How Do You Know if a Story Does NOT Make Sense?

Many years ago, a missionary family visited our Bible study. This was several years before my wife and I went into missions. They showed us a children’s book they produced. It was based on a story of an Amazonian tribe with which they work. Just now I tried to look it up. I thought the tribe’s name started with a Y. The only tribe that I could find that might fit is “Yanomami.” But it doesn’t sound right. However, that was around 25 years ago. The story was populated with turtles and snakes and other animals from where they lived. These were the characters and they acted and talked and interacted in this story. The missionaries (I don’t remember their names either) said that they chose this story because “it was the least nonsensical” of the stories the tribe had like this. Truthfully, even that story did seem a bit random.

Were the stories of that tribe truly nonsensical? I really have no idea. The tribe lives in the Amazon basin and although I have been in Southern Brazil, I have never been anywhere near this tribe.

But I wonder if the stories were nonsensical to the members of the tribe. It is possible. The tribe is throughout most of its history an oral-based group— transmitting their stories parent to child by talk and perhaps by drama and song. Sometimes, stories become broken. I had mentioned a Scandanavian poem in a past post that was passed down orally from parent to child for many generation, even for those that moved to North America and lost the language of the poem. The version that was passed down to me was partly corrupted. But some other versions were worse. In our version, a dog goes “Woof Woof Woof.” However, a different corrupted form of the poem I found online had the animal that made that “Woof Woof Woof” sound was a crocodile. Why? Basically, it was a multi-generation game of telephone that had the added problem of people passing it on without understanding the language they were trying to speak.

Another possibility is that the story is not corrupted but that it lost its context. Many English language nursery rhymes today or joke poems from the 18th and 19th centuries fit into this. “Little Boy Blue” seems nonsensical but it makes a lot of sense if one knows what each character represented and what the context the poem was written for. “Ring Around the Rosie” is another example of this.

It is also true that there can be other things that make a story seem foolish. One is that oral stories are often told as serials. Because of this, they often have repetitive elements. Imagine someone telling the stories of an episodic series like the TV show “The Simpsons.” A lot of the stories seem foolish, but they become even more foolish as elements repeat for no reason or characters change qualities and motivations for no apparent reason. We may accept that in an episodic comedy show… but don’t know how to respond to it in an epic legend. Some early Christian writings, like the Infancy Gospels appear to hardly better than a word salad with a bunch of weird stories with weird morals lumped together. Perhaps kept as separate vignettes they may be instructive, or at least entertaining— but put together it is a uninspiring drudgery to go through.

Another issue is that we don’t always know what symbols mean over time. It has been noted that the book of Revelation (The Apocalypse) probably made a lot more sense to the 7 churches it was written to than it does to us today. There is the temptation of many to think the opposite. We can now imagine the ‘mark of the beast’ as being an RFID or an infrared tatoo. Or we may see 666 as clearly being a code, like a credit card number or National ID. Or maybe the locusts are actually attack helicopters. Probably, however, 2000 years has made us worse at understanding the book than better. The same can be with the stories from the tribal group. Perhaps if we have a good understanding of the role of a turtle or a snake in their stories, the stories would make a lot more sense.

Finally, sometimes things don’t seem to make sense because the lessons don’t connect with us now. I like listening to the podcast “Myths and Legends” and a lot of the lessons in a lot of old stories are pretty bad. Not all of them of course, but we sometimes the issue is not that we fail to understand them, but that we do understand them, but don’t like what they are saying. Conversely, in some cases our reading of these stories centuries later may totally miss the point. So, picking another Biblical example, perhaps when we read about Elisha calling down two bears to maul a few dozen young men, we SHOULD NOT see it as a reminder not to pick on bald prophets, but rather see it as the danger of rash anger when we are God’s representative.

Regardless, if a missionary hears a story from a people and it makes no sense… that should not end an investigation… it should be the beginning.

One famous Creation story in the Philippines speaks of the first Man and Woman (named Malakas, meaning strong, and Maganda, meaning beautiful). They came out of a bamboo plant that was split open by a great bird. The actual story is much longer… but stopping here for a moment. If we focus on the bamboo and why humans would come out of this sort of plant (or any plant at all) may miss the point. Perhaps it simply uses the items around them to let us know that Man and Woman are separate but always meant to be a unity. They are both independent and dependent. Both created by the gods and having qualities that are worthy of admiration.

The short answer to the question in the title is that in most cases we probably are not competent to identify whether a story is nonsensical or not. And if one is able to truly identify a nonsensical story, that doesn’t mean that one could not give it a valued meaning, just as one could misunderstand a story and make it nonsensical.

Decline or Refine of the Church

This is just some ramblings of my own. As such, set your expectations rather low. Thank you.

