A few weeks ago, I was online with a meeting of team of supporters. Another missionary who we are connected with here in the Philippines was also in the online group. This meeting we were invited to join, but we were not the focus of the meeting. Nevertheless, we were asked to give a quick update of what is going on with our ministries here in the Philippines.
Afterwards, several people said how nice it was for us and the other missionary family to join. One of the comments was “It was so nice that they were so positive and not complaining.” A couple of days ago, I (and a few other missionaries) were asked to give a short video to a church and were asked to share prayer requests while “keeping it positive.”
I found that interesting. Why twice in a few weeks was positivity especially called out.
One possibility is that I (and maybe other missionaries) are so negative normally, or perhaps only contact friends and supporters when something is lacking. I know my wife and I have supported ministers and missionaries who would NEVER contact us unless there was a need they have. I can assure you that after awhile one gradually shifts from feeling like one is a partner, to feeling like one is being used. Still, I don’t know that I am negative all that often. Maybe I am, and maybe other missionaries are as well. But this is only one possibility.
Another possibility, however, is that there is a tendency “back home” toward negativity. I do know that looking at social media from back in the US, there is a lot of negativity. It seems like Evangelical Christianity there has become hypersensitized to… well… pretty much every little annoyance (except, perhaps, things that annoy others outside of themselves).
I remember talking to a pastor in the US some months ago who was so annoyed that church meetings were being limited in his state. He felt that this was a huge encroachment on his freedoms. I tried to reframe it as sacrifice… the church has the opportunity to sacrifice some of its rights TEMPORARILY as a blessing for the community. His response was, “Well, that is a pretty huge sacrifice…”
I thought about that. It really isn’t much of a sacrifice. Quoting one of my favorite Youtubers, Ryan George, it is a sacrifice that is “Super easy— barely an inconvenience.”
It seems like many Christians right now are struggling with a reversal of St. Paul’s testimony— In whatever state we are in, therein to be discontent.
But maybe I am reading into things. Maybe it is about me. Maybe I am too negative in my reports. In the end, I can’t DIRECTLY change other people, I can only change myself. So what should I take from this?
I probably should ask for clarification. Guessing doesn’t really help.
should find a balance in my newsletters home. I should be more positive, encouraging those who are feeling discouraged. However, I should also not simply send home “happy letters.” I need to tell the full story. With happy letters, I can get fans. But I don’t need fans, I need supporters, prayer warriors, and accountability partners.
I should model sacrifice. Sacrifice and inconvenience seem to be a challenge for many (Western Evangelical) Christians today. Telling people that they just need to “suck it up” probably won’t work. But if I make it clear that I can find contentment in all circumstances, and the peace that passes all understanding, perhaps it will rub off.
Avoid catastrophizing. Some mission organizations create financial or other disaster scenarios as a way to drive support. But “God is in his Heaven— All’s right with the world.” Having to change plans, adjusting to reality is not a catastrophy.
Miracles have a long and respected place in Judaism and Christianity. Often miracles are seen as evidence of God’s reality and His goodness and justice. After all, miracles are considered to be acts or events where the natural processes are disturbed by divine act. So, if something occurs outside of the natural order of things, and outside of direct human or social action, then we see this as God stepping in miraculously, and we probably assume that this breaking in has significance. Miracles don’t really “prove” God because it is frustratingly difficult to prove causation of… well… pretty much everything. Generally, however, miracles are supposed to be a sign. That is, they are meant to be signs for those already share a theocentric worldview. Generally they have little to tell those whose worldview is more naturalistic.
But let’s wrestle with the second point a bit… miracles point to God’s goodness and justice. I believe this point is sound, but perhaps the point gets taken in wrong directions.
First, miracles may point to God’s goodness and justice, but some miracles may not be “good” from a human perspective. There are numerous cases in the Bible where God miraculously does things that are arguably harmful to man. The Noahic Flood and the Plagues of Egypt were certainly miraculous, but so many people were harmed by them. Sometimes we like to separate between benevolent miracles (commonly called “miracles”) and malevolent miracles (called “curses” or “judgments”), but that is our choice.
