Holy and Unholy Cultures?? (Part II)

In Part I, we looked at Christians in culture. It seems clear, I hope, that Christians should live on three levels as it relates to the Idealized Culturesurrounding culture.

  1.  We should live in many ways like those around us… fitting in quite comfortably with the broader culture.
  2. We should live in many ways like what the broader culture idealizes, even if the members of that culture rarely live up to its own standards.
  3. We should live in many ways according to God’s standards in opposition to the culture.

This is built on the presumption that all cultures are, although far from perfect, good. They are good to the extent that they provide cohesion and guidelines for their members.

But not everyone sees it that way. Some tend towards the demonization of cultures.  In this case, often the person embraces a foreign culture as “holy” and the local culture as unholy. The goal is to rid the church of the “stench” of its local cultural roots and embrace an outside culture as ideal.

Here in the Philippines, this is often seen in the “demonization of pagan roots.” The Philippines has a rather short distance to paganism, or tribal animistic faiths. In fact, animistic faiths are alive and well as both separate religions and as syncretizations of world religions. It has become popular to demonize paganism… and sometimes Satanize paganism.

For example, every Halloween and every Christmas people write about the pagan roots of these holidays. (In a few weeks articles about the pagan roots of Easter will be starting up as well.) In these holidays, the case for the pagan roots is not nearly as strong as people think they are. However, what is most interesting is that those elements that have been incorporated into the present holidays that have roots in early pagan cultures are not just thought of as “pagan,” but as “demonic,” or even Satanic. The connection between pagan and demonic is rather debatable. In the Bible, idols are sometimes linked to the idea of worshiping demons, but at other times is seen as worshiping wood and stone— created things, rather than the Creator.

Samhain (linked loosely to Halloween) and Saturnalia (linked by present pop culture, rather than actual history, to Christmas) were pagan events, but not Satanic. One may argue that pagan symbols are not from God, or that they point people away from God, and in this way are Satanic. This seems too broad of a leap. Satan is described as a liar, an accuser, and a deceiver. So if you are a person who lies at times, it may be quite accurate to say that in a very important way you are Satanic. But that seems unhelpful. Such hyperbolic language is akin to the humorous observation that any argument on social media eventually results in comparison of one or both sides to Hitler.

It is interesting that Paul takes a more nuanced approach to the paganism of the Hellenistic around him. He was grieved at all of the idols in Athens (and other places) but did not express fear or horror of them. In more than one place, he emphasized to the people that God was pretty forgiving of their pagan activities since they did so out of ignorance. He also instructed Christians to avoid idolatry, but not to fear that the idolatry has power over them. I have an acquaintance over here who has described Christmas as the greatest work of Satan today. I feel this language is really unhelpful. There are problems with Christmas (especially as a materialistic, consumeristic, activity) but hyperbolic language undermines the argument. And it is actually worse than this. The problem the person has with Christmas is not its connection to greed, but rather that it seeks to subvert or redeem some formerly pagan symbols.

I would argue that such subversion is commendable. I know of no Americans who think that the Fourth of July is demonic or Satanic even though fireworks are used for the celebration. (For those of you who don’t know, fireworks have been traditionally used by pagan cultures as part of a celebration to “scare away” ghosts and demons. Fourth of July may have problems in that some celebrate a certain unhealthy jingoism in it, but the fact that it has subverted the symbolic meaning of (pagan) fireworks is not a bad thing.

A different form of demonization is idealizing another culture. I have friends here in the Philippines that are practicing a form of Christianity that embraces strongly Jewish symbols. Is this wrong? No. Is it useful for non-Jews to embrace Jewish cultural symbols? I doubt it… but I suppose it is harmless. What is not so harmless is when Christians celebrate Yom Kippur (a perfectly fine day to celebrate) but then suggest that Christians who celebrate other days have fallen away from the truth.

