Problem of Polygamy in Christian Missions Practice

Teaching Cultural Anthropology as well as Interreligious Dialogue in a seminary in Southeast Asia means that several times a year the question of polygamy comes up. It comes up in terms of how to address polygamy as a Christian minister. Usually, it is in the context of dealing with Muslim families where polygamy is sometimes practiced. Of course, polygamy is pretty common here among Filipino Christians as well (Amazing how many Filipino men I have known or know of who have more than one family simultaneously). Often the concern is what to do where a man who has more than one wife comes to Christ. <Note: unless saying otherwise, when I refer to polygamy, I am referring to polygyny— one man multiple wives… since that is the most common form of polygamous families. I won’t address other versions here.>

Bibilical/Ethical Look at Polygamy

One of the challenges is that popular Christianity tends to set up an overly simple ethics. There is a tendency of seeing things as either JPW (Just plain wrong) or GAR (Good and righteous). But the Bible doesn’t really support such a simple taxonomy. A lot of behavior is in the vast expanse between these two extremes. Much of Wisdom literature in the Bible supports a far more nuanced understanding of appropriate behavior. The same can be said of the Book of James, as well as the Pauline and Johannine Epistles… and the teachings of Jesus. Life choices are not simply based on a set of Don’ts… and that if one avoids the Don’ts than you have done everything right.There is a lot of middle ground.

Polygamy appears to be in that strange middle ground. It is pretty clear that God’s ideal is monogamy. That ideal can be supported a number of ways:

  • God created the ideal family in an ideal world in terms of one man and one woman.(I am not suggesting that the nuclear family is ideal while the extended family is not. Presumably, the ideal nuclear family would have developed into the ideal extended family in time.)
  • God created the sexes to be born in approximately equal numbers (approximately 50/50).
  • In the New Testament, church leaders were supposed to be “one woman men.” It is pretty amazing how often people try to apply this guideline to divorce… but it is really more about character and fidelity. However, I don’t believe there is any way of avoiding the prohibition of an actively polygamous church leader. (I am completely avoiding the question of divorce here. A divorcee is not actively polygamous. That is a topic for a different day.) And since, church leaders were to be examples to their members, it is likely that church members were ideally not in polygamous families.
  • Polygamous families described in the Old Testament are shown in a fairly negative light… and the negative aspects are often tied directly to tensions caused by the polygamous relationships. Feel free to look that up yourself.

I suppose one more thing could be added. Marriage is used as a metaphor, both in the Old and New Testament for revealing God’s ideal and faithful relationship with us. A polygamous relationship kind of messes up the metaphor, in my opinion. I had a friend (actually he worked for me), who had a wife in Arkansas and a girlfriend in Virginia. One day, we were drinking cappuccino on a beach in the South of France. He looked at me and said, “You know sir, it is hard to be faithful to two women.” I think he was joking… he could be pretty funny. But it is true. Being faithful to two women is to be unfaithful to both. The founder of Islam said that a man can have more than one wife as long as he treated them equally. Some have suggested that this was his way of saying that one can only have one wife… since it is impossible to treat two wives equally. I am not sure the statement suggests such a subtle logic. But for me, the logic is pretty clear— since it is IMPOSSIBLE to treat two or more wives equally, problems are bound to happen, and so it is problematic at best, and dangerous at worst to have multiple wives.

On the other hand, there are arguments that could be made that polygamous families are allowed, or even supported in the Bible.

  • The Bible does not directly and unambiguously prohibit all polygamous families.While I believe the claim of the founders of Mormonism that God ordained, and even commanded, polygamy is clearly untrue, I will say that the Bible does recognize the legitimacy of a polygamous family.
  • A number of the patriarchs in the Old Testament were polgyamists.
  • At least in one case (Levirate marriage, Deuteronomy 25:5-10) a polygamous family appears to be directly allowed… perhaps even encouraged.

Bringing these together, it could be said that Polygamy is not absolutely forbidden… a sin that must be stopped at all cost, but rather as an undesirable social institution.