Second, while miracles may point to God’s working through a person, it does not necessarily signify God’s total approval of that person. This is actually the main point of this rambling post. A miracle is a sign about God, but NOT NECESSARILY a sign regarding the miracle worker, the tool God uses to carry out the miracle (especially if the miracle is not a benevolent one). Frankly, this should hardly surprise us. Habakkuk had this struggle with God when God informed him that He was going to use the Babylonians (ungodly idolaters) to punish Judah (halfhearted followers of the God of Abraham). Habakkuk struggled with how God could use the ungodly to carry out his work. God appears to make it clear that He will use who or what He chooses to carry out His mission. Even more challenging is Jesus saying that there are many who will carry out (presumably genuine) miracles in His name who God “never knew.” More on this later.
So are there genuine servants of God who sought to use miracles wrongly, and God still empowered them— empowered them to do something wrong? God certainly allows us to use the created world around us and our own talents (all gifts of God’s power) to do wrong. So what about more— showy— demonstrations of God’s power? I would like to suggest there are examples in the Bible that should make us suspect that God will sometimes allow us to do wrong… even in the miraculous.
A classic example is the case where Moses struck a rock to bring forth water even though He was commanded to speak to the rock (Numbers 20). Many of you know the classic typological argument for why Moses was punished. The rock is supposed to represent Jesus— one time (Exodus 17) the rock is struck to show that Jesus is the redeemer. The second, time one is supposed to just speak to the rock since there is no more need for sacrifice (“being struck”). I suppose it can be looked at this way, but I feel this is more about preachers wanting to be clever. This is a long-standing tradition in the church to allegorize or see pretty much everything in the Hebrew Bible as a type of Christ. That is not to say that none of this has merit. For me, however, what is more interesting is that this is a clear example of God doing a miracle and that miracle DOES NOT demonstrate support for the miracle worker. In fact, the miracle was done because the people were thirsty, and thus it was done IN SPITE OF Moses, rather than because of him. This would be an example of God doing a benevolent miracle for the people, while not rejecting (in the moment at least) the tool He used to initiate the miracle.
Prophecy is miraculous at least when it involves knowledge that is not knowable without divine revelation. As such, people such as Balaam (Numbers 22) and the “witch” of Endor (I Samuel 28), could be seen as examples of God doing the miraculous despite the one (God) who truly did the miracle not in support of the person. We know elsewhere in Scripture that we are supposed to look on Balaam negatively despite the prophecy. We don’t know much about the witch of Endor, but we know that she was practicing divination, or necromancy. These were strongly prohibited. This may be in line with Judas who did miracles in the Gospels and yet was still described as the “Son of Perdition”— miracle workers that God did not know.
Elisha on two occasions did miracles where there seems to be a good question whether this is in line with God’s desires. One of those was when Elisha was the new successor of Elijah. He asked for a “double portion” of Elijah’s spirit (presumably, ability to effect miraculous change). Not long after this, Elisha is verbally accosted by some young men who insulted him, comparing him unfavorably to Elijah. Elisha then called a curse on them and many were mauled by two bears. I have heard many commentators try to explain why what Elisha did was justified. However, taken in the broader context it seems pretty clear that Elisha was in the wrong. The passage seemed to describe an insecure man taking (literally) the mantle of his predecessor. The part of the story before Elijah left suggests this insecurity. The part after really reinforces it. His first miracle was a completely unnecessary one to repeat a miracle that Elijah did just previously. Then when questioned of his ability to replace Elijah, he calls down a curse. To me it is a lesson to those who seek divine favor that (like in Spiderman), where there is great power, there is great responsibility. The other miracle was when he cursed his servant with leprosy. This curse may or many not be appropriate. However, he also placed the curse on the servant’s descendants forever. This is not only extreme, it seems to be in opposition to God’s will and word. The punishment (just act, not simply natural results) of one who does wrong is not to be placed on future generations. Elisha’s miracle appears to be against God’s justice. So what happened? Since we don’t know of any family today with perennial problems with leprosy, I would assume that maybe God did not honor that part of the curse, OR perhaps Elisha calmed down and corrected his error.
