Two Christmases in One

I have written on Christmas here previously. One of my favorite posts is “Christmas. It’s Okay… Really.” I wrote it back in 2012.  I wrote it because every year (E….V….E…R…Y….   Year) people complain about Christmas for one thing or another. And so I made the following points:

  1. It is Okay to Christianize a Pagan Holiday <An Issue of Contextualization>
  2. It is Okay to Celebrate a Civil Holiday <An Issue of Separation>
  3. It is Okay to Celebrate Christmas in December <An Issue of Historicity>
  4. It is Okay to Celebrate <An Issue of Asceticism>
  5. It is Okay NOT to Listen to Me <An Issue of Conformity>

If you want to read it, then CLICK HERE.

I think the post is still pretty valid. The weakest point is actually probably the first one. It is weak NOT because it is wrong to recontextualize pagan symbols and festivities. It is weak because it is probable that Christmas was NOT actually a literal one-for-one replacement of a pagan holiday. Christmas is not on the day Winter Solstice and even less the days of Saturnalia.

A stronger point is #2. Christmas is TWO celebrations. It is Christian Christmas (CC) AND Secular Christmas (SC). If all aspects that relate to CC are enclosed in a ⭕ and all aspects that relate to SC are enclosed in another ⭕, those circles would not be fully aligned, but neither would they be separate. They would certainly overlap.

It is the overlap that is important.  Some Christians embrace a more  antagonistic and separatistic stance with the surrounding culture. For them, Christians should remove all aspects of Christmas that may be found in Secular Christmas. However, from a missional perspective, the overlap is good… even important.

If CC and SC were totally aligned, Christian Christmas may be fully relevant to the secular world, but non-impactful. If CC and SC were totally separate, Christian Christmas will not resonate with the secular world, so the potential impact is likely to not be given a foothold. The overlap provides the bridge. Both SC and CC value love, joy, peace, and giving. This is a useful bridge and can challenge the materialism, consumerism, and (frankly) superficial aspects that are also unsettling aspects of Secular Christmas.

To me, the failure to overlap can be seen in Hanukkah. Jewish Hanukkah (JH) is fairly well-defined. Secular Hanukkah (SH) exists in places like the US to a limited extent, but Christian Hanukkah (CH) doesn’t really exist. And this is strange. Christians often acting like celebrating Hanukkah is un-Christian. It celebrates the rededication of the 2nd temple after it was desecrated by the Seleucids a couple of centuries before Christian. It is part of our Christian story as well. Jesus in fact is recorded celebrating Hanukkah (Festival of Dedication) in John 10:22ff.

It seems to me that the lack of existence of CH has limited the impact of Christians in Hanukkah. One may question this in that in the US there has been a drift of Christmas traditions into Hanukkah in Reformed Judaism. This includes gift-giving and Hanukkah bushes. Arguably, however, the interaction is more from the secular side of Christmas than the Christian side.

Of course I am not saying that Hanukkah should become more like Christmas. Rather, I am trying to give an example of where unnecessary separation leads to lack of impact. So, while I think there are risks if Christians getting caught up in the excesses of Secular Christmas, the positive side of the overlap of the two Christmases is potentially a valuable bridge for positive impact.

Real and Unreal of Race

I have been teaching cultural anthropology here in the Philippines. I wrote a book for the class so that students did not have to grab chapters from several different books. I still feel pretty good about the book, but as I have taught the class I have started to notice some issues. One of these is the chapter on Race. The chapter is quite short because I felt like I had written everything I had wanted to about the topic. But as time went on, I feel like I have short-changed the topic.

But why would I? I come from a country where race is a big issue. In fact, for some people, it looks like it is their ONLY issue (and I am not just talking about one side of the issue). So why would I give the topic so little emphasis?

First, I think the main reason is that I understand that Race is essentially Unreal. Traditionally, race was used in a way that today might be called ethnicity or people group. Aristides, for example, speaks of four races or classes of man— Greeks Barbarians, Jews, and Christians. That use of the term is rather obsolete, so there was no reason to put that in the chapter on race. Into the 17th and 18th centuries, race was tied to physical traits much as it is often now. However, it is hard to draw lines in mankind because physical variations in humans are actually rather trivial in terms of geographic regions, and defy clear taxonomies. Years ago, people talked of Caucasoid, Mongoloid, and Negroid, but so many did not fit well into these categories. Early 1900s, there was White, Black, Yellow, Brown, and Red. These five groups fit slightly better (although none of labels, except MAYBE brown, is very descriptive). The labels still appear to be pretty arbitrary. More recently, some (like Jared Diamond) have used a different five— White Black, Asian, African Pygmy, and Xhosan. This also seems pretty arbitrary. In the 19th century was the growth of the theory of biological evolution. Race in this case is a rank below sub-species, implying that it is on route to becoming a separate species from the rest. Considering the relative genetic sameness across all peoples of the world, this understanding of human race is pretty silly (regardless of your view of biological evolution). But out of it came Race Science, which ultimately attempted to demonstrate in different ways why “I am better than You because I come from a Superior Race than you.” Again, studies in genetics work to sabotage any real basis for this… though many don’t let go of the idea easily. Today Race is seen as a more informal social construct (like in America where races or ‘ethnicities’ are identified (white, black, asian, hispanic, native American, etc.) in a manner that puts people together and separates others for rather arbitrary societal reasons rather than based on sound categories of similarity and dissimilarity.