Consider the figure above. Let’s consider it to describe the growth of Christianity in the what could be described as Roman lands in the first few centuries AD. Don’t assume the image is at all accurate. Now imagine that the BLUE line describes the percentage of the population who SELF-IDENTIFY THEMSELVES AS CHRISTIANS. Now imagine that the RED line describes the percentage of the population that are TRUE FOLLOWERS OF CHRIST. While I am fully aware that we are not God and so we cannot know who is a true follower of Christ, I think most people in most any religious culture (including non-Christian cultures) can understand the idea that there is a difference between those who affiliate themselves with a religion and those who take their faith seriously.

In the first centuries, there was presumably little difference between the red and blue lines since there was little motivation to align oneself with a politically and economically dis-empowered religion that was, at least sporadically, persecuted. As such, one may assume that perceived growth of the church was quite important from the standpoint of Kingdom expansion.

However, as the fourth century progressed, Christianity gained favor with Roman emperors, such that things switched. It was now advantageous socially and politically to align oneself with Christianity. Money and status flowed into churches, church structures, and hierarchical structures. Some of that increase in percentage of Christians could, presumably, be true followers of Christ. It would, however, seem reasonable to assume that a fair bit of that growth was from those people who changed affiliation due to this shift in power. Certainly the monastic movement and the change of standards regarding who could be baptized at that time suggests that there were many in the church then who were concerned with this change.

Now, one could move forward to a time of Stagnation. That is, the percentage of self-identified Christians tops off and may even begin to decline. One could see this as the church is failing. However, another POSSIBLE interpretation is that the social status of Christianity in the society has lessened, and so some drift away. In this figure, the percentage of true followers of Christ is still increasing.

If one was so inclined one might surmise that the area under the red line (colored pinkish) is the power of God acting in that society. If that is the case, than what would the blue-ish area be? It would be the social power that the church has above and beyond the work of God.

Now you could complain about this sketch and its interpretation… and I think that many complaints would be quite fair.

BUT… there is a principle here that is worth considering. When the church is in decline in percentage of those in affiliation… or when the church is losing social influence in a society… IS THAT A BAD THING?

Maybe it is bad… or maybe not. What may look like a declining of a church can be refining. On the other hand what could be seen as a refining could be a true decline. I am from the US where many Evangelicals are bemoaning losing political influence in the country (and those that hope that ‘stacking the deck’ in the Supreme Court might in some way reverse what seems inevitable. But is the loss of political influence a bad thing? Power can be addicting… and the wrong type of power in the church can reap very bad fruit. Removing the enticement of power and status can lead to a refining of the faithful or a separating of the faithful from the unfaithful (but interacting with the faithful).

Reading the Church History of Eusebius of Antioch, he was simply thrilled that Emperor Constantine had given favored status and social power to Christians. While that wasn’t necessarily bad in some ways… the Church did begin to fall in love with that sort of societal power. In fact, when people complain about religion today, often it is the fascination with and quest for political or societal power by religious groups and leaders that is at or near the top of the list.

I am not attempting to promote a theology of decline. I just would hope that the Church can embrace a role as faithful servants of God and blessers of our (non-Christian) neighbors, rather than hoarders of political and social status and power.



Early Christian Missions History

I am being asked to teach a course in Missions History. I haven’t done that in a few years.

I will be using the 2004 Edition of “From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya” by Ruth Tucker. I like the book because it is a light but informative read. Because it is primarily biographical, people can often connect to it better (people tend to be more interested in people and stories, than events and facts). Tucker is willing to show missionaries, warts and all. Those who write biographies about missionaries that are almost hagiographic really do a disservice to the reader… AND the missionary. I also appreciate that she spends time on missions in a wide variety of its flavors— old and new, men and women, Catholic and Protestant, First World and Majority World, etc. The only major complaint I have with the book is not even a complaint about the book itself, but the risk associated with the strategy. When missions history of the church is built on biographies of missionaries, there is the risk that people will think it is all about a few limited missionaries. Carlyle’s “Great Man” Theory of World History has, sadly, soaked into Christian Church and Missions history. That being said, I don’t believe the book ever suggests an embracing of this perspective.

I do wish that Missions History books would focus more on First Millennium Missions. There are few good books on this, as far as I can see. Stephen Neill’s book on Christian Missions (a good book over all) only spends 50 pages on the first 15 centuries (around 3 pages per century). Here are a couple I would recommend.

  1. Mission and Expansion of Christianity in the First Three Centuries, by Adolf Harnack. This is a relatively old book (1908), but the scholarship is excellent. It is available for free at CCEL ( Sadly, the CCEL editor for the book’s page writes seemingly with the goal of steering people away from the book. The editor notes Harnack’s preference of the Synoptic Gospels over the Gospel of John. This has little relevance to the book. However, Harnack’s concern of Greek philosophical influence on early Christian writings is a quite valid concern and should be considered. Anyway, I strongly recommend reading the book, and it is FREE. Also, Harnack’s book devotes more than 100 pages per century.
  2. The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia–and How It Died. by Philip Jenkins. This book is exactly 100 years more recent— 2008. It looks at church and missions history outside of the drift to the Northeast from Jerusalem. This is actually a huge part of Christian history. And for comparison, it devotes approximately 30 pages per century. It is very much still in print, so recommend you search for it— such as in Amazon.