Of course, they are not the only ones. There are churches here in the Philippines that are KJV-only. It is hard to understand why any missionary would try to get Filipinos to embrace a version of the Bible that is not only not their language but is not even their century. Of course, up until 50 years ago, the dominant religious group in the Philippines required the Bible to read only in Latin… a language that is native tongue to exactly 0% of Filipinos. I have heard some KJV only folk call the NIV the “New Infernal Version.” This is demonization of a translation of a Bible. A translation may be better or worse, clearer or murkier, but I don’t think any honest attempt to make God’s word understandable should be called demonic.

And it is not only them. As one goes around to different churches in the Philippines we find that an awful lot of churches here mimic churches elsewhere… in building design, dress, songs, and so forth. They are also often best known for how they refuse to interact with a lot of the local cultural activities (because people from their denominational roots wouldn’t participate).

Demonization of culture is unhealthy. I would argue that a more healthy understanding of culture is in the three areas listed at the top. Demonization of culture does not get one closer to God, but farther from the community in which one serves.

 

 

 

Holy and Unholy Cultures?? (Part 1)

Much like there have been times in church history where people have embraced the idea of “holy language” (Hebrew, Koine Greek, Latin, Middle English) there have been periods of time and places where a similar sanctification has been placed on culture.

The Jerusalem Council struggled with this during the first century. Does a Greek have to become (culturally) a Jew to become a Christian? The decision, in the end, was NO. A Greek can remain culturally a Greek and still be Christian. This still left a lot to be determined. Is everything Greek sanctified and good? What about underlying beliefs or worldview?  It is pretty clear that some things need to radically change, but which things?

It seems to me that four places to get a bit of a grasp of this are:

  • Jerusalem Council (as recorded by Luke) and the Didache
  • Paul’s remarks of culture
  • Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus (chapter 5)

I will dig into none of these deeply.

1.  Jerusalem Council.  Here is the announcement as recorded by Luke regarding the summation of that council.

The apostles and elders, your brothers,

To the Gentile believers in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia:

Greetings.

24 We have heard that some went out from us without our authorization and disturbed you, troubling your minds by what they said. 25 So we all agreed to choose some men and send them to you with our dear friends Barnabas and Paul— 26 men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. 27 Therefore we are sending Judas and Silas to confirm by word of mouth what we are writing. 28 It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: 29 You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things.

Farewell.

The keyword here is Flexibility, I think. The Apostles and Elders said that they would place no burdens on the Greek Christians except minor limitations on food, and on sexual misconduct.  If you think about it, what does this mean?  Is it saying that the Council was saying that it was okay for Greek Christians to lie, to steal, to murder? Certainly this is not the case. Is it saying that virtues such as integrity, godliness, and honor are not being placed on the Greeks Christians? Again, certainly not. What does appear to be said is three things:

  • The trappings of Jewish Culture are not necessary for non-Jews.
  • The ideals and taboos of Greek culture are, for the most part, commendable. Because of this, the Greek Christians do not need to be told “do not lie” because they already know this to be virtuous even before here the gospel message.
  • Some specific areas of Greek culture may be unhealthy and set aside if one is supposed to follow Christ. (However, Jesus also challenged some aspects of Jewish culture as unhealthy as well.)

Alan Garrow has made the suggestion that the Didache was originally a longer version of the short-form of the Jerusalem Council announcement. He has suggested that the Didache is less clear on the breaking down of Jewish cultural rules. However, when I look at the Didache it seems to me to be an expansion on the Sermon on the Mount… and as such, expresses principles that are in many ways supracultural as well as principles that challenge all cultures. The principles mentioned in the Didache certain do not encourage a rejection of Greek culture but recognize that the words of Jesus challenge both Jewish and Greek cultures.

