Is “Orthodox Missions’ ” an Oxymoron?

A nice article from an Orthodoxthe-what-where-when-and-why-of-orthodox-missions-3 missionary in the link below. The Orthodox church along with other groups associated with the “Eastern Faiths” were by far the most missional in the first millenium (combining in this sense the Greek Orthodox, “Nestorian,” and Coptic churches). In the 2nd millenium, the missions of the Russian orthodox involved an impressive expansion of the faith across Northern and Central Asia and into North America while Protestant churches were still experimenting with the idea of cross-cultural missions.

They were the first groups to respectfully and positively interact with the Islamic faith… and the first (particularly with the Russian orthodox again) to effectively evangelize Muslim groups. They also took seriously issues of translation of Scripture and liturgy, and indiginization of the local church long before these were in vogue in the West.

Curiously, books on Missions commonly ignore Orthodox missions. For Protestants, denominationalism is not really an adequate explanation since many of those same books take seriously Roman Catholic missions.

Anyway, this article helps to explain the omission, at least in terms of fairly recent history.

Is “Orthodox Missions” an Oxymoron? – http://wp.me/p8e2Jb-2kM

Consciousness One Two Three

Harvie Conn wrote the book. Eternal Word and Changing Worlds: Theology, Anthropology, and Mission in Trialogue back in 1984, based on lectures he gave at Fuller Theological Seminary. It has been noted by multiple people, that Conn was limited by a tendency to use rather unclear language. That is one reason I have tended to like the work of Paul Hiebert. He often did much better in making complicated concepts… well… less complicated.

However, one strength of this book is thatapplication-communication2 although written in 1984, it does appear a bit prescient in identifying some trends that have continued to develop over the last 30 years.

Conn chose terms Consciouness One, Consciousness Two, and Consciousness Three. Frankly, I did not feel they were explained well, but they seemed to point to generally valuable insights in the rlationship between theology and anthropology (as well as mission).

Below is how I tried to explain these three concepts to my students. If someone says “Bob, you got that completely wrong,” I would welcome correction, as long as you can make it clear…

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Consciousness 1. Ethnocentric Mindset. A non-Western culture is seen as a “Disease to be Cured.” Non-Western arts were commonly seen as devilish. Missionary work is seen both as an attempt to Share the Gospel, and to “Civilize” (bring in line with Western culture). In fact, it was difficult for many to separate the Christian faith from Western culture. Three reasons for this difficulty:

  • Western culture was assumed to be the highest culture, and the “most Christian.”

  • Other cultures were seen as lower cultures, and bringing them in line with Western culture was seen as aligning them with the Christian faith.

  • Commonly those of other cultures were also deemed to be lower– both intellectually and morally.

Mission work was seen as sharing the gospel in non-Western lands, because the Western world had “already been reached.” Because of this Americans and Europeans are active missionaries, and other peoples are to be passive receivers of the message.

Christianity will always look foreign to people from non-Western cultures.

Consciousness 2. Indigenization Mindset. There is now no necessary presumption that the West has all of the answers. Rather different cultures are legitimate. Christianity may exist in a different culture through appropriate TRANSLATION of the message and theology from the West.

Religion is seen more positively in a culture (Consciousness 1 tends to see religion as a problem… both by secularists and even by Christian missionaries). However, there is a tendency to see culture as made of of individual institutions… including religion. Therefore, to transform culture means to replace (indigenize) those things that need changing, and leaving alone those things that don’t.

Greater focus is placed on plurality of cultures (rather than “cultured” versus “uncultured.”) Also greater recognition that cultures and languages are fluid… changing.

There is a recognition of “Contextual Theologies,” but often see them as existing in local competition of sorts to “Real Theology,” based on the presumption that the theological formulations of Europe and America are in some sense supra-cultural.

While cultures are more respected in Consciousness 2, the agenda still is primarily driven by the West, in terms of theology and missions.

Consciousness 3. Contextual Mindset. Harvie Conn never really defined this one well. He focused on problems in the early 1980s and what he hoped would change.