2. Race is tied to bad theology. When I was young, I was told that there were three races- White, Black, Asian, and that they sprang up from the sons of Noah. Japheth was the father of the “White” races, Ham was the father of the “Black” races, and Shem of Semitic and other Asian races. Of course, even as a young child I was rather suspicious of this. The family tree of Noah did not really line up with present-day racial designations. In fact, it looked like a way to link Blacks with the “bad son” of Noah— Ham. While my church did not do this (thankfully), some churches did use this flawed logic to justify slavery. (I am not sure how Whites could use the idea that they descended from a “good son” of Noah, Japheth, as a reason for doing something evil— enslaving others and treating them as property. But as my dad said, never assume that people think through racist opinions fully.) Later on, I learned of British-Israelism, that saw the British or perhaps Americans as the ‘lost tribes of Israel.’ While I had at least one friend who passionately believed this, the argument appeared to be so strained, that I struggle to see any sense to this one. Some groups have even dredged up the idea of “Pre-Adamic” races, based on NOTHING in the Bible to create a category of ‘sub-humans’ to give people an OUT on the Great Commandment. Presumably, if some people are sub-human then one doesn’t have to love them as one loves oneself. (But would it? Strangers and Aliens in Luke 19 were supposed to be shown hospitality. How could one identify human versus sub-human aliens?)

But there is a problem with treating race as unreal. When one treats it as unreal, one tends not to see the term used abusively. Race DOES exist as a social construct, made by people for their own reasons. Race is used to interpret experiences and guide behavior. We tend not to see color differentiations until we have labels for them. We tend not see abuse until we recognize a label to go with it. (I am amazed at how many Christians cannot identify Spiritual Abuse, until they have embraced a label for it.) Just because race is based on bogus taxonomies does not mean it is irrelevant in the minds of people who think based on racial constructs.

For example, I am of Swedish ancestry so I would be considered Caucasoid or White. My wife is of Filipino ancestry, meaning that she is considered to be of Mongoloid, Brown, or Yellow, or Asian racial group. I am considered by people to be part of a ‘mixed race’ marriage. My wife and I got married in the Commonwealth of Virginia in the United States. If we had tried to marry there prior to the mid-1960s we would not have been allowed because of ‘miscegenation laws, ‘ the mixing or races. My children are considered to be bi-racial (except by pre-2000 US census collection where my children would have been required to ‘pick one race’). As foolish as all of this sounds to me, these categories do not go away because they exist in people’s minds.

Another example has been in the response to the Black Lives Matter movement. Some have gotten bothered by the statement, “Black Lives Matter.” Some are bothered because it seems to reinforce racial designations. Others don’t like it because it seems to support a less than Biblical perspective. Isn’t it true that “All Lives Matter”? However, when one ignores a social reality, the problem tends to be made worse. Let me give an example. As noted before, my wife and I are thought of as being part of a mixed-race couple. We have been pretty blessed in having received relatively little grief for being ‘mixed-race,’ and the little grief we have received—- well, we were able to “consider the source.” But many mixed race couples have received a lot of discrimination and even hostility. Suppose someone created an organization, “God Loves Mixed Race Families.” I could imagine someone saying this is a bad name because clearly, “God Loves All Families.” They would be right… but also wrong… because it fails to challenge the prejudices. A positive statement that is generally applied vaguely, does not strike the target. People who would see the name, “God Loves All Families” would tend to see that type of family that they themselves would tend to love. Jesus told the Parable of the Good Samaritan because the people would have made the Parable of the Good Human Being fit their own prejudices. Likewise, saying that the name of the group is invalid since there are really no such things as races anyway, may have a point in a genetic or phenotypic sense. But raceS DO exist as social constructs and do indeed guide how people are judged and acted for or against.

Another example is that I am part of a denomination in which some of the major seminary presidents have come out against CRT (Critical Race Theory) and Intersectionality. Of course, CRT is such a general term that one can find a flavor of it that pretty much anyone would be against. However, to recognize the importance of race as a social construct that guides social behaviors at pretty much every level in a society… well, that is just the way it is. As such, it is a valid form of analysis for a wide range of fields. Of course, to say it is a valid form of analysis doesn’t mean that (1) it is the only valid form of analysis, (2) it is the most valid form of analysis, or (3) all versions of it are valid forms of analysis. Just coming out against it seems remarkably naive for theologians. (Of course I have not read their individual perspectives on CRT, and so I hope these are far more nuanced.)

As far as intersectionality, its general meaning is “the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage.” (Oxford Languages)

As a Caucasian American living in a predominantly Asian community in an Asian country gives me a wide and seemingly contradictory set of advantages and disadvantages. Being married to one from this country adds further twists. Again, on some level intersectionality is simply true. Being opposed to intersectionality is, to some extent, being opposed to gravity, or the first law of thermodynamics. If you reject the extreme views regarding intersectionality… I am sure I am right there with you. The problem is that to deal with issues of race, one needs to avoid finding “straw men” to erect and knock down. In missions and in culture, issues of race don’t go away by simply acting like such discussions are invalid or exaggerated.

