Speculating on the “Mark of the Beast”

Okay, so when I was young, like in the 1970s and 1980s, I was told in books (Hal Lindsey’s books come to mind, but there were others) and occasionally in some church groups that the “Mark of the Beast” on the forehead and hand (Rev. 13:16-17;

close up photo of hand with tattoo
Photo by Mehndi Training Center on Pexels.com

14:9-10; 16:2; 19:20; 20:4) was some sort of tattoo. I believe that the spin on it was that it would be a bar code. (Today, they might have pushed for more like a QR code.) Such a code would essentially be like government regulated credit card I suppose.

But there were problems. Human nature is likely to balk at having a barcode on one’s forehead, and probably even the hand. It is too reminiscent of slavery. (We will get back to that idea later.) So later, there was a bit of a shift among some Christians to suggest the mark would be an ultraviolet (“black light”) tattoo. These utilize dyes that are nearly invisible when exposed to visible light, but glow quite visibly under UV lighting. They would act like the visible light tattoo as described before but is less likely to be rejected societally due to human vanity. Negatively, we are starting to play more fast and loose with the idea of a mark. Is a mark that is only visible under special lighting still a mark? Maybe, but then, would a tooth filling be described as a mark then since it is visible with an fluoroscope or x-ray photography?

More recently, special new ideas for the mark have been brought up including nano-devices. RFIDs have gained a certain fascination in eschatological circles. However, we are moving still further afield from “the mark,” as well as its placement, since it is quite unlikely to end up on forehead and hand.

These ideas spring from a rather literalist interpretation of Revelation. Yet, these literalists are tending to become less and less literal in the interpretation. I thought, therefore, that I would continue the trend to be less literal.

The Revelation is an apocalyptic work written to the early church. I won’t get into theories of authorship and exact date of writing. I am not competent to evaluate these. However, it is clearly written to several relatively early and highly persecuted churches in present-day Turkey. The work appears to have two main purposes– to give warning to the churches to remain faithful to God, as well as comfort that God is ultimately in control and will prove faithful to His own.

Although some see elements in the work to suggest a late-date writing, one reason to believe that it is fairly early is that the writing uses an awful lot of imagely that would be familiar and comfortable to Jews. This could suggest that the seven churches who were the primary recipients were still predominantly of Jewish background.

When we read Scripture, we need to remember that it was written FOR US, but not, strictly speaking, TO US. John wrote his revelations for our benefit, but to the seven churches in Asia Minor.  Thus, we should be cautious of an interpretation that makes an awful lot of sense now, but would be completely mystifying then. I am not saying it is impossible that John gave a message that only we 2000 years later could understand (I believe in the possibility of predictive revelation) but we should first look elsewhere. If the primary recipients would interpret it as (A) we should first consider (A) before going to (B).

Assuming a largely Jewish or Jewish-influenced primary recipient, I would have to think that the mark on the forehead and hand would make them think of the Shema. This passage of Jewish identity. Speaking of God’s message through Moses to the people of Israel,

“Bind them as a sign on your hand and as a symbol on your forehead.”   -Deut. 6:8

Perhaps even more clearly, the same message is shared again,

“Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds; tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your hearts.”   -Deut 11:18

Both passages enforce an interpretation that the Word of God is to impact ones thoughts and actions. Therefore one should hear the message of God, meditate on the message of God and act according to the message of God.

These are not the only places where such language is used. The Passover Feast, one of most important religious celebrations in the Jewish calendar was instituted in Exodus 13. In that passage, the importance of the feast is laid out:

Let it serve as a sign for you on your hand and as a reminder on your forehead, so that the law of the Lord may be in your mouth.  –Ex. 13:9a

Later in the same chapter a similar wording is again used for keeping of the Passover:

“So let it be a sign on your hand and a symbol on your forehead, for the Lord brought us out of Egypt by the strength of His hand.”  –Ex. 13:16

In these passages, the language of signs or symbols on forehead and had suggest learning, remembering, and obeying.

Another interesting passage is Ezekiel 9:4, in talking about the destruction of Jerusalem, where

“…the Lord said to him, ‘Go throughout the city of Jerusalem and put a mark on the foreheads of those who grieve and lament over all the detestable things that are done in it.”    -Ezek. 9:4b

The suggestion here is that those who are faithful to God will receive a “mark” on their foreheads by God and will be spared in the massacre. John utilizes that same imagery in Revelation 7:3 and 9:4 where the mark is described as a “seal of God” on their foreheads.

Most people I know would not accept the idea that the saved have (or will have) a physical seal placed on their foreheads. I agree and think it is meant to be more… symbolic. The mark suggests an identification for protection. In less comfortable language, it establishes the faithful as the “property of God.”

