New Article on Orality

I wrote an article for Bukal Life Journal. The journal is the publication of Bukal Life Care and Counseling Center, and deals with topics relating to pastoral care and counseling, and pastoral theology.

One of my favorite topics is looking at how Christian Missions and Pastoral Care intersect.

The article is titled, “

Theological Reflection through Storying in the Orality and Clinical Pastoral Training Movements

It is originally published in the 2022 edition of Bukal Life Journal, pages 27-42.

It is also available at academia.edu.

The link is here:

https://www.academia.edu/89426385/Theological_Reflection_through_Storying_in_the_Orality_and_Clinical_Pastoral_Training_Movements?source=swp_share

Cultural Relativism and Missions

I wrote a textbook for seminary students in the Philippines. I still use the book (“Ministry in Diversity”). However, I stopped selling the book because I wanted to make some changes.

One area I have been struggling with is the use of the term “Cultural Anthropology.” The term is used both by missionaries and (secular) cultural/social anthropologists. However, some firmly believe that the term cultural anthropology has the built-in presumption of cultural relativism. I am not totally convinced of this, but that did bring up the good question of what should missionaries hold to in terms of culture.

Upon reflection, I think there is value in separating between culture and religion. Now before anyone jumps all over me for this, I am only suggesting that there is some value in separating them even if one cannot truly separate the two.

If one pretends that one can separate religion and culture, then one can identify two spectra. One relates to culture ranging from cultural relativism (all cultures are equally valid and cannot be judged by outsiders) to cultural imperialism (all cultures can judged by my own culture and changed to be like my own culture). Religiously, one can see a spectrum from religious pluralism (all religions are equally valid and cannot be judged by outsiders) to religious exclusivism (my own faith/religion is the only one that is completely valid and is to challenge other faiths).4

Simplifying the spectra into two regions each, one can create quadrants. The Green Region I am calling “Civilizing” Missionaries. This goes back to many of the Great Century missionaries. Many were Religious Exclusivists and Cultural Imperialists. This makes me think of David Livingstone’s 3-Cs— Christianity, Civilization, Commerce. Such a model separates between religion and culture but still sees part of the missionary endeavor to change culture (“civilize”).

The Pink and Orange Regions are where there is Cultural Relativism. I am using the term “Presence” Missions here. This hearkens back to the developments especially associated with conciliar missions especially as popularized in the 1960s. Missions in this view was done by missionaries that would focus on a ministry of presence— often with the presumption that God’s work in and through the culture meant that the message of the gospel was unnecessary to be shared. I put out Presence Missions for both categories regarding culture. After all, in some forms of Christian community development, there may be a strong effort to change the culture even if religiously there is little desire to proselytize.

That leaves Transformative Missions in the Yellow region. There is an embracing of an Exclusive view regarding faith. However, the goal is not destroy culture. The hope, at least, is that the Gospel will fulfil or bring out the best in culture.

As I said, it is not realistic to separate culture from religion… but we do in many ways. We do separate Secular from Sacred… Holy from Mundane. Some of the boundaries are artificial, but Acts 15 (among other passages) do suggest the gospel transforms cultures without undermining them.

I need to make changes in the book but must figure out how to wrestle with this issue better.

Orality Webinar

I have been watching a series of Webinars on the Orality Movement. It is a partnership between Lausanne Movement and International Orality Network (ION).

The focus has been on the recent work of Tom Steffen and Bill Bjoraker, particularly in terms of Oral Hermeneutics and Character Theology.

It is available on Youtube at “Lausanne Orality”—- https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC7qDsOdAVRN4Z9ravw5ddeg/featured

It is also available in podcast form on some platforms under ‘God Speaks.’

I have watched all of the ones so far, and was able to participate live (although mostly as a lurker). For those interested in Orality, not just as a method for sharing the gospel with those who cannot read, but also in terms of communicating in a world that commonly learns without reliance on print media.

Preventing Theological Tribalism

Yesterday, I attended a theological seminar. I should do it more often. The main speaker was Dr. Federico Villanueva, a Filipino theologian of the Langham Partnership. He is an OT scholar with special focus on the Psalms of Lament. He presented a paper, but also made a strong appeal to the Filipino audience to develop not only localized theology, but localized theology in one’s own heart language.