Peter in chapter 5 of the Acts of the Apostles appears to curse Ananias and Sapphira with death. Again, I have heard many attempts to explain why this was appropriate. However, in the context it is hard to see it. Chapters 1 through 4 of the book shows an idealized church with no problems. Certainly, this was not fully the case. The ideal church still consists of non-ideal humans. However, this story of Ananias and Sapphira is the first recording of the problem and the first recording of the response by the apostles. It seems unlikely that death was God’s preferred response. In fact the passage described how the event engendered fear among the Christians. Immediately after this, is the recording of only benevolent acts by the apostles. And then we move into a new conflict— ethnic strife and gossiping. Instead of placing a curse on them that were at fault, the apostles sought a peaceful, non-miraculous, solution. In Chapter 8, a case somewhat similar to Ananias and Sapphira comes up before Peter. A man named Simon Magus seeks divine empowerment from God and is willing to pay the apostles for that power (another problem with money). Instead of cursing him, Peter told him that he needed to repent.
Peter, like all of the Twelve were new to the power and responsibility they had. And the Apostles had problems with power and responsibility in the past. Shortly before Jesus’ death, Peter tried to kill a man with a sword (only managed to slice his ear). A couple of years before this, James and John asked Jesus if they could call down fire on a village that had failed to show them hospitality. Jesus suggested a better idea… go to a different village.
Sometimes we need to learn responsibility with power by making mistakes. When I was fifteen I had an awesome chemistry set with a lot of chemicals that one cannot find in such sets today. I was often quite cavalier with my safety protocols (and lack thereof). I made a stupid mistake and my set exploded sending chunks of glass and who knows what else into my back, right arm and neck. Obviously, I recovered, but I learned a lot from that lesson. I believe I learned more through the misuse of the power I had than I would have learned if God had simply prevented me from making the mistake that day.
I do think that miracles are always a sign of something. But sometimes it can be the sign of God’s desire to do what is right in spite of, not because of, the miracle worker. And sometimes, it is a sign to the miracle worker to embrace his or her role as God’s servant with greater mercy and gravity.
<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?”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I don’t really do reviews because a review really requires a type of reading and analysis that I don’t really like doing—-
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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?
So I have started teaching Cultural Anthropology again. In my intro to the class, I like to start with Anthropology as a general term to describe “The Study of Man.” And then I like to add my little note that in Old English, “Wer” meant adult male, “Wif” meant adult female and “Man” or “Mann” meant human or homo sapien, so Anthropology is not a sexist term. In fact the Greek term “Anthropos,” although male in ‘gender’ (a linguistic term) can be referring to men, or to women, or to people in general. However, we don’t really speak Old English today, and the feeling today is that Man is a term for adult males… so Anthropology is the study of human beings.
Wow… Did I go off on a tangent or what?
Anthropology is used theologically and scientifically. Theologically, the sub-field of the study of humans within Systematic Theology is called Anthropology. This is a very worthwhile thing for Christians to have studied. A lot of silly things floating around churches today, in part, because of pop theology and pop (sub-) culture influences.
Scientifically, the term “Anthropology” is broadly used. <Being more careful, I just deleted a new tangent where I point out that a lot of what is called “Science” does not actually use the scientific method, but rather a more logico-historical method (which is not that far from Theology, strangely). It doesn’t really matter… or does it?> Classically, Anthropology on the Scientific side of things is broken up into four main sub-fields. They are:
Physical Anthropology. The study of the progress or evolution of mankind.
Archaeology. The study of ancient mankind, especially through the artifacts left behind.
Linguistics. The study of how mankind has, and does, communicate.
Cultural Anthropology. The study of living (usually) cultures.
I like to tell my classes that Archaeology is useful for Christian ministers— especially, but not strictly limited to, Biblical Archaeology. I tell my students that Linguistics is valuable for Christian ministers, and especially missionaries, for reasons that I HOPE don’t need to be repeated here. And then Cultural Anthropology is important for all Christian ministers, and I spend the whole semester trying to drive that point home.
However, I commonly note that Physical Anthropology is an area of study that has little bearing on Christian ministers. This is especially true of Evangelical ministers, since I teach at an Evangelical school. Part of this is because Physical Anthropology tends to be structured through the framework of Neo-Darwinism. Most Evangelicals do not believe in Neo-Darwinism, although many may accept a more flexible Intelligent Design understanding such as Theological Evolution.
But I got thinking more about this. I have read a couple of books on popularized physical anthropology (one by Stephen Jay Gould, and another by Jared Diamond) and found them very interesting. Regardless of whether I accept all of their opinions, to say nothing of their underlying framework, I feel that there are some things that that are good for Christians to know.