Book Finished…. For Now

The book I could never finish (since 2015) is finally finished… or at least is finished until I work on it again. At least for the first time I kind of think of it as finished.

“Walking With” as Metaphor for Theology of Mission

Rev -. 2022

I have put it up on You can access it below.

Or in Slideshare

St. Paul as Contextual Preacher Quote

Will Brooks quote from “World Mission: Theology, Strategy, and Current Issues” by Scott N. Callaham, Will Brooks, eds.

In Acts, when Paul enters a new city, he goes to the synagogue first. Theologically, he goes there because he believes the Jews have salvation-historical priority (Rom 1: 16; 2: 9), 25 and perhaps more practically, he knows Godfearers will be there who will be both open to the gospel and familiar with the Old Testament (see Acts 13: 48; 14: 1; 17: 12; 18: 4, 7). When he preaches in those contexts, he explains that Jesus is the Messiah promised in the Old Testament. He states that the Old Testament foresaw the need for the Messiah to suffer and to rise from the dead (Acts 13: 17– 41; 17: 3; 28: 23). Acts 17: 2–3 provides a good summary of Paul’s approach among Jews: “He reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead.”

By way of contrast, when Paul preaches to a gentile audience, he knows that they have little to no knowledge of the one true God. Instead of using the Old Testament to show that Jesus is the Messiah, he explains the existence of the living God and states that God is the creator of all (Acts 14: 15– 17; 17: 24– 31). In response to the idol worship in Lystra, Paul says, “We bring you good news,”that you should turn from these vain things to a living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them” (Acts 14: 15 ). Paul’s speech in Athens reveals that though he starts with creation, his goal of proclaiming Christ stays the same (Acts 17: 22– 28). In that context , Paul speaks of God’s existence, autonomy, and sovereignty over all creation. He then transitions and speaks about the man whom God raised from the dead and appointed as the righteous judge of humankind (Acts 17: 29–31). Another interesting comparison is Paul’s

–Will Brooks, Chapter 11

Why I Don’t “Do” Evangelistic Events Anymore

The title says it. I don’t involve myself in evangelistic events anymore. Years ago I did… and I will go into that. I have a number of reasons to, perhaps not oppose them but, choose not to support them. I will give two.

#1. Historical. I come from Western New York. This area had the term “Burned Out District” associated with it. This term was inspired by a quote from the 19th century revivalist, Charles Finney.

“I found that region of country what, in the western phrase, would be called, a ‘burnt district.’ There had been, a few years previously, a wild excitement passing through that region, which they called a revival of religion, but which turned out to be spurious.” … “It was reported as having been a very extravagant excitement; and resulted in a reaction so extensive and profound, as to leave the impression on many minds that religion was a mere delusion. A great many men seemed to be settled in that conviction. Taking what they had seen as a specimen of a revival of religion, they felt justified in opposing anything looking toward the promoting of a revival.”

I am quoting from the Wikipedia article “Burned Out District” that quotes “The Autobiography of Charles G. Finney.”

Western New York transitioned from a place of great Evangelical revival to one of lukewarm faith, and a hotbed of cultic groups. Hardly surprising. When religion is expressed in terms of revivalist fervor… the fervor can eventually die down and people begin to wonder, “Is that all there is?” Because of this, I cringe when a group talks about saturation strategies for evangelism’ or churchplanting. I have grown worried of bigger and bigger evangelistic events. I have known people (including friends) who would attend them over and over to get their spiritual ‘BUZZ.’ Maybe that is okay for some… but I think it may well drive more away than it attracts. I have attended funerals where the preacher turned it into a hard-sell evangelistic message. I feel that the result most commonly was the opposite of what was anticipated.

#2. Personal. For years I was involved in evangelistic events. From 2005 to 2009 I was involved with doing evangelistic medical mission events. These were trips to an area where we would have doctors and nurses provide medical, dental, and surgical care, sometimes other care such as eye glasses, or training seminars, and medicines to the people there. We would also do evangelism as a required part of the care. As an organizer and sponsor of the medical group DPDM for those five years, we treated about 30,000 patients. Additionally, we had around 10,000 people who stated that they prayed to receive Christ during that activity. This sounds pretty awesome. And I don’t really want to denigrate the activity. I like holistic ministries, where one genuinely attempts to integrate care— spiritual care with other types like medical, social, educational, etc. Still I gradually found reasons why I did not want to stay involved in this.