Bringing these images from Scripture to the “mark of the Beast” it seems likely that the mark is not a physical or visible mark, and the same is true of the mark or seal of God on the faithful.

The mark of the beast would then suggest belief in the message of the beast, and obedience to the beast. It may also suggest enslavement to the beast. Certainly, such marks can be read as branding for the purpose of property, and this is reinforced with the idea that only those with such a mark are able to buy and sell.

But why does this matter? Stuff matters when beliefs turn to action.

Right now we live in a time where people are rejecting vaccinations because they believe they will herald the “new world order” and will be implanted with nano-chips that will mean that they are under the control of the Antichrist. Strangely, this is a highly imaginative and non-literal interpretation from people who are alleged proponents of literal interpretation of prophecy. And, if they are wrong, they are risking the health of themselves, their children, and their neighbors. It seems to me this interpretation is not only HIGHLY dubious, but also highly destructive.

The far more likely interpretation is that one is to trust in God’s word, be faithful to God, and be obedient to God even when we live in a world of power(s) at war with God.

We really need to be cautious of interpretations of Scripture that are based on a shaky foundation. I actually have a very personal reason for this, I have heard so many discussions about what 666 (6 three score and 6) means. Some are so far from good Biblical scholarship that they are nothing more than “sanctified” numerology. That concerns me greatly, in part, because of my name. Count it out if you want. God bless.

ROBERT    HAROLD    MUNSON

PS. I know this is not my typical stuff on missions, but I do like to point out that theology has consequences. Missions has to be grounded in good theology, and is (unsurprisingly) damaged by bad theology.

 

 

 

Ethical Loyalties in the Church (by looking at the same in the military and police)

I was reading an interesting article entitled, “Why the US Military Usually Punishes Misconduct but Police Often Close Ranks.”

The article promotes the idea that while both

army authority drill instructor group
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

the military and paramilitary (police) may cover-up crimes done by members, it is far more likely for the police to do this, and more likely that the military will successfully police itself.

I had to think about this for a bit. I have never served in the police, and only interact with the police rarely (ministerially or otherwise). I did, however, serve in the US Navy. My initial reflection on the US Navy is that when something disgraceful comes up, the institution first goes into cover-up mode— and if that doesn’t work, then it goes into witchhunt mode.

But as I thought about it more, I realized that my distinct memories of these occasions of corruption stick out in my memory 30 years later, in part, because of its infrequency. As I thought about it more, I do remember distinctly a cultural attitude that when someone broke the rules, it was likely that fellow sailors would normally want justice imposed on the violator. Often the harshest judges would be peers and colleagues.

Why is this? According to the author of the article above, the military (US military at least) tends to create a culture of loyalty to the organization, while the police (at least US police forces) tend to create a culture of personal loyalty.

Let me give an example— I was on shore patrol at a liberty port in the Med (as in Mediterranean Sea). While I was there a couple of enlisted shipmates were walking a fellow sailor (a gunnersmate, or GM) back to me and the ship van. He was heavily drunk. He had gotten into an argument in a bar, and that argument had gotten violent. Being heavily drunk that violence hurt himself more than anyone or anything else, so no one at the bar wanted to press charges. I felt good. I can just get him onto the ship’s van and back to the ship before he creates any more problems. Sadly, as he was getting into the van he started loudly making drunken racist statements. I thought to myself, “Oh crap… well, at least I tried to help him.” He goes back to the ship. A few days later he went to Captain’s mast (non-judicial hearing), and then from there to a process where he was “kicked out” of the Navy.

From my example, here is my point. It never occurred to me that anything different would happen. I knew that he would not get in trouble for bad behavior in the bar IF no civilians in the bar would press charges. I knew that there would be no problems. If I could get him back on the ship at this point, about the worst thing that could happen is he might be charged with drunkenness and have a minor punishment placed on him. I also knew that once he shot out with the racial slurs that there was no coming from this. I knew that no one would cover it up or try to place the blame elsewhere. Why did I know this? Because it was understood that the gunnersmate had violated the rules of the military, and had placed shame on his own shipmates. As such, his friends and other shipmates may wish him well in life, but still recognize that he must go.

According to the author, it is more likely for paramilitary (police) forces, it is more likely that things would go differently. If a police officer behaved like the gunnersmate, rather than expressing loyalty to the police force, and hold individuals accountable when they shame their organization and colleagues, they would express loyalty to the officer and lie and do other things to shield him (or her) from prosecution and just consequences.