Looking over this post… Yes, I think there are things I should add to my chapter on Race. For missionaries, and people working in any place where people judge people based on a construct that we call race (essentially everywhere) it is something that must be addressed and taken seriously. When racism is revealed, it may create problems. When racism is ignored, the problems become even greater. When racism is denied, the problems explode.

An article that is not totally related, but still related enough is one by Jackson Wu,

Sufficiently Advanced Magic

Years ago, Science Fiction Writer, Arthur C. Clarke came up with Three Laws that he shared in an essay he wrote titled, “Hazards of Prophecy: The Failure of Imagination.”

  1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
  2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
  3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

I would like to offer a fourth rule,

Any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology.

Let me explain for a bit. Wikipedia uses a description for technology: “the sum of techniques, skills, methods, and processes used in the production of goods and services in the accomplishment of objectives.”

Using Wikipedia again (why not?) gives a description for magic: “the practice of beliefs, rituals and/or actions which are said to control and manipulate either natural or supernatural beings and forces.”

These seem to be fairly useful descriptions, problematic only in that they are pretty vague. The vagueness is shown in that anything that fits under the umbrella of description for technology would also fit under the umbrella of description for magic .”Techniques, skills, methods, and processes” heavily overlap with “beliefs, rituals, and/or actions.”

The big difference is not directly stated in these descriptions. Technology is thought of as utilizing natural forces, while magic is thought of as utilizing unnatural (or “supernatural” forces).

But what separates natural and unnatural forces?

I can see how some people could identify a clear line between the two. Natural forces utilize laws and principles that we understand. The are predictable and deterministic. They generally can be analyzed scientifically (at least for those these can be analyzed in the “now”). Unnatural forces (if such exist) utilize laws and principles that are not understood. They are mysterious. They are not predictable and deterministic. They cannot really be analyzed scientifically.

As an engineer, I utilized technology and developed technology. I did not reject the supernatural, but I certainly felt that there was a very clear and definable chasm between the natural and the unnatural.

But I also studied electromagnetic theory, Einsteinian physics, quantum mechanics, and nuclear engineering both formally as a student, as an armchair novice, and at least for nuclear engineering as a vocation. The more I looked into this, the more I wondered whether the line was so clear. At the quantum level, particles behave in ways that are not well understood at all. They often behave in ways that are nonintuitive, and nondeterministic. One starts to wonder as one studies light phenomenon, and sub-atomic particles, whether we can say that they actually exist—- at least exist in a way that commonly view existence in the macroscopic world. And yet we use these semi-existent things to light our world, to move us from point A to point B and to carry out all sorts of calculations. It occurs to me that electrons, for example, behave in ways that defy imagination. They permeate matter, but matter is energy, and energy is bafflingly difficult to concept to wrap one’s head around (even if we are pretty comfortable with using it).

It is not a ridiculous statement to say that electrons (along with other building blocks of atoms) and electromagnetic radiation fit into magical categories pretty much as clearly as they do natural categories.

If one looks at how electrons and electromagnetic radiation are used to affect our world (for good and evil), one might argue that we live in an age of advanced magic as much as advanced technology.

Along those lines, living things also challenge the deterministic presumptions of natural phenomenon. I am reminded of the “Harvard Law.”

“Under the most rigorously controlled conditions of
pressure, temperature, volume, humidity, and other
variables, the organism will do as it damn well pleases.”

We don’t really understand life, despite shouts to the contrary, nor can we predict how life will interact with its environment, at least on an individual basis. Yet we have gotten better at understanding patterns of group behavior. Again, our ability to manipulate life macroscopically, while it defies scrutiny on several key levels could also point to advanced use of magic as much as technology.

Now for those who find this weird, don’t worry. I don’t have some big agenda here. My goal is not to redefine our age as the age of magic. But when we study other cultures, we often like to come up with nice neat categories of technology, magic, religion, science, and so forth. But these categories are not as clearcut as they may at first seem. And for people in a different culture, they may come up with very different categories than what we come up with. They may see boxes that talk and “think” as magic— communicating by invisible signals sent through space and air, powered by invisible things sent through metal. We might disagree with them and say it is not actually magic, but that is more of our own choice of taxonomy than anything else.

However, beyond the anthropological, I would say that one value is to recognize that we live in “magical” and “mysterious” times. Our ability to harness a force should not suck the wonder out of that force. Our ability to quantify a phenomenon should not keep us from embracing the mystery of the phenomenon itself. The universe is too big to comprehend and works on principles that so fare elude our ability to comprehend.

That is not at all a bad thing.

Selective Exposure, Confirmation Bias, and Information Overload (Part 1)

You would think that we would be able to reason better in the age where we have more sources of information, better tools to evaluate information, and a broader range of available perspectives. But that does not seem to be the case. In fact, It may be the opposite. Foolish thought appears to be a bigger problem than ever.

But if you think about it, this should not be surprising. We live in an age of information overload. Robert Dykstra’s book, “Finding Ourselves Lost: Ministry in the Age of Overwhelm,” notes that we are drowning in information, and this leads to stress. So what do we do when we become overwhelmed in information?

  • We can vascillate back and forth as different information and perspectives are absorbed. That, however, adds to the stress.
  • We can bend to authority. Pre-modern thought tends toward ancient authorities (philosophers, prophets, holy writ, etc.). Modern thought tends toward modern authorities (scientists, engineers, recognized experts, etc.) However, most people who are reading this are probably more post-modern than they think.
  • We can practice selective exposure. This where we intentionally limit the amount of data and the sources of data.

