Backpedalling in Samaria

I am working on a book, “Missions in Samaria.” It is based on an article I wrote before. It started with the birth of the Samaritan identity up through the book of Acts. Then I jumped to how one can think about Missions in terms of OUR Samarias today. In other words, what places are we called to share the gospel that may be close to us but we have the tendency to ignore ministering to, or even sabotage doing ministry?

But then I did some more research and found that an important chapter was lost in looking at Samaria. In the first century, Samaria was a region with a sizable populace and a vibrant faith. Not so today. Why is this? One might suspect that they lost the war in battle of ideas/ideologies. Or perhaps there was a mass conversion to Christianity since the Book of Acts describes such a mass conversion.

The truth is that the Samaritan faith did not die so much as was murdered. Samaritism did not just fall, it was pushed.

During the time of the Byzantine Empire, Samaria was a turbulent place. Christan writers often used Samaritans or Samaritanism in negative analogies. The government was oppressive, and under Emperor Justinian, the faith was essentially made illegal. There were several uprisings that were crushed violently, killing hundreds of thousands of Samaritans. With the Islamic invasion, there was a bit of a temporary reprieve. However, that reprieve was far from complete with periodic forced conversions to Islam by the more “evangelistic” caliphs.

Today, the people who identify themselves as Samaritans are located in two small communities and number in the hundreds. There seems more of a tendency today to see it as a unique sect of Judaism, as opposed to a distinct competitor of that faith. In some ways, the remaining Samaritans are a testimony to the tenacity of faith.

Sadly, they are also a testimony to the tendency of Christians not to take the message of Christ seriously. Jesus sought to undermine the prejudices of the Jews regarding Samaritans, and specially commanded His apostles to reach out to them with the Good News. Yet as Christianity grew in power these prejudices grew in strength and violence, in opposition to Christ’s message.

This should serve as a warning to us.

A Theology of Celebration (Part I)

There has been a move within the “Cell Church” movement to describe Sunday morning gathering as “Celebration.” I never really cared for the terminology, although I grant at least the somewhat clever alliteration of church involving Cell Groups (another term I don’t care for) and Celebration. It seems to me that “celebration” is a sub-biblical understanding of gathering as a church body. But then, I don’t think “Worship Service” does better by combining two inadequate terms.

That being said, one thing I do like about calling the morning gathering Celebration is that it embraces a positive Christian understanding of the term. With the popularization of Spiritual Disciplines among Protestants in the 20th century, the term celebration has been seen more positively with both Richard Foster (in “Celebration of Discipline”) and Dallas Willard (in “The Spirit of the Disciplines”) describing celebration as a discipline that leads to spiritual growth.

Some, however, struggle with this. A wonderful

Image result for babette's feast
Babette’s Feast (1997)

Danish film that came out in 1987 was titled “Babette’s Feast” (based on a story by Isak Dinesen). The setting was a Protestant group that embraced a certain ascetic frugality. It appears as if celebration and joy were seen as wrong.

 

A friend of mine, a missionary, visited a group of devout Christians in an Asian mountain village. Discovering that one of them was having a birthday, the missionary asked if there would be a birthday party. The answer was “No.” In fact, there would be no public recognition at all. “Everything is about God. Every day is God’s. Isn’t it hubris to say to take even one day a year and say that it is about me instead of God?” That missionary was rather impressed by their piety. He may have a point, but I am wondering whether this is a healthy belief system.

A friend of mine, admittedly Jehovah’s Witness, not Christian, was talking to me about the soul-searching he was having about taking a piece of cake at the office we worked at. His religion tells him that birthday celebrations are forbidden because these celebrations are “pagan.” However, at the office, there really is no party. The secretary simply brings out some cake for people to eat when it is someone’s birthday. As my friend would say, “It feel like it is not wrong to eat cake. It is not a party, and I am not part of a celebration.” His religious training, however, leads him to a lot of guilt.

Facebook (and to a lesser extent Youtube) has become the dumping ground for people to share why celebrations are “pagan,” “devilish,” or just plain wrong. A few months ago the issue was Halloween as demonic because of its loose connection with Samhain (an animistic Druidic festival), while ignoring its strong connection to All Hallows’ Day. A few weeks later no one complains about American Thanksgiving (strangely since a stronger case could be made for its pagan roots than the others), but then complaints start up again for Christmas (linking it to a pagan holiday that doesn’t even line up with it). Now it is Valentine’s Day and people on FB again are suggesting that it is also celebration of a pagan holiday. Soon, it will repeat for Easter/Resurrection Sunday (even though it is the weakest of any of the arguments).

Why do Christians seem so quick to be bothered about celebrations— actually searching for arguments why they should not participate in celebrations? Why do so many Protestants here in the Philippines believe that culturally significant local festivities are wrong, priding themselves with their disinvolvement, while often embracing celebrations from other cultures? Why is it that when my daughter’s classmates discover that she is Baptist they react with pity because of the presumption that Baptists are against anything that brings happiness?