Cultures are never that cut and dry, and as I said, I have certainly seen cover ups in the military. Still, culture includes a bunch of tacit beliefs and assumptions about what is good or bad.

What about in church or on mission teams? What is the culture of churches and mission teams? I think it varies.  Churches especially, can embrace a war metaphor— the idea that we live in an us versus them world— good versus evil. I believe that makes the personal loyalty drive stronger. You might think that this is opposite. After all, it is the military that primarily carry out war, so shouldn’t the war metaphor promote organizational loyalty? I don’t know, but historically, the military drift most into cover-up mode during wartime. Under such stress, members of an organization will commonly feel that protecting a member means protecting the organization. Under less stress, the military will see holding members accountable maintains integrity and reputation, and THIS protects the organization.

I know it seems to make sense to cover up problems. However, accountability works better long-term.

Churches and mission teams claim to serve God. If God is the standard, then the standard is not organizational culture, or community standards. How do we demonstrate that? Toxic organizations are like toxic families— they are as sick as their secrets.

The goal is to avoid cover up (because we must hold each other accountable because of loyalty to… God). However, the goal is also to avoid witchhunt. Our goal is not to kick everyone out who fails, but in accountability, work towards repentance, recompense, and restoration.

 

 

 

Caught Being Weak in the Garden

Okay, it happened again. I was reading some commentary on a Biblical passage. This one was from when Jesus in the Garden,

To His disciples He said,

“My soul is consumed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with Me.”

Going a little farther, He fell facedown and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me. Yet not as I will, but as You will.”

The commentary argued that Jesus was not under great stress. After all, expressing a wish to have “this cup” removed might suggest that Jesus wasn’t fully committed the Father’s will and plan. The same commentator suggested that when Jesus on the cross expressed “My God, My God. Why hast Thou forsaken Me” He was simply quoting Scripture to (allegedly) fulfill prophecy.

I have a lot of problem with this. Makes me have a few questions

  1.  Is it possible that Jesus was fully committed to the will of the Father, while still being absolutely horrified at the path ahead?
  2. Did Jesus need the support of friends in a time of psychological and emotional stress?
  3. Could it be that Jesus in time of great pain and distress felt a sense of abandonment from the Father… much as many of us can feel abandoned in times of great trials?
  4. Is it possible that the story of Jesus in the Garden was placed there to help us understand that the path of God is not easy, but we have the example of one committed to faithfulness no matter the cost?

I struggle understanding the motivation of undermining the pathos of the Crucifixion story. What is gained (logically, exegetically, narratively) in suggesting that Jesus did not feel the pain He quite understandably would feel, but was instead quoting lines of Scripture that were disconnected with His situation?

Generally, I think it comes from the discomfort many theologians or expositors have with feelings. Feelings are unreliable, untrustworthy. Weakness is to be denied. Many a Christian Theologian appear to prefer a Gnostic Jesus– one who is disconnected from humanity, human emotions, and physical pain.

I am reminded of the quote by B.B. Warfield

Our Lord’s emotions fulfilled themselves, as ours do, in physical reactions. He who hungered (Matt. 4:2), thirsted (John 19:20), was weary (John 4:6), who knew both physical pain and pleasure, expressed also in bodily affections the emotions that stirred his soul… Not only do we read that he wept (John 11:35) and wailed (Luke 19:41), sighed (Mark 7:34), and groaned (Mark 8:12), but we read also of his angry glare (Mark 3:5), his annoyed speech (Mark 10:14), his chiding words (e.g. Mark 3:12), the outbreaking ebullition of rage (e.g. John 11:33 and 38), of the agitation of his bearing when under strong feelings (John 11:35), the open exaltation of his joy (Luke 10:21), the unrest of his movements in the face of anticipated evils (Matt. 27:37), the loud cry which was wrung from him in his moment desolation (Matt. 27:46).”
-BB. Warfield

 

Paul said in II Corinthians 12 that God allows us to remain weak so that we can experience God’s grace. Strength is found in overcoming the weakness, not denying the weakness.

I have likewise heard similar words on Elijah where a commentator expressed shock that God would call such a “weak” man as Elijah… one who WHEN THREATENED WITH DEATH… runs away. I wonder whether that is the point. God works with lots of weak people. I don’t think God created any strong people, and if He did, I doubt He ever would work with them.

God only works with weak people.

 

Missionaries as Colonizers

The following is an extended quote from the new book by Adesegun Hammed Olayiwola, “PERSPECTIVES OF THE AFRICAN CHURCH ON AFRICAN MISSIONS: The Past, Present & Future Challenges to Missions In Africa.”  Missionaries during the colonial era struggled with their role of utilizing the advantages of having colonial powers in charge in their mission field without becoming pawns of the colonizers. Some missionaries, however, did not struggle with this as they embraced both roles. There is a lot of disagreement in this area. However, Olayiwola expresses a common African perspective– and perspective is important.