2.  Paul’s comments on Culture. I am not going to go into details in this area, but simply point people to his writings to the Churches of Corinth and Galatia.  In these it could be said that Paul took a more extreme view than the Jerusalem Council. For example, to the church of Corinth he says that it is okay to eat food sacrificed to idols, as long as people are mature enough to handle it. Since idols are nothing, and the religion of the Greeks has no power, the danger in eating food sacrificed to idols is how it affects the belief and heart of the Greek Christians. In his message to the church of Galatia, he makes a point that when Greek and Jewish Christians are together, it is better for the Jews to adapt to the Greeks rather than remain separate. I would, however, describe his view as Pragmatic. Additionally, it seems like the focus is on avoiding a ghettoization of Christianity. Jewish Christians and Greek Christians should find ways to fellowship together rather than build walls of separation. And Greek Christians should be able to interact with Greek Pagans without fear and separation. I would also suggest they were a bit ad hoc, in that his words point to how broader principles would be carried out in this specific case.

3.  Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus.  Chapter 5. This chapter can be read in another post I wrote before.  Click HERE.  When you read it, it says three things about Christians.

  • In many ways, Christians fit into the culture so well that they are indistinguishable from the culture.
  • In some ways, Christians surpass those in the culture by living up to the ideals of the culture rather than the typical reality within the culture.
  • In some other ways, Christians live counter-culturally, by rejecting some specific aspects of culture that are opposed to the teachings of Jesus.

If one looks at these references, I believe oneIdealized Culture would have to see that culture (at least within the context of Jewish and Greek cultures) is generally good or neutral. It is Neutral in that it has distinguishing characteristics that are perfectly fine for Christian and non-Christian. It is Good in that it provides ideals that are often quite commendable and worthy of seeking to live up to. At the same time, culture can be seen negatively in three major ways. First, it can be seen as failing to live up to God’s standards. But is universal for all cultures fail in this area. Second, it can be seen as failing to live up to its own standards. Most all cultures idealize certain virtues and attack certain vices or taboos— but its members rarely live up to these standards.

Third, cultures may be seen as bad based on “demonization” by outsiders. They take certain qualities and broad-brush the culture undermining virtues, and exaggerating vices.

This third area will be looked more seriously in Part II.  But for now, based on the passages above, Christians should live in a culture on three levels:

  1. Christians should live in the culture as it is lived out by its members. As such, in many key ways, Christians should be indistinguishable from others in that culture.
  2. Christians should strive to live up to the ideals of the culture, not simply the culture as it is commonly lived.
  3. Christians should also live up to, as best as possible, God’s standards, being willing to reject cultural ideals and cultural norms WHEN NECESSARY.

Where one shifts between these two, good people can disagree. Paul and Peter appeared to disagree. Mature and immature believers in Corinth disagreed.

It is Okay for good people to disagree.

(But I think Part II will cover an area that is NOT Okay)

 

 

Reflective Book Review: “Principles of Leading Muslims to Christ”

I don’t do book reviews very often. Frankly, I usually read through or skim through books rather than deeply read a book. And I even more rarely read a book in the manner appropriate for critique.  However, the author of “Principles of Leading Muslims to Christ” was one of my students, and I did work through the book cleaning up some aspects. Anyway, here is my rather lengthy review.

The book, “Principles of Leading Muslims to Christ: Effective Contextualization and Dialogue for Transformation and Discipleship,” was written by Adesegun Hammed Olayisola. He is a Nigerian who was raised as a Muslim and trained as a Muslim, before coming to be a follower of Jesus when he was college age.

I find the book has several strengths, one weakness, and one or two things that fit in a gray zone between these points.  I will start with strengths:

1.  It is written from a position of sympathy and love for Muslims. Much Christian writing regarding Muslims tends to embrace negative stereotypes. I once decided to electronically cut ties with a pastor friend who essentially used his FB account to promulgate every hateful click-baity story put out there that degrades Islam or its adherents. The author finds much that is commendable in Islam and its adherents, and chooses not to pander to his primarily Christian audience.

2.  He takes up more space bringing awareness of Islamic teachings over Christian responses to those teachings. Some of this is because of the next point. However, in addition he notes that Christians often have a stunning ignorance of Islamic beliefs (and I would add beliefs of almost all other religions). Effective interaction with Muslims begins from a foundation of understanding, rather than ignorance.

