Mindfulness on the Planet of Hats

Image result for bowler hats

Imagine you were a director of a low-budget sci-fi TV show (think first series Star Trek or early years of Doctor Who). Your intrepid band of travellers arrive on a strange planet. But how do you make it certain that people will understand that the planet is, indeed, strange? “Worldbuilding” is difficult for writers, but expensive for directors. So often a place on earth is chosen as representative of that planet. But most of the earth is not all that strange. So one might try putting actors in rubber suits… but rubber suits are often not very convincing. Additionally, it is hard to effectively emote when the face is obscured. (Sadly, aliens need to look a lot like humans in the face area for us to connect emotionally to them.) Consider when William Shatner teleports onto a world that looks a lot like the Mojave Desert. We need him to meet an alien. The choice was to make the alien bipedal with bilateral symmetry, so a human can readily serve as the actor. So to make it clear that the Captain is not in the Mojave Desert, they put a lizard mask on the other actor. That worked well enough… but just not that convincing.  The lizard alien could express menace through the lizard mask but could not really emote anything beyond that. So how does one show emotion and still make the alienness of the world convincing? Make the aliens look basically like humans but slap a weird alien hat on them!

That is okay for cheesy sci-fi… but the “world of hats” trope can be thought of as related to the first level of acculturation. When one enters a new culture, one tends to see the most obvious characteristics— the things that make the people or the culture seem “weird.” That is understandable as a tourist, but it is also lazy. We often picture a people by simple, and often incorrect, stereotypes. Picturing a Redneck? Give him a baseball cap… or maybe a ‘took’ if he is a redneck from the Great White North. Old-school Brit? Derby or Bowler hat. Rugged outdoorsman? Cowboy hat. Rich dude? Maybe an Arab headscarf, or a homberg, or gold watch. Druggie? Maybe dreadlocks. It is symbolic shorthand.

Symbolic shorthand is lazy as a director, but it can be quite insulting in missions. People have the tendency of being rather stubbornly unique. Cultures are never totally uniform.  And stereotypes are not only rather broadbrush… but often dead wrong. I remember a politician going to the state of Iowa (in the US) and decided to greet the farmers (“We got any farmers out here?!!!”) only to discover that despite Iowa being known as a big farming state, only 3% of the population are actually farmers. The stereotype was not only incomplete, it actually was 97% incorrect.

If a missionary goes to a “strange place” (pick the strange place of your choice). What if he went there with a “world of hats” mentality assuming that his surface level understanding of that culture defines its society? And what if he discovers that like that politician in Iowa he was 97% wrong? Do you think that might lead to misunderstandings and failures?  Sure.

When entering a new culture, one needs to have mindfulness. Mindfulness is being aware of one’s environment, one’s own reactions/feelings, thoughts, and behaviors. One needs to set aside one’s own culture that may tend to pidgeonhole this new culture into a world of hats trope. Osoba Otaigbe notes that mindfulness is a key aspect of cultural intelligence. We need to be able to step out of our culture (which is driven by the power of habit) to see the unity and diversity of a new culture.

I recall going to Montego Bay, Jamaica a few decades ago and being overwhelmed. Getting of the USS McCandless (my ship) we were deluged with locals with dreadlocks trying to sell us ganja (marijuana), or set us up with prostitutes. Going into the town, I felt like I was surrounded by people constantly “on the make.” But I was wrong. I was focusing on the people who were accosting me. But most people there were not accosting me. They were just living their lives in their own ways. I will be honest with you. After about an hour or so of wandering around Montego Bay in a state of culture shock… I and my friends grabbed a taxi to escape to a foreign-friendly beach resort.

Looking back, I am a bit sad I did that. I picked up a belief of “All Jamaicans are…” when that simply was not true. It just felt like it as I reacted to those I would culturally driven to  struggle to relate to.

Here in the Philippines, I have met Americans like that. “Oh, all Filipinos are…” and then they would add various descriptors. Almost always the descriptors are negative and mostly not true. It just feels like it is true as the meet a few individuals who were difficult and they reacted to them. In fact, their reaction could often reinforce the stereotype a spiralling of stereotypes and misunderstandings build.