<Note: If the following stuff makes you think that I have only an undereducated, surface-level knowledge of Physical Anthropology, you are correct. I am noting this more to remind myself that studies outside of one’s area of expertise is important.>
We are made of this world and for this world. We are made of the stuff of this world and fit into the categories that exist for the things in this world. We fit into it genetically and structurally, and fit into the ecological systems of this world. We are not aliens. This world is actually our home. We were created here to be here.
We are like other animals and yet distinct from other animals. Physically, we are animals. We are not only part of this world, but we fit into certain categories of things in this world. We are genetically programmed and reproduce as animals, and made of the same stuff as animals. Some like to point out that we share a high percentange of DNA with chimpanzees (in the high 90s), and yet there are key genetic differences. Those differences are shared by humans at an even higher percent. As humans we share commonality of DNA over 99%. There is no genetic overlap of Gaussian curves— we are physically animals, and yet unique.
We are all one people. There have been theories of pre-Adamic races, or cursed races in Christian circles. There have been attempts at so-called “Race Science.” However, genetic testing, as well as physical comparisons point us toward a common ancestor. Also unlike comparison with other animals, racial or ethnic categories around the world vary only slightly from others around the world. The distribution of traits and alleles most definitely overlap, to the point that it is difficult to be certain of one’s racial or ethnic heritage simply by looking at one’s physical looks or genes. These differences are mostly, quite literally, “skin deep.”
There are no superior or inferior groups. While early on in Physical Anthropology and Race Science, there were attempts to discover what group was the “most evolved.” No shock, the anthropologists came in with a firm bias that their own race was at the top. We seem to be all different, but far more in common than different. Some groups may be ahead technologically (in a specific point of time) but one cannot really line this up clearly with intelligence, moral superiority, or anything else. Stubbornly, we can’t seem to break ourselves away from the fact that we are diverse and yet united. We are equal but different.
I suppose this is enough. One could argue that this doesn’t help since these are pretty consistent with good Theological Anthropology. My answer would be Yes. However, human nature always seems to push us towards creating Us versus Them groupings, and this leads towards deciding that the “We” are superior or more worthy (of something or other) than the “They.” It just seems as if Christians tend pick an choose what the Bible says (often embracing metaphors like “chosen race” or “holy priesthood”) to undermine or common humanity. Others sometimes embrace a semi-Platonic viewpoint that takes humanity out of its place in the physical world, while others relatedly, preach a rather anti-ecological message of “This world is not my home, I’m a just a passin’ through.” There may be ways in which these views have truth, but they don’t express the full Biblical or Theological Truth.
Maybe we need a bit of a reminder from Physical Anthropologists, even if we don’t buy into the total story they may give. We should not stop there. We need to go back to our Theology to understand what it means that we have “Openness to the World,” that we exist in terms of the “Image Dei,” and that we live in tension between our good creation, our state of fallenness, and our potential for restoration.
As most of you have probably noticed, in the last few years there has been an increase of popularity of demagogues. Demagogues are individuals who tend to “speak the language” of the masses with a level of charisma, and do so expressing themes that often emphasize empowerment and national identity, all the while commonly stoking the fires of ethnic, or religious hate. People who appreciate the message of these demagogues often see them as heroes… creating or restoring greatness to their own in-group. Those that do not respond to this message often see these demagogues as “neo-Fascist.”
Perhaps this uptick in demagoguery is the reason that so many Christians have recently expressed interest in Dietrich Bonhoeffer. His stance against the Fascist regime of his country is commonly seen as as inspirational today. Many have, often incorrectly, seen Bonhoeffer as a spiritual father of religio-political groups today.
But more interesting was that the predominant church in his country supported the Fascists, and even the “Confessing Church” of Bonhoeffer was far from a group actively opposing the government. It got me thinking to myself if there are themes in our institutional church that makes Authoritarianism (even if not full-out Fascism) especially appealing.
I am not asking “Are Christians Fascist.” There are a couple of reasons. For one, the term Fascist is way too broad. Umberto Eco, who grew up in Fascist Italy, noted that it is such a broad and varied ideology (or family of ideologies) that it is hard to pin down. Some of the common threads he noted were: Nationalism, Traditionalism (“cult of Tradition”), Life as Permanent Warfare, and Ethnocentrism (racism/bigotry). Theodor Adorno did research decades ago in his book, “The Authoritarian Personality.” His “F-Scale” (F for a tendency to open to be open to authoritarian or fascist thinking) listed a few things, some or which overlapped with Eco.