After lunch, there was panel discussion with Dr. Villanueva, as well as Dr. Armand Canoy and Dr. Michael Janapin of Philippine Baptist Theological Seminary. A lot of great questions were asked and answered. I will list two here.

  1. The first on was by me. I said something to the effect, “Catholic theologian Stephen Bevan’s says that one of the tests of good contextual theology is dialogue with the Universal Church— willing and able to both challenge or critique others as well as receive critique from outside. I believe heart language helps in developing localized theology, but it acts as a barrier to dialogue with the rest of the church. How do we find a healthy balance?” A shortened version of the answer given by Dr. Villanueva was “Yes balance is important. However, there is such a dearth of theology in Tagalog that it really needs to be encouraged to strengthen Filipino theology. Later, translations can be done for dialogue with the broader theological community.”
  2. Francis Samdao, a doctoral candidate at ABGTS had a follow-on question somewhat like mine but with a different focus. “How can one avoid theological tribalism, ignoring the broader globalistic community?” Dr. Villanueva (summarizing here again) said, “We always need to maintain connect to and learn from outside sources. I truly gained a greater understanding of my Filipino culture when I read theological works by Americans, British, Germans, and more. But before I did that, I first had to be well-immersed in my own culture and our history.”

I think these were good responses. Also, my wife and I are reading through a book the speaker wrote (in English) that we definitely would recommend.

An Evangelical Theology of Other Religions?

I will be teaching “Dialogue with Asian Faiths” in a couple of weeks. It is one of my favorite classes. I don’t just talk about the beliefs and practices, I also speak of the background associated with holding dialogue with people of other faiths. In this class I do talk considerably on various theological implications of living with those of other faiths. But I think I can do more.

I was reading Evangelical Mission Quarterly (Jan-Mar 2019, Vol. 55, #1). One article was titled, “Outlining a Biblical Theology of Islam: Practical Implications for Disciple Makers and Church Planting.” The article is written by Warrick Farah. It is an interesting article. I will admit that I think Farah was using the term “Biblical Theology” wrong, but that is hardly worth complaining about. Farah does a good job addressing several theological questions when it comes to Islam. He notes when dealing with the “Final Prophet of Islam” that in our theological reflection, we cannot simply embrace a traditional Christian attitude about him. We also would be remiss to simply react against “modern” Islamic views of their founder. We need to look at who he was, not just how he has been interpreted by his followers and enemies.

In line with that, we need a solid Theology of Other Faiths. Since I teach at a Southern Baptist seminary, this theology would be somewhat narrowed to be (mostly) Evangelical in terms of the lens used in the theological reflection. Some of the topics for such a theology could include:

  1. What do we say about revelations from other religions. This would include the revelations, how these revelations are handled, and the prophets/shamans behind the revelations. A lot of this has been handled before by Sir Norman Anderson. Anderson notes that broad views include (a) other revelations come from God, (b) other revelations come from the devil, (c) other revelations come from the hopes and aspirations of man, or (d) a nuanced combination of the above.
  2. What do we say about “other gods.” Are they devilish snares (or even ‘literal devils’), or can some descriptions (“god of the heavens” or “God above the gods”) point to the God who is, or even be said to be the same as. (This is especially relevant when it comes to the Abrahamic faiths. Is the God of Judaism, Islam, Christianity, and Sikhism the same? Or similar?)
  3. How should we, as Christians, relate to other religions, houses of worship, idols, religious leaders, and religious adherents. The Bible shows a lot of different ways that range from destroy all idols to respectful coexistence. Where are we supposed to fit into this spectrum?
  4. How does salvation relate to other faiths? This goes back to the common spectrum that utilizes three terms defined broadly— Exclusivism, Inclusivism, and Pluralism. One could add at the extremes, two more categories— Particularism and Universalism. Can other religions be a path to salvation? Are other religions a path to destruction? Is there a middle ground where (some) religions may help prepare people for the gospel? For example, some describe Sikhism as a gateway to Christianity. Some forms of Animism also seem to do this as well.

These seem like good topics to consider under the umbrella of Theology of Other Faiths.

DTIM (Dubious Thoughts in Missions) #1: We Need to Do Things Like St. Paul

One of my favorite classic books in Christian Missions is by Roland Allen: Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours; A Study of the Church in the Four Provinces. This looks at the activities Paul and Barnabas, and later Paul and Silas, did in the first two missionary journeys. The book identifies numerous principles (mission principles is really a better way of describing it than mission methods) from Paul, and Allen suggests that we should follow his principles today.