  • The Philippines is a country of Reciprocity. Utang ng Loob (debt of gratitude) is important. This is common, frankly, in much of the world. There is a tendency of many to think that since we are providing free care, their payment back is to go along with the group and respond to the prayer invitation. In fact, the response rate is about 33%. However, if one doesn’t count members of the host church or partnering churches (who already probably have done the Sinner’s Prayer before), children who are too young to respond, and members of minority faiths where responding in prayer to any outside group is anathema, the response percentage is MUCH higher… well over 50%. Sometimes, this activity seems more of an exercise of gratitude than an exercise of evangelism. Gratitude is fine… but perhaps it would be better simply to say, “We are Christians committed to love God and our neighbors, and provide this service free of all charge or obligation.” When there seems to be a payment involved (explicit or implicit) we start to look like Gehazi pulling a gift from Naaman after his healing.
  • Most places we went, changes were not measurable. There were exceptions, however. Over time, we began to learn what churches we could partner with effectively. Some took the partnership seriously, working with those who had come to the medical mission. Most, however, did not. Six months after a medical mission we would often (but not always) call up the host church and ask how things are going. The answer commonly was “Fine.” Then we would ask about any changes after the medical mission (such as growth of church membership, greater involvement in Bible studies, and so forth). Some would be able to describe positive changes. The more common response was something like, “Everything is about the same. When can you come back to do another medical mission?” Generally, those churches that thought that the event would just organically lead to people showing up at their church on Sunday morning would find that nothing changed. (Actually, I know of one exception. We had done a medical mission at a relocation center for those who had been connected with Communist rebels, but had surrendered to the Philippine government. As a show of “gratitude” for their putting down arms, the Philippine government shoved them into a very inadequate living situation. Anyway, we did a medical mission event on Saturday, and on the next day, the church was bursting with people showing up. Of course my suspicion was that their unique response was due to people showing them God’s love and probably not due to the evangelism. They had not been shown much love.) The goals of local churches should be to disciple followers of Christ, and express God’s love to their neighbor. While proclamation of the Gospel is vital in these,doing so should become a substitute for the two goals.
  • Unfortunately, these evangelistic missions can perpetuate the weird theology associated with the Sinner’s Prayer. In the Philippines over 90% consider themselves to be Christian (as in sincere followers of Christ). While there is a high level of nominalism in the Philippines, it is clearly messed up to presume that those who have not prayed the Sinner’s Prayer are not followers of Christ, and that those who have prayed it are. Eventually, as I was keeping track of metrics from the medical mission events. I stopped pretty early describing the number who became saved, and switched it to those who had “prayed to receive Christ.” 10,000 people “prayed to receive Christ,” but we have no idea how many have been saved through our activity. I found that a better metric was to track how many people had said that they were interested in being involved with, or even host, a Bible study.

The following numbers I found to be pretty typical for a medical mission.

Number of total patients: 400

Prayed to receive Christ: 150

Interested in a Bible Study 70

Actually become part of a Bible Study 30 (assuming the church does its job)

If good things happen, it would be out of the 30.

Now, if you read this and you find my reasons unconvincing…. actually that is fine— even Good. I am not trying to talk anyone out of doing evangelistic events. I think they can be good. But I would recommend some reflection and careful planning. A badly planned evangelistic event is not better than not having one. In many cases there are better ideas out there that express God’s love in a way that one’s neighbors can recognize and respond to, and then help them to grow as followers of Christ.

A New Article on Social, Spiritual, and Holistic Ministry in Missions

Originally I had a chapter on this topic in a book I was working on. Then I realized that it is not really appropriate for the book. So I turned it into an article. Consider this to be a DRAFT version of the article. Hopefully, it will be cleaned up eventually.


It is available on by CLICKING HERE.

Flavors of Localized Theology. Part 5

Flavor #5.  Theological Development of Cultural Artifacts

Ideally, a robust local theology draws from worldview, beliefs, and values. But not all theology is at such a high level. Theology can also be said to address the small and the mundane. For example, a worship service is a gathering where men, women and children mingle together, or are kept separate is based most likely on how culture is expressed in other settings. The same can be said of whether the congregation sits in rows facing one direction, in rows facing each other, or in a circle; or if pews, chairs, rugs, or soil are used for sitting. One may not see this as theological, but as merely a matter of convention. However, whenever one chooses to take a cultural convention or artifact (using the term very loosely to include any sort of cultural characteristic one can readily ‘see’) or rejects it for church or ministry one is taking a theological stance. For example, suppose a culture group normally has meetings where men gather loosely sitting on the ground, with women with their children also sitting on the periphery. Now suppose a pioneering church is established where gatherings are done with rows of chairs set on concrete with men and women sitting together all facing the same direction while their children are taken to a different place for activities. What led to doing things so different from the cultural norm? As soon as one is saying that one OUGHT to function as a corporate body of believers one way versus another, one is being guided theologically. The decision may be intentionally or unintentionally theological, but it will be theological.