Perhaps there is a need for a good theological understanding of celebrations.  I would like to start the ball rolling on this one in Part 2 (and perhaps Part 3).

<As one who is not much of a celebrant or any sort, it feels strange that this is a topic I would take up. However, from a missions standpoint, it is quite relevant. One of the most crucial ways that Christianity remains foreign is to reject local festivities. And one of the ways that problematic aspects of festivities are passed on generation after generation is when Christians ignore them rather than seek to reimagine and redeem them.>

 

 

 

3 H’s of Persuasion

I have been going over different Asian religions in my Dialogue in Asian Religions course. I started with Judaism in Western Asia and worked my way across to Shinto in the East. Now I am looking at Atheism. Atheism has deep roots in Asia. Some forms of Buddhism and Hinduism could be described as Atheistic, as can some modern political movements in Asia such as Bolshevism and Maoism. Of course, Atheism is so diverse that it is hard to find commonalities between many atheistic perspectives. That, however, is the point. One doesn’t truly know what another person believes simply by knowing the label they use to self-describe. One must talk with them.

Image result for captain disillusion

I decided to use some comments from my favorite “skeptic” online. His name is Alan Melikdjanian. He is more commonly known as “Captain Disillusion” on Youtube. He is a debunker— particularly of videos that seem to show the impossible. He shows how many of these are made through special video “tricks.” Very interesting. However, I am bringing him up for a talk he gave at Skepticon Australia (2018 I think). The title of his talk to a group of skeptics was “The Unbearable Loneliness of Being Right on the Internet.” While he doesn’t say it directly, the talk is essentially a critique of the “New Atheism” movement that developed in the early 2000s. I really don’t think the movement truly exists. Rather, it was a term coined by a journalist around 2003 (I forgot the journalist’s name) to refer to a rather aggressive evangelistic form of atheism that often shows itself in seeing belief in God or in a religious belief system as a sign of mental deficiency or delusion.

Melikdjanian does not seem to have problems with the evangelistic fervor of these people, but rather that their method often has the opposite effect of what they are seeking. The aggressive negative stance of the “new atheists” tended to lead to pushback seeing these skeptics as jerks (or as Melikdjanian said, falling into the “black hole of assholery”).

He suggested three H’s to describe how skeptics (a term that itself is generally understood as rather negative) can be more persuasive.

H is for Humor. Melikdjanian commonly uses humor to entertain and to educate. Good humor builds bridges between people. Bad humor such as sarcasm (“cutting of the flesh”) drives a wedge. Humor also makes one’s message more interesting, grabbing the attention and sympathy of the respondent. Such humor must be humor that resonates with people outside of the echo chamber of the skeptic community. When humor is used in a self-deprecating fashion (pointing out one’s own weaknesses or mistakes), it can lead into the second H.

H is for Humility. In theory a skeptic is a doubter (even though it has often been used to describe those who are rather uncritical of a naturalist worldview). As a doubter, one should be ready to admit one’s mistakes, and express uncertainty and a willingness to learn. Skeptics too often have been known for embracing a certain “know-it-all” attitude with an associated condescension of other’s views. This seeming lack of humility is not a popular attitude, and even less so in a time being dominated by post-modern thought.

H is for Hope. Melikdjanian notes this is very important. Many people hold to faith beliefs that are out of line with the beliefs of skeptics. Many such believers do so, in part, because it provides a source of hope for them. For a skeptic to encourage a person of faith to leave that faith, the hope lost must be replaced with a new hope. The goal should never be to replace hope with hopelessness.

I think there is a lot of wisdom here, and I believe it applies as much to Christians as anyone else. Christians need to be able to express their faith in a manner that is humorous… entertaining, and enlivening the interest of those who are not Christians. Far too much Christian media is designed to be consumed only by Christians or those who are fully immersed in a Christian worldview. Much of it is boring or nonsensical to those outside of the subculture. It is maddening at times the Christian productions out there. Much of it is low quality. That is worthy of complaint. Worse, however, is that it is often marketed as Evangelistic, and yet uses language and cultural references that are only meaningful to insiders. To insiders, it may be seen as simplistic and boring… but to outsiders, the reaction can be far worse. The Gospel poorly presented CAN be do worse than the Gospel not (yet) presented.

As Christians, we recognize that God knows all things, and that we are not God. As such, we have every reason to be humble and joyously embrace our own ignorance. This should not mean that we revel in ignorance (it is good to study and try to understand), but we should not assume that we know it all and that we are always right about everything. Christians are supposed to be humble, so why not embrace that role? We also should avoid espousing the lie (or at least mistaken belief) that doubt is the opposite of, or contradiction of, faith.

