Missions Anthropology Thoughts

<The following is actually some guidance for my students in Cultural Anthropology class. But others can read it if they want.>

Cultural Anthropology has been called Missions Anthropology by some, and when Cultural Anthropology is used by missionaries for solutions to ministry questions, the term Missions Anthropology is quite appropriate.

One of the goals of Missions Anthropology is to change how missionaries and ministers react to cultural differences. Here are two ways of looking at cultural differences.

#1. The Common Response. A Christian sees something different in a culture.

a. That cultural behavior is done by them (non-Christians). And…

b. That cultural behavior is not being done by us (Christians). Therefore…

c. That cultural behavior is unchristian, and must be stopped.

But is that a good response? For hundreds of years, Christians did not use cellphones. This does not mean that cellphones are unchristian. It also does not mean that cellphones cannot be utilized for good. So here is a second response…

#2. The Uncommon Response. A Christians sees something different in a culture.

a. That cultural behavior is done by them (non-Christians). And…

b. That cultural behavior is not being done by us (Christians). Therefore…

c. What would this cultural behavior look like in a Christ-redeemed culture?

Let me give an example.

In Japan, the dominant religion is Shintoism. Actually, Shintoism is in many ways, more of a collection of values and practices than a fully functioning religion. Shinto shrines are all over Japan, and even in public places such as subways. For many Japanese, their practice is to fit religion into their brief moments of free time, so they may step into a shrine for a couple of minutes while waiting for their train to take them home from work.

So let’s look at this situation from the two different responses.

Response #1. These little Shinto Shrines all over Japan are not Christian. They are places of worship to false gods, and must be destroyed so that Christ can be glorified. Japanese people should stop going to shrines at different times of the week, but should go to church on Sundays at 10am… just like us.

Response #2. The Japanese look for opportunities to pray, meditate, and express religious reverence in quick little moments in their lives. What would a vibrant Christianity look like within this culture? Maybe it would have little prayer rooms scattered throughout the country, where Japanese people can take a quick break from their busy lives to pray to God… to read some words of Scripture… and to meditate on God and His message. In some larger prayer rooms, they may have chaplains there to help them with their concerns and to be a guide for them.

I think Response #2 is better than Response #1. Response #1 says that Japanese can come to Christ by destroying the things that make them unique. To become Christian, they have to stop being Japanese in any culturally distinct ways. Response #2 recognizes that Christianity around the world is diverse and centered on God. Therefore, Japanese Christianity can be uniquely different from other forms of Christianity, much like Greek Christianity was very different from Jewish Christianity in the first century.

Why am I mentioning this? A few of you have made some rather strong statements. For example, one might talk about something which is done in their culture, but then say, we (Christians) don’t do that because it is unchristian. To me, that is not a good answer.

  • If it is unchristian because it is sinful, then is there a way that it can be done without sin? For example, in the Philippines, fiestas often are tied to adoration of saints and icons, and often have a lot of drunkenness and gambling. These may be sinful, but is there a way that fiestas can be participated in that is not sinful?
  • If it is unchristian because it is something practiced by non-Christians, then is there a way that Christians can connect with the culture through the practice, while still being Christian. For example, if one is in a Muslim country where Ramadan is widely practiced, is there a way that Christians can show that they are part of the culture (not members of an alien or foreign faith)? Can Christians honor the cultural practice of Ramadan as a show of honor to the culture and to their neighbors, while still honoring Christ?

My point here is that for that class, when you are talking about a cultural item or a cultural practice, if you say that it is “wrong” or that it is unchristian… I will ask you, “Why is it wrong?” or “What makes it unchristian?” And I may ask you, “What needs to change for it be a healthy part of the lives of Christians who are of that culture?”

So Why Don’t They All Do It?

My daughter asked me a great question… “So… why don’t they all do it?”

