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.”

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.