As Christians, we need to help others know that we offer a message of hope. Often we do the opposite, spending more time on judgment than on hope. Why? I think there is still a part of us that think that the Medieval practice of the Morality Play (scaring people into formal adherence) is still a good method today. I am not sure it ever was. We must realize that the Gospel message is an offense to some and foolishness to others. It also undermines much of what others base their lives on. Therefore, when we express the Gospel message, the focus should be more on hope.

 

 

Snapshots of Faith

Years ago, my wife and I wrote an article for a symposium on disaster response held at University of the Philippines (Baguio branch). We started writing it and then when more details came out it was clear that the topics they were covering were FAR different than our focus. We finished the article anyway (at least a solid First Draft). Years later (today) I made a few small corrections, so if you are interested in reading it, you can read the updated version of Academia.edu.

Snapshots of Faith, Hope, and Growth in Disaster Response Chaplaincy

Is Dialogue Contradictory to Evangelism?

Dialogue is in contradiction to Evangelism. Or is it?  Dialogue is generally thought of as conversation between two equals (certainly equals in terms of roles in conversation) so as to achieve mutual understanding. As such it is not driven by a desire to coerce another, or change another’s mind. From this standpoint, it is certainly understandable if Dialogue is seen as contradictory to Evangelism. Some even explicitly (or at least implicitly) say this:

Leonard Swidler:    The primary purpose of dialogue is to learn; that is, to change and grow in the perception and understanding of reality, and then to act accordingly.

Peter Feldmeier:   Be without covert or ulterior motives.  Do not secretly be trying to convert them or prove yourself superior.

Frankly, I agree with them. Dialogue is not to be manipulative. It should be built on mutual respect and openness to learn.

So does that put it at odds with proselytizing? Does it work against evangelism?

No, I don’t think so:

Dialogue IS NOT Evangelism… but it IS Foundational to Evangelism

Dialogue helps one…

  • Understand each other  (head level)
  • Have greater insight with each other (heart level)
  • Reduce social distance (relational level)

So consider three forms of evangelism

#1.  Testifying. Sharing one’s own experience (serving as a witness of what God has done in one’s life).

#2.  Proclaiming. Sharing the gospel message and Christian dogma.

#3.  Arguing.  Seeking to demonstrate the superiority of the Christian faith over the faith of the other (two-way conversation where each is seeking to change the mind of the other).

Now consider these.  Testifying is a more personal form of evangelism and that certainly is helped by a reduced social distance. It would also be aided by an understanding of the thoughts, beliefs, and values of the other so that the testimony can be presented in a way that would be understood well by the other and be relevant to the other.  The same could be said in terms of proclamation and even argument.

So, dialogue  is not evangelism. the process and goals are different. However, healthy dialogue helps to bring connection between the two and better understanding of each other which is pretty necessary to effectively evangelize.

Let’s be honest here. Most of the evangelisitic methods that have been created are based on the presumption that the other person is already (essentially) Christian. For example, the Romans Road presumes that the respondent accepts the authority of the Holy Bible, and essentially has a Biblical understanding of who God is, who Jesus is, and what sin is. The respondent may or may not be “born again” (having allegiance to Christ) already, but probably already is already at least nominally or culturally Christian. Hardly surprising that such methods don’t work well with those of distinctly non-Christian religions or cultures.

If you are interested in knowing more about Interreligious (or Interfaith) Dialogue, consider clicking on the menu above for “My Books” and look at the book “Dialogue in Diversity.” It can be clicked on to purchase, or simply to preview some of it.

Cover front

 

The Counterproductive Missionary?

So… let’s talk about some well-known expansions of Christianity. One of these was the growth of the church in the Roman Empire, and adjoining territories during the first 3 centuries. The church grew rapidly. If I remember right (and am quite prepared to be wrong), the church averaged growth of around 20% per year. That is pretty huge. Both Islam and Christianity is recently growing around 3%, more or less, per year. Some smaller religions are growing at a faster rate, but 20% is pretty huge for any group.

China has been an area of great growth of the church (both “underground” and “above ground”) in the 20th century. In recent years, people have been writing about the apparent growth of the underground church in Iran, mirroring in some ways the growth of Christianity in the Iranian diaspora. Perhaps a fourth one worth mentioning is the African Indigenous (or Initiated) Church (AIG) movement.

What do these movements have in common?  One is that there was persecution. That cannot be discounted. However, persecution is not a magic growth formula. In fact, the Chinese church has undergone several waves of persecution going back to the 9th century AD. Of those waves of persecution, it seems as if the only that last of these resulted in growth (Maoist persecution).