Okay, we need some background. My daughter was watching a Youtube video by a creator named “Saberspark.” The Title is, “What Ruined Veggietales: The Tragic Fall of Bob and Larry.” The Youtuber, if I remember right, has described himself as being brought up in a rather conservative Christian environment, but as he got older, he lost his religion, and would now describe himself as an agnostic. (Again, this is by memory. I could be wrong.)  He likes to review things, especially animated films. He has reviewed a number of religious animated movies, VHS, and TV shows.

As the Youtuber was telling the story of Veggietales and Big Idea, he gave a surprising compliment. He said that even though Veggietales was clearly religious in content, it was clever and entertaining enough that many non-Christian families would watch it and be happy if their children enjoy it.  That is actually pretty unusual. Most of the Christian animation out there is pretty horrendous. It is commonly lazy, on-the-nose, and preachy. As a Christian, I would have strong misgivings of many of them, and if I was a non-Christian, I would work, very strongly to keep my kids away from them.

Bibleman: The Animated Adventures (2016-)

<Not Veggietales>

That is why my daughter asked me, “Why don’t they all do it? Why don’t other Christian producers do this as well. If Christians really want to spread the message of Christ to non-Christians, why would they NOT try to make the works appealing to non-Christians?”

Great question!! I am not sure I fully know. I am not in “The Biz.” But I think there are a few no-brainers here— and I am just the guy to do no-brainers.

  1.  The Engineering Triangle. I used to be a Mechanical Design Engineer. Back then I learned about the Engineering Triangle. The three points on the triangle are QUICK, CHEAP, and HIGH QUALITY.  The understanding is that one can have ANY TWO of these. A design can be cheap and high quality, but it will not be quick… it will take time. A design can be quick and High quality… but it won’t be cheap. One will have to have deep pockets. And a design can be quick and cheap, but the result will be low quality. It seems as if the decision for Christian producers is almost without exception to embrace Quick and Cheap. The result is Low Quality. But why would that be the choice? Often the money that is available to invest in religious productions is not great, so Cheap is often a given. But why Quick? I am not as sure of this one. In some cases perhaps there is the view that if one pops out something quick and brings in some money, one can afford to do high quality work later… maybe. However, in Evangelical Christian missions, quick and cheap are often part of the mantra. One must get more “bang for the buck.” Christ is coming ANY DAY so methods that are more developmental, rather than relief, are often frowned upon. A lot of methods of sharing the gospel are heavy and pressuring a quick (and superficial?) decision, rather than focusing on developing a relationship. Quick, easy, and efficient just seem so right, that quality and excellence seem to be irrelevant, or even a delay to real ministry.
  2. Religious Jingoism. Most Christian producers know who their audience is. Their audience is Conservative, Evangelical Christians. And there is a tendency for many to have a certain… toxic form of militarism when it comes to faith. Paul utilizes the war metaphor, as well as dualism (dark versus light, Sarah versus Hagar, etc.) to contrast Christians from others. Many Christians embrace a strong Us vs. Them. Often Christians are seen as just really really awesome, and non-Christians are seen as pretty awful, caricatures with less nuance than a Charles Dickens novel. Producers end up coddling these people because they are the ones who are going to buy their materials. I know that some like to suggest otherwise, much like with “God is Not Dead” where it is suggested, ‘Bring your unsaved friends.” But what unsaved friends would want to go, much less be impressed by the strawmen to be knocked down by dubious plot devices. Christians often want to hear “We are on the side of right, and God is on our side.” I have heard that 700 Club has long held the policy that it would never share a story that has a “non-victorious” ending, for Christians. That is worthy of some pretty serious condemnation, since it leaves Christians ill-prepared for real trials that often do not have ‘feel good’ endings. But that is what people want. They want to see Christians “dunk” on the (incompetent) “enemy,” rather than explore truth through thoughtful dialogue. Paul may have described the Christian life in terms of war, but he also spoke of becoming like the person he is reaching out to— to be effective. He also speaks of “adorning the gospel” through loving and faithful behavior to non-Christians. Peter speaks of sharing one’s faith not with a Ben Shapiro (make the other side look bad rather than seek truth) form of debate, but dialogue built on gentleness and respect.
  3. Preservation over Creativity. Creativity is hard. For some people it seems easier than for others, but it is a challenge for everyone. But in religious circles, it can be even more difficult. Years ago, some Muslims decided to make a movie about the life of Muhammed. They put a lot of work into but it, but then they couldn’t really show it, because the dominant view of the more traditional side of Islam is that one should never show an image of their ‘final prophet.’ Christians struggle with that as well. There is certain coding that one must do, or it may not be seen as “Christian enough.” I remember years ago when Amy Grant decided to create a ‘secular’ music album. I remember people acting like she was going over to “the dark side.” I seems like it is easier to go from the other side. If one is a ‘secular artist’ and then decides to act on their own Faith to produce a religious creation, that person is given much greater freedom. For “Christian materials” there is often a strong pressure to say certain things and not say other things. I remember on a “Christian network” a person being interviewed who said that slavery in the Old Testament, and the execution of homosexuals were pure, good, and just. I understand why this person may say this. If the person says there are problems with these things, some people may think one is saying that God is unjust. If one says that there are cultural and historical issues that one must consider, some people will think that one is saying that God changes. One could point out that Jesus said to love our neighbors and express compassion regardless of whether they are like us or different, and regardless of whether they are friends or enemies. Jesus also described Himself as one who liberates and frees those in bondage. Further, the New Testament says that we are not bound by the Mosaic Law. That means that being kind and compassionate to homosexuals, to oppose slavery in all its forms, and rejecting the Law are also absolutely pure, good, and just. But this is pretty subtle, and Christian media is rarely so subtle. It may be easier to be creative as a Christian in a secular setting than within the bounds of Christian arts and media. In essence, Christians may want their media to reinforce their own beliefs and prejudices, rather than make them think. One of my favorite Christian movies is “Silent.” However, I think there is absolutely NO CHANCE that it would have been made by a Christian media company. Its message is too challenging and ambiguous to make it into film within “Christian circles.”