And I think Roland Allen has a lot of good points. We would gain much from understanding what Paul did, and why he did it. That being said, I still think the statement “We need to do things like Paul” is rather dubious.

First (and I admit this is a trivial point), the principles followed by Paul in the first two missionary journeys appear to have been developed by Barnabas, not Paul. The methods used were done from the very beginning of the first missionary journey, and Barnabas was the leader of the missionary band at this point of time, not Paul. And Barnabas was a mentor for Paul, so it is likely, Paul was following the direction of Barnabas not the other way around. Right or wrong, many Christians consider the actions of Paul as having a certain level of authority associated with them. Would they feel it is as authoritative if these came from Barnabas? Jesus and His disciples did travel as a missionary band. The Samaria Missions may have provided some insights as well as the founding of the church of Antioch, and perhaps others. In the end, however, the mission principles that appear to have been developed by Barnabas probably more from the experiences of others rather than on a divine scheme.

Second (and this is probably a stronger point), Paul did not always use these methods. Paul, at least on two occasions (Ephesus and Corinth) broke the pattern of establishing churches, moving on, visiting churches, and moving on. In both Ephesus and Corinth he lingered for over a year. Additionally, in Paul’s so-called fourth missionary journey, he threw out the previous pattern entirely. Now, admittedly, I consider the fourth journey to be a deeply flawed idea (discouraged by both the Spirit of God and the local church leaders) that resulted in little if anything redemptive. The point is, however, that Paul did not believe that the pattern established in the first two journeys had to be followed religiously.

Third, Paul’s ministry setting had a great effect on his methodology. He was a Greek-speaking Hellenistic Jew from Asia Minor who for most of his time in ministry reached out to Greek-speaking Hellenitistic Jews and Greek-speaking Gentiles from areas adjoining the land of his upbringing. In most places he went to were pioneering missions (not counting Rome, Antioch, and his multiple attempts to minister in Jerusalem). For most missionaries today, these circumstances don’t exist. Most missionaries do not work in pioneering fields, and even those that do are not working in a culture very similar to their own, and in the same language as their upbringing. I believe that the missions principles of Barnabas and Paul and Jesus and Philip and others need to be studied and understood. But times change and circumstances change and so methods should change.

I was raised in a church tradition that has elements of “restorationism” associated with it. That is, the church tradition of my upbringing self-identified as seeking to restore the first century church. Actually, a lot of faith traditions (orthodox and heterodox alike) have sought to identify themselves with the first century church. However, the first century church no longer exists. And that is great, because the first century no longer exists neither. We live in the 21st century. We don’t need any first century churches. We need 21st century churches.

Actually, I just realized a dealt with TWO DTIMs, not just one.

NO… we are not supposed to do things like Paul.

NO… we are not supposed to restore the 1st century church for today.

We are to learn from the earliest Christians, but not copy them.

I have written on this topic before. More information is below:

Blogpost: “Missionary Methods: St. Barnabbas’ or Ours?” (March 7, 2011)

Article: “Apostles/Evangelists of the First Three Centuries as Exemplars for Modern Missionaries” (2021)

Our Ministries

Over 19 years plus our work in the Philippines has been complicated. I decided to make a chart of all of the organizations we have been involved in. History is valuable for self-reflection. I think it shows at least two things. First, we had no idea what we were doing for many years. Second, God did have a plan to guide and sustain… but part of that plan involved experimentation and learning. There were relatively few FAILURES…but there were many opportunities to learn through mistakes.

The link to the chart is below.


bobandceliamunson.wordpress.com/2022/10/02/ministry-chart/

Contextualization as Finding Meaning

One of the statements given in missions is that contextualization or incarnational ministry is about “walking in another person’s shoes.” Clearly, this is a metaphor, but a metaphor that I think has value to us.

But how does one know that one is walking in “another’s shoes” or whether one is imagining the other of walking in “one’s own shoes”?

I think a bit of an answer exists in Pastoral Counseling. A principle in PC can be described as a formula:

Facts + Feelings = Meaning

I will use an example that I use is the book that my wife and I wrote (The Art of Pastoral Care), but I will do it as two different conversations… between Tom and Susan.

Conversation #1.

Tom: “Hi Susan. What is new?”

Susan: “Hey Tom. Well, my next door neighbor just died last night.”