Selective exposure is not in itself bad. We can’t handle all the information that is available. However, it can be a part of an ugly cycle.

  1. John (to name someone at random) comes into a situation with preconceived worldview and beliefs.
  2. John lives in a globalistic, pluralistic, multi-perspectival world with a huge amount of data to process.
  3. John, being human, doesn’t want to add unnecessary stress to his life. Unconsciously, John tends to find data that supports his preconceptions more compelling than data that challenges him to change. This is confirmation bias. Consciously, John tends to seek sources of information that he finds more compelling (ie. supporting his preconceptions) and avoid those sources that he finds less compelling (ie. challenging his preconceptions). This is selective exposure.
  4. John is not only a human, but a social being, and culture-creating being. Living in a multicultural, multi-perspectival, globalistic world, is stress inducing because it challenges one to rethink and change. As such, John is likely to slide into a sub-culture (either physical or virtual) that is consistent with his own beliefs and values. That creates what is colloquially called an echo chamber.
  5. This sub-culture tends to reinforce the beliefs of John, and may even move John to more extreme versions of his own previous beliefs. This feeds back into step 1 and the cycle continues.

There seemed to be a belief that globalism and technology would tear down cultures. Perhaps there is some truth to that… but as monocultures break down physically, they seem to increase in virtual communities.

I consider this to be a problem. It is a problem for society. It is a problem as one who wants to grow and learn as a person rather than simply spin one’s wheels. And as a missionary, I am called upon to be both cross-cultural and culturally sensitive. The cycle described above is damaging for missionaries, and ministries.

I will suggest a way that may reduce the cycle… in Part 2 (when I get around to posting it.).

Good and Bad Reasons for Theological Blogging

I like to blog. I do believe that those of us in ministry are theologians. I think there are great reasons to blog theologically, but perhaps I should also be realistic about it.

At one time weblogs were the hot new thing, but those times are past. Hotter and newer forms of media are here now. If you want to get views, putting cute animal pics on Instagram, and retweeting some trending conspiracy will likely get you bigger results. Blogposts almost never go viral. In over 10 years of blogging, I have only had one post that snuck up on the periphery of “going viral” and it wasn’t even a post that I liked that much. Some people speak of the possibilities of monetization. While this is indeed possible, it is not a likely trajectory for most people writing in theology. I have known a few who have succeeded in doing this, but in those cases, their blog was treated like a business with staff an advertising budget, and merch for sale. Commonly, they accepted (often quite cringy) advertisements to be on their website (“Anyone wish to talk to their own personal angel?”) I also don’t think that blogs are a great evangelism tool. There is no real substitute for real human interaction combined with compassion through action. Your awesome proofs that Jesus is God are unlikely to be read, much less leading to radical conversion. Nothing wrong with trying, but one don’t let your excitement be dashed by reality.

There are reasons, however, that theological blogging can be beneficial.

  1. It is a good place to record and hone your thoughts. As you read and meditate, you have some good thoughts and some… not so good. Both of these are likely to be forgotten, unless you write them down. The process of writing them down helps on its own, but this is enhanced if you write your thoughts down where they can be retrieved. Having them written down in an electronic form with search functions, tagging, and hyperlinks available, may work better than simply writing in notebooks. And writing to a real (potential) audience can force one to write more thoughtfully and coherently.
  2. It can serve as a repository of research and reflections that may be drawn upon for other uses. Such uses include sermons, training seminars, articles, books, videos, and so forth. I have been blogging on my main website for over 10 years. In that time, I have accumulated almost 1,200 posts that would overflow a 2000 page book. Some of the writing I have done I am quite proud of. Others… less so. But by utilizing categories and tags and searches, I can find things I have collected (with references) and thoughts that can speed up producing other material.
  3. It can be used to influence others. I do think one needs to keep things in perspective here. I average around 1000 views per month. It is okay, but hardly impressive numbers. Some do more and some do less, but if you are talking about theology, generally you will not attract big crowds. But that is okay. There are even advantages to this. If you want to blog on your favorite recipe for strawberry turnovers, or the most beautiful waterfalls in the Philippines, you will have a much larger likely audience. On the other hand, you also have much greater competition. You will not be on the first page of Google search… or second page… or third. Also, the likelihood that you will have lasting positive impact with searchers is fairly low. However, if you search on Google for “transcendental contextualization,” a blog I wrote shows up on page 2, and a slideshare I created based on blogposts I had done is on page 1. The same thing occurs if one is looking at interreligious dialogue based on the missiologist Max Warren. Writing on less common topics does have advantages sometimes.
  4. It can break down barriers, and promote communication. Two thirds of my visitors are either from the United States and the Philippines. The other third are from a large variety of nations and territories— 198 so far in 2020. Many of those locations are considered “creative access” regions. And since blogs can be set up to allow forum responses, one can also learn and grow that way. <And of course, if you find your comment feed is sounding like most youtube comment feeds, you can turn off the feature… no worries.>

I said before that I believe that all ministers are theologians. But not all ministers are good theologians. I believe blogging can help one become better. I also think it allows ministers to provide an alternative perspective to the dubious messages that float around from various other sources— both Christian and non-Christian.