I am using “world of hats” somewhat incorrectly. You can “Google” it if you want to see it as it is meant in terms of storytelling. But the term is sadly quite appropriate in our tendency to stereotype and create an oversimplified picture of a very diverse and nuanced culture or people group. A missionary cannot be effective in a culture that he sees in terms of “world of hats.”

Or How About Christian AND Pagan?

<Background:  A friend of mine was visiting people in the neighborhood here in Baguio. He met a man who is part of a religious group here in the Philippines known as Iglesia ni Cristo (INC). This group was founded over here. Theologically, it is basically Arian. Soteriologically, it is Particularist (meaning salvation is mediated through their organization on only through their organization). Not talking about INC today. The man gave my friend a magazine from their group. It had a bit of that “Friendly-Confrontative” thing going as Jehovah’s Witness magazine-style materials.>

The title of the main article on the magazine listed above was “Lent:  Christian or Pagan.” Of course, one can call almost everything from the Christian church as pagan. Very little trappings of institutional Christianity are in the primitive church. In fact, there are no real holidays recorded. One might argue that there are some holidays that may be implied from the Bible. These are:

  • Jewish holidays. Although they are not directly indicated in the NT text, the predominance of the Jewish believers in the early church, and the fact that the church was recognized as being founded on a Jewish holiday probably meant that many Christians celebrated these holidays regardless of whether the assembly as a whole did.  (Some Christians today are starting to practice the Jewish holidays as the only legitimate Christian holidays. Although this seems flawed, if one accepts an either/or attitude about holidays, one can see where it comes from.)
  • Birth of Christ. Although we don’t really know whether the early church celebrated “Christmas” we know that two of the four gospels shared considerable details about the Birth of Christ, and both emphasize the celebratory nature of this event. Based on this, it is hard to see how Christmas cannot be seen as deeply rooted in Christianity— regardless of pagan influences.
  • Resurrection of Christ. The early church celebrated weekly the Lord’s Day– the resurrection of Christ. Did they practice the celebration yearly? I don’t know, but pilgrimages to the open tomb went way back in church history so clearly celebration on some level wasn’t limited to a weekly event.
  • Additional period celebrations included Eucharist and Love Feast, although these were weekly, not yearly.
  • Pentecost. It is certainly a Jewish holiday, but did the church recognize it as a Christian holiday in the primitive church? Again, the emphasis on it in Acts 2 suggests that the church recognized its importance. Tertullian (160-220) recognized Pentecost as a Christian holiday.

Some like to quote Tertullian (chapter 2 in “To the Martyrs”) to point out the strong divide between pagan and Christian in terms of holiday.

You have no occasion to look on strange gods, you do not run against their images; you have no part in heathen holidays, even by mere bodily mingling in them; you are not annoyed by the foul fumes of idolatrous solemnities; you are not pained by the noise of the public shows, nor by the atrocity or madness or immodesty of their celebrants; your eyes do not fall on stews and brothels; you are free from causes of offense, from temptations, from unholy reminiscences; you are free now from persecution too.

Those that bring up this passage miss the point, in one reads the broader context. Tertullian is providing comfort to those Christians who are in prison. Tertullian is letting them know that prison isn’t so bad for a Christian. He later compares prison for a Christian to desert for a prophet— a place of asceticism to grow in faith. As such, Tertullian isn’t saying that prison is an inherent good, but that prison does have some advantages. Likewise, it does as if he is saying that pagan celebrations are bad in and of themselves, but are bad in so much as sinful activities are done during them.

