Holy and Unholy Cultures?? (Part II)

In Part I, we looked at Christians in culture. It seems clear, I hope, that Christians should live on three levels as it relates to the Idealized Culturesurrounding culture.

  1.  We should live in many ways like those around us… fitting in quite comfortably with the broader culture.
  2. We should live in many ways like what the broader culture idealizes, even if the members of that culture rarely live up to its own standards.
  3. We should live in many ways according to God’s standards in opposition to the culture.

This is built on the presumption that all cultures are, although far from perfect, good. They are good to the extent that they provide cohesion and guidelines for their members.

But not everyone sees it that way. Some tend towards the demonization of cultures.  In this case, often the person embraces a foreign culture as “holy” and the local culture as unholy. The goal is to rid the church of the “stench” of its local cultural roots and embrace an outside culture as ideal.

Here in the Philippines, this is often seen in the “demonization of pagan roots.” The Philippines has a rather short distance to paganism, or tribal animistic faiths. In fact, animistic faiths are alive and well as both separate religions and as syncretizations of world religions. It has become popular to demonize paganism… and sometimes Satanize paganism.

For example, every Halloween and every Christmas people write about the pagan roots of these holidays. (In a few weeks articles about the pagan roots of Easter will be starting up as well.) In these holidays, the case for the pagan roots is not nearly as strong as people think they are. However, what is most interesting is that those elements that have been incorporated into the present holidays that have roots in early pagan cultures are not just thought of as “pagan,” but as “demonic,” or even Satanic. The connection between pagan and demonic is rather debatable. In the Bible, idols are sometimes linked to the idea of worshiping demons, but at other times is seen as worshiping wood and stone— created things, rather than the Creator.

Samhain (linked loosely to Halloween) and Saturnalia (linked by present pop culture, rather than actual history, to Christmas) were pagan events, but not Satanic. One may argue that pagan symbols are not from God, or that they point people away from God, and in this way are Satanic. This seems too broad of a leap. Satan is described as a liar, an accuser, and a deceiver. So if you are a person who lies at times, it may be quite accurate to say that in a very important way you are Satanic. But that seems unhelpful. Such hyperbolic language is akin to the humorous observation that any argument on social media eventually results in comparison of one or both sides to Hitler.

It is interesting that Paul takes a more nuanced approach to the paganism of the Hellenistic around him. He was grieved at all of the idols in Athens (and other places) but did not express fear or horror of them. In more than one place, he emphasized to the people that God was pretty forgiving of their pagan activities since they did so out of ignorance. He also instructed Christians to avoid idolatry, but not to fear that the idolatry has power over them. I have an acquaintance over here who has described Christmas as the greatest work of Satan today. I feel this language is really unhelpful. There are problems with Christmas (especially as a materialistic, consumeristic, activity) but hyperbolic language undermines the argument. And it is actually worse than this. The problem the person has with Christmas is not its connection to greed, but rather that it seeks to subvert or redeem some formerly pagan symbols.

I would argue that such subversion is commendable. I know of no Americans who think that the Fourth of July is demonic or Satanic even though fireworks are used for the celebration. (For those of you who don’t know, fireworks have been traditionally used by pagan cultures as part of a celebration to “scare away” ghosts and demons. Fourth of July may have problems in that some celebrate a certain unhealthy jingoism in it, but the fact that it has subverted the symbolic meaning of (pagan) fireworks is not a bad thing.

A different form of demonization is idealizing another culture. I have friends here in the Philippines that are practicing a form of Christianity that embraces strongly Jewish symbols. Is this wrong? No. Is it useful for non-Jews to embrace Jewish cultural symbols? I doubt it… but I suppose it is harmless. What is not so harmless is when Christians celebrate Yom Kippur (a perfectly fine day to celebrate) but then suggest that Christians who celebrate other days have fallen away from the truth.

Of course, they are not the only ones. There are churches here in the Philippines that are KJV-only. It is hard to understand why any missionary would try to get Filipinos to embrace a version of the Bible that is not only not their language but is not even their century. Of course, up until 50 years ago, the dominant religious group in the Philippines required the Bible to read only in Latin… a language that is native tongue to exactly 0% of Filipinos. I have heard some KJV only folk call the NIV the “New Infernal Version.” This is demonization of a translation of a Bible. A translation may be better or worse, clearer or murkier, but I don’t think any honest attempt to make God’s word understandable should be called demonic.