Three tests of Quackery: Too Much, Too Well, Too Costly

All three of my children were afflicted with atopic dermatitis. Two of them have got beyond most of the symptoms. One of them still has problems with it. Over the years we got an awful lot of advice on how to treat it. A few were thoroughly unhelpful… but most had at least a bit of truth in it. A lot of these were so called “alternative medicines” or cures. For the most part, it seems they were of limited help (Lagundi leaves, both as a tea and as a bath, appeared to provide limited but real help). To be fair, however, conventional medicine wasn’t very helpful either.

Photo by energepic.com on Pexels.com

All three of my children were afflicted with atopic dermatitis. Two of them have got beyond most of the symptoms. One of them still has problems with it. Over the years we got an awful lot of advice on how to treat it. A few were thoroughly unhelpful… but most had at least a bit of truth in it. A lot of these were so called “alternative medicines” or cures. For the most part, it seems they were of limited help (Lagundi leaves, both as a tea and as a bath, appeared to provide limited but real help). To be fair, however, conventional medicine wasn’t very helpful either. about:blankImageUpload an image file, pick one from your media library, or add one with a URL.

This got me thinking about quality care versus “quackery.” But there is no easy measure to determine what is good and what is not. For example, many of the things that are considered quackery are useful in limited ways. There are relatively few forms of care that have no value in all circumstances. It is perhaps true that iridology or astrology have no value at all— at least if it is true that the underlying premises are false (that the iris of the eye informs about the body’s health, or that the stars and planets guide one’s destiny. Most treatments are good for at least some situations, however. So what might be the characteristics that separate quality and quackery.

  1. Too Much. When a treatment promises to do too much, the assumption is that there is some quackery involved. This is a matter of breadth. One is reminded of the classic joke product “snake oil.” Or perhaps one may have seen the classic movie, “The Inspector General” with the product “Yakov’s Golden Elixir.’ Such products probably had some limited value— even if only as an emetic or laxative. But in both cases, the product was described to cure almost all physical maladies. Many alternative medicines do have value in limited forms of treatments. And that is fine. Unfortunately, some of these are used, at the encouragement of their practioners/marketers, for things that are dubious.
  2. Too well. Sometimes, a treatment is appropriate but is marketed as being far more effective than it really is. This is a matter of depth rather than breadth. Skin problems are classic for this. There are different creams, injections, pills, baths, and more. There are few if any such products that work nearly as well as they are advertised. When much is promised but only a little is given, the question of legitimacy can come up.
  3. Too costly. Even if something is legitimate in care… when it is far too costly, especially when compared to other options, the care must be considered questionable.

Can this apply to Christian ministry? I heard a person online expressing the belief that Pastoral Counseling may be quackery. My first response, since my wife and I run a pastoral counseling center is to gainsay this. However,pastoral care and counseling can easily fall into the trap of quackery. It rarely falls into the category of “too costly” (except perhaps with some ‘retreat’ seminars perhaps) but it can easily fall into the traps of “too much” and “too well.” One should know one’s limits. One should know what one’s own limitedness is. One needs to know the proper depth and breadth of care that one can reasonably provide. I certainly have seen pastoral counselors who act like their little corner of care is all one ever needs.

In pastoral counseling, one must embrace humility, and one’s own limitedness. We don’t know all things, and we certainly don’t have control of all things. When we pretend otherwise, we have fallen into quackery.

The same can be true of other ministries as well. Community development is a good thing, but one’s limitations need to be embraced from the start. It is good to instill one’s vision into the people. But one must be careful not to promise too much. Evangelism is another area. Some evangelists sound like snake oil salesmen— everything, but everything, becomes perfect if one says a few words.

When we overstep the bounds of our limitations… when we act like we can offer perfect solutions in an imperfect world… when we offer too little for too much, we are dishonest, and it is no surprise if we are not believed.

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This got me thinking about quality care versus “quackery.” But there is no easy measure to determine what is good and what is not. For example, many of the things that are considered quackery are useful in limited ways. There are relatively few forms of care that have no value in all circumstances. It is perhaps true that iridology or astrology have no value at all— at least if it is true that the underlying premises are false (that the iris of the eye informs about the body’s health, or that the stars and planets guide one’s destiny. Most treatments are good for at least some situations, however. So what might be the characteristics that separate quality and quackery.

  1. Too Much. When a treatment promises to do too much, the assumption is that there is some quackery involved. This is a matter of breadth. One is reminded of the classic joke product “snake oil.” Or perhaps one may have seen the classic movie, “The Inspector General” with the product “Yakov’s Golden Elixir.’ Such products probably had some limited value— even if only as an emetic or laxative. But in both cases, the product was described to cure almost all physical maladies. Many alternative medicines do have value in limited forms of treatments. And that is fine. Unfortunately, some of these are used, at the encouragement of their practioners/marketers, for things that are dubious.
  2. Too well. Sometimes, a treatment is appropriate but is marketed as being far more effective than it really is. This is a matter of depth rather than breadth. Skin problems are classic for this. There are different creams, injections, pills, baths, and more. There are few if any such products that work nearly as well as they are advertised. When much is promised but only a little is given, the question of legitimacy can come up.
  3. Too costly. Even if something is legitimate in care… when it is far too costly, especially when compared to other options, the care must be considered questionable.