There may be more things, but this is a good starting place for the discussion I think. I have hopes for Christian media, but I do think that media that effectively engages the non-Christian culture(s) will have to work against the system, not with it. May their numbers increase.

The Shaman’s Doorway

I don’t really do reviews because a review really requires a type of reading and analysis that I don’t really like doing—-

The Shaman's Doorway: Opening Imagination to Power and Myth: Stephen  Larsen, John Halifax: 9780892816729: Amazon.com: Books

and I don’t want to be one of those who gives positive reviews for books that support my opinions, and bad reviews for books that don/t. However, this is an interesting book to me for a few reasons. Stephen Larsen’s book, “The Shaman’s Doorway: Opening Imagination to Power and Myth,” was published in 1976, originally by Harper and Row. Here are a few minor thoughts.

  1. I was a bit surprised that the book wasn’t really focused on shamanism. This is not to say that it did not give weight to the topic. In fact, there were two North American shamans that were give sizable sections in the book.
  2. The greater emphasis was on the role of (ancient) myths in cultures, and archetypes in people. Not surprisingly then, Joseph Campbell and C.G. Jung were given a great deal of prominence in the book.
  3. I was surprised at the passionate tone of the book. Although cultural anthropology promotes participant observation, the books that I have tended to read (especially of the more secular variety) write more academically… more dispassionately. The author is one who is seeking a certain amount of spirituality or transcendancy, and has been greatly influenced by the late 60s and early 70s in the United States, where new ways of looking at spirituality have been promoted.
  4. Related to the previous point, the author speaks of his own attempt at dabblling with different paths to spirituality. It is pretty clear that he is not a fan of traditional Christianity, or of other “Western.” He speaks also of his delving into mysticism, and Eastern faiths (especially yoga). He noted problems with these as well.