And it is not only them. As one goes around to different churches in the Philippines we find that an awful lot of churches here mimic churches elsewhere… in building design, dress, songs, and so forth. They are also often best known for how they refuse to interact with a lot of the local cultural activities (because people from their denominational roots wouldn’t participate).

Demonization of culture is unhealthy. I would argue that a more healthy understanding of culture is in the three areas listed at the top. Demonization of culture does not get one closer to God, but farther from the community in which one serves.

 

 

 

Holy and Unholy Cultures?? (Part 1)

Much like there have been times in church history where people have embraced the idea of “holy language” (Hebrew, Koine Greek, Latin, Middle English) there have been periods of time and places where a similar sanctification has been placed on culture.

The Jerusalem Council struggled with this during the first century. Does a Greek have to become (culturally) a Jew to become a Christian? The decision, in the end, was NO. A Greek can remain culturally a Greek and still be Christian. This still left a lot to be determined. Is everything Greek sanctified and good? What about underlying beliefs or worldview?  It is pretty clear that some things need to radically change, but which things?

It seems to me that four places to get a bit of a grasp of this are:

  • Jerusalem Council (as recorded by Luke) and the Didache
  • Paul’s remarks of culture
  • Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus (chapter 5)

I will dig into none of these deeply.

1.  Jerusalem Council.  Here is the announcement as recorded by Luke regarding the summation of that council.

The apostles and elders, your brothers,

To the Gentile believers in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia:

Greetings.

24 We have heard that some went out from us without our authorization and disturbed you, troubling your minds by what they said. 25 So we all agreed to choose some men and send them to you with our dear friends Barnabas and Paul— 26 men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. 27 Therefore we are sending Judas and Silas to confirm by word of mouth what we are writing. 28 It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: 29 You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things.

Farewell.

The keyword here is Flexibility, I think. The Apostles and Elders said that they would place no burdens on the Greek Christians except minor limitations on food, and on sexual misconduct.  If you think about it, what does this mean?  Is it saying that the Council was saying that it was okay for Greek Christians to lie, to steal, to murder? Certainly this is not the case. Is it saying that virtues such as integrity, godliness, and honor are not being placed on the Greeks Christians? Again, certainly not. What does appear to be said is three things:

  • The trappings of Jewish Culture are not necessary for non-Jews.
  • The ideals and taboos of Greek culture are, for the most part, commendable. Because of this, the Greek Christians do not need to be told “do not lie” because they already know this to be virtuous even before here the gospel message.
  • Some specific areas of Greek culture may be unhealthy and set aside if one is supposed to follow Christ. (However, Jesus also challenged some aspects of Jewish culture as unhealthy as well.)

Alan Garrow has made the suggestion that the Didache was originally a longer version of the short-form of the Jerusalem Council announcement. He has suggested that the Didache is less clear on the breaking down of Jewish cultural rules. However, when I look at the Didache it seems to me to be an expansion on the Sermon on the Mount… and as such, expresses principles that are in many ways supracultural as well as principles that challenge all cultures. The principles mentioned in the Didache certain do not encourage a rejection of Greek culture but recognize that the words of Jesus challenge both Jewish and Greek cultures.

2.  Paul’s comments on Culture. I am not going to go into details in this area, but simply point people to his writings to the Churches of Corinth and Galatia.  In these it could be said that Paul took a more extreme view than the Jerusalem Council. For example, to the church of Corinth he says that it is okay to eat food sacrificed to idols, as long as people are mature enough to handle it. Since idols are nothing, and the religion of the Greeks has no power, the danger in eating food sacrificed to idols is how it affects the belief and heart of the Greek Christians. In his message to the church of Galatia, he makes a point that when Greek and Jewish Christians are together, it is better for the Jews to adapt to the Greeks rather than remain separate. I would, however, describe his view as Pragmatic. Additionally, it seems like the focus is on avoiding a ghettoization of Christianity. Jewish Christians and Greek Christians should find ways to fellowship together rather than build walls of separation. And Greek Christians should be able to interact with Greek Pagans without fear and separation. I would also suggest they were a bit ad hoc, in that his words point to how broader principles would be carried out in this specific case.

3.  Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus.  Chapter 5. This chapter can be read in another post I wrote before.  Click HERE.  When you read it, it says three things about Christians.

  • In many ways, Christians fit into the culture so well that they are indistinguishable from the culture.
  • In some ways, Christians surpass those in the culture by living up to the ideals of the culture rather than the typical reality within the culture.
  • In some other ways, Christians live counter-culturally, by rejecting some specific aspects of culture that are opposed to the teachings of Jesus.