Can this apply to Christian ministry? I heard a person online expressing the belief that Pastoral Counseling may be quackery. My first response, since my wife and I run a pastoral counseling center is to gainsay this. However,pastoral care and counseling can easily fall into the trap of quackery. It rarely falls into the category of “too costly” (except perhaps with some ‘retreat’ seminars perhaps) but it can easily fall into the traps of “too much” and “too well.” One should know one’s limits. One should know what one’s own limitedness is. One needs to know the proper depth and breadth of care that one can reasonably provide. I certainly have seen pastoral counselors who act like their little corner of care is all one ever needs.

In pastoral counseling, one must embrace humility, and one’s own limitedness. We don’t know all things, and we certainly don’t have control of all things. When we pretend otherwise, we have fallen into quackery.

The same can be true of other ministries as well. Community development is a good thing, but one’s limitations need to be embraced from the start. It is good to instill one’s vision into the people. But one must be careful not to promise too much. Evangelism is another area. Some evangelists sound like snake oil salesmen— everything, but everything, becomes perfect if one says a few words.

When we overstep the bounds of our limitations… when we act like we can offer perfect solutions in an imperfect world… when we offer too little for too much, we are dishonest, and it is no surprise if we are not believed.

Inconvenience and Negativity

A few weeks ago, I was online with a meeting of team of supporters. Another missionary who we are connected with here in the Philippines was also in the online group. This meeting we were invited to join, but we were not the focus of the meeting. Nevertheless, we were asked to give a quick update of what is going on with our ministries here in the Philippines.

Afterwards, several people said how nice it was for us and the other missionary family to join. One of the comments was “It was so nice that they were so positive and not complaining.” A couple of days ago, I (and a few other missionaries) were asked to give a short video to a church and were asked to share prayer requests while “keeping it positive.”

I found that interesting. Why twice in a few weeks was positivity especially called out.

One possibility is that I (and maybe other missionaries) are so negative normally, or perhaps only contact friends and supporters when something is lacking. I know my wife and I have supported ministers and missionaries who would NEVER contact us unless there was a need they have. I can assure you that after awhile one gradually shifts from feeling like one is a partner, to feeling like one is being used. Still, I don’t know that I am negative all that often. Maybe I am, and maybe other missionaries are as well. But this is only one possibility.

Another possibility, however, is that there is a tendency “back home” toward negativity. I do know that looking at social media from back in the US, there is a lot of negativity. It seems like Evangelical Christianity there has become hypersensitized to… well… pretty much every little annoyance (except, perhaps, things that annoy others outside of themselves).

I remember talking to a pastor in the US some months ago who was so annoyed that church meetings were being limited in his state. He felt that this was a huge encroachment on his freedoms. I tried to reframe it as sacrifice… the church has the opportunity to sacrifice some of its rights TEMPORARILY as a blessing for the community. His response was, “Well, that is a pretty huge sacrifice…”

I thought about that. It really isn’t much of a sacrifice. Quoting one of my favorite Youtubers, Ryan George, it is a sacrifice that is “Super easy— barely an inconvenience.”

It seems like many Christians right now are struggling with a reversal of St. Paul’s testimony— In whatever state we are in, therein to be discontent.

But maybe I am reading into things. Maybe it is about me. Maybe I am too negative in my reports. In the end, I can’t DIRECTLY change other people, I can only change myself. So what should I take from this?

  • I probably should ask for clarification. Guessing doesn’t really help.
  • should find a balance in my newsletters home. I should be more positive, encouraging those who are feeling discouraged. However, I should also not simply send home “happy letters.” I need to tell the full story. With happy letters, I can get fans. But I don’t need fans, I need supporters, prayer warriors, and accountability partners.
  • I should model sacrifice. Sacrifice and inconvenience seem to be a challenge for many (Western Evangelical) Christians today. Telling people that they just need to “suck it up” probably won’t work. But if I make it clear that I can find contentment in all circumstances, and the peace that passes all understanding, perhaps it will rub off.
  • Avoid catastrophizing. Some mission organizations create financial or other disaster scenarios as a way to drive support. But “God is in his Heaven— All’s right with the world.” Having to change plans, adjusting to reality is not a catastrophy.

What About Physical Anthropology?

So I have started teaching Cultural Anthropology again. In my intro to the class, I like to start with Anthropology as a general term to describe “The Study of Man.” And then I like to add my little note that in Old English, “Wer” meant adult male, “Wif” meant adult female and “Man” or “Mann” meant human or homo sapien, so Anthropology is not a sexist term. In fact the Greek term “Anthropos,” although male in ‘gender’ (a linguistic term) can be referring to men, or to women, or to people in general. However, we don’t really speak Old English today, and the feeling today is that Man is a term for adult males… so Anthropology is the study of human beings.

Wow… Did I go off on a tangent or what?

Anthropology is used theologically and scientifically. Theologically, the sub-field of the study of humans within Systematic Theology is called Anthropology. This is a very worthwhile thing for Christians to have studied. A lot of silly things floating around churches today, in part, because of pop theology and pop (sub-) culture influences.

