important, but this is not enough.

One must know how to use eachtool well. A carpenter may have a power saw, but still need considerable training to use it well. A minister may “know how to preach,” but still there is a great distance beween this and preaching well or effectively.

Skillful use is not enough. One must have the wisdom to know the right tool to use in each specific circumstance. Some people are very skilled in prayer, but as important as prayer can be, there are times when prayer is the wrong tool… or at least an inadequate tool. A hungry neighbor needs more than prayer. There are times when preaching is needed, and times when it is inappropriate or unhelpful.

This book is about a tool — dialogue. Specifically, it is about the tool of dialogue, and how it can be used effectively as a Christian minister in interacting with people of other faiths.

At a basic level, most everyone knows how to do dialogue. But this does not mean that everyone is equally competent to dialogue well. This also does not mean that everyone knows when to use it and when not.

This book is primarily aimed at missionaries and ministers who work in cross-cultural or religiously pluralistic settings. However, the places on earth that are monocultural and religiously monolithic are decreasing rapidly. Therefore, there are fewer and fewer ministers who can say that they are competent in their ministry without skills in inter-religious dialogue.

Philosophically, this book sees inter-religious dialogue as seeking understanding. This is in contrast to those who see it primarily in terms of relativization of beliefs at one extreme, and apologetics at the other. As such it is consistent with Evangelicals, who take very seriously their own truth convictions regarding religious faith. However, it also challenges the presumption of many Evangelicals that the most effective way to interact with people of other faiths is through preaching or teaching (one-way communication), or through arguing.

Sadly, a book is by its nature a form of one-way communication. Since this book is about dialogue, it is my hope that readers will have an opportunity to go through this book with others — and especially with others of a variety of viewpoints. Dialogue, as a tool, is practiced, not simply read about; and is made sharp through practice with those of diverse opinions.

Sowers and Storytellers

Matthew 13 is an interesting chapter and is a place where the Parable of the Sower is given. However, in the same chapter are two more sowers. They are described in the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares.

Parable of the SowerImage result for parable of wheat and tares

Image result for parable of wheat and tares

Sower One who shares the Word of God

Seed God’s Word

Parable of the Wheat and Tares

Good Sower Son of Man (Christ)

Evil Sower The Evil One (Satan)

Good Seed Wheat

Evil Seed Tares (Darnel Ryegrass

Parable of the Mustard Seed

Sower Not identified… but presumably God/Christ

Seed Kingdom of God

On the other hand, one can reverse it and compare the different roles:

Role of God

Parable of the Sower The One who has the message that brings fruit

Parable of the Wheat and Tares The One (Son of Man) who sows the good seed

Parable of the Mustard Seed The One who initiates the Kingdom of God

Role of Satan

Parable of the Sower The one who snatches the message from people

Parable of the Wheat and Tares The one who plants the bad/evil seed

Parable of the Mustard Seed Not in this parable

Role of the “Righteous”

Parable of the Sower Those who hear and understand the message

Parable of the Wheat and Tares Those who were planted by the Good Sower

Parable of the Mustard Seed Not stated. Presumably part of the mustard plant

Role of the “Unrighteous”

Parable of the Sower Those who fail to respond to the message

Parable of the Wheat and Tares Those who were planted by the Evil Sower

Parable of the Mustard Seed Not stated. Presumably not part of the mustard

Some personal reflections on Matthew 13

1. The chapter gives us good reason for caution in “locking in” meanings for symbols. In Matthew 13, seeds have three different meanings depending on the parable. Arguably, there are four meanings, since there are two different seeds in one of the parables. Likewise, there is more than one meaning for sower as well. This is imporant to remember since there is a temptation to find consistent symbolic meanings in the Bible. One only has to look at so-called “Christian Numerology” to find those who think that numbers must have a symbolic meaning and that meaning must be consistent throughout the Bible (and sometimes even beyond). An awful lot of bad theology comes out of this idea.

I recall a preacher noting the uses of symbols in Matthew 13. He suggested that the birds in the Bible are consistently symbols of evil, so in the Parable of the Mustard Seed, the “REAL” message is that over time, the Kingdom of God would become more and more evil. However, if one rejects a consistent use of symbols the more obvious understanding is that the Kingdom of God will start small and insignificantly, but will continue to grow and spread and become too big to ignore.

I also recall another (same?) preacher stating that yeast is always a symbol of sin in the Bible. Therefore, the Kingdom of God is really the flour in which sin becomes introduced and then grows/expands. I can see why some commentators might prefer that understanding. Since seeds (wheat berries) were earlier described as being linked to the righteous in the same chapter, then flour could be linked to Christians (or technically speaking, ground up Christians). For some, I suppose, it may also be less troubling to see the woman as being linked with Satan (or a Lilith character) rather than with God. Some get bothered by feminine imagery of God. But, again, if one rejects consistent symbols, the more likely understanding is that the yeast is the kingdom of God, the flour is the world, and the kingdom starts out small and insignificant but interspersed in the world, it begins to grow and transform the world.

2. One must be careful to avoid reading too much into parables. While the “one parable, one message” view may be too restricting, it is often tempting to take the parable off onto tangents that they were never meant to go.

For example, Who can be saved based on the Parable of the Sower and the Parable of the Wheat and Tares? In the latter of these two, it seems as if one is born saved and another is born unsaved. A somewhat hyper-Calvinistic view may be seen as described here. There is no suggestion that tares can become wheat. An obvious problem here, however, is that if one applies this understanding consistently, then mankind is essentially two species (“wheat” or “darnel/tares”) with one being created by God, and the other being created by Satan. It does not seem likely that Jesus is suggesting that Satan is a literal Creator of humans.

In contrast to this extreme, one might address the other extreme in the Two Ways. In it, humans are one “species” with a choice between a narrow and a wide path. One might take this as an extreme Arminian viewpoint. God makes the paths and people decide which path to follow.

But then if one takes those two parables as describing two extremes, a more mediated view might be argued from the Parable of the Sower. The message of God’s Word is given to all. People may be different types of soils with no suggestion of being two unrelated species. There appears to be God’s initating work of salvation, and man’s response. Still there is uncertainty about the details of the process. The Bible seems to generally not give a lot of clear information on the mechanism or process, so this parable appears to me to best reflect a sound, if uncertain, soteriology.

That being said, none of these parables are really about the process of salvation.

3. Parables are both described as making truths clearer, and also disguising truth. Matthew 13 tries to describe some very complicated relationships such as the word of God to mankind, and the Kingdom of God to the world. As such, parables can be quite helpful— connecting the abstract to the concrete. However, there is a temptation to read one’s own theology into the story. Additionally, one needs cues to know how to understand the symbols. Both the Parable of the Wheat and Tares and the Parable of the Sowe are interpreted directly by Jesus. In some cases, this does not happen, so it is understandable that so many bizarre interpretations occur. Thus one needs to look at the broader themes within the Gospel text, as well as see what the listed purpose of the story is.

Ultimately, to use parables, one needs to:

  • Apply them to link difficult, abstract ideas to what is more concrete. (Abstract does not inform abstract. Concrete is less valuable to inform concrete.)
  • Provide cues as to the meaning of the symbols (One cannot assume that symbols are obvious or are the same as used elsewhere.)
  • Have a broader context to make clear the purpose of the story. (If the story does not inform a larger message, it doesn’t have much of a purpose.)
  • Have a clear interpretation to prevent misinterpretation. (However, if the story does not “make sense” with the interpretation, the story has no real point for existing.)