3.  Olayiwola recommends dialogue built off of a foundation of mutual understanding over the utilization of argument,  or special plan or technique. Argument generally drives people further apart and special techniques or procedures often are ineffective because they completely fail to take into account the individuality of belief, personality, values, and situation of the person one is talking to. He recommends using a clarification form of dialogue (as opposed to argumentative or relativizing dialogue), and finds value in the 7 principles of Max Warren for interreligious dialogue.

4.  He emphasizes what needs to be done with those Muslims who decide to follow Christ. He speaks particularly of those Muslims who, like himself, find themselves ostracized by family and community (and for some by nation) because of this change of faith. He gives a lot of good advice as to how to bring them into the community of faith. He does not recommend C5 or C6 groups, but does see the need for churches who are MBB (Muslim Background Believer)-friendly. Ideally, it is pastored by an MBB. He speaks of some of the difficulty and rejection he had with Christians and Christian groups for some trivial things such as his name (an “Islamic” name) and whether being a Christian requires a Muslim to start eating pork, or reject part of his (polygamous) family.

The major negative aspect of the book is that it is roughly edited. I have to bring this back on me. I helped with the editing, but Olayiwola lacks to resources for professional editing. It does show, but I don’t believe that it undermines the book, but readers should be aware of this. <As a person who cannot afford professional editing, and as one who likes to put out books first, and fix some problems in later revisions, I am quite sympathetic of this.>

There are some other things that I consider neither negative or positive, but are worth noting.

  1.  The book arguably is not clearly written to any specific target demographic. The early part of the book spends considerable time talking about the story of Sarah and Hagar. This is shared because it is an important issue for many Muslims. However, for most Christians, Hagar and Sarah of Old Testament characters, and a rather obscure New Testament metaphor for salvation. For many Muslims, the story is much more. The author spent considerable time on this because it is important to Muslims and an important separation point for Muslims and Christians. The likely readers, Christians, should embrace this focus rather than seeking to undermine this focus. (I remember when the author presented this topic in one of my classes, and students began to try to argue with him. It was as if they forgot that the presenter is a Christian who is trying to present Islam from an insiders perspective for the benefit of the class.)  Additionally, context of Islam and Christianity is heavily skewed towards Nigeria. As such he focuses on concerns such as “white weddings,” polygamy, prosperity churches, and shariah. While many readers wouldn’t connect with some of these issues, it is unlikely to be beneficial to speak of Islam and Christianity only from a supracultural, decontextualized, setting.
  2. His principles of leading Muslims to Christ point to the idea that there is no set method. The title of the book should hint at this, but Christians are so used to focusing on methods, that they often struggle with focusing on principles or on process. However, once one embraces a method, one often disregards relationship. Additionally, whatever method works in one context is likely to be unhelpful in many (most… nearly all) other contexts.

I do think this book is valuable to Christians who love their Muslim neighbors. But expect to be challenged.

Olayiwola’s book is available at this time in online sources such as Amazon.com.

NOTE:  Olayiwola used some of what I had written on Interreligious Dialogue. If you want to read up more on this topic, consider my book:

Dialogue in Diversity

 

 

 

 

 

 

Theology in Terms of Locality and Catholicity

I have had several conversations in recent weeks with different people on this issue. Should theology by honored in terms of being cultural or supracultural. Stephen Bevans likes to say that all theology is contextual. However, as one of my dialogue partners noted, it could be taken to mean that their is norm… or nothing that is distinctly Christian in Christian theology.

On the other hand, those that embrace a more supracultural view of theology, are commonly doing no such thing. Rather they are granting divine favor on theology that has been custom-fitted to their own culture.

We see this controversy recently in terms of honor-shame theology versus guilt-innocence theology. Some from the guilt-innocence side of things (read penal substitutionary atonement if one prefers) feel like the other side is creating its own theology to fit honor-shame cultures. Is that correct? Yes and No. But Yes and No also applies to the guilt-innocence cultures as well.