Sociological Issue

I have to admit that for me, I see having more than one wife as a form of self-abuse. Here in the Philippines, many men who travel will maintain separate families. The juggling of responsibilities— and the economic drain— seems exhausting to me. Having these families in the same household seems likely to reduce some of the economic burden and secrecy burden, but greatly increase other problems from relational dynamics. Why create the extra drama?

And it is not just the men who can suffer. I have known some women who had been second wives in a polygamous family. The tensions in that setting eventually drove them away from that setting, as well as the religion that allowed or even encouraged that system.

But if it served no sociological needs, it would die out. Actually, in many parts of the world it has died out as a formal institution.There does, however, appear to be sociological reasons for its perpetuity.

With the problems with polygamy found in the Old Testament as well as today, why would it ever be done? First, Polygamy can be seen as a measure of status (for the man, and potentially as well for the first wife). I have known Muslim men express sadness that they lacked the economic position to afford to have a second wife. I wish I had asked them clarification on this. Did they want to have more money so as to have a second wife, or have the status that is associated with having a second wife? However, when biology ensures that there are approximately equal numbers of men and women, there is a true sense of “zero sum” game, where men gain status through taking away eligible women from men lacking status. This causes problems in many places (the FLDS is an excellent case study in this).

A second possibility is to compensate for a shortage of men. In some settings there is a larger number of women than men due to fighting… so polygamous families compensates for this. During the time of the OT Patriarchs, the common governance was associated with bands, clans, and tribes. In these settings, laws are more informal… blood feuds, and warring clashes are more common. In such a setting, polygamy may meet a genuine social need.

A third possibility is where clan structure and relationships are considered important enough to maintain. The Levirate marriage in Deuteronomy, seeking to ensure the maintaining of a family name and inheritance, or Sororate marriages in some other cultures. are examples of this.

A fourth argument I have heard is one I heard from a Muslim scholar. He stated that multiple marriages are better than prostitution or adultery. In other words, guys are going to commit adultery, so one may as well legitimize such relationships. (I will not address the Shiite “4-hour” marriages.) I struggle with that logic. If something is a bad idea, pointing out something that MIGHT be worse is weak at best. Further, that logic could also be used to justify polyandrous families— something that Islam rejects, I believe.

Bringing These Together

So is polygamy inherently a sin? I think the answer is NO. Does it mean that it is okay? I think the answer is NO. I think polygamy is a SYMPTOM of sin. It can be a societal sin like clan warfare. It can be a cultural sin like dubious basis for status (much like having a vacation home and 3SUVs may be a poor basis for status in some other cultures). It can be a personal sin, like trying to legitimize lust.

I believe that looking at polygamy as a symptom of a problem, rather than inherently a sin, puts things in a better light to address it in the mission field.

Response

The solution to a problem should not be worse than the problem itself. On an individual basis, if a man (or woman) who is part of a polygamous family comes to Christ, I don’t believe the church should seek to break up the family. I don’t believe the church should reject the family members. Breaking up a family is a serious thing. In all but the most extreme cases, it should be avoided. Not allowing Christians to join a church is also a pretty serious thing as well.

The husband, who is now a Christian needs to be a righteous man with regards to his wives and children. To drive one wife from the home with (or without) her children is certainly unrighteous. Some have suggested that fidelity is achieved by being sexually faithful to one wife, and sexually distanced from the other(s). Ultimately, that is just a different form of infidelity, Obviously, things do get complicated depending on the setting. Here in the Philippines, Christian men, as noted before, may have two separate families who don’t know each other. Only one has legal status. The man needs to find a way to be righteous and responsible with both families… but how to do that may be challenging. Complete rejection of one family should not be encouraged by the church.

The local church should accept that this is part of their past, that still holds relevance today (much like embarrassing body art from a wild past will endure in a Christian today). The church should spend less time trying to break up the family (which is a sin), and spend more time on fighting the actual sins (societal, cultural, and personal) that undergird the symptom of polygamy.