Tertullian, in  “On Idolatry, Chapter XIV” gives further warning about Christian involvement in pagan hoidays. The wording is again a bit open to interpretation. It seems to say that we are to have positive relationships with pagans, not negative. It seems to be assumed that pagan holidays would involve a lot of sinful behavior. Reading a part of this passage you see a bit of the nuance that sounds a bit like Chapter 5 of the Epistle to Diognetus,

“To live with heathens is lawful, to die with them is not. Let us live with all; let us be glad with them, out of community of nature, not of superstition. We are peers in soul, not in discipline; fellow-possessors of the world, not of error. But if we have no right of communion in matters of this kind with strangers, how far more wicked to celebrate them among brethren!”

This is a bit open to interpretation, but it is pretty clear that interaction between Christians and Pagans are to be positive and friendly, but we are not to take in pagan beliefs or sinful behaviors into the church. Because Saturnalia is brought up specifically (a celebration of considerable lewdness commonly), some writers have tried to say that Christmas cannot be celebrated. However, there seems to be little connection between Christmas as Saturnalia behaviorally, belief-wise, and even chronologically. It seems to be a made up controversy.

But one might take it further. What if Saturnalia WAS brought into the church. Suppose it was modified when it came into the church. I am making up something just for the point of example. The modifications might include:

  • Changing the name. Saturnalia is tied to the Roman god Saturn. So it could have a new name. Suppose the church called it. Winterfast (not Winterfest).
  • Changing the meaning.  Unlike the original meaning, Winterfast can represent a time of self-denial. In the Northern Hemisphere, at least, this time of year is a time of death and little sunlight and warmth. (I hope it is clear that the Winter Solstice is not a pagan event or a Christian event. It is a solar event.)
  • Changing the behavior. Saturnalia was a time of feasting, so maybe Winterfast would be one of fasting.
  • Creating new symbols.  Winterfast could create whole new symbols that express the event in a meaningful way to the celebrants.
  • Redefining old symbols. Use some symbols that are part of Saturnalia but given them entirely new contexts and meanings.

So in this case, if Saturnalia came into the church with a new name, new meaning, new behaviors, new symbols, and redefined symbols, to what extent is it still Saturnalia. Maybe it is something new. And if it is on a different day, finding a connection between the two  has become silly and argumentative.

We can take the meandering above to consider three views of holidays:

  • Full incorporation of Pagan holidays into the church. This probably doesn’t really exist per se. Coming into the church the meaning, practice, and symbols have pretty much always changed considerably. Halloween looks a lot like this one… although the history of Halloween (All Hallow’s Eve) is much more complex than some would suggest.
  • Christian holidays with absolutely no pagan roots. This is probably an impossibility as well. The Lord’s Day celebration (a weekly celebration) might have no pagan roots. Perhaps the only yearly holiday that the early church practiced without pagan roots was Pentecost. And even Pentecost (Feast of Weeks) is a festival tied to the wheat harvest. Since harvest festivals are very much pagan in origin, it almost certainly fell in line with other pagan harvest festivals at one time or another. So perhaps this doesn’t count either.
  • A third option is to do what was done above with “Winterfast.” Take a celebration, pagan or otherwise, and change it in so many ways that it has no real similarity to its “pagan origins.” Based on articles scattered all over the Web, it is pretty clear that this won’t satisfy some people.
  • Below is a fourth option. This option is from Pope Gregory the Great as instructions for what has been called the Gregorian Mission to Great Britain:

“The heathen temples of these people need not be destroyed, only the idols which are to be found in them… If the temples are well built, it s a good idea to detach them from the service of the devil, and to adapt them for the worship of the true God… And since the people are accustomed, when they assemble for sacrifice, to kill many oxen in sacrifice to the devils, it seems reasonable to appoint a festival for the people by way of exchange. The people must learn to slay their cattle not in honour of the devil, but in honour of God and for their own food; when they have eaten and are full, then they must render thanks to the giver of all good things. If we allow them these outward joys, they are more likely to find their way to the true inner joy… It is doubtless impossible to cut off all abuses at once from rough hearts, just as the man who sets out to climb a high mountain does not advance by leaps and bounds, but goes upward step by step and pace by pace.”