According to Lamin Sanneh, “At its most self-conscious stage, mission coincided with western colonialism, and with that juncture students of the subject have gone on to make all kinds of judgments about the intrinsic bond between the two forces.”i He claimed further that, “In the nineteenth century this idea persisted under the slogan of “Christianity and 6percent,” by which it was understood that mundane interests prospered under a religious guise. Thus mission came to acquire the unsavory odor of collusion with the colonial power.”ii Michael Crowder believed that, “the functional relationship and unity, which existed between missionaries, traders and administrators in colonial Africa, was not accidental. Early missionaries in West Africa had a dual purpose to promote legitimate trade between African and Europeans and to convert Africans to their own religion.”iii

Since missionaries, the traders and even the colonial governors and administrators knew they were British, Spanish, and Portuguese residents in various part of Africa with a common interest to protect. Okon claimed that, “they cooperated and united as vital element in the attainment of their set goals. Missionaries in critical times of need, depended on traders for funds, and relied completely on administrators for physical security and protection.”iv Mbiti even claimed that, “A Gikuyu proverb says that, there is no Roman priest and a European- both are the same!”v Although, there is a no scholarly consensus on the role of the missionaries in the colonization of Africa, Okon insisted that, “the argument seems to favor the view that some missionaries cooperated essentially with colonial authorities in the exploitation and cultural subjugation of Africa.”vi

Walter Rodney in his How Europe Underdeveloped Africa contended that missionaries were agents of imperialism. He claimed that, “The Christian missionaries were as much part of the colonizing forces as were the explorers, traders and soldiers… missionaries were agents of colonialism in the practical sense, whether or not they saw themselves in that light.”vii Okon claimed that, “Rodney accused missionaries of preaching humility and submission in the face of gross injustice, inhumanity and dehumanization. While British traders were exploiting their African customers, the missionaries preached peace, forgiveness and good neighborliness, which actually prevented genuine rebellion, self-preservation and determination. Missionaries worked towards the preservation of the status quo and upholding of the master-servant relationship between Africans and Europeans.”viii

Rodney lamented that, “The church’s role was primarily to preserve the social relations of colonialism… the Christian church stressed humility, docility and acceptance. Ever since the days of slavery in the West Indies, the church had been brought in on condition that it should not excite the African slaves with doctrine of equality before God.”ix Okon claimed that, “If it is correct that missionary sermons suppressed genuine rebellion that could have ushered in freedom for the oppressed, and then the linkage of the missionaries with all the visible evils of colonialism may be justifiable.”x

i Lamin Sanneh, Translating The Message: The Missionary Impact On Culture. (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1989), 88. In Okon, 198.

ii Sanneh, (1989), 88. In Okon, 198.

iii Michael Crowder, The Story Of Nigeria. (London: Faber and Faber, 1962), 111. In Okon, 198-199.

iv Okon, 199.

v Mbiti, 231. In Okon, 199.

vi Okon, 199.

vii Rodney, 277. In Okon, 199.

viii Okon, 199.

ix Rodney, 278. In Okon, 199.

x Okon, 200.

Roles of the Chaplain

I know that people tend to think of chaplaincy as decidedly different from missionary. However, both come from a missional spirit, as one embraces the calling to serve others outside of the church setting. Well, I was supposed to give an commissioning address for some chaplain trainees at our center a couple of weeks ago. Sadly, our neighborhood was locked-down due to illness, Thefore, I could not speak. I decided to share the first draft of my message here. It is more finished at the beginning than the end. Hopefully, I will finish it soon… but what I have done is pretty useful, I think.

CPE has been found useful for many people in Christian ministry, as well as people in other forms of service. However, there has been a tradition of CPE used for chaplains. Chaplains are ministers whose congregation is not the church. This can include the military, a hospital, a jail, a community, a corporation, a government agency, at iba pa. So I will tell my first experience with chaplains.

Many years ago, I graduated from college and I decided to join the United States Navy. I went to Officer Candidate School (OCS)

During the fist week is Indoctrination Week. Our heads our shaved. We have to get up early for exercise, we do everything as a group. We have almost no individual freedom. We C.I.s yell at us and give us orders and emotionally abused. This is supposed to develop a group identity and a feeling of belonginess. I am not sure that that worked for me. All I could think of was that I completed a bechelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering, and now I am being treated like people treat a stray dog.