Not only are there many cultures, and they exist dynamically, but each exist holistically. That is, one can’t just break the culture apart into different components or institutions. Religion is an integrated with the culture, not a separate part.

All theology is contextual. There is no such thing as supracultural theology, only well-contextualized theology and poorly-contextualized theology.

The translation model of of theologizing and ministry is inadequate because it is uni-directional. Rather, there needs to be dialogue between cultures, as well as tri-logue between theology, anthropology, and mission.

Different contextual theologies (and expressions of faith) are challenged by the canon of Scripture. But different contextual theologies need to be in dialogue– challenging each other and allowing the possibility of learning from each other.

Missions is now a whole world task to the whole world.

 

Church– A Safe Place for Unsafe Conversations?

I was watching a TED Talk of Bob Mankoff, the Cartoon (“Idea Drawings”) Editor at The New Yorker. He was talking about the anatomy of a humor cartoon… and humor in general. It was both fun and informative (You can click on it HERE).

He described effective humor in terms of Tension or Conflict. One brings together two ideas… or even two unrelated areas of life, that don’t fit. In a sense this is what is done with metaphors. So humor and metaphors are related… perhaps even on the same spectrum… but metaphors are more for providing insight, while humor is more to produce a visceral, emotional response. Frankly though, both good humor and a good metaphor should have qualities of the other. Humor also has another tension or conflict as well– it exists in terms of DANGER AND SAFETY… or VIOLATION AND BENIGNITY.

These terms really don’t go together all that well, do they? But consider three examples:

  • Rollercoaster. A roller coaster is a device that throws the rider around, has big accelerations, twists, and turns that could potentially kill the participant. However, a rollercoaster has all sorts of safety devices, inspections, and carefully analyzed and tested design elements to ensure safety of the riders. Without the danger, it becomes a kiddee ride (ever try the “turning teacups”). For many of us, that would not be enjoyable. On the other hand, most all of us would not enjoy a rollercoaster that has severe design or maintenance issues that make it truly risky to ride.
  • Horror movies. Horror movies try to scare the viewer, while maintaining an impenetrable barrier between the movie world and the viewer world.
  • Zoo. Bob Mankoff’s example is going to the zoo to see a tiger. The experience is enjoyable if and only if there is a real, and perhaps menacing, tiger, as well as bars or other barriers to provide safety for the visitor. If a visitor looks into the cage and finds no tiger, the experience is unsatisfying. But it is also unsatisfying (in fact terrifying) if the tiger is between the visitor and the bars, rather than the bars being between the tiger and the visitor.

What relevance does this have on this blog page? Consider spiritual conversations? Such conversations can be:tiger-face-4

  • Evangelistic in nature perhaps, or
  • Ethical in nature (determining right versus wrong), or
  • Issues regarding people’s religious or philosophical beliefs, or
  • Concerns regarding specific religions.

People can fall into a wide range of responses to this. At one extreme are those who consider such conversations as BORING. Others see them as DANGEROUS… SCARY.

For one extreme the issue is pretty obvious… people think “spiritual conversations” are boring if they are seen as irrelevant to themselves. However, spiritual matters have to do with the big issues of life:  How should I live? What is my purpose in life? What does the future hold? These are important and… dangerous… questions and concerns. Perhaps some people were presented with spiritual conversations as a Teacup ride or an empty cage. Spiritual concerns can get watered down to the point that they seems safe, benign, irrelevant. The content, the tiger, cannot be removed… but must be presented in such a way that it can be appreciated and valued… safely.

But let’s consider the other extreme for a moment. Some spiritual conversations are truly scary. I get that. Far too many people (Christians most definitely included) express spiritual conversations much like salesmen– hard-sell salesmen. I have literally heard “street evangelists” SCREAMING in the faces of passersby six inches separating noses (the uncaged tiger). I struggle to imagine who could think that being particularly effective. No one really wants honest doubts and concerns about life to be turned into a polemic sales pitch for a “spiritual product.”