Scientifically, the term “Anthropology” is broadly used. <Being more careful, I just deleted a new tangent where I point out that a lot of what is called “Science” does not actually use the scientific method, but rather a more logico-historical method (which is not that far from Theology, strangely). It doesn’t really matter… or does it?> Classically, Anthropology on the Scientific side of things is broken up into four main sub-fields. They are:

  • Physical Anthropology. The study of the progress or evolution of mankind.
  • Archaeology. The study of ancient mankind, especially through the artifacts left behind.
  • Linguistics. The study of how mankind has, and does, communicate.
  • Cultural Anthropology. The study of living (usually) cultures.

I like to tell my classes that Archaeology is useful for Christian ministers— especially, but not strictly limited to, Biblical Archaeology. I tell my students that Linguistics is valuable for Christian ministers, and especially missionaries, for reasons that I HOPE don’t need to be repeated here. And then Cultural Anthropology is important for all Christian ministers, and I spend the whole semester trying to drive that point home.

However, I commonly note that Physical Anthropology is an area of study that has little bearing on Christian ministers. This is especially true of Evangelical ministers, since I teach at an Evangelical school. Part of this is because Physical Anthropology tends to be structured through the framework of Neo-Darwinism. Most Evangelicals do not believe in Neo-Darwinism, although many may accept a more flexible Intelligent Design understanding such as Theological Evolution.

But I got thinking more about this. I have read a couple of books on popularized physical anthropology (one by Stephen Jay Gould, and another by Jared Diamond) and found them very interesting. Regardless of whether I accept all of their opinions, to say nothing of their underlying framework, I feel that there are some things that that are good for Christians to know.

<Note: If the following stuff makes you think that I have only an undereducated, surface-level knowledge of Physical Anthropology, you are correct. I am noting this more to remind myself that studies outside of one’s area of expertise is important.>

  1. We are made of this world and for this world. We are made of the stuff of this world and fit into the categories that exist for the things in this world. We fit into it genetically and structurally, and fit into the ecological systems of this world. We are not aliens. This world is actually our home. We were created here to be here.
  2. We are like other animals and yet distinct from other animals. Physically, we are animals. We are not only part of this world, but we fit into certain categories of things in this world. We are genetically programmed and reproduce as animals, and made of the same stuff as animals. Some like to point out that we share a high percentange of DNA with chimpanzees (in the high 90s), and yet there are key genetic differences. Those differences are shared by humans at an even higher percent. As humans we share commonality of DNA over 99%. There is no genetic overlap of Gaussian curves— we are physically animals, and yet unique.
  3. We are all one people. There have been theories of pre-Adamic races, or cursed races in Christian circles. There have been attempts at so-called “Race Science.” However, genetic testing, as well as physical comparisons point us toward a common ancestor. Also unlike comparison with other animals, racial or ethnic categories around the world vary only slightly from others around the world. The distribution of traits and alleles most definitely overlap, to the point that it is difficult to be certain of one’s racial or ethnic heritage simply by looking at one’s physical looks or genes. These differences are mostly, quite literally, “skin deep.”
  4. There are no superior or inferior groups. While early on in Physical Anthropology and Race Science, there were attempts to discover what group was the “most evolved.” No shock, the anthropologists came in with a firm bias that their own race was at the top. We seem to be all different, but far more in common than different. Some groups may be ahead technologically (in a specific point of time) but one cannot really line this up clearly with intelligence, moral superiority, or anything else. Stubbornly, we can’t seem to break ourselves away from the fact that we are diverse and yet united. We are equal but different.

I suppose this is enough. One could argue that this doesn’t help since these are pretty consistent with good Theological Anthropology. My answer would be Yes. However, human nature always seems to push us towards creating Us versus Them groupings, and this leads towards deciding that the “We” are superior or more worthy (of something or other) than the “They.” It just seems as if Christians tend pick an choose what the Bible says (often embracing metaphors like “chosen race” or “holy priesthood”) to undermine or common humanity. Others sometimes embrace a semi-Platonic viewpoint that takes humanity out of its place in the physical world, while others relatedly, preach a rather anti-ecological message of “This world is not my home, I’m a just a passin’ through.” There may be ways in which these views have truth, but they don’t express the full Biblical or Theological Truth.

Maybe we need a bit of a reminder from Physical Anthropologists, even if we don’t buy into the total story they may give. We should not stop there. We need to go back to our Theology to understand what it means that we have “Openness to the World,” that we exist in terms of the “Image Dei,” and that we live in tension between our good creation, our state of fallenness, and our potential for restoration.

Potential Authoritarian

As most of you have probably noticed, in the last few years there has been an increase of popularity of demagogues. Demagogues are individuals who tend to “speak the language” of the masses with a level of charisma, and do so expressing themes that often emphasize empowerment and national identity, all the while commonly stoking the fires of ethnic, or religious hate. People who appreciate the message of these demagogues often see them as heroes… creating or restoring greatness to their own in-group. Those that do not respond to this message often see these demagogues as “neo-Fascist.”

Perhaps this uptick in demagoguery is the reason that so many Christians have recently expressed interest in Dietrich Bonhoeffer. His stance against the Fascist regime of his country is commonly seen as as inspirational today. Many have, often incorrectly, seen Bonhoeffer as a spiritual father of religio-political groups today.

But more interesting was that the predominant church in his country supported the Fascists, and even the “Confessing Church” of Bonhoeffer was far from a group actively opposing the government. It got me thinking to myself if there are themes in our institutional church that makes Authoritarianism (even if not full-out Fascism) especially appealing.