The Bible uses many metaphors to explain the relationship of God to Mankind, and His activity to restore us to Him. The Bible has so many metaphors— some of them resonate with guilt-innocence folks, while some resonate with with honor-shame cultures. Penal substitutionary atonement as a theological construct draws from the metaphor of justification and the courtroom. To a lesser extent it draws from metaphor behind propitiation— the image of God as having wrath that must be appeased through sacrifice. However, there are metaphors that resonate more with honor-shame cultures. One of these is adoption. One could even argue that redemption is closer to patronage in honor-shame cultures (although redemption could be forced into the the justification model I suppose). Ultimately, these metaphors are equally valid and Biblical. all of them are supracultural in the sense that they are canonical. However, they are also cultural in the sense that they may connect in especially important ways to certain cultures (and less so with other cultures).

So when a group claims that their preferred Biblical metaphors or concepts are supracultural (and thus “good theology”) unlike the Biblical metaphors or concepts that those from another culture prefers, they are simply embracing a different form of localization of theology.

Theology, at its essence, bridges the gap between God’s revelation and Man’s condition. God’s revelation is unchanging, while Man’s condition is both varied and changing. As such, theology should be constantly changing, connected to the changing state of mankind, and connected to the unchanging revelation of God.

I tend to like “strange attractors” from Chaos Theory. In some non-linear systems the condition at any point of time is changing and non-repetitive, but still appears to be controlled by some points that provide limits to the motion. Theology seems to fit this as well since theology is constantly changing and non-repetitive, but I would suggest that it has (at least) two strange attractors.

  • The revealing of God. Theology must3D Lorenz Attractor reveal God, since it is based on God who seeks to reveal Himself to mankind.
  • The relevance to Man. Theology is meant to benefit mankind.

Theology that fails to reveal God, and/or fails to be relevant to mankind, is flawed.

So what does this have to do with the church. The church is where theology is lived out. It is lived out most obviously in terms of practical theology, but ultimately it is bound to all aspects of its theology. As much as some church bodies express the belief that “theology is not important” it truly is. Ignoring it doesn’t make it cease to exist or cease to be relevant… it just is moved into the church’s “blind spot”— affecting the church without the church aware of it.

So let’s move this forward. Suppose a local church has a local theology. To what extent is it bound to be responsible to churches of other cultures? I would say— Quite a Bit. First of all, our theologies are linked by common revelation from God. To replace that is to drift from being Christian. However, additionally, the local church may be tied to its local culture, but it is also tied to the universal church— that mystical bond of all churches often called “the body of Christ.” This catholicity should never replace its locality, nor should its locality replace its catholicity.

Consider a bit of practical theology in terms of sacrament/ordinance. What should the elements of the Eucharist be? Tradition has it to be unleavened bread, and wine. Some groups have change things by using leavened bread or using grape juice (“new wine” if you prefer). Here in the Cordillera Mountains of the Philippines, I have often thought that many of the groups here would do well to use kamote (yams) and coffee instead. The logic of this is that bread and wine were the staples of the Jews in Palestine, while kamote and coffee are the equivalent in the Cordilleras. As such, the latter better point to Christ as one who sustains us. The bread and wine point not only to Christ as sacrifice, but to the passover and God’s sustaining of His people. Kamote and Coffee may express this better for people around where I live.

But there is another take. The Eucharist is among the oldest traditions of the church. It has been practiced for nearly 2000 years and in all parts of the world. This 4-D aspect of the church is not irrelevant. When a local church holds Eucharist (Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion), we are also connecting ourselves to the the practice of the local churches across time and space. Perhaps bread and wine is more appropriate because it reminds us of our mystical union with the Body of Christ.

In one of my conversations, I think we sort of agreed that while one can say that “all theology is contextual,” it may be more useful to say, “All good theology must address context.” To ignore culture simply means that one syncretizes with culture unknowingly.

Addressing context doesn’t always mean localizing. Addressing context can also mean embracing the fact that the local is part of the universal.