In response to that, many people just avoid spiritual concerns. Many groups will have explicit or tacit rules… NO RELIGION OR POLITICS DISCUSSED HERE. In other cases, spiritual conversations may be discussed but so hobbled or watered down to seem benign, as noted before, moving from the ethical to the aesthetic.

safe-place

What are needed are safe places to deal with unsafe concerns. Really, the best place for this SHOULD be the church. People should be able to go to any church and express theological, or spiritual, or existential doubts/concerns and find those who are willing to accept them, acknowledge their struggle,  and help them work through them… sharing burdens with each other.  A SAFE PLACE TO DEAL WITH THAT WHICH IS UNSAFE. But churches typically squash such conversations— choosing to drift to being an unsafe place to be for those with concerns… or avoiding unsafe issues, choosing safe or benign issues only.

There is a price to pay for this. An interest article was written based on research from Case Western University. A summary of it is on a blog post

Avoiding Spiritual Issues May Be Bad for Mental Health

Consider a quote from this article:

According to the study, struggling with spiritual issues did not lead to mental health issues. The problem was avoidance of challenging topics. Mental health was more likely to decline when people feared engaging with challenging philosophical and spiritual issues.

The study determined avoidance was not an effective strategy for pushing away existential thoughts. Participants faced spiritual questions even when they attempted to suppress them. The study’s authors suggest continually being plagued by existential questions can be psychologically upsetting, particularly to people who find these questions socially unacceptable.

I would argue that this avoidance strategy comes, in part, because of their inability to find safe people and safe places to deal with these unsafe topics.

Church should be like a comic in The New Yorker (or many places where ideas are expressed humorously to challenge how with think and view things). It should be a place that is safe to bring ideas together that are unsafe or challenging. A place to think,  with the freedom to disagree… or be profoundly changed.

The Trinity– I Love a Mystery

I don’t know Greek. In fact it is appalling the depths of my ignorance of Koine Greek. I took the minimum amount of the language I needed to get my degree. Frankly, none of my jobs over the decades (US Navy, mechanical engineer, missionary) required much depth in Greek. I enjoy reading some of the arguments people have over specific exegetical issues in the Bible, but I read them as an outsider to the craft of translation and interpretation.

One of my favorites is the fun around the translation and interpretation of John chapter 1, verse 1. Many of you know this verse. For added fun, I will quote it from the Geneva Bible (1599).

 In the beginning was that Word, and that Word was with God, and that Word was God.

The big fight is on the end. There are three major camps (that I know of):

          A.  … Word was Godf555a0a6eae32697905618b3fc2ff45f

          B.  … Word was a god

          C.  … Word was divine

The ones who fight most strenuously seem to be those who argue between (A) and (B). Presumably, this is because (C) is the most ambiguous. It is not all that fun to argue from (or against) an ambiguous standpoint. Those in (A) and (B) pull out all sorts of rules of grammar to support their points. Viewpoint (A) is seen as supporting a Trinitarian (monotheistic) view, or perhaps a modalistic view. Viewpoint (B) is seen as supporting a classically  Arian view, or perhaps a henotheistic view. I don’t know which viewpoint has a stronger case grammatically; but I don’t really care that much since grammatical rules are established by usage, every bit as much as grammatical rules determine usage. That does not mean that one doesn’t have a stronger case than the other… but certainty can’t really come from grammar. Human language is too sloppy.

In line with that, one can see Moises Silva’s statement in his Commentary on Philippians (Thanks to Ptr. Bruce Felt for pointing out this quote to me):

“The viewpoint adopted in this commentary is that the significance of <aspectual distinctions> for biblical interpretation has been greatly overestimated by most commentators, particularly conservative writers. ..In short, no reasonable Greek author, when wishing to make a substantial point is likely to have depended on his readers’ ability to interpret subtle syntactical distinctions.” (“Philippians”– Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, p. 13)

Silva is saying that an writer, and even more so a Biblical writer is not going to make a strong statement that depends entirely on the the likely hearer or reader having a strong, subtle, nuanced understanding of grammar. The grammar is suggestive only of the intent of the writer… but inadequate.

Besides, “I love a mystery.” That is the name of an old time radio (OTR) program serial. I never cared for it all that much, although even today, there are fans of it. But I enjoy mystery.  Let’s look at this passage from the standpoint of mystery.