His main thesis is five stages or types of mythic engagement.

Stage #1. Mythic Identity. Larsen sees this in terms of spiritual possession. This may be seen in ecstatic faiths, psychedelic experiences, shamanism, channeling, demon possession, mass hysteria, etc.

Stage #2. Mythic Orthodoxy. Larsen sees this in terms of religion. Myths move to dogma. He sees this as an “extroverted” view since the answers in life are seen as external to the adherent, in terms of an Ultimate Reality external to the members, that are regulated by dogma and ritual.

Stage #3. Objective Phase. Larsen sees this in terms of science. This is the realm of the scientist, skeptic, and modernist… who believe that myths myths must be verified or tossed out. (Note: I feel that Larsen takes a pre-Kuhn view in seeing science as objective seeking to be embedded in reality and skeptical of myth. Also note that Larsen tends to view the term “myth” to mean things that are NOT real, yet may be useful. As such, he seems to embrace the idea that scientism may be correct, but creating an untenable place for humans who need our myths and archetypes.)

Stage #4. Suspended Engagement. This is the realm of (Eastern) meditation such as in yoga. If (Western) religion is seen as extroverted, this is considered introverted. One seeks truth by looking inward. However, its asceticism tends to deny the naturalness of being human.

Stage #5. Mythic Engagement and Renewal. This is the stage of transformation and dialogue. This seems to be somewhat poorly defined, but appears to be embracing some aspects of Campbell and Jung, along with some components of Stage #1. (The author notes that Stage #1 is difficult for most since it is sort of the realm of madness. He sees some value in Stage #1, but without become lost in the experience of spiritual transformation or ecstasy.)

It is pretty clear that Larsen has issues with Stages 2, 3, and 4. Stages 2 (Western “extroverted” faiths) and 4 (Eastern “introverted” faiths) do not embrace the “naturalness of life.” They seek mind over matter. Stage 3 seeks a desacralized view of the world that is psychologically empty. However, few if any can embrace Stage 1, the realm of saints, shamans, and madmen.

His approach supports a certain “third way” between introversion and extroversion, the naturalness of our humanity seriously, It embraces the myths that are rooted so deeply in our humanity without becoming completely lost in them.

Obviously, I am a Christian and as such I fit into the category of dogmatic religion, or Stage 2. Yet, as I look at what Larsen is saying, it seems to me that Christian mysticism could be seen Stage 5. Christian mysticism includes many of the saints that fit into Stage 1. Yet at the same time clearly do work within the framework of ultimate reality (dogma) from Stage 2, and honor of meditation (stage 4).

Of course, I am not required to agree with his views (and neither is anyone else). However, I do think that there is some value to this model… especially in how it seeks to take myth or archetypes seriously, while addressing our humanity seriously.

As a missionary, one needs to deal with people with any of these five worlds. I would also suggest that a missionary may live in one of the stages, but should not be uncomfortable with any of these stages. Arguably, it may be valuable to follow the guidance of Paul to contextualize (a Jew to the Jews and a Greek to the Greeks) One could see these stages as different worldviews, and we must be able to understand and interact with all of them.

Missions Theology Chapter 2

Years ago I started to write a book on Missions Theology. I was teaching a course on it, and as usual, I had mixed feelings about the books I had available to use. Therefore, I started writing.

But then I stopped. For one thing, I haven’t had to teach the course again, so I lost part of my motivation. Second, two courses came along that I had much greater motivation to work on books:

The first book I included a LOT of chapters that were going to being in my book on Missions Theology. The second book had less, but did have a fair bit on theological reflection and the case study method, which I consider important for Missions Theology.

So I am not sure if I will finish this book, repeating from my other books, or finish this book only with the topics that I haven’t covered elsewhere, or don’t finish the book.