Redemptive analogies and other types of metaphors and illustrations can be thought of as small activities of theological localization. Generally, one is attempting to show God’s work of salvation in a way that makes sense in a different culture. St. Patrick’s use of a shamrock to explain the Trinity may be seen as simply an illustration, but as it is an attempt to connect God’s self-revelation to Man’s cultural setting, it is in some way an act of theologizing.

In Cordilleras of Northern Philippines, some churches integrate the use of gongs and local dances into the worship services. Other churches reject these as being ‘pagan,’ using electric guitars and drums, while other churches reject both styles, seeing both as being devilish. Ultimately, it is the local church that should determine what is correct in their context. It is not necessarily wrong for missionaries to have an input (church is both local and universal and as such should be open to critique from both near and far), but the ultimate decision should be the local congregation, not outsiders.

Another example of an activity in the Cordilleras that might hold promise for theological reflection and practical ministry is the “watwat.” This is a community meal where a great deal of food is cooked and served to every member of that community. It actually sounds very much like the Love Feast described by St. Paul, and described in greater detail by Tertullian.  <<Provide footnote for Tertullian… and perhaps Paul>> The watwat also then draws us into ethics as well. Paul and Tertullian note that the love feast must model the principle in the church that there is no respecter of person. Each member, rich or poor, free or slave, is to receive equal shares. The watwat also has this same principle. According to Lawrence Kwarteng, the ethical system of the Cordillerans, “Lawa at Inayan” expresses ethical principles through stories. One of those stories, for example, explains why it is necessary that each member of the community should receive shares equally regardless of his or her position within the community. In many churches around the world, “potluck dinners” are held where the church members share and eat together equally. Despite its roots in the Christian rites of Love Feast and Eucharist, these potlucks often as a bit of a humorous part of church culture rather than a sacred and theologically rich activity.

Some may see bringing the watwat into the church as problematic— a mixing of profane with the sacred. This is doubly true when it comes to the ethical system (lawa at inayan) where the underlying idea is that one should do what is ethical to meet the expectation of one’s ancestors, and avoid bringing a curse upon oneself. However, one can look at it more positively. Not only is the watwat, shared community meal, not inherently profane, but it points to something that is good in the church but has sometimes been forgotten. Shared meals are not only a historical part of the church, but has had a message of equality and a  sacredness that those outside of the Cordilleras can gain from. And while the ethical system of the Cordilleras may draw its basis from a less than ideal source (ancestral patterns and fear of curse), the use of story is a far more powerful than propositional ethics that is often expressed in the church today. As such, a localization of the Christian faith can benefit not only the local people, but the universal church as well. <<An unpublished, in-process, dissertation provides considerable insight in this topic. Lawrence Kwarteng, Inculturation of the Gospel in Light of ‘Inayan and Lawa’ for the Evangelization of Kankana-eys, Benguet, Philippines. South Africa Theological Seminary.  First Draft, 2017.>>

These “flavors” will ultimately form a chapter in my book on Theology of Missions. Hopefully, some of the rough edges will be cleaned up by then.

Flavors of Localized Theology. Part 4

Flavor #3.  Theologies of Cultural Patterns

It has been common to think of the Philippines as an Honor/Shame culture, particularly in contrast to Guilt/Innocence cultures. However, tests from for the Philippines bring doubt to this assessment. As noted before, the Philippines is rather globalized, and this helps give results that are a more mixed. (Missionaries become less extreme in their cultural patterns than either people from their homeland or their mission field the longer they stay in the cross-cultural ministry.) Additionally, much of the Philippines has been strongly influenced by Roman Catholicism, which puts a strong emphasis on guilt. Despite this, hiya (shame) is a strong social motivator, and to be described as “walang hiya” (shameless) is a serious accusation. Still, perhaps the central pattern may not be Honor/Shame, Justice/Guilt, or Power/Fear. Robert Strauss speaks of four major patterns. Two of them line up with Honor/Shame and Justice/Guilt. The other two are Harmony and Reciprocity.

Several cultural values certainly fit with Harmony. One is “pakikisma.’ In its most positive form, it involves adjusting oneself to reduce conflict for the good of the group. Of course, it can also describe caving in to others, violating one’s moral principles. “Bahala na” is looked at often as fatalism. It doesn’t really translate well, but essentially means “Things happen— one can’t do anything about it.” However, on a practical level, such a perspective tends to reduce conflicts. <<Evelyn Miranda-Feliciano, Filipino Values and Our Christian Faith.>>

On the other hand, perhaps a better pattern to focus on is Reciprocity. A very important part of Philippine culture is described with the term “Utang ng loob.” This term, literally meaning ‘inside debt,’ translates better into ‘implied obligation’ or ‘debt of gratitude.’ It is important to find ways to pay off what one has been gifted— whether in kind, in cash, or some other way. Related to this is patronage. In this system, the ‘haves’ (Much in line with Confucian values) are to act benevolently for the ‘have nots’ and the ‘have nots’ respond through loyalty and service to the ‘haves.’ Perhaps Reciprocity and Harmony share as leading patterns in the Philippines.