Thoughts on the Camel Method

I had asked my students in my Asian Faiths class to read the Camel Method. It is a method for sharing the Christian Gospel to Muslims utilizing a few select passages from the Qur’an. I asked my students to talk about their thoughts on this method. I then responded with the (somewhat amended) posting:

I noticed that pretty much all of the comments regarding the Camel Method were rather positive. Nothing wrong with that. I definitely think there are times that the Camel Method can be valuable (although I have never tried it). However, there are some people who don’t like the Camel Method. Their views are worth considering.

1.  Some reject the use of other religion’s holy writings to teach the gospel, utilizing “the devil’s words.” I really don’t want to get into the argument of theories regarding Scriptures of other religions. However, to me, the Qur’an is good to the extent it expresses truth, and bad to the extent it expresses falsehood. If we use parts of the the Qur’an that clearly express truth, we are not doing wrong, I believe.

2.  Some reject the use of the Qur’an not because it is “wrong” to do so, but because we need to help people trust the Bible more, not the Qur’an. They are suggesting that when we use the Qur’an, we are giving the impression that it is authoritative. I understand that argument… but in the end, we need to start with where they are at. 

For example, suppose a Mormon is trying to convert you to Mormonism. He (or she) is not going to start quoting you verses from “The Book of Mormon” or “The Pearl of Great Price” or “Doctrines and Covenants.” He knows that you don’t recognize any of those works as authoritative. He will instead quote you verses from the Holy Bible, despite the fact that Mormons believe that the Holy Bible is tainted by mistranslations and editing. He knows that you will immediately reject anything shared to you from The Book of Mormon. You really need to start with what the person values or thinks is authoritative.

In fact, let me give you a more specific example. A business guest of my father visited and when he had gone we found that he had left a copy of the Book of Mormon behind. I did decide to read it, which I am sure is what he wanted. I was actually expecting it to be more interesting than what it was, but interest is a subjective thing of course. But in that book the guest had left a bookmark and that bookmark had Book of Mormon verses that were supposed to demonstrate its authenticity. I remember one was a verse reference to show that the Book of Mormon had “predicted” the coming of Christopher Columbus to the New World. I can imagine that such a reference would be quite comforting to a Mormon who believes that work to be an ancient document originally written onto gold. But for a non-Mormon who is quite convinced that it was written in the 1800s by Joseph Smith, any reference that could be thought of as referring to Columbus would be absolutely unconvincing.

3.  Some will caution the use of the Camel Method because some Muslims will be offended at Christians using the Qur’an. This is actually a somewhat valid concern.  For example, I have heard Muslims use the passage in the Gospel according to St. John where Jesus says He is sending a Comforter, as a prophecy of the coming of Muhammad. My natural tendency is to get a bit offended at a Muslim ripping a verse out of the Holy Bible, rejecting the broader context of the passage, and abusing its meaning to support his/her own theology. I think the Camel Method can be useful, but be careful in its use. Some may react negatively to the message.

4.  Others will note that while the Camel Method can be effective with some Muslims, it will not be for others. For those who are very serious students of the Qur’an will recognize that the person using the Camel Method is very much selecting certain ayah (verses) from the book, while ignoring others. This is much like the case study from one of my students where a Muslim friend used one verse in John where Jesus avoided admitting to deity (or at least was quite vague), while avoiding numerous places where Jesus’ used quite strong statements about who He was. The other group that is likely not to respond are those who know little to nothing about the Qur’an. If challenged from the Qur’an, they are likely not respond… or at most go ask their imam about it. Most Muslims are like most Christians— somewhat nominal in the practice of their faith, being more strongly connected to their religion by culture than belief. For such people, dreams, signs and wonders, and acts of kindness may be more effective.

Overall, I would say that acts of kindness (expressions of Christian love) is the strongest foundation for witnessing to a Muslim. However, being loving without a message may just lead the person to thinking that you are a nice person. The Camel Method provides a way of supplementing the expression of the Great Commandment, not a trick to share the gospel without love and kindness.

The Magi and The Preparation for the Gospel

Praeparatio Evangelica, or preparation for the Gospel, is a term used referring to the belief that God has sown seeds of the gospel message in other cultures that will only fully bear fruit with the arrival of the message of Bible. Don Richardson believes that redemptive analogies, stories or images within a culture that express in some way the Christian gospel message, is a form of this preparation of the Gospel. With this thought, redemptive analogies are discovered rather than created.