Persecution can lead to resiliency, but that certainly doesn’t guarantee growth— perhaps nothing guarantees growth. But a few more things seem worth noting for these growth movements.  There Christianity is

  1.  …a religion of (relative) poverty. In some cases, Christianity in these movements was the religion of the poor, and the poorest of the poor. In other cases, Christianity is impoverished in terms of structure. Religious structure, in this case, refers to some things like complex organization, physical religious buildings, and paid clerical class within the church.
  2. … a religion of the people. It is started, expanded and propagated by locals, rather than foreigners, and often by laity rather than clergy.
  3. … a religion in which missionaries are not active. Or… if they are active, they are taking on a background, supportive role rather than a leading or controlling role. In fact, the AIC movement often found itself in conflict with missionaries. In China, the Christian church really began to grow after missionaries left the country. Successful missionary work done by foreigners there is now more often in terms of assisting with training or other support roles rather than leadership or apostolic tasks. Much of the early church growth in the Roman Empire happened in the 2nd and 3rd centuries when Apostles/Missionaries as a group were slowly fading away. By the 3rd century, they were barely recognized as a group. I would also suggest that the Iran church have thrived in the absence of foreign missionaries planting and leading churches, while in Iraq, the access of foreign mission workers has NOT been a boon. (Again, open to correction in this area.)

So suppose these three things are true? What does this mean for foreign missions? I would suggest three things.

  • Missionaries today seem to be selected wrong. Many mission agencies, including the main one in my denomination, tend to select missionaries based on their “evangelistic spirit” and sense of calling to plant churches. Maybe, however, this is NOT what is needed. Maybe we need missionaries who support locals who are called to be evangelists, apostles, and churchplanters. Perhaps missionaries should be selected on their passion to serve locals rather than lead, and support locals rather than replace.
  • Be very careful as to where missional churches send short-term mission teams. In many places in the world they can easily do great damage. And in places where they can go, they are more likely to be useful in supportive tasks requested by the receiving Christians, not doing the stuff that their sending churches think is needed.
  • However, missionaries, in the broader sense of the term, should be everywhere. The church is universal and we tend to remember this when we learn and grow with and from each other. Perhaps this means having people who are less thought of as “missionaries” (leaders, evangelists, churchplanters) and more as cross-cultural workers, supporting local work, as requested by locals.

This last point may seem a bit odd, but it is pretty straightforward. When Christians come to the US to serve, they do so without much “hoopla.” Some may pastor churches or be involved in various ministries, but there is no presumption that as a foreigner that they must have a very specific role of leadership or task. Rather, the assumption is that there are needs, and if that person can meet that locally-determined need, then they can serve. What makes sense in the US, should perhaps be recognized as making sense elsewhere as well.

 

 

 

Asian Christian Theology? (Part II)

Years ago I wrote an article on Asian Christian Theology, where I expressed some questions or concerns about how some consider this.  (You can read it by CLICKING HERE).

Recently I was in a meeting where exploration of supporting Asian Christian Theology books was explored. Some questions came up that commonly come up when this topic is being considered. For example, what defines Asian Christian Theology? If one is Asian does this make one’s theological writings Asian or not? Many Asians are trained (and sometimes indoctrinated) in Western schools or traditions. Will the results of these Asian writers be Asian theology, or simply Western Theology written by an Asian.

Additionally, do Asian Christian Theologies have characteristics that make them distinctly different AS A GROUP from Western or other Christian Theologies? Considering the variety of Asian cultures it seems doubtful that there is one unifying theme. Continental identity does not seem adequate.

Further, does Asian Christian Theology have unique methodologies (or at least foci) different from Western? Perhaps there is a greater focus on narrative over propositional truths. Maybe the dominant metaphors would be different. Perhaps systematization would be less valued. But if an Asian wrote a systematic theology with a strong focus on propositional truths, would that make it “un-Asian”?

For me, the key point is not on any of the above.  I would suggest something different.

cultural-bridge

The above figure suggests theology as a man-made construct that relates God’s unchanging revelation to Man’s changing culture(s). Since human cultures are diverse and changing, good theologies should be:

  • Contemporary
  • Culturally Practical
  • Making sense within the culture

<Consider reading the post where I talk about this more. It was meant to be part of a book that I never finished.  Click Here.>

With this in mind, what is an Asian Christian Theology? It is one that is

  • Relevant to people living in a present Asian culture
  • Has practical value to these same people in that culture
  • Utilizes metaphors, thought processes, and such that make sense to people in that culture.
  • AND… effectively links accurately and fully to God’s revelation.

I could add a fifth point. Ideally, it should speak to people of other cultures as well. That is because we are not only part of a local community of faith, we are part of a universal community of faith. As such, it should not serve as a wedge between local and non-local Christians. (Theology should both unify and diversify.)

Ultimately, the best test of whether a theology is Asian is “Does it give God’s answers to the questions that come from Asians within an Asian culture?”