Much of Western Theology has focused on Justice/Guilt. The focus has been so intense that some seem to believe that this is “the Biblical” perspective. However, it is quite clear that other patterns are common in the Bible as well. In fact, Honor/Shame is at least as common in the Bible providing great potential for theology. Power/Fear has been taken up to some extent by Pentecostals and Charismatics for theology as well. However, I believe there is much potential in terms of both Harmony and Reciprocity. In some ways, I think Harmony is easier. The Bible starts with God, Man, and Creation in perfect harmony. Genesis 3 finds God, Man, and Creation in conflict— without harmony. Christ comes to restore  harmony, the Church is meant to model harmony, and the end of the Bible finds perfect harmony fully restored. Reciprocity may be a bit more challenging (I could be wrong), but certainly attempts to look at our relationship with God in terms of covenants point toward a certain understanding of reciprocity.

Reciprocity may even help us understand aspects of our relationship with God that many of us have struggled with. We learn from Paul that salvation is a gift that is given to us by God, and not earned or purchased by us, made effective through our faith. At the same time, we are clearly supposed to follow Christ, and declare Him as Lord. Even though we are saved by faith not works, our faith is evidenced by works, and faith that does not demonstrate itself in terms of works is suspect. One way to address this is in terms of Reciprocity. We are saved by God as a covenantal gift. However, with God as our patron, such benevolence demands (culturally in the Kingdom of God, not legally) loyalty and service. We serve as a gift of gratitude. While this contextual view does not address every problem of “What If,” it certainly places salvation in a context that makes more sense. Salvation is not transactional, but relational.

Flavor #4.  Theologies of Cultural Values

Instead of focusing on major cultural patterns, one can simply focus on one or more cultural values. “Bayanihan,” or the cultural ideal of Filipinos coming together for the common good, certainly can be explored theologically. In fact, many cultural values that have been determined over the decades to be associated with Filipino culture have potential for positive theological reflection.

Jose de Mesa has put a strong emphasis on “loob” as a term that can and should have great significance theologically in the Filipino culture. The term also helps demonstrate why theology should be done by locals, not outsiders. The term, loob, is a Tagalog word whose first meaning is “inside.” As an outsider, this is the meaning that I immediately connect ‘loob’ to. However, the term is used broadly to include virtue and virtuous behavior, and, most notably for theological purposes, one’s ‘authentic self.’  Francis Samdao has noted importance of the concept of ‘Kapwa’ as well in localized theological formulation. Again, the top translation for this term is “other,” but it is in its broader understanding where its value is found. It has a strong relational value. In contrast, the English term “other” commonly implies that someone or something is alien, different, or some other way is disconnected from another. In Tagalog, kapwa suggests connectivity or mutuality. In its strongest sense, it suggests seeing one’s authentic self in the other.  <<Add footnotes from Francis>>

The use of cultural values can be fruitful, but there are certainly risks. Historically, so-called cultural values were often assigned or at least popularized by colonizers (or employers in the case of OFWs). Terms such as “crab mentality,” “Juan Tamad,” and more identified perceived qualities and then were used to label/judge the culture. For other terms like “bahala na” or “pakikisama,” outsiders may take the negative implications of these rather than seeing the possible positive implications of each.

At the other extreme, Philippine Psychology has at times seemed to have reacted to the one-sided negative perspective by idealizing Filipino cultural traits. Gerald Melodi has noted a risk of doing this. If Filipino cultural traits are seen only as good, then the line between culture and morality becomes blurred. <<Gerald M. Melodi, “Virgilio Enriquez and Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Dialogue:  Discerning a Theology of Solidarity in Philippine Kapwa-Culture:  Evangelical Review of Theology 45:3, 2021, 268-278.>>If one is to be morally good, one must be authentically Filipino. From this comes obvious questions. Does an Arab, or a German, or an American become morally good as he or she becomes more culturally Filipino? Or is morality only to be judged in terms of living according to one’s own ideal cultural norms? Perhaps the Spaniards who invaded the Philippines centuries ago were morally right to do so since they were living out their own cultural trait of conquest.

Since cultural values are prone to abuse, are they beneficial in developing theology? I believe they can be, but suggest that they are best understood as opening doors to stories. After all, it is difficult to understand concepts such as courage, honor, compassion, and such via definitions. They are understood best through stories. I also believe that it is in terms of stories where we can see the healthy and unhealthy use of cultural values in localized theology. A more nuanced, hopeful but cautious, approach to cultural traits seems wise.

Figure 20 has “The Story Wheel,” loosely based on the work of Sacks and Crossan. <<<Theo-Storying.>>>  For a story to be theological and localized, it must take some sort of stance in terms of culture. As such, Action Stories are likely to have little import for this. From there, going counter-clockwise one moves towards greater affirmation of local culture, and going clockwise one moves towards greater challenge of local culture. The extremes of cultural traits led to extremes of story-making. Using cultural traits as weapons to belittle a culture could be called “Anti-mythmaking.” In this, one is seeking to supplant a culture deemed inferior with another culture deemed superior. The other extreme, where one idealizes the local culture could be called “Mythmaking.” In this, stories show how great the local culture is and that one “should not change a thing.”