If one looks at these references, I believe oneIdealized Culture would have to see that culture (at least within the context of Jewish and Greek cultures) is generally good or neutral. It is Neutral in that it has distinguishing characteristics that are perfectly fine for Christian and non-Christian. It is Good in that it provides ideals that are often quite commendable and worthy of seeking to live up to. At the same time, culture can be seen negatively in three major ways. First, it can be seen as failing to live up to God’s standards. But is universal for all cultures fail in this area. Second, it can be seen as failing to live up to its own standards. Most all cultures idealize certain virtues and attack certain vices or taboos— but its members rarely live up to these standards.

Third, cultures may be seen as bad based on “demonization” by outsiders. They take certain qualities and broad-brush the culture undermining virtues, and exaggerating vices.

This third area will be looked more seriously in Part II.  But for now, based on the passages above, Christians should live in a culture on three levels:

  1. Christians should live in the culture as it is lived out by its members. As such, in many key ways, Christians should be indistinguishable from others in that culture.
  2. Christians should strive to live up to the ideals of the culture, not simply the culture as it is commonly lived.
  3. Christians should also live up to, as best as possible, God’s standards, being willing to reject cultural ideals and cultural norms WHEN NECESSARY.

Where one shifts between these two, good people can disagree. Paul and Peter appeared to disagree. Mature and immature believers in Corinth disagreed.

It is Okay for good people to disagree.

(But I think Part II will cover an area that is NOT Okay)

 

 

Normalized Persecution

“I support religious freedom. I think the free exercise of religion is very important to a free society. But when I hear evangelicals say they must stand in solidarity with a particular candidate to protect their religious freedom, what I hear them saying is they want to avoid the persecution that every Christian generation except the most recent ones in the west have suffered. The Christian free of persecution is actually historically anomalous. And it is no coincidence that the Christian west free of persecution became lazy, unserious, and worldly. A Christianity that does not stand apart from a political party isn’t authentically Christian because it has compromised with a part the world. Christ says persecution will come to the church. We don’t need to want it. I support religious freedom. Persecution will come in other ways.”

Quote by Erick Erickson (blogger and radio host)

I avoid the mess called American politics as well as those who play in that mess. However, this is a good quote that has a universal quality to it. Persecution is normal… And healthy… for the church.

Top Posts for 2019

Greetings to all. 2019 has been a good year for me this year… overall. As far as this website, I have enjoyed putting up posts periodically. However, I tailed off a bit towards the end. Partly, this was because of  book work (my own and others), and partly because I was working on another blogsite (https://adventures-in-pastoral-theology.org/), and perhaps a bit of a feeling that I had said all I wanted to say. This happens once in a while. No problem with that, but one evidence is that most of my posts this year have gotten few hits. Think I need to embrace a bit of a break to let new ideas come up.

But here are the top posts read in 2019:

#1.  Kintsukuroi Faith:  Beautifully Broken. Part 1.  I am glad this is #1 since it is one of my favorite themes– our perfection and sanctification is not best seen in hiding our failures, but in the “scars” that demonstrate what God has been doing in our lives. Actually, Part 2 of this post is #7 in 2019.

#2.  Cultural Perspective and the Prodigal Son.  This post looks at research done that shows how our reading of Scripture is strongly influenced. Sometimes the presumption of people is that culture distorts interpretation… and that certainly can be true. However, looking at Scripture through a different culture can also reveal what was always there.

#3.  Medical Mission Events in the Philippines, Part 1. This one is surprising to me. However, from 2004 to 2010, my wife and I were directly or indirectly involved in approximately 70 medical mission events in the Philippines. I also wrote my dissertation on doing medical missions, and my first book was a book version of my dissertation. So this post was the first part of a multi-part post on this topic. as well as connecting to the book I wrote on that subject.   The other parts follow part

#4.  Oral Tradition and Rida Rida Ranka.  This is one of my few “non-religious” posts. It explores how communication happens through oral means. I use the Scandinavian children’s poem “Rida Rida Ranka” as the basis for that.

#5. What Happens When Conflicts are Not Resolved.  We get asked to do training on conflict resolution. This post was on the process of conflict escalation, particularly as it happens in church. I would probably do the post different now, but it is still not bad. <Curiously, there has only been one vote put on that post and it was “One Star”— Poor.  I must have annoyed someone.>

#24.  No Pictures Please… .  I added this one because it was actually the highest ranked post that I posted this year. It is one of my favorites so no complaints there. It is a series of stories of where picture-taking was counter-productive for missions and ministry.