This point can be questioned. The Bible uses Roman adoption as a redemptive analogy. Does this mean that God created the adoption process within that culture so as to provide a way of expressing an honor-shame redemptive analogy to contrast the guilt-innocence redemptive analogy associated with the Roman justice system (which then was also created by God)? Still there are missionary stories of redemptive analogies within a culture that seem too good to be accidents. More broadly, can truths in other religions be said to have been created by God to prepare for the full gospel, or should they be seen as man-made expressions of human longings that can be used as bridges for the gospel.

Rowan Williams speaks of the Magi in terms of the how other faiths can serve as a preparation for the gospel. He notes how the Magi, perhaps Zoroastian and most likely drawing from the long-standing tradition of astrology from Babylon and Persia, were led by a star. Williams notes that the star led them to close to the new King, but ultimately to the wrong house. The limited understanding that their belief system contained brought them to the court of Herod the Great, not to a house in Bethlehem. It actually took Holy Scripture to bring them the rest of the way. This could point both to the possibility and limitation of this preparation. Ultimately, the Magi found the Christ, while those who had the Hebrew Scriptures in the palace in Jerusalem did not bother to travel approximately 10 kilometers to see for themselves. <Refer to N.T. Wright’s podcast, “#49 Other Faiths, Judaism and Gnosticism,” Ask N.T. Wright Anything. December 18, 2020.>

“Missions in Samaria” Published

I decided to publish my short book “Missions in Samaria.” It

Samaria Front Cover
seeks to address a simple question. Why does Jesus specifically mention Samaria in the Acts 1:8 version of the Great Commandment. The book looks at Samaria as both a historical place and a metaphor for places we may face today. At this time, I have only made available a Kindle version online. If you want to check that out, you can click here: Kindle Version. This book is about 10 pages longer, and modestly edited from an original version that I put online. That version is free on this website. You can click on the following post to access that free PDF: Post for Free PDF.

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.

 

 

 

Three Dimensions of Despair

DESPAIR

I was reading a dissertation I happen to like (“Pastoral Variables In Psychotherapy:
Aa Instrument For Assessment” by David C. Stancil), I found some research he had done on the issue of despair and the related issue of hopelessness.  I want to hit on a few things from that work.

Stancil refers to Irving Yalom who describes how despair relates to three temporal dimensions (past, present, and future).

Despair affecting the Past:     Isolation

Despair affecting the Present:     Meaninglessness

Despair affecting the Future:      Death

Despair relates to the Past in terms of Isolation. The following is a quote from Stancil’s dissertation on Isolation:

Yalom suggested that, even from birth, “our existence begins with a solitary, lonely cry, anxiously awaiting a response,” a cry which is far deeper than that of a startle response or of hunger. This cry is one of isolation, which is met by what Yalom calls the silence of “cosmic indifference.” Human isolation, which begins at birth and remains a constant companion throughout life, has the three-fold qualities of being interpersonal (loneliness), intrapersonal (dissociation), and transpersonal (existential). This isolation is the same as that lamented by Sartre and Camus, and has the same result: meaninglessness.  <Dissertation. Chapter 3, page 12>

Despair relates to the Present in terms of Meaninglessness. We cannot survive without some form of meaning. It seems (quite literally perhaps) to be “part of our DNA.” We need purpose and meaning in our lives. We want to know “Why am I here?” The answer that “I am an accident that converts complex organic substances into other complex organic substances in a Universe headed inexhorably toward thermal death” is not very satisfying, to say the least. We thirst for something more.

Despair relates to the Future in terms of Death. Of course, death is our allotted future— every one of us. However, in a state of despair, death moves into the present and haunts and posons the mind. Death is the ultimate fear— non-existence? the void? the great unknown? Death levels the playing field bringing king and slave together… and making anything that we do potentially seem futile. It may be quite healthy to recognize our own mortality. But in despair, death compounds isolation and meaninglessness. Quoting Lily Tomlin, “We are all in this alone.” But death seems to bring us to that ultimate meaningless isolation from all that could bring purpose and connection.