Letter by Pope Gregory (18 July 601) to Mellitus. (A History of Christian Missions by Stephen Neill, London: Penguin Books, 1990), pg 58

This is classic accommodation. Accepts the celebration as something that is not bad. But the meanings are to be changed so that it is directed to God rather than somewhere else— and that which is sinful is removed or gradually cut off. One might argue that this is quite in line even with what Tertullian was talking about– living in the world but not of it.

So let’s bring back that original question. Is Lent Christian or Pagan? The INC is also against Christmas because they see it as pagan. (Curiously, I have seen them have an “End of the Year” celebration— something with more pagan and less Christian basis than Christmas. However, this issue has usually be used to try to demonstrate denominational superiority rather than embrace virtue.)  Truth is, that entirely pagan and entirely Christian are not really options. If the meanings and symbols of a celebration are Christian, calling it Pagan makes no sense. And since it is pretty much impossible to find a celebration that Christians celebrate (or even could celebrate) that doesn’t line up in some manner or other with pagan celebrations at some point in history, totally Christian is not really an option.

If one does not want to celebrate anything (some Christian groups do sort of go this route) that is fine. Otherwise, the realistic choice is

Christian AND Pagan

I don’t celebrate Lent myself, because I am not from that tradition. However, I can see it as a positive part of the liturgical calendar (as long as the revelries of Fat Tuesday don’t spoil it).

I feel that it is time to get past the silliness that hits us every year— especially about Christmas. The connections between Christmas and pagan feasts are actually much weaker than some people suggest. But of course the connections are there. That is not a bad thing. The same can be said of Easter, Lent, Thanksgiving (if one chooses to look at it as a Christian holiday), Epiphany, or pretty much any other day you would choose. How can we redeem cultural symbols and days?

 

 

Translation, Localization, and Pokemon

I have two daughters who are into anime. One of them is especially interested in the process of bringing animated products from Japan to the US. She can talk at length about voice actors, translation companies, and more. While talking to her (mostly about Pokemon on this occasion) she began talking about the process of translation. She noted that really, translation companies that do this, do it in two primary steps. These are

  • Translation (in the classic sense of translating meaning from one language to another)
  • Localization (in the sense of translating cultural aspects)

I am no expert on translation. My language skills (in most any language is pretty meager). The most I have done is translate a missions journal article from Afrikaans to English. To do it, I (1) utilized Google Translate, then (2) went to online dictionaries for problem spots, then (3) looked up phrases on the Internet where the normal translation seemed dubious, then (4) used the work of a bilingual theologian who had translated the conceptual outline of the article into English previously for feedback, and finally (5) made logical guesses in a couple of places where none of these other steps helped. The end result was okay but still somewhat rough.

REAL translators like to speak of the importance of dynamic equivalence. I can hardly argue with that. Meaning is the most importance. I recall proponents of the ESV (English Standard Version) touting its more “literal” process of translation. That is hardly something to be proud of. The goal is to translate meaning, not words, and as Ricoeur notes, meaning is in sentences, not words, anyway.  <If you want to read a parody of a wooden literal translation of a work with no localization done, please read “The Pooh Perplex” by Frederick Crews. Actually read the second to the last chapter falsely attributed to a Karl Anschauung.  Again, it is a parody, but the humor points to problems that happen on a smaller-scale in real life situations.>

But with the translation of Japanese animation, the good translation services do localization. This is an attempt to subtitle or to dub so that the end result sounds or reads as if it could have been locally produced in the language and culture of the viewer.

Localization is tough and some do a good job of it, some do a poor job, and some really don’t try. Many foreign movies, such as Chinese movies that we see here in the Philippines, are subtitled using a voice-to-text translation program. Some of these are laughably bad. Anime can have the same trouble… but many do spend the extra money to create a well-localized product.  But even then, there are failures.