So here is the first/rough draft of Chapter 2————

Relevant and Faithful Theology

A relevant question that could come up here is which is more difficult? Is it harder to to make theology relevant/resonant with a community, or faithful to God’s Word. At first glance, it may seem that it really depends on the person. For example, an untrained person who is fully enculturated (born into) culture “B” would be quite well-suited to providing a cutlurally relevant theology that sadly is not true to God’s Word. That may be true.

On the other hand, a seminary student enculturated and trained in culture “A” could be reasonably thought competent to provide a theology that is true to God’s word, but is not relevant/resonant in culture “B.” This also makes sense.

Before we delve into this further, this may be a good place to think about the differences between the terms relevant and resonant in the context of culture. According to Mike Aruaz:

Cultural relevance is achieved when the audience recognizes what you’ve created as something that reflects their culture.”

Cultural Resonance is achieved when your audience uses what you’ve created to talk to each other about something meaningful that they’ve been observing in their culture.”

Using cultural symbols may make a message relevant, but it may not strike a resonant chord with the deep interests and concerns of a people.

Now let’s consider Figure 7. It shows two Culture circles— Culture A and Culture B. Anything within those circles are culturally relevant and/or resonant. The figure is a bit false because certainly there are things that are relevant to both cultures at the same time, so certainly two cultures much overlap in some ways. For ease of visualization, however, they are shown as fully separate. Within each of thdse circles is a smaller circle of theologies that are relevant/resonant to the respective cultures. Therefore, there were be theologies that are seen as relevant to that culture, providing answers to their concerns— regardless of whether the theologies are true or not.

Overlapping God’s Revelation with it, creates smaller regions. God’s Word as canon, provides a standard or limiter of what is acceptable to God. If we accept that God’s Revelation has a message that is, ultimately, relevant to all cultures, there will be an overlap of God’s Revelation with every cultural circul, including Cultures “A” and “B.” And, likewise, if God’s Revelation is relevant to all cultures, then there should be the potential for culturally relevant theologies that are true to God’s Word for all cultures.

The overlapping circles creates several regions.

  • Region 1 is a contextual theology that is both comprehenisble to Culture “A” and is true to God’s message. (Region 4 corresponds to this but for Culture “B”.) This is in contrast to Region 5 which are culturally relevant theologies that are not true to God’s message for Culture “A” (with the corresponding Region 6 for Culture “B”).
  • Region 2 is how God’s message is relevant or resonant to Culture A, as Region 3 is for Culture “B.”
  • One could look at Regions 7, for Culture “A,” and 8, for Culture “B” as aspects of their respective cultures that are not affected by God’s revelation. For example, the food they eat, the solutions they come up to environmental needs, much of the music and customs they practice may be unaffected by God’s Word. God’s message does not call on eradicaton of all cultural variation between peoples. Thus, Christians within a culture can still be “at home” in their culture while being true to God’s Word.

Figure 7. Culture and Theology

Now, let’s return to the two scenarios at the beginning of this chapter. Consider John, a new believer raised up in predominantly non-Christian Region B. With limited understanding of God’s Word, it is more likely that his attempts to theologize God’s message to his own people will drift into Region 6 (culturally relevant theoligies that are not well-grounded on God’s Word). Additionally, John’s lack of experience with other cultures may hinder him as well in identifying what is culturally important and what is not. He may slide into ethnocentrism (Culture “B” must be right and good) or exoticism (we are messed up and must become like Culture “A’)

It in the second scenario, consider James, a Christian from Culture “A” who is seeking to serve as a missionary in Culture “B.” Without solid training long-term training in Culture “B” it is more likely that his theology is going to not be in Region 4, but in Region 1. He is likely to express God’s Message to Culture B in the theological construct relevant to Culture “A.”

James’s situation may even be worse than Thomas. He is not only inadequately trained in Culture “B,” he may also be inadequately trained in God’s revelation. Often in seminary, there is greater effort to teach the theology of the denominational sub-culture, than on teaching the God’s word. James may have a dual disadvantage.