Viewpoint A. If the Word is God, we are then to struggle that it follows the fact that the Word was with God. How does one reconcile the idea that the Word was God and also with God?

Viewpoint B.  If the Word is a god, we struggle in verse 2, where the language labels this “lesser god” with the characteristics of the one and only God described in Genesis 1. And the connection is not irrelevant– the language of of verse 1 is supposed to remind one of Genesis 1. How does one reconcile a lesser god who created all things with a Jewish worldview of monotheism of a single creator God.

Viewpoint C.  If the Word is divine, what does that really mean? Verse 1 suggests a secondary god (“with god”) while verse 2 suggests the Word as the one creator God of the Old Testament. How does the descriptor “divine” (God-ish) clarify the tension between verses 1 and 2?

For me, I would suggest a fourth viewpoint (D):

Viewpoint D.  The language is intentionally ambiguous to establish a mystery to be solved. The writer starts with the metaphor of the Logos… and gradually leads one to the identification of the Logos through the Greek term Theos to Jesus and the Hebrew idea of the Messiah. Chapter 1 leaves a lot of questions… and the mystery is not answered in this chapter. Rather, it sets the stage for the rest of the book… and comes back full circle to it in the summation:

 But these are written so that you may believe Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and by believing you may have life in His name. -John 20:31

It becomes almost an inclusio– Jesus as Messiah, and Son of God (or God who is with God). The middle of the book helps one wrestle with these designations.

So how does this tie to missions96275-004-42c0e599 (clearly I am not a Greek scholar)?

Speaking with those from other religions or creeds is challenging. Some seek to approach them with dogmatism. This involves giving people answers. The problem is that answers often are unconvincing. A better option for many is to give people a mystery. Help others wrestle through an issue… rather than tell them what to believe. I know with myself… I may or may not believe what I am told, but that which I have wrestled with becomes part of me.

Mystery is common in the Bible… the narrative stories of the Bible have a lot of unresolved questions… but that leads to great dialogue and that leads to great opportunities to theologize. Some Evangelicals accept the idea that the Bible is a collection of true propositions. I never cared for this belief. But even if it has some truth, it seems more useful to think of the Bible as a collection of important questions and the tools to attain answers.

People don’t learn by being taught. They learn primarily via modelling and discovery. So sharing our faith comes from:

  • Living our faith
  • Helping others discover

The Book of John is like this. John chapter 1 tells us about who Jesus is… but also establishes mysteries that are to be clarified by the rest of the book. Not a bad idea: Bad dogma comes out of an answer-based orientation. It seems to me that this view lends towards a proof-texting methodology. It seems better to dig deeper and draw wider… and encourage others to do likewise.

Besides, wrestling with mystery can often be a better method for outreach– because many others love mysteries as well.

“Theology and Missions” Book

I just started working on my newest book. Not sure what it will be ultimately titled. So far, it is just called “Theology and Missions.” Note… it is not “Theology OF Missions.”

Actually, I am still working on a book with my wife “The Dynamics of Pastoral Care” as a follow-on to “The Art of Pastoral Care.”theology-and-missions But that is going to take awhile. I really wanted to work on a book that looks at several interconnections between Theology and Missions (hence it’s name).

It is expected to cover several major topics:

  1.  Theology of Missions. I won’t focus too much on this. Some others have done a pretty good job in this area. (Of course, in some missions books, the topic has devolved into “cherry-picking” a few verses that seem missional.) But I am looking towards a more “Biblical Theology” (both OT and NT) look in this area, rather than Systematic or Practical.
  2. Reflective Missions Theology. This is Theological Reflection, as it pertains to the practice of missions. So this will look at the incorporation of theological reflection, mission practice, and case conferencing.
  3. Contextualization of Theology. Despite the fact that ALL theology (even Biblical Theology) is contextual, it still seems to be, as a discipline, the expertise of those in Missions. So this will primarily be looking at the work of Bevans and Moreau.
  4. Criteria for Evaluation of Contextual Theology. This is a surprisingly silent area for many. It is hard to see why, since it is so important. I will loosely follow some of Bevans work, with my own ideas. This section and Section 2 will probably be the most innovative of the 5 sections. The others will be more a look at what others have done… and, in fact, have done better.
  5. Inter-religious Dialogue. IRD has been covered a LOT by a LOT of people… but I want to look at it as it pertains to Missions interactions. As such, I will look less to a Relativistic Approach, or an Apologetic Approach, than to a Clarification Approach. Also I will try to look at it theologically as well as pragmatically.