Here are a few examples of good and bad localization:

1.  In Pokemon, in the early years, the translators decided that they needed to have American sounding names for the key players. The main character was given the English-friendly name “Ash.” Nothing wrong with that in and of itself. However, The name of the character in Japanese is three syllables long (“Satoshi”). Trading a three syllable name with a one syllable name causes problems in synching the voice actors to the mouth movements of the animated characters. This is not impossible to overcome, but if you have watched anime where there was no real attempt to align or synch up the English voice actor with the mouth movements, you probably noticed a considerable loss of verisimilitude (losing seeming “realness” or creating obstacles to suspension of disbelief). Scripts had to be written carefully to minimize the syllable problem.

2.  A better example or localization is in the naming of some

Image result for flareon
Flareon, Volteon, Vaporeon

of the actual pokemon. One of them was a lizardlike creature that is fire-type. They chose for English language groups the name “Charzard.” It is not TOO ‘on the nose.’ It sounds like a creature name… and it can most likely be trademarked (unlike ‘lizard-like fire-type pokemon’). A weird example are the evolutions of Eevee. The Japanese names of three of the evolutions transliterate as “Booster” (fire-type), Thunders (electric-type), and Showers (water-type). These don’t need to be translated at all. However, really they do. These names to the Japanese audience are weirdly cool and foreign. To an English language audience, the names are very mundane. So they were localized by giving names that sound cool, a bit foreign, and still link to the type of pokemon. The names chosen are Flareon (fire-type), Jolteon (electric-type), and Vaporeon (water-type).

3.  Localizing foods can be tricky. In one episode of Pokemon, Brock was eating an “onigiri.” The translators decided that American kids are unlikely to know what onigiri is. Since they are starch-based treats with a tasty filling, the “localized” result was “jelly-filled donuts.” The problem is that the animation did not look like donuts at all. They looked like onigiri. Frankly, they did not need to do that at all. They probably could have just said “rice ball.” Even though some American kids may not totally connect with it, they would understand what was being discussed without a loss of verisimilitude (there is that weird word again). Pokemon is not the worst example. One character in Ace Attorney really liked eating ramen. The translators decided to change it to “hamburgers.” This did not make any sense at all, clashing with the visuals; and if “ramen” was thought to be too exotic, they could have just said “noodles.”

Localization is not just about making a message comfortable to the local viewer or reader. In fact, in translating the Bible, it is sometimes good for the reader to know that the passage was written for someone else in a different context. Far too many try to read, for example, Jeremiah 29:11 as if God was making that promise to them rather than to the grandchildren or great grandchildren of the original audience in the Middle East over two and a half millenia ago. Sometimes it is good for the foreigness to shine through. But it shouldn’t happen where it leads to confusion.

Take the English word “Sorry.” In the US, if I say “Sorry,” I commonly would be meaning “Hey, it makes me at least wee bit sad that your situation is not that great, although I had absolutely nothing to do with how you got into that situation.” If I go to another country and say “Sorry,” there is a pretty good chance that it will be understood in that local context as “Please forgive me for the harm I have done to you.” Localization is really needed. So if I go to India, how should I say things if a friend is not doing well? Perhaps I would say, “I am sad that you aren’t doing so well.” Or maybe not. Maybe I need to talk to someone locally and find out the most appropriate response would be. That’s localization.

So what is the result of all of this. Not much. Good translation is challenging, and should drive us to humility more than argument. Even Nintendo gets it wrong sometimes.

Fun With Venn Diagrams and Context

I do like Venn Diagrams— as well as quadrants and pretty much any other diagram that presents data or sets in a way that gives clarity.

Jackson Wu had one I really liked in his article, “Why has the Church Lost “Face”? Examining Our Blindspot About Honor and Shame.” 

It is an interesting article… You can Click HERE.

Here is the Venn Diagram he used:

Jackson Wu Venn Diagram

The image blackened region 2 because that was the region he was focusing on. Instead of modifying it, I have it exactly as it was in the article. Below are the descriptions. I used some of Wu’s words, and some of my own.

Area 1 is where biblical truth overlaps with one’s theology but not the cultural context. Many of the canned evangelistic presentations fit into this area (like the Romans Road or Four Spiritual Laws). They may be Biblical Enough, and represent fairly well a (very simplified) soteriology. However, in many cultures, including fear or shame focused cultures, or cultures where hell lacks a genuine role as a motivator, the presentations really don’t hit the mark.