 

 

Reflective Book Review: “Principles of Leading Muslims to Christ”

I don’t do book reviews very often. Frankly, I usually read through or skim through books rather than deeply read a book. And I even more rarely read a book in the manner appropriate for critique.  However, the author of “Principles of Leading Muslims to Christ” was one of my students, and I did work through the book cleaning up some aspects. Anyway, here is my rather lengthy review.

The book, “Principles of Leading Muslims to Christ: Effective Contextualization and Dialogue for Transformation and Discipleship,” was written by Adesegun Hammed Olayisola. He is a Nigerian who was raised as a Muslim and trained as a Muslim, before coming to be a follower of Jesus when he was college age.

I find the book has several strengths, one weakness, and one or two things that fit in a gray zone between these points.  I will start with strengths:

1.  It is written from a position of sympathy and love for Muslims. Much Christian writing regarding Muslims tends to embrace negative stereotypes. I once decided to electronically cut ties with a pastor friend who essentially used his FB account to promulgate every hateful click-baity story put out there that degrades Islam or its adherents. The author finds much that is commendable in Islam and its adherents, and chooses not to pander to his primarily Christian audience.

2.  He takes up more space bringing awareness of Islamic teachings over Christian responses to those teachings. Some of this is because of the next point. However, in addition he notes that Christians often have a stunning ignorance of Islamic beliefs (and I would add beliefs of almost all other religions). Effective interaction with Muslims begins from a foundation of understanding, rather than ignorance.

3.  Olayiwola recommends dialogue built off of a foundation of mutual understanding over the utilization of argument,  or special plan or technique. Argument generally drives people further apart and special techniques or procedures often are ineffective because they completely fail to take into account the individuality of belief, personality, values, and situation of the person one is talking to. He recommends using a clarification form of dialogue (as opposed to argumentative or relativizing dialogue), and finds value in the 7 principles of Max Warren for interreligious dialogue.

4.  He emphasizes what needs to be done with those Muslims who decide to follow Christ. He speaks particularly of those Muslims who, like himself, find themselves ostracized by family and community (and for some by nation) because of this change of faith. He gives a lot of good advice as to how to bring them into the community of faith. He does not recommend C5 or C6 groups, but does see the need for churches who are MBB (Muslim Background Believer)-friendly. Ideally, it is pastored by an MBB. He speaks of some of the difficulty and rejection he had with Christians and Christian groups for some trivial things such as his name (an “Islamic” name) and whether being a Christian requires a Muslim to start eating pork, or reject part of his (polygamous) family.

The major negative aspect of the book is that it is roughly edited. I have to bring this back on me. I helped with the editing, but Olayiwola lacks to resources for professional editing. It does show, but I don’t believe that it undermines the book, but readers should be aware of this. <As a person who cannot afford professional editing, and as one who likes to put out books first, and fix some problems in later revisions, I am quite sympathetic of this.>

There are some other things that I consider neither negative or positive, but are worth noting.

  1.  The book arguably is not clearly written to any specific target demographic. The early part of the book spends considerable time talking about the story of Sarah and Hagar. This is shared because it is an important issue for many Muslims. However, for most Christians, Hagar and Sarah of Old Testament characters, and a rather obscure New Testament metaphor for salvation. For many Muslims, the story is much more. The author spent considerable time on this because it is important to Muslims and an important separation point for Muslims and Christians. The likely readers, Christians, should embrace this focus rather than seeking to undermine this focus. (I remember when the author presented this topic in one of my classes, and students began to try to argue with him. It was as if they forgot that the presenter is a Christian who is trying to present Islam from an insiders perspective for the benefit of the class.)  Additionally, context of Islam and Christianity is heavily skewed towards Nigeria. As such he focuses on concerns such as “white weddings,” polygamy, prosperity churches, and shariah. While many readers wouldn’t connect with some of these issues, it is unlikely to be beneficial to speak of Islam and Christianity only from a supracultural, decontextualized, setting.
  2. His principles of leading Muslims to Christ point to the idea that there is no set method. The title of the book should hint at this, but Christians are so used to focusing on methods, that they often struggle with focusing on principles or on process. However, once one embraces a method, one often disregards relationship. Additionally, whatever method works in one context is likely to be unhelpful in many (most… nearly all) other contexts.

I do think this book is valuable to Christians who love their Muslim neighbors. But expect to be challenged.

Olayiwola’s book is available at this time in online sources such as Amazon.com.

NOTE:  Olayiwola used some of what I had written on Interreligious Dialogue. If you want to read up more on this topic, consider my book:

Dialogue in Diversity