However, during Indoc week, we were scheduled to meet the Navy Chaplains. I think that one was Southern Baptist, another United Methodist, and a third Roman Catholic. We were marched to the Navy chapel (“Chapel of Hope”), and told where to sit. The chaplains welcomed us. They thanked our company instructors (our motivational abusers). Then the chaplains told the instructors to leave the sanctuary. After the instructors left, the chaplains went back and ceremoniously closed the back door of the sanctuary.

At that point, the chaplains told us to relax. The chapel is a refuge, a chapel of hope… there is no rank in the chapel. Chaplains will talk to us as people… not rates, paygrades, divisions, and ID numbers. They will also do their best to minister to everyone… even those of a different faith.

This is a liberating concept. My experience with Navy chaplains has been that they practice what they preach (a good thing). I enjoyed going to the Chapel of Hope on Sundays. Later, on my ship we had a chaplain. He was Southern Baptist. When he left the ship, he was replaced by an Assembly of God chaplain. Truthfully, I never met a chaplain I did not like. In the military, we were separated from our home churches, and often could not connect with a church group. Chaplains helped in this situation.

Chaplains have numerous roles. There have have been some attempts to describe these roles. I will describe some of these roles here.  See the Table at the bottom of this post.

First. A Chaplain in a sense embraces the role of an Apostle. An apostle was one who went out from the church to share God’s message of hope to those who are not part of the church.

So a chaplain does exactly this. A chaplain serves outside of the church being the carrior of hope to the hopeless and grace to hurting.

But a chaplain is not an apostle. A chaplain is not really a proselytizer… A chaplain is not a churchplanter. A chaplain’s ministry is much broader… serving those who accept the message of God and those who reject the message of God.

Thinking of Chaplain as Apostles, I think of St. Francis. He served in the streets not the cathedrals. And like St. Francis, preaching the gospel through actions… if necessary, use words.

Second, A Chaplain in a sense embraces the role of a Prophet. A prophet preaches the word of God, The Prophet served God, but also served the people by being an advocate for the people. Commonly, a prophet sought to express God’s role as an advocate of the people against the government.

As such, a positive role of a chaplain is that he or she can act as an advocate of the people— hospital patients, inmates, military personnel, and so forth— to help the institution.

But there is a bad side as well. A chaplain may serve as an advocate of the people, but is also a servant of the institution. A chaplain should never become a pawn of the institution (a “court prophet” in the worst sense)  but should not see him/herself as an enemy of the institution. He or she must work with institution, seeking to transform it, not overthrow it.

The metaphor of the “Wise fool” applies. A chaplain is like a jester, who works in the court, but is also an outsider. He can say what needs to be said, when others cannot.

Third.  A chaplain may be seen as Pastor.

The chaplain can provide a church (or church equivalent) for cannot be with their church (such as in hospital, jail, military, etc.) The chaplain can provide a community of faith where there is none.

Negatively, a chaplain may make the error of simply becoming a churchplanter. The role is much broader. It is not simply to provide a church for those away from home.

The image related to this role is the Shepherd.

Fourth.  A chaplain may be seen also as a Deacon.

A chaplain is meant to be a servant. He or she should serve all those who are in need. Frankly this draws from the earliest images of chaplaincy. Chaplains were those who helped travelers on their pilgrimmages.

However, chaplains are not just do-gooders. It is nice to be nice. But a chaplain must do more.

At it’s best, it is as Jesus who humbled Himself and served, or Martin of Tours— the founder of chaplaincy

Fifth. A Chaplain may be seen as a Priest

A chaplain serves as a priest in the sense of one who brings the holy into the mundane or secular setting.

However, much like the rest, this can be taken too far. A chaplain should not simply be the purveyor of symbols— a professional pray-er, or a dispenser of wafer and wine.

The related metaphor for this is “Circus clown.”  He or she connects the people (the audience) with that which is stunning or awe-inspiriring, while still being ordinary.

Sixth.  The final one is the Chaplain being a Monastic. Back in the 4th century, Christianity became a favored religion and finally a State Religion in the Roman Empire and in Armenia. The church became popular and as people flooded the churches and small gatherings became great basilicas, some were repulsed by what was happening in the churches. They left the church and moved into the deserts and wastelands to be alone with themselves and with God. Strangely, they started meeting other people who had experienced the same thing. These people who were trying to be alone began to gather together, and eventually started reaching out to others who were outside of the church.