Area 2 is where biblical truth overlaps with the cultural context without being addressed in one’s theology. Wu mentions Hiebert’s “excluded middle.” One could add concerns about demons.

Area 3 is where one’s theology and the cultural context overlap with biblical truth, as in a high view of the family or social responsibility.

Area 4 is where elements in a theology overlap with a cultural context but not with biblical truth. Lots of these. Americanism or Prosperity Doctrine are pretty obvious. It could be argued that Gnosticism and Arianism were theologies built quite comfortably with the cultures they were in… but not with the Bible.

Area 5 is where elements in a theology overlap with neither biblical truth nor a cultural context. Wu notes Western individualism  taken to a collectivistic culture. When a missionary in Area 4 goes to an incompatible culture without contextualizing.

Area 6 is where cultural beliefs or values are inconsistent both with biblical truth and a particular theology. All cultures diverge from the Bible in some ways. So when there is no theology that connects with that aspect, one is in this area. For William Carey, he saw widow-burning and refusal to educate women as Bengla cultural behaviors that were both unbiblical and not theologically justifiable.

Virtual Reality Baptism (VRB)

My daughter showed me a thing that has been making the rounds on various parts of the web. It was a baptism being done in “virtual reality.” The baptism wasn’t done in the real world utilizing real water and real physical bodies. Rather it was being done with “avatars” in a virtual/digital environment. I hadn’t heard of such a thing before… but with a bit of reflection, it seems surprising that I hadn’t thought of the possibility. If you want to see an example, you can simply go to the web browser of your choice and type in “VR baptism.”

Image result for vr baptism

It is an interesting idea in missions. I would like to make a bit of a list of what I think are the good (or potential good) as well as the not so good (or potentially bad) things from my perspective. <My perspective is Baptist. As a Baptist I consider baptism to be symbolic rather than “sacramental.” In other words it is a ritual that expresses meaning rather than being a bestower of special blessings or grace. As such, the water does not need to be specially blessed (nor do wine or bread for Eucharist/Communion). Additionally, Baptists see baptism for believers only. Also as a Baptist, we believe baptism should be by immersion in water… vice sprinking, or pouring. However, I am not as legalistic about this one as many Baptists. Immersion is more historically correct and links better as symbol with the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. However, since it is a symbol only, the exact formula is not critical. And since pouring, for example, does fit fairly well with baptism as symbolizing (in part) ritual purification, and no better or worse than immersion as symbolizing spiritual unity with the church, I don’t fuss with other traditions about that one.> Ultimately, I am not going to argue whether water has to be real (the oxidized form of hydrogen) or whether it can be virtual. Symbolically, it doesn’t matter, only sacramentally or denominationally. That is not my concern.

So here we go.

Good.  VR baptism (VRB) does well in making baptism public. One idea of baptism, both at the beginning and in the present, is that baptism is a public presentation of one’s faith. In many places, baptism is done in a baptistry with only a few friends, relatives and church members present. In some parts of the world where religious conversion is discouraged or outlawed (remarkable thought, huh?) baptisms are often done very secretly… perhaps in a hotel bathroom for example. VRB arguably is more in line with one of the main purposes of baptism.       But…

Not so Good.  VRB actually hides identity through the use of avatars. As such, it perhaps really isn’t a public display of faith at all. In fact, it is possible to fake it… for basic trollery.    But…

Good.  For those in countries where convesion is illegal, VRB could potentially allow a person to express faith in Christ in a public (virtual) setting that is outside of the reach of religious police.  But…

Not so Good.  VRB may be expressing faith within a virtual environment, but not really a local congregation (generally). As such, one could argue that the ritual is not simply virtual, but fictional.  But…

Good.  For some people, cyberchurch is a reality. While there may be serious questions as to whether  this “New Thing” is a “Good Thing,” it certainly is a “Thing.” For some, their virtual community is more real to them than their brick and mortar world.  But…