Fulfilling Culture

H. Richard Niebuhr wrote a book that has become a seminary classic: “Christ and Culture.” Actually, it was a series of lectures that were compiled into a book. Niebuhr suggested five major philosophies or categories as to how Christ can interact with human Culture. The five are:

  1. Christ Against Culture
  2. Christ Of Culture
  3. Christ Above Culture
  4. Christ and Culture in Paradox
  5. Christ the Transformer of Culture.

<If you want to read a VERY BRIEF description of each category one can go to an article in Focus on the Family HERE. The first half of the article is beneficial. The second half was a waste of time as the article writer feels the need to demean Niebuhr as a “liberal.” Apparently, because he is liberal, he should not be trusted, while D. A. Carson (who is less liberal) is more trustworthy. I have trouble with this. First, trusting a person because of how closely he conforms to your preconceived opinions is a dangerous road to go down. As a second point, Niebuhr’s categories are a framework. As such, they are useful or not useful, rather than true or false. Judging a framework on who established it is kind of foolish if you get right down to it.>

I find the categories rather useful. I think that the first two categories (Christ Against Culture, and Christ Of Culture) are simply wrong. However, the remaining three have potential value. So I am adding another expression here with a bit of caution. But here it is:

Christ Fulfilling Culture

This one is not distinctly different from one or more of the latter three categories. Rather, I like this expression because it gives a better image of what I think Christ’s role is in terms of culture. To me Christ Transforming Culture is a good descriptor of Christ as one who takes what exists and makes it better, but does tend to focus more on the role of changing what is bad over the role of preserving what is good. Christ and Culture in Paradox is good and I think it fits well as a term with Bevan’s description of countercultural theological contextualization. However, the expression focuses on conflict… and that is a bit too simplistic. Christ Above Culture is good in that it makes clear that Christ and Culture are not equal— Christ has priority. However, in every other way, the term is unclear.

I prefer the expression “Christ Fulfilling Culture.” It suggests the idea that in Christ the work started in culture is completed in Christ… or that in Christ culture can become what it was meant to be, rather than what it is. Culture is generally (but not universally) understood to develop organically to meet the needs of a group as well as the individual members of that group. Culture guides behaviors and interpretations so that people can meet their holistic needs (physical, psycho-emotional, social, and spiritual) within a society as well as to attain human potential/flourishing. As such, culture IS because culture seeks to be good. However, culture always falls short of its lofty goals. Culture always ultimately fails to satisfy completely the felt and real needs of the group— because it is a construct of flawed humans in a flawed world. Christ, then, fulfills or satisfies what was dissatisfying in a culture.

Consider a couple of stories that point me in this direction.

Story #1. I was talking to one of my students who is of the Kachin people. The Kachin people are a group of tribes in Northern Myanmar, and parts of China and India. He was describing the beliefs of his forefathers. He noted that the Kachin people believed in one supreme creator god. They believed in the fallenness of man. They believed that God had given a message to the people but that message was lost. They believed in the need for sacrifice for reconciliation with God. When Christian evangelists came from the Karen tribe to their people, large numbers responded. However, many of them did not see themselves as leaving the religion of their ancestors. Rather they saw the Christian faith as fulfilling or completing the religion they already had. They now had the message they lost, and the completion of the sacrifices, through Christ.

Story #2. Acts 15, the Jerusalem Council, was a major event where an important issue was decided. Do Greeks have to become Jews to become Christians? The end result of the council was “NO.” Christ’s message is relevant to Greeks in the same way it is relevant to Jews. Christ fulfills the Jewish Religion and Culture, and Christ fulfills the Greek Religion and Culture. As such, Christians may behave considerably different in many key ways and still be understood as living according to the will of God. In the end, I feel that fulfill best expresses this.