I am not asking “Are Christians Fascist.” There are a couple of reasons. For one, the term Fascist is way too broad. Umberto Eco, who grew up in Fascist Italy, noted that it is such a broad and varied ideology (or family of ideologies) that it is hard to pin down. Some of the common threads he noted were: Nationalism, Traditionalism (“cult of Tradition”), Life as Permanent Warfare, and Ethnocentrism (racism/bigotry). Theodor Adorno did research decades ago in his book, “The Authoritarian Personality.” His “F-Scale” (F for a tendency to open to be open to authoritarian or fascist thinking) listed a few things, some or which overlapped with Eco.

  • Conventialism/Conformism. Strong tendency to embrace cultural or societal norms.

  • Authoritarian Submission. The importance of submitting to one’s in-group leaders.

  • Authoritarian Aggression. Failure to conform to societal norms or submit to one’s leaders should be dealt with aggressively.

  • Anti-intraception.  Dislike of “wimpy,” feelings-oriented, subjective thinking. Prefer literal black-white thinking.

  • Stereotypy. Applying black and white categories to people. People are defined by their group rather than by their individuality or their humanity.

  • Power and Toughness. Equality in power is pure fiction… Inbalance of power is innate in society, so it is best if WE have the power and THEY do not.

  • Destructiveness and cynicism.  Generalized hostility to and vilification of humanity. Focus on the Fallenness of Man rather than Man created in God’s image.

  • Projectivity.  “The projection outwards of unconscious emotional impulses.”  Others are narrow-minded racist selfish bastards, so I need to be the same (to protect what is mine and that of our group).

  • Obsession with sex lives of others

Adorno’s work is interesting, but let’s use Eco’s shorter list to ask the question why MIGHT Christians (and perhaps other religious people) be likely to embrace authoritarianism.  I will deal with them in a different order.

  1.  Traditionalism (Cult of Tradition). Christianity often likes to look backwards for answers. Part of this is natural to religious thinking, where there is an understanding that one’s religion expresses a greater truth, a greater reality, that was revealed at some point in the past. Beyond that, so many denominations of Christianity like to make the argument that THEY express the “real” first century church. This makes no sense— we need to embrace our role as the 21st century church, not 1st century. But this is common even among Christian groups that tend to eschew (at least in theory) traditionalism.
  2. Life as Permanent Warfare. The Bible uses a lot of metaphors. One of the classes of metaphors are war-related. There does seem to be a bit of fascination with war metaphors among many Christian groups. Evangelical groups especially like to throw out the war motifs for the Christian experience. As a missionary, I see this even more where “spiritual warfare” is not simply expressed as a metaphor, but is often expressed as the (only) reality of our work— often ignoring many other metaphors of Christian living in the Bible. Stephen Larsen (author of “The Shaman’s Doorway”) has posited that monotheistic religions are more prone to ethical dualism (good versus evil) than polytheistic religions. I suppose that could be true, but I am not sure that leads necessarily to a war picture of life.
  3. Ethnocentrism (racism and bigotry). It seems pretty reasonable to think that Christians would be LESS prone to ethnocentrism than other groups. Genesis 1-3 (and much of the rest of the Bible) puts us all as equal before God. Yet we certainly find many Christians quite prone to the strangest of bigotries. (I still try to rap my head around American Christians who are the children of immigrants who are bigoted against immigrants.) Adorno may have a suggestion in this area. He noted that people who are “conservative” in their beliefs (whether politically, religiously, or ideologically) tended to be, on average more prone to bigotry than those more on the liberal end of the spectrum. HOWEVER, among the more conservative, there was a strong divide between those who “converted” to their conservative views, and those who had their views essentially inherited from their parents. Those who were converts tended to be much less bigoted than those who were brought up culturally in their beliefs. This may suggest that culturally embedded Christianity is more prone to bigotry than found in “young church” settings.
  4. Nationalism. I don’t see nationalism is an inherently Christian problem. It is, however, a problem through out the world of “state religion.” When a religion becomes a pawn of the state, and justifies the activities of the state, the religion tends to lose its prophetic role. Religion becomes the court prophet supporting the state by echoing back the will of the state.

So are Christians more prone to being pro-Authoritarian or “Potential Facist.” Not necessarily. Of course some groups, like the Shepherding Movement, openly promote authoritarian structures, as do many denominations— young and ancient alike. If, however, one looks at Eco’s list, I think Christians are prone to be attracted to Traditionalism and a Warfare view of life. I also think that places where Christianity has become deeply embedded into the culture where it has a lot of civil power and a lot of members who “inherited their faith” there is a higher tendency to nationalism and ethnocentrism. 

We saw those situations in Germany, Italy, and Spain in the early 20th century. It is possible we will see more of this again.

By the way, Tom Nicholas has an interesting little Youtube on “Potential Fascism.” You can watch it, Clicking Here

Counterproposal Regarding Truth

I saw this picture on LinkedIn. I get the logic. I even think one could put together a few Biblical verses to support the saying.

Nevertheless, I think I can come up with a statement that is better.

Truth Sounds Like Hate to Those Who Have Never Heard Truth From One Who Knows How to Express Truth in a Manner That is Both Respectful and Culturally Resonant.

I realize this is not as… Snappy… as the one in the picture, but this version is More True, and that is a good thing.