Considering these aspects of Despair, in Christian ministry/missions we need to deal, at the very least, with all of these dimensions.

  1.  Death. In missions, this is the one that we deal with most directly.  Salvation is often presented (marketed?) in terms of freedom from death. It is a “get out of jail” free card from ultimate destruction. This is a very important aspect for addressing despair. But do Christians who have assurance of salvation still struggle with despair? Absolutely. So we need to consider the other two.
  2. Meaninglessness. Salvation must be more than simply a victory over death. It must also give meaning. It should do more than suggest that “we as Christians have a purpose.” It should go further to “I have a reason for which I have been created, and in fulfiling that reason, given by God, I have meaning.” If meaning is grounded in God, then part of purpose in ministry is to connect people to God in terms of this purpose and pilgrimmage.  But can Christians recognize victory over death, and have a sense of purpose, still feel despair? I believe so. There is one more dimension.
  3. Isolation. Salvation must always be tied to relationship. Part of that relationship is with God. We can now consider God as our (very good) Father, Christ as our loving shepherd, and the Spirit as our Comforter.  But God created us as a social species. We need human connections as well. The church is meant to be a family, augmenting the biological family. It is meant to create a community of faith that also has purpose as a group and as individual members within the group.

I would argue that any presentation of Christian salvation that focuses only on Death (or perhaps Death and Suffering) is woefully sub-Biblical.

I think it would be worthwhile to also list Pastoral Theologian Andrew Lester‟s Characteristics and Dynamics of Hope and Hopelessness. These provide another way to look at Despair (or hopelessness) and how the Christian message must address these different aspects. <One could also add Jones’ Theological Worlds as giving guidance on five dimensions that must be addressed, but I will not address this here.

HOPE                                        HOPELESSNESS
Future Oriented         Past Oriented or Present Bound
Realistic                                         Unrealistic
Possibilities                               Impossibilities
Communal/Relational        Isolationist/Separatist
Personal Power                 Helplessness/Powerlessness
Positive God-Images              Negative God Image

(Stancil’s Dissertation, Chapter 3, page 7.)

If you want to read this dissertation, it is available online.

http://www.dcstancil.com/yahoo_site_admin/assets/docs/Complete_Dissertation.139183700.pdf

Dialogue Lessons from Westboro

I was watching a TED Talk of Megan Phelps-Roper. Image result for westboro baptistShe was raised up in Westboro Baptist Church, a small church in the United States known for its “hate speech.” Now I know sometimes people use the term “hate speech” pretty loosely, but I think most anyone would say that Westboro’s words and actions would fit the term “hate speech.”

Megan Phelps-Roper grew up in the church, part of the Phelps clan that founded and dominate the membership of that church. She actively supported the activities of the church but in her Twitter conversations with people who were part of groups that she was trained to hate, she gradually saw things differently. Today she supports open dialogue between different religious and politcal groups. I found two interesting things in her short presentation.

First, she noted the possible value of Social Media to break down barriers. She noted how social media helped her to see others differently. I found that surprising. Years ago I spent time on the religion forum of Compuserve (yes 30 years ago). We did talk to each other– people of other faiths. But we had people who maintained “decorum on the forum.” That was because there were people who loved to “flame.” They loved to attack other people. Seems strange that people who are interested in religion would want to attack each other— but history doesn’t lie. I actually got reprimanded once on the forum for using the weird and childish term “royally pissed.”  But over the years, and especially with most social media having little enforcement of standards of any sort, the situation has gotten worse. Trolls abound, and the comment section of many sites are just filled with mindless rage, vulgarity, filth, and generally ‘trollery.’ Why would they do this. I don’t know for sure, but as my youngest daughter said just tonight, “It is hard for people to see others as people behind a wall of text.” I find it strange that social media, a realm dominated by confirmation bias and pushback, could be a place to find acceptance from others. But as Megan noted, some responded differently than she expected. Some that she expressed hate against, responded in like manner reinforcing what she already thought about them (no surprise there). But some responded differently. That different response gradually led her to question what she believed.