Tom: “Oh my, Susan. I am so sorry to hear that. What can I do to help you? Please let me know what I can do to help you.”

Susan: “Uhh… no. That is not necessary. What’s new with you?”

Conversation #2.

Tom: “Hi Susan. What is new?”

Susan: “Hey Tom. Well, my next door neighbor just died last night.”

Tom: “Oh my, Susan. I had not heard. How are you feeling right now.”

Before finishing Conversation #2… we have to consider some of the possible responses from Susan.

Conversation #2— Feelings Options

Susan (A): “I am so angry. He threw away his life leaving his wife and two children.”

Susan (B): “I don’t feel much of anything. I hardly knew him.”

Susan (C): “I am devastated. He was like a father to me.”

Susan (D): “I am thrilled. He was such an evil man. I am glad he is gone.”

Each of these feelings give the first statement (death of the neighbor) greater clarity. Up until that point it was only a fact. Once the feeling is known, the meaning of that event for Susan is known. And, typically, once the feeling is known, this opens up the conversation for more facts that give the meaning context.

Obviously for conversation #2, Tom would need to respond differently depending on the feeling response of Susan. Suppose, for example, that the statement was option D: “I am thrilled. He was such an evil man. I am glad he was gone.”

Now, Tom must look at how to respond to this.

One option would be to reject those feelings and say something like, “Susan! You shouldn’t feel that way. That’s not very Christian…”

Another option would be to accept those feelings and seek to understand more the context. He could seek to (gently) draw out more from Susan regarding the relationship between her and the neighbor.

Conversation #1 is not contextualization. Tom does not try to “walk in her shoes.” Rather, the response could be one of two things. First, it could be a failure to understand her context. Tom could be thinking, “Well, I am pretty sure I should say something soothing because that is what people do when a person dies.” However, worse, a second option could be trying to “get her to walk in his shoes.” Perhaps, he had a neighbor who died who he was very close to. In essence, he is saying to her, “Your neighbor died so you must feel the same way I did when my neighbor died.” Both of these are a failure to contextualize.

Conversation #2 is an attempt to contextualize. Tom seeks to gain meaning as to what is going on rather than simply go with facts. That is good, but one can still fail. As I showed in one of the options after finding out the meaning that Susan gave, Tom judged her and said that she (as a good Christian) shouldn’t feel that way. While this MAY (or MAY NOT) be true, Tom is not really in a position to judge. He doesn’t know enough about the neighbor and his interactions with Susan to speak. He needs to gain a greater understanding. If he fully knew the situation, he may well have said, “Wow Susan. I am so sorry to hear that. If I was in your shoes I would be happy he is dead as well.” Of course, we don’t know because we still don’t know the context.

So what does this have to do with missional contextualization? In missions we need to know more than facts (observations and data). We need to know meanings. If someone says something or does something, if we don’t understand the meanings behind these what happens? Well, we supply our own meanings. In other words we think something like “If I did that, what would I be thinking and feeling in that situation.” That is not being incarnational or attempting to contextualize. That is trying to get them to walk in our own shoes.

However, once we find the meaning, we still need to delve deeper. We cannot simply go… “Okay, I understand the situation fully now. Now I can judge.”

The classic case of this that people use is the practice of ancestor veneration. We see a place in the house with pictures of ancestors, with incense and fruit and things. As an outsider, we might look at that and say, “If I had something like that in my house it would either be because I am worshiping” (like a household god) “or have an unhealthy obsession” (like stalkers who set up a “shrine” to whoever they obsess over). Either way one must talk to the person with this ancestor “shrine” to find out what it means. Is it a place of worship— drawing out feelings of religious adoration and awe? Is it a place of entreaty (seeking help from a family member, even though deceased)? Is it a place of honoring (like flowers placed at a gravesite? Is it a place of carrying out a family tradition, with little meaning beyond doing one’s cultural duty?

The truth is that even after one discovers what it means to a person, one is likely still not in a position to judge. As I have said in previous posts, when Jesus said, “Judge not, lest ye be judged,” I think it is more than simply a warning about being judgmental. I believe it is also pointing out that we lack competence to judge. We don’t get to “peek over God’s shoulder” (as Merold Westphal would say).

Incarnational ministry involves an active continual quest for meaning that searches beyond facts to feelings to meanings, and then from meanings to more facts that must be tied to feelings to new meanings.