Not so Good.  Rituals have an impact in part due to their visceral nature. The taste and texture of the bread and wine are part of the spiritual connection. The water on the skin is part of that experience. Especially for sensates (those who experience the transcendent through impact of the various senses), there is something lost in VRB.  But…

Good.  For some people, real world baptism is not a very viable option, due to disability, health, or locale. As such, VRB may be appropriate.  But…

Not so Good.  While it may be a door to religious experience for some people, it can be a wall for others— drawing them further into “cyberspace” and out of real-world socialization. While it may sound contrary to the thoughts of some, the church should draw one into the world not away.

For me, a few things seem like worthy of thinking about when it comes to VRB.

1.  VRB can actually do baptism better if it allows testimony to be given to the faith experience of the one being baptized. Probably the best baptism I witnessed was one in a non-Baptist church I attended in Taiwan. In that a woman joined the church with a baptism ceremony. She gave a maybe 15 minute testimony of her conversion to Christianity. It was actually quite moving. (Thankfully, it was translated for those of us suffering from language barrier). With VRB a picture of the actual person, and a written or spoken testimony can be associated with the ceremony on screen or with a clickable link. The baptism can also be kept in a file that can be viewed whenever people choose, rather than ONLY at a single point in time and space.  (Accommodations can be made for those who truly need to maintain some anonymity.)

2.  There needs to be a good vetting and catechetical process. While we can ‘t avoid posers completely, there should be a process to minimize this. And there should be a process of training to ensure the person understands what they are doing as well as the faith that they claim to now be an adherent to. <Unfortunately, real-world baptisms often fail greatly in this area as well.>

3.  The avatars allowed should be carefully thought out. Should one be able to be baptized using “Spiderpig” or “Family Guy” as his avatar? I don’t really think so, but avatars do have symbolic value to represent a person, so some flexibility should be allowed.

4.  Some thought shoud be given as to who can be baptized— beyond issues of faith and identity. Should VRB only be done for those seeking to be active members of a cyberchurch? Should all be allowed to be baptized? This should be thoughtfully worked out beforehand.

Of course, expect many real-world churches not to accept VRB. I am from a Baptist church and Baptist churches do not accept the baptism of infants since we see baptism as expressing faith of the one being baptized, not the faith of the parents. Many Baptists don’t accept believer’s baptism of transferees who were baptized utilizing a different ritual. (Goodness, there are some groups that won’t accept baptism if it did not use their preferred formula “In Jesus Name…” or “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit…”). As such, VRB is likely to be valuable personally not corporately… except in cyberchurches or other such online communities.

 

 

 

Seven Universal Moral Rules

Morality rule

There is a very interesting article in the area of cultural anthropology that considered whether there is a set of moral standards that are supracultural. Afterall, it is rather important whether morality is simply a human/cultural construct or whether it is built into us. Some have even made the argument that a universal morality in mankind points towards a single moral creator. While I think that may be a stretch, morality has been hit quite hard by relativism. If, however, one can say that some things are universal, or at least near universal, this could place severe boundaries on relativism.

The article is

An Oxford researcher says there are seven moral rules that unite humanity

by Jenny Anderson, on the work of Oliver Scott Curry, an anthropology lecturer at the University of Oxford. (You can click on the title to read the article.)

The seven “universal rules” are:

  1. Help your family
  2. Help your group
  3. Return favors
  4. Be brave
  5. Defer to superiors
  6. Divide resources fairly
  7. Respect others’ property

Nearly all cultures promote these seven, even if there are some variations on what these mean.

This should hardly be surprising.  If one considers the virtues we know as the Fruit of the Spirit, the phrase at the end, “against such things there are no laws,” (see Galatians 5:22-23) points out there there are virtues that are fairly universal. I know that when I talk about other religions in my Interreligious Dialogue class, there is commonly one or two who appear to be surprised that Christian virtues/morals are shared for the most part with other religions.