I have MOST of the research done, and a number of sections completed. I guess it will just depend on how long it takes to make a bunch of loose topics all mend together.

Like “Ministry in Diversity” and “The Art of Pastoral Care,” the goal is to have a book that can be useful for Bible School or Seminary students… particularly in Southeast Asia.

Papa Don’t Preach

No, I have never been much of a fan of Madonna’s music (although the 1989 tune, “Cherish,” is catchy), but the 1986 song, “Papa Don’t Preach,” does poipeter-preachingnt to one occasion that a person– in this case a father– should not preach. You can websearch the song– you certainly don’t need my help. But the song does hint at something that many of us know, or at least feel… that preaching often is not particularly helpful.

Consider some terms that are considered synonymous with aspects of preaching:

Advise       Enlighten            Exhort         Lecture         Orate            Pontificate

All of these terms overlap in meanings, but as you move to the right, the shade of meanings get a bit darker– a bit more negative. The ones more to the left are a bit more positive. In fact, in the song “Papa Don’t Preach,” the lyricist is asking her father for good advice… rather than venomous outbursts and blame.

But even the ones to the left, advise and enlighten, are in themselves suggestive of times when one really should not preach. Here are some:

  1.  When we need to listen. The old joke that God gave us two ears and only one mouth because we were meant to listen twice as much as speak, is not so far from the truth. Preaching is unidirectional. But frankly, we don’t know what to say until we know what needs to be said. That typically takes listening.
  2. When we need to learn. Mystical enlightenment is not very reliable. Most of what we learn is through reading, hearing, and experiencing. Preaching is done when we feel we are in a position of authority and knowledge to those who need to be enlightened, advised, exhorted, and lectured by us. Ultimately, we can ‘t give what we don’t have.
  3. When we need to discuss. Preaching often drives people in the opposite direction of what we intended. People react against the sense of being verbally coerced. Also, preaching can be interpreted as disrespectful. Discussion demonstrates respect. Besides, in many situations, we know truth in part, and discussion can, hopefully, bring our small truths together.
  4. When we need to think.  The old Wild West advice, “Shoot first, ask questions later,” can become in preaching, “Talk first, think later.” I have heard many well thought out, crafted sermons, but I have also heard many sermons that are full of style and passion, but lacking clear evidence of thought or reflection. We need to think first, speak later.
  5. When we need to empathize. When someone is suffering, they don’t really need to be preached at. They need to sense compassion. They need to hear your heart more than hear your voice.
  6. When we need to act. Talk can all to often be cheap. Sometimes, talking is a way to not act. Modeling what is right, true, and good is often a better “sermon” than talking it.
  7. When we need to be silent. Dead time on radio is a “sin” but silence can indeed be golden. Sometimes we need to quiet our minds and our hearts. It may be in the form of meditation, or preparing ourselves to hear what God is speaking to us. Filling the air with our own voice is not always of value.

That is not to say that there is no place for preaching. Preaching has value. But check the above list first. And if it is the correct time to preach, recognize that the best preaching will incorporate the other items:

Preaching should

  • be in response to listening to God and to others
  • be in response to what is learned and preparing for what will be learned
  • be dialogic, interacting with the hearer, not just talking at.
  • be empathetic… speaking that comes from the heart, and listening to the heart of God and the hearts of others.
  • be the result of thoughtful (and humble) reflection.
  • be linked to action. Preaching should clarify/explain action, rather than inform in a manner that is in opposition to action.
  • be unafraid of silence. Filling the air with one’s voice is not not always more effective. A sermon, like a painting, is enhanced by negative space.