A chaplain works with people who rejected the church or who were rejected by the church, or those who have rejected God. There is a pretty well-known story of a chaplan who served in a university. As chaplain he was scheduled to meet with all of the new students one at a time. Over and over again, a pattern would happen. The chaplain would meet with a student. He would introduce himself to the student and talk about the programs and services available through the chaplain’s office. The student would respond with, “Well, it is nice to meet you Chaplain, but you aren’t likely to see me very much.”

“Why is that?” asked the Chaplain.

“Oh because I don’t believe in God.” replies the student.

“Okay. Tell me about it.”

          Good. The chaplain can provide a church for those who rejected the church or those for whom the church has rejected them.

             Bad. The chaplain can become a Cultist. Just as the the chaplain challenges the secular institution without going to war with it, the chaplain challenges ones own church or denomination without rejecting or going to war with it.

Chaplain As Is Is not Example
Apostle Sent out to Give Hope Just a proselytizer St. Francis
Prophet Advocate for the People At war with institutions. “Wise Fool”
Pastor Church for the unchurched Just a Churchplanter Shepherd
Deacon Servant of All Just a Do-gooder Martin of Tours
Priest Bringing the Holy into the Mundane Just a Religious Symbol “Circus Clown”
Monastic Ministering to those who rejected the church or the church has rejected. A “Cultist”– rejecting or replacing the church Jesus

In conclusion, __________________________________________

Defining Myth for Missionaries

The term “Myth” is very hard to define because so many people have investment in the term. It is used in anthropology, it is used in religious studies, it is used storytelling and literature. It is used by the scholar and the layman alike. But the meanings often differ. I teach in a seminary and I am very careful how I use the term myth. I like to use the term from an anthropological understanding. Many however prefer a theological or general public understanding of the term. So if I say that something is a myth, I have to make sure that people don’t think that I mean that it is a very old sacred story. I also have to make sure that I am not being interpreted as saying that “It is a false story.”

Lauri Honko’s definition of myth is well-received by many

Myth, a story of the gods, a religious account of the beginning of the world, the creation, fundamental events, the exemplary deeds of the gods as a result of which the world, nature, and culture were created together with all parts thereof and given their order, which still obtains. A myth expresses and confirms society’s religious values and norms, it provides a pattern of behavior to be imitated, testifies to the efficacy of ritual with its practical ends and establishes the sanctity of cult.

Honko, Lauri (1984). “The Problem of Defining Myth”. In Dundes, Alan (ed.). Sacred Narrative: Readings in the Theory of Myth. University of California Press. p. 49.

It can been seen as a useful definition for some forms of myths. Here too is a bit of a problem, to me at least. I colored the single definition in red and green. That is because the first part is the definition in terms of “what it is.” The second part is “what it does.” For me, then, I see this as two definitions… and two definitions limited to religion. When we add culture to the mix, the definitions must broaden.

A definition for myth must include its various usages. Many people use the term as:

  • -Widely held belief without a strong basis in fact.
  • -Things that are not true.
  • -Really old story.

I like mine because it is grounded in culture, not in religion or in antiquity. The Spiderman origin story can act as a myth if it has a strong role in shaping or reinforcing key aspects of a culture.

Stephen Larsen (in “The Shaman’s Doorway: Opening Imagination to Power and Myth,” Chapter 1) talks for four general theories of where Myths come from— how they develop. Larsen also lists Campbells four functions of myths. I have modified the wording a wee bit and the order of things as well.  I wanted the rows to line up.

Where do Myths Come from? Campbell’s Functions for Myths
Distortions of Real Events/Things (Euhemerism) Mystical Function (Instill awe and gratitude in the mysteries of life)
Explaining the way things are (Etiological) Scientific Function (Explaining the way things are that makes sense at that time)
Describing the world as it is wanted rather than the way it actually is (Wish Fulfillment) Personal Function (Serve as a guide for the individual in how to live in each stage of life)
Echo of Social structure (Social Emanation) Sociological Function (Validate, support, and indoctrinate in the social and moral order)

The last row is the one that I tend to go by. It is sociological/cultural. However, myths are far too broad to assume that one function covers all myths. And it is likewise true that myths are too broad to assume that they all have one source.

The problem ultimately is that when a term has such a broad range of definitions, sources, and functions, the word can become useless.

One presumption in all of these definitions is that the myth is not true. This makes no real sense. If a culture has a myth… is it impossible that such a story is historically or factually accurate? A historical story can have a mythic function.