Conventialism/Conformism. Strong tendency to embrace cultural or societal norms.
Authoritarian Submission. The importance of submitting to one’s in-group leaders.
Authoritarian Aggression. Failure to conform to societal norms or submit to one’s leaders should be dealt with aggressively.
Stereotypy. Applying black and white categories to people. People are defined by their group rather than by their individuality or their humanity.
Power and Toughness. Equality in power is pure fiction… Inbalance of power is innate in society, so it is best if WE have the power and THEY do not.
Destructiveness and cynicism. Generalized hostility to and vilification of humanity. Focus on the Fallenness of Man rather than Man created in God’s image.
Projectivity. “The projection outwards of unconscious emotional impulses.” Others are narrow-minded racist selfish bastards, so I need to be the same (to protect what is mine and that of our group).
Obsession with sex lives of others
Adorno’s work is interesting, but let’s use Eco’s shorter list to ask the question why MIGHT Christians (and perhaps other religious people) be likely to embrace authoritarianism. I will deal with them in a different order.
Traditionalism (Cult of Tradition). Christianity often likes to look backwards for answers. Part of this is natural to religious thinking, where there is an understanding that one’s religion expresses a greater truth, a greater reality, that was revealed at some point in the past. Beyond that, so many denominations of Christianity like to make the argument that THEY express the “real” first century church. This makes no sense— we need to embrace our role as the 21st century church, not 1st century. But this is common even among Christian groups that tend to eschew (at least in theory) traditionalism.
Life as Permanent Warfare. The Bible uses a lot of metaphors. One of the classes of metaphors are war-related. There does seem to be a bit of fascination with war metaphors among many Christian groups. Evangelical groups especially like to throw out the war motifs for the Christian experience. As a missionary, I see this even more where “spiritual warfare” is not simply expressed as a metaphor, but is often expressed as the (only) reality of our work— often ignoring many other metaphors of Christian living in the Bible. Stephen Larsen (author of “The Shaman’s Doorway”) has posited that monotheistic religions are more prone to ethical dualism (good versus evil) than polytheistic religions. I suppose that could be true, but I am not sure that leads necessarily to a war picture of life.
Ethnocentrism (racism and bigotry). It seems pretty reasonable to think that Christians would be LESS prone to ethnocentrism than other groups. Genesis 1-3 (and much of the rest of the Bible) puts us all as equal before God. Yet we certainly find many Christians quite prone to the strangest of bigotries. (I still try to rap my head around American Christians who are the children of immigrants who are bigoted against immigrants.) Adorno may have a suggestion in this area. He noted that people who are “conservative” in their beliefs (whether politically, religiously, or ideologically) tended to be, on average more prone to bigotry than those more on the liberal end of the spectrum. HOWEVER, among the more conservative, there was a strong divide between those who “converted” to their conservative views, and those who had their views essentially inherited from their parents. Those who were converts tended to be much less bigoted than those who were brought up culturally in their beliefs. This may suggest that culturally embedded Christianity is more prone to bigotry than found in “young church” settings.
Nationalism. I don’t see nationalism is an inherently Christian problem. It is, however, a problem through out the world of “state religion.” When a religion becomes a pawn of the state, and justifies the activities of the state, the religion tends to lose its prophetic role. Religion becomes the court prophet supporting the state by echoing back the will of the state.
So are Christians more prone to being pro-Authoritarian or “Potential Facist.” Not necessarily. Of course some groups, like the Shepherding Movement, openly promote authoritarian structures, as do many denominations— young and ancient alike. If, however, one looks at Eco’s list, I think Christians are prone to be attracted to Traditionalism and a Warfare view of life. I also think that places where Christianity has become deeply embedded into the culture where it has a lot of civil power and a lot of members who “inherited their faith” there is a higher tendency to nationalism and ethnocentrism.
We saw those situations in Germany, Italy, and Spain in the early 20th century. It is possible we will see more of this again.
By the way, Tom Nicholas has an interesting little Youtube on “Potential Fascism.” You can watch it, Clicking Here