But there should not be this surprise. For the most part, Christianity is not a denial of human understanding of virtues. Rather, it uniquely addresses the dreadful failure humans have in living up to not only God’s standards, but our own as well.

That last paragraph is pretty important, I think. It suggests that if we are to speak to those of other faiths, cultures, and ideologies, the appropriate strategy  is NOT to focus on differences. On the other hand, focusing only on the commonalities is not very useful either, since it dishonors our uniqueness. Rather, the similariaties can be used as a bridge for dialogue that addresses both similarities and differences. The seven common moral rules may be a good start.

Sometime I hope to expand this idea. But this is a good start.

Loving Thy Neighbor in a Different Culture

Read two things recently regarding Christian ministry in Buddhist countries. One was an interview one of my students had with a devout Buddhist from his own country. This person was fairly familiar with basic Christian doctrines and many of the differences between Christianity and Buddhism. When my student asked her about what she thought about Christianity, she said that she thought TWO things.

She said the first thing was positive. She noted that Christians she knew tended to be kind. They helped people, and (working in the hospital as she does) she is impressed with how they demonstrate loving concern to fellow Christians, as well as to non-Christians. (I wish all Christians had such an outsider’s testimony.)

She said the second thing was negative. She noted that Christians acted like foreigners where she lives. They dress in foreign clothes. They listen to foreign music. They celebrate foreign holidays, and show little interest in local festivities or cultural values. They tend to look and act like the foreign missionaries who were or are among them, and like the colonizers who have now left.

 

Foreign and Friendly

In looking at the chart above, they would be in the Yellow Zone. The Christians in that region are F-F (Foreign but Friendly). That is not the worst place to be. Still, to this woman, to become a Christian, one needs to reject a lot of one’s cherished culture.

Figure 3.jpg

This is not a trivial thing. Going back to the “Human Trinity,” (as shown in the figure above) one aspect of our own personhood is our cultural identity. Becoming a Christian is supposed to be transformative, but it is not meant to “gut” our cultural identity— and certainly not by replacing one local identity with a different, foreign, cultural identity.

If one considers the Divine mandate that one should love one’s neighbor as oneself, certainly two aspects of such love are Kindness, and Cultural Respect. Jesus explained the love of one’s neighbor with the Parable of the Good Samaritan. It showed such love as being expressed through human kindness that transcended cultural differences. Paul expressed love in terms of tearing down of cultural barriers as well, but the idea wasn’t via one culture subsuming another, but that cultures would be respected an honored. Paul would be a Greek to the Greeks and a Jew to the Jews. The church was wide open to all peoples regardless of their culture, and respecting of their cultures.

So to love one’s neighbor in a different culture, demonstration of kindness is needed but so is contextualization/cultural respect and localization. Sadly, sometimes we can’t even get the first half right. I was reading an article about barriers to evangelism in a different Buddhist country. One of the barriers was aggressive evangelism. One might wonder on this point. We usually assume that evangelism is a good thing and so a barrier is a lack of evangelism. However, often the methods of so-call evangelism are very much “in-your-face” aggressive and argumentative. In many countries arguing is disrespectful— especially so if done with someone older. I recall listening to American short-term missionaries visiting my city here in the Philippines and hearing a very aggressive and noisy presentation of the gospel. One I recall especially well– a young woman screaming (not trying to be sexist here… “screaming” is the correct term) at a man perhaps 20 years older than herself, “YOU MUST BE SAVED!!!!    YOU MUST BE SAVED!!!!!” Of course, he doesn’t HAVE to be saved— and I suspect that “he did not feel the love” from the experience. Reading FB posts from Christians (often Christian friends of mine, frankly) I find it strange how angry, argumentative, and just plain unnice so many of the posts are. FB is hardly a private chatroom with people who agree with everything one says. It is a public forum. Why in the world make people happy that they have nothing to do with your God?

Anyway, if one wishes to share Christ effectively in a different culture… it should be L-F (local and friendly), rather than foreign and unfriendly (F-U). Other options are in-between but still failing on some level to express true love of neighbor.