What Do We Do With All Them Pagan Holidays

Image result for pumpkins halloween

Okay. I am here to help. Social media gets pretty confusing around Halloween time. People are, again, saying how evil it is for Christians to celebrate the day. In a few weeks more articles will come out talking about how Pagan Christmas is, and then three months later the same for Easter. No one complains about American Thanksgiving– a harvest festival much like those practiced by Pagan cultures around the world. If you don’t find that strange, consider that Halloween is lambasted annually for being related (a bit loosely) with Samhain, a Celtic harvest festival, after all. And no one seems to complain about the “Fourth of July” despite its use of fireworks— a pagan instrument used by cultures for centuries to scare away evil spirits. With all of these inconsistencies, I would like to offer a bit of help to know how best to deal with all of these different “pagan holidays.”

I would like to suggest a range of Christian responses or non-Christian responses to the issue of celebrations. <Note: for the last 15 years I have lived in the Philippines where Halloween is not celebrated much, being a distant second to Undas or All Souls Day. Therefore, I haven’t had involvement in Halloween in many many years. You can decide if that makes me a better or worse opinion.>

Possible Good Christian Responses.

#1.  Celebrate every day. All days are created by God so every day is holy and worthy of celebration.

#2.  Celebrate no days. Arguably this is just the same as the previous one. To celebrate each day means to treat each day as no more special than any other. So, in essence, one is celebrating or honoring no day as special. Since primitive Christianity gave us no days that MUST be honored above other days, celebrating no days is certainly a viable option.

#3.  Celebrate some days. This one probably needs to be sub-divided.

#3A.  Celebrate those days that have become considered to be “Christian Holidays.” As Christians we share a common heritage— a two thousand year heritage. When we celebrate Christmas, Easter, Palm Sunday, Lent, Pentecost, Epiphany, and many many other days in the liturgical calendar, we connect in some small way with our brothers and sisters in faith around the world and across time. That seems a good enough reason by itself to celebrate. I don’t feel like we have to triplecheck to make sure that no pagan, neo-pagan, or satanic group is trying to lay claim to the day. If Christians decided to view July 19 (to grab a day somewhat at random) as a new Christian holiday, I don’t think we have to be worried that some group has already messed it up.

#3B.  Celebrate those days that are culturally or civically significant that are not “anti-Christian.” We are part of a culture and a community that goes beyond the church. We are not only citizens of heaven, but citizens of nations, and products of history. Therefore, days that honor civil institutions, or historical events certainly can be celebrated. In fact, if Christians do not celebrate these, it could be argued that this makes Christianity alien to the culture and foreign to the nation in which it exists. Christianity is suppose to fulfill culture, or perhaps subvert it, but certainly not destroy it or ignore it.

#3C.  Celebrate those days that are one’s neighbors celebrate even if they are “non-Christian.” We know meat offered to Zeus is not tainted by Greek gods. We know that each day is created pure and good by God. We can redeem any symbol we wish, and we can avoid any symbol that we are uncomfortable with. If Christians were able to “Christianize” an instrument of torture, murder, and shame (the “cross”) we can certainly Christianize or redeem any symbol. The roots of symbols have no power any more than Zeus has power.

Possible Bad Christian Responses

  1.  Picking one of the options above and then telling every other Christian that it is the only moral choice. You can exercise your freedom in Christ or not, but it is not your place to tell everyone else what they can and cannot exercise.
  2. Listening to one-sided religious salespersons and taking what they say as the “gospel truth.” Most concerning to me are those who are taking the words of alleged Satanists as the truth when it comes to Halloween. Think about that statement– Why would we? In fact, we are missing the point. Those humorous quotes of Satanists expressing shock that Christians celebrate some aspects of Halloween are not understood for what they really are. They are attempts by a fringe group to appropriate a Druidic (non-Satanic) holiday and then push Christians away from celebrating All Saints Day, and All Hallows Eve. Of course, some Christians go the other way and assure us “It is all harmless” because… well, they did it as kids so it must be okay. I feel we can do better than this.

It seems like the articles that show up on social media right now embrace a certain ignorance and a touch of cowardice. I think we need brave scholars in Christianity, rather than ignorant cowards.

 

 

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.”