Figure 20.  The Story Wheel

If theological stories for localized theology should address culture in some sort of critical way, then the ideal stories should be Apologues and Parables. Apologues (or fables) embrace the best of the culture and teaches members of that culture to live up to that best. There is no assumption that the local culture is perfect. On the other side, Parables challenge aspects of the culture. However, parables are not anti-cultural. Rather, they are counter-cultural— embedded in the culture to challenge certain aspects within that culture.

Many stories may in fact have both apologue and parable elements. This just makes sense since culture always has aspects that are both ideal and non-ideal. The story of the Prodigal Son is one such story. In some ways it very much supports cultural values during the time of Christ. Themes such as “Foolishness is in the heart of a child” and “Father knows best” certainly are in no way challenged in the story, and appear to be affirmed. On the other hand, the extravagance of the mercy of the father to both of his rather foolish sons challenges cultural values quite stunningly. Taking this story as pointing out our relationship to God, we find that aspects of our cultural values help us understand God and our relationship with Him, but there are aspects that clearly point us in the wrong direction. God is wise compared to our foolishness, and we are at our best when we are living under His reign. Some of our understanding of father and child support this. However, some of our understanding needs to change. God’s love and mercy is extravagant. God may be just, but He is more merciful than He is just.

I believe that if one recognizes God as the ideal, one can use cultural traits (1) positively through apologues, (2) negatively through parables, and (3) ethically to point us how to live incarnationally in one’s culture but under God’s reign.

Flavors of Localized Theology. Part 3

Continuing this Thread.

Flavor #2.    Localized Theology of Cultural Aspirations

Every culture has its own history. That history has not only molded the culture, but also what that culture has as its shared dreams or aspirations. While these aspirations might be judged by others as good or as bad, they are never irrelevant. Many of the popular localized theologies are forms based on cultural aspirations. For example, Minjung and Dalit Theology can be seen as theologies of liberation— one based on concerns for the masses due to political injustice in Korea, while the other based on the injustices based on the Indian caste system. There is a sense of being trapped, and the aspiration is of being rescued, or liberated, particularly in terms of group and in terms of the present.

Theologies tied to aspirations choose certain themes or stories in the Bible as key. Prosperity theologies may choose Deuteronomy or Proverbs over Job or the Gospels. Frankly, we all do it. Most of us identify with the Israelites charging into the defenseless Jericho, rather than those inside staring in shocked horror as their world comes to an end. Liberation Theologies commonly center on the Exodus, relating themselves to the Israelites, and their oppressors relating to the Pharaoh and his people. They may also draw from the Biblical theme of God’s siding with the impoverished and the enslaved.

In the Philippines, certainly theologies of liberation are apt. The Philippines is a nation formed out of invasion and colonization. Three and a half century of control by Spain, United States, and Japan, has put its stamp on the nation. The Marcos dictatorship led to additional theological reflection, especially among Catholic theologians. This sort of theological work links the past with the present, and seeks to point a way toward a preferable future. It is out of the fears and hopes of a people that theology forms.

Most commonly, a contextual theology does not address an entire society but certain elements in that society. Consider the case of Overseas Foreign Workers (OFWs) in the Filipino context. The high number of OFWs comes, in part, from a common aspiration of Filipino families. For many, the goal is to raise a child who is able to leave the country and work abroad. Then that child can either sponsor over other family members, or at least send home remittances to help those who remain. With close to 10% of Filipinos working in other countries, OFWs have had a great impact on the broader Filipino society. One of the presidential administrations liked to refer to these overseas workers as “bagong bayani” (literally meaning ‘new heroes’).  Daniel Russell has described the Philippines as perhaps the first “globalized culture.” For myself, I find it amazing at how familiar Filipinos are as a group with culture, business, and politics around the world, especially in contrast to my own home nation. This familiarity is not only because of the large number of individuals and family members working overseas, but also the large number that remain in the Philippines but deal with foreigners regularly while working at call centers.

There are positive aspects of the OFW phenomenon. It has certainly reduced some of the problems related to lack of job opportunities in the country. There are genuine success stories of those who have been able to gain tangible success abroad. On the other hand there are negative aspects as well. First, the moving of excess workers out of the country to work and send money home is a cheap and easy way for the government to avoid addressing systemic problems. Second, it places a huge strain on marriages, families, and communities. Some rural villages have been depopulated of young people who have gone either overseas or to major cities for employment. Third, in some places, like Hong Kong, or the Middle East (and yes, ‘first world’ nations as well), Filipinos have taken menial work for employment despite often having advanced education. While there is nothing inherently wrong with this, the human tendency to judge servants as beneath the ones they serve has led to negative and judgmental stereotypes that can be quite hurtful. Fourth, there has been the belief of many in the Philippines that this leads to a “brain drain,” where talent and training is exported to the detriment of the nation. While this may not be entirely true, placing too much hope on being elsewhere can create an unhealthy dependence on outsiders (even when the outsiders are relatives).  Fifth, this desire to work overseas has developed a parallel phenomenon known as “TNT.” This stands for “Tago ng Tago,” referring to those Filipinos who are “in hiding” or living and working illegally in other countries.