So what do we do as missionaries? I would suggest that a functional understanding is more useful. If we are attempting to express the Gospel message in a culture in a manner that is understandable and relevant in that culture, we are ill-advised simply to focus on propositions. We are better guided by utilizing stories. And if we are using stories we have two main strategies:

  1.  We can use Biblical stories (stories that have a strong “mythic function” in Christianity. There are clear advantages to using stories from canon. But it has two risks. It can be misinterpreted/misunderstood in the new culture. It can be understood but seen as irrelevant to that culture.
  2. We can use stories within the culture that have a mythic function already. There are at least two risks here as well. First, we may not understand the story and its context well enough to use it effectively. Second, the story may not succeed in drawing people to God’s message but reinforce the original worldview of that culture.

The most well-known example of the second strategy in the Bible was Paul utilizing Greek legends and poetry to point people to the God of the Jews. There are other examples as well. And of course, the stories of the Old Testament were not disregarded as the church expanded beyond the Jewish culture. The stories of Jesus, likewise, were used to express the message far beyond its original setting.

Either strategy, however, points to the importance of knowing myths in the culture.  For strategy #1, we may be using Biblical stories, but we need to understand their myths to know how our stories can be made understandable. For strategy #2, we need to know their stories to know how they can be used ministerially.

Either way, we need to know their stories to be used missiologically and ministerially. For missionaries, the functional understanding is more important than a source or process understanding of myths. So I believe one should embrace a functional understanding of myths. It should be centered on its role in culture rather than whether it is true or false.

My definition: Myth: A story that has power within a certain culture because it resonates with the culture’s deep-seated values.  (in “Theo-Storying:  Reflections on God, Narrative, and Culture.”)

 

 

 

 

Missions Books I am Looking Forward to Reading

Here are a few books that I am planning to read. They are written by people I know who are involved in missions, and are not as well-known as they should be:

Barry Phillips is a friend of mine and fellow missionary serving here in the Philippines. He enjoys controversy more than I do, but that may be a good thing. Case in point is his newest book, “Church Doctor: Prescriptions for a Healthy Church.” Talking to Barry it is pretty clear that he did not pull punches as to his concerns about “church as usual.” I am looking forward to reading it soon. (Yes, I am aware that “Church Doctor” is not a Missions book in the classic sense, but still looking forward to it.

 

Adesegun Hammed Olayiwola is a former student of mine. He is a dedicated student and researcher of missions. He has finished four books in the last two years. Three of them are now available. (One more I have read, but he hasn’t shared it online yet.) “Perspectives of African Church on African Missions: The Past, Present & Future Challenges to Missions in Africa.” It is presently going through final editing for English, but even as is worth reading because Adesegun has a unique perspective that most of us in the “West” have little exposure to. I am looking forward to reading it soon (and hopefully clean up the language just a bit.)

 

T. Aaron Smith is a missionary in Manila whose parents are actually members of our sending church. He and his wife serve with the urban poor in one of the Great Urban Centers of the world. Since I believe that missions is being drawn (kicking and screaming) from the UPG model of missions to GUC model, I think of Aaron’s work as quite forward-thinking in missions.  Also, while I have ministerial friends who complain that Christian missions has spent too many centuries focused on the poor and ignoring the rich or professional, I still think that if missions looks to Christ as the chief example, then prioritizing the poor is good. I am looking forward to reading his book, “Thriving in the City: A Guide for Sustainable Incarnational Ministry Among the Urban Poor.”

Of course, you are welcome to visit my Amazon Page as well, by CLICKING HERE.

A Bad Test Question on Worldview

My daughter was preparing for her NCLEX (Nursing exam for the US). In a preparation app for the test (so I don’t know if this question ever showed up in an actual NCLEX) was:

A nurse caring for a (sic) Asian-American client plans care considering the client’s view of illness. Which of the following appropriately describes the Asian-American’s view of illness?

a.  Illness is caused by supernatural forces

b.  Illness is a punishment for sins

c.  Illness is a disharmoniouus state that may be caused by demons and spirits

d.  Illness is caused by an imbalance between yin and yang

So let’s unpack the options.  Option (a) is a possibility. Some might call the idea that illness is caused by supernatual forces a Premodern perspective. It certainly could be the viewpoint of the Asian-American patient. Option (b) is a possibility. Many Asian-Americans, especially from the Abrahamic faiths, definitely might see illness as a punishment for sins. Option (c) is a possibility as well. There are certainly Asian-Americans who could have a more animistic or spiritualistic perspective. Option (d) is also a possibility. A Daoist or Daoist/Buddhist perspective is certainly a possibility.

If all of these are a possibility, which is supposed to be correct? I am guessing that (d) was the one they wanted. When Americans talk about “Asian-Americans” they often picture East-Asians (Chinese, Korean, and Japanese). As such, option (d) would probably fit best. However, one might say option (a) is better since it is the broadest. That is because options (b), (c), and (d) could generally be thought of as being sub-categories of option (a).