But which limitation is greater for the seminary graduate? It is arguably the second one. Spending time in Culture “B” will gradually reveal the nuances of the culture… and subtleties that are beyond him can be filled in by host believers eventually. However, the expansion of one’s understanding of God’s Revelation to the point that it is clearly seen as it relates to a different culture is much harder. One might even suggest that without the Holy Spirit’s illumination, the task would be impossible.

Two Example from the Bible

A.  As the Israelites escaped from Egypt, they eventually arrived at Mt. Sinai. There, Moses went up to commune with God, while the Isrealites and the other non-Israelites who had escaped with them waited. When Moses failed to come down from the mountain after a long time, the people feared and asked Aaron to deal with the situation. In Exodus 32, Aaron makes an altar and a golden calf. Why would he do this?

In Egypt, the bull is sacred, and so he may have been drawing answers from the culture he was raised in (heterodox theology from culture A). On the other hand, knowing that they are heading to Canaan, where the bull is a symbol of Baal, “the local god,” this may have been a heterodox theology seeking relevance in culture B.

Before one get’s too critical, it must be noted that there are considerable similarities between orthodox Israelite Theology (as guided by the Mosaic Law) and Egyptian theology. According to Herodotus (The Horizon Book of Lost Worlds, by Leonard Cotrell, page 288ff), the Egyptians:

  • Practiced circumcision
  • Had a priesthood
  • Practice rites of cleanliness
  • Had rules regarding “clean” and “unclean” foods
  • Had animal sacrifice with requirements that the animals are unblemished.
  • Maintained rules of endogamy (prohibitions against marrying outside of one’s ethnicity)

In Egypt, the Bull was sacred to Apis, a god popularly worshiped in Memphis (Egypt) and often seen as a go-between of man and the higher gods. It is hardly surprising that Aaron might go in that direction. In Exodus 32:6, part of the worship was to “play,” suggesting the sexual activities associated with the Canaanite faith. This sympathetic magic was tied to fertility of families as well as the land. Apis, in Egypt, was also often seen as a god of fertility.

Aaron, with limited understanding of God’s will, made a pretty good attempt at guessing what God would want based on his understanding of Egyptian culture, and perhaps his limited understanding of Canaanite culture as well.

But he was still wrong. It took God’s Word, coming through Moses, to clarity what God expected of them. The result was something that would “make sense” to most of the people, while still deeply challenging them to change in some key ways.

Interestingly, God’s revelation to Moses actually was not simply to one culture, but to two. The revelation was to Israel, a nomadic people– but also to Israel of the future, a sedentary people.

B.  In the New Testament, we find the Apostles and church leaders struggling with the issue of how God’s revelation would apply to non-Jews. The Apostles and church leaders would be seen as well-versed in Scripture, as well as the words of Jesus. Yet, they truly struggled with this. The Jerusalem Council, in Acts 15, was where this was dealt with as a body. The action of the Holy Spirit helped to sway the body to the understanding that Greeks do not have to become Jews to become Christians. Even after the council, however, struggles remained, as seen in differences between Paul’s understanding and the council decision (there is no indication at least that Paul rejected the eating of blood for Gentiles). It is also seens in the Epistle to the Galatians (if one accepts that that letter was written after the Jerusalem Council), where people who were apparently well-versed in the Hebrew Bible differed considerably from Paul and the Apostles in its application to Greeks.

Summary

It is easy to use or create theologies that are not in line with Scripture when reaching out to a predominantly non-Christian culture. Young believers in the culture may lack the Biblical backing needed. Seminarians from another culture may lack cultural knowledge, AND may be better trained in the theology of their own culture or sub-culture than they are in God’s Word.

Discussion

1. John in this chapter has an “emic” (insider’s) perspective of the culture in which he is ministering. James in this chpater has an “etic” (outsider’s) perspective. Both can provide hindrances to effective ministry. How might James and John do to limit the problems with their own perspectives?