What sort of Theology would take the OFW (and/or TNT) situation into account? Drawing major stories from the Bible such as the Exodus, Exile, or Post-Exile do not quite hit the mark— although perhaps this may be too quick of a judgment. The best equivalence may be the situation of the Jewish Diaspora in the New Testament (and the latter part of the Old Testament). These are Jews who have voluntarily settled in other parts of Near and Middle East. These people lived both counter-culturally and bi-culturally.. Christians in the early Church also lived in a similar manner. The Epistle to Mathetes from Diognetus has an interesting section <<Chapter 5>> that shows this dual identity of Christians living in some ways as if they are indistinguishable within the culture, while in key ways living very much separate from that same culture.  The fact that many of the places where Filipino Christians work are openly hostile to Christians, and in some there is a strong pressure to leave one’s faith and/or moral integrity at home, brings a strong light to the challenges of the New Testament church as found in the Epistles, especially Hebrews, as well as Revelation. Adding to this the moral ambiguity of those who work illegally in foreign countries, there seems like there is great potential for valuable theological work.

Another way of reflecting theologically on the Overseas Foreign Worker situation may be similar to the Latin American view known as Mestizo Theology. This view looks at Jesus as one who bridges the gap, in like manner to the way the Mestizo (half Spaniard, half Indigenous) bridges the gap between the people in charge and the people oppressed. Some focus on Jesus not only as the bridge between God and Man, but add the additional bridge of being a Galilean Jew. As such, He is an outsider… disenfranchised on some level even where He should be accepted as local. Jesus would always, like the Mestizo in colonial times, have some doors opened to Him denied to others, and yet would still be denied for access because of who He was. One can see how this might resonate with many Latin Americans today, and even in the Philippines whose history in this particular area is similar. OFWs particularly can find themselves as having feet in very different worlds. In addition, Filipinos sometimes find themselves struggling in terms of identity. In the United States, for example, they have often been an ignored ethnic group, with family names that sound like many of those of the larger Hispanic community, despite being Asian. Other Americans would confuse them with other Asian groups— particularly Chinese.

However, this status has the possibility of a silver lining. In the early church, Hellenized Jews of the Diaspora did not always fit in with the Hebraic Jews (we get a small taste of this in Acts 6), much as the Gentile “God-fearers” did not necessarily fit in with neither the broader pagan Gentile population, nor the local Jewish sub-culture. Yet it was these two groups that served as a cultural bridge that led to much of the early growth of the church. In cultural anthropology there are different strategies of acculturation where people of culture A live with people of a larger local culture B, notably separation, integration, assimilation, and marginalization. Generally, these strategies are viewed in terms of benefits and losses to the people of minority culture A. However, it can also be looked at theologically in terms of the people of culture A serving as a blessing to those in culture B.

This brings us to Abraham, a man called by God to live as a “stranger in a strange land,” <<Hebrews 11:8-13>> and to be a key part of God’s effort to bless all people. Abraham’s faithfulness to God despite not experiencing many of the promises in his lifetime far from his homeland, seems to be a worthy model. However, there are other possibilities as well.

  • Joseph. Forced to leave his people, he was compelled to work for strangers. But God ultimately remembered him, blessed him and gave him the opportunity to be a blessing to his family.
  • Moses. He also was forced to leave his people and live in the desert for many years. Yet because of His decision to follow God wherever He led, Moses was ultimately successful in freeing his family and people from slavery.
  • Exodus. The people of Israel sought the promised land, yet were forced to struggle in the wilderness, living by faith and hope for the next generation.
  • Babylonian captivity. Judah singing songs by the rivers of Babylon, praying to once again see Zion.
  • Jesus. Jesus, citizen of heaven, lived in obscurity in a hostile land. Sought by the government, He had to hide in Egypt and was later rejected in Nazareth. He had to spend much of His ministry in Galilee, because of trouble with political and religious leaders in Jerusalem. Not understood and not appreciated– ultimately, He was captured by the government and killed as a seditionist.

It seems to me that seeing Christ as one who left behind all to do what He needed to do in an unforgiving foreign land (for His family) relates well with the OFW (and TNT) experience. The Filipino experience in this setting is one of suffering, alienation, and marginalization— and hope. So little of the imported theology connects with that situation here.

  <From “Tago ng Tago Theology” “>>