However, I could add two more options:

e.  Illness is caused by bacteria, viruses, or other natural phenomena.

f.  Illness is caused by factors that are recognized in the culture they presently live in.

Both of these options make sense. Many Asian-Americans believe in a “modernist” or “materialist” perspective with regards to illness, so option (e) is a possibility. Also, many Asian-Americans assimilate into the culture they now live in, so American beliefs may predominate their thinking, making option (f) a possible answer.

However, there is a best answer. Here it is:

g.  One cannot tell identify the patient’s worldview by their ethnicity or nationality. You will have to ask.

The question is a horrible one. It makes no sense.

Teaching Doubt

I am a big fan of doubt—- because, in part, I am a big fan of faith. I believe faith is empowered by doubt. As such, faith is damaged by dogma— not in the sense of holding onto core beliefs, but dogma in terms of training people to conform to beliefs without allowing them the right to (public) struggle with their beliefs.

I have written a lot on doubt in many of its forms. I certainly would encourage you to read some of these posts if you wish. However, I will link to just five:

Belief Versus Doubt Versus Disbelief.  Part I

Belief Versus Doubt Versus Disbelief.  Part II

Belief Versus Doubt Versus Disbelief. Part III

Belief Versus Doubt Versus Disbelief. Part IV

Leading Cause of Atheism?

The last article is a short post that links to a longer article by Jackson Wu who says that religious groups not allowing dialogue and disagreement is a leading cause of people moving to atheism.

I teach in a seminary. Most seminaries embrace a certain amount of freedom of thought… at least within some bounds. But not all. Some teach doctrine and seek to crush thoughtful questions and disagreements.  Needless to say, I hope, one should avoid that type of seminary. Some schools purport to be open, but are closed-minded simply in a different direction than the seminaries that they seek to distance themselves from.

The seminary I teach at comes from a denominational and faith tradition and we hold to basic religious faith statements in line with these traditions. That being said, there still is quite a bit of room for different views.

I like to say that my favorite answer in class to any question given to me is “I don’t know.”

I like to give such a statement because:

  1.  It is honest. My knowledge and wisdom is pretty limited. Even if I believe that I know the answer, I may not KNOW that I know the answer.
  2. It is dialogic. I don’t stop at “I don’t know” but try to give some thoughts on the issue. I try to encourage others to proffer responses as well. Sometimes I am successful at this and sometimes not.
  3. It is explorational. Seminarians are seekers of God. They are explorers of the great existential mysteries of life. They are moving forward into a world that is ever-changing, and ultimately unknown. They need to have the tools to do this exploration. They need the wisdom of the past and the tools of the present, but also an openness to the new.

Of course, doubt in itself is not a total good either. As I noted in a prior post, doubt can be pathological. It can be nihilistic. Doubt, in its best form, says “I don’t know everything that is out there. If I want to know, I must explore.”

Faith, to me, then gives us the tools (compass, sextant, timepiece, chart) to use to help us not simply getting lost and going in circles.

The Christian life is meant to be an adventure.

Fair Winds and Following Seas…

Christian Missions is Not “If it Works, Do it.” (Quote)

“Jesus at the outset of his ministry was forced to contend with three of the most powerful temptations Satan could offer— expediency, popularity and power (Mt 4:1-11). It would have been expedient, logical and even strategic for Jesus to have ended his forty-day fast by turning stones into bread. He could have attracted the attention, interest and admiration of an entire nation had he leaped from the top of the temple and landed on his feet. Most of all, he could have ruled over all of the earth if he had just bowed down to Satan.

Think of it— Satan offered Jesus the opportunity to complete all he came to earth to accomplish— in one stroke he would rule the world. Would something like this be a temptation to Mission, Inc.? At long last the Great Commission could be fulfilled in our generation by our efforts and ingenuity. Jesus had a very different agenda, however. His was to be a spiritual kingdom based on unwavering obedience to all that he had learned from his Father. He engaged in no sloganeering to “complete the task,” no triumphalistic Great Commission countdowns, no strategic plan and timetable other than the certainty that he would be forsaken by his followers and left to experience a traumatic, lonely death.

We suggest that those of us on this missions pilgrimage reexamine our rhetoric and publicity. Let us join in the sober recognition that the spiritual kingdom of Jesus is distinctly and irreversibly countercultural. It is all about communities witnessing to Christ’s kingdom without the convictions of worldly expediency, glamour and power. Yet without fanfare it transforms the world.

-James F. Engel and William A Dyrness, “Changing the Mind of Missions” (InterVarsity Press, 2000), p. 180.