Second, she listed four simple guidelines for cyber-dialogue. I like collecting lists for interreligious dialoge. This 4-point list has merit, and has the advantage of being pretty simple. I will list them with my own spin as commentary.

  • Don’t Assume Bad Intent. In fact, even in the case of Westboro, they believe they are right and that in spreading their message they are helping to make the world more moral— a better place. People rarely share their deeply held beliefs because they want to ruin people and make the world worse (although sometimes it is quite easy to wonder).
  • Ask Questions. People often want to talk but not listen. But asking helps you learn. It also makes the other person more likely to try to understand you. Counterintuitively, we best get people to trust us by our asking favors from them. When we go to others with honest questions and a willingness to learn, we build trust.
  • Stay Calm.  It is tempting to get angry and lash out. Fear and anger are responses to threats. We commonly aren’t that good at training our emotional response. We allow a hippocampus takeover based on words put on a computer screen in much the way of a direct physical threat to our family. In case of physical threat, such a response may be useful. In cyber-dialogue it is almost always counterproductive. Megan actually noted a strength of social media because it is easier to pause or disconnect than it is in a direct face-to-face encounter. People often revel in a lack of calmness on the Web, but the medium actually makes calmness easier.
  • Make the Argument. If you truly believe something is true and you have good intent that the world would be a better place if they agree, than explain it so others can understand. Often, we think our views are so awesome that we don’t take the time to think about it as others would. We have bumpersticker phrases that support our views even though others may not see it that way. Often those who do try to make the argument aren’t thoughtful in their explanation, but focus more on ad hominem arguments or logical “face moves.” Creating effective arguments may not only change others’ minds, they may lead to changing our own.

Megan Phelps-Roper is not a practicing Christian, and she would not now describe herself as a Christian. She saw Christianity (in the broadest sense of the term) at its worst. I can hardly condemn her for turning away. Condemnation has little value anyway, as has been shown over and over at Westboro Baptist Church.

You can see the short video by CLICKING HERE.

Advice for Undertrained Missionaries like John Chau | by Jackson Wu

Please click on the link below to Jackson Wu’s blog.    (If you don’t want to read my comments…. then click here now  Advice for undertrained missionaries like John Chau | Jackson Wu).  It has a great article on the recent situation regarding John Chau, and his ill-fated contact with the North Sentinalese. Actually, it is the second of two articles he wrote on the subject. The first one points out that fallacy that many have that since the plan didn’t work, it was a bad idea. It also points out that passion is very different than competence. Bad ideas work… sometimes. and likewise good ideas can fail.

I would also argue that people’s initial “kneejerk” responses to situations like this are often wrong. Some label Chau a great martyr. I am not sure of this. The church in the early centuries modified its standards for the title “martyr” to require more than simply dying for one’s faith. One also had to be an example to others. This was because some in the early church would intentionally go into harm’s way and do something that could be anticipated to lead to death. But the Church Fathers felt that being a good example to the church was also needed to be considered a martyr. Therefore, a martyr avoided high risk confrontation, but when captured would be faithful unto death. On the other side, some consider Chau a fool. These people appear to be expressing a bit of snarky schadenfreude. Arguably most all of us are fools in one way or another. The fact that his actions happened to lead to his early death hardly makes him a greater fool than the rest of us.

Anyway here is the article  via Advice for undertrained missionaries like John Chau | Jackson Wu

Listening at the Mosque

Each year in my Dialogue with Asian Relgions class, I have my students visit a local mosque. I also have them visit the Sikh temple and the Budhist temple. And sometimes other places are visited. The Sikh temple has been the favorite so far. But I especially want them to visit the mosque and the Buddhist temple since those are the places of worship of the two groups that my students are most likely to interact with with regards to other world religions.

The experience at the mosque is always different. I tell my students, however, that they are not to proselytize. They are to listen and to learn.

Each year there is some small attempt by those at the mosque to try to persuade my students that they really should join their religion. I am glad they do this because I want my students to learn the art of listening. If they learn the art of listening, they learn a skill that few if any have mastered.

A few years ago, the presentation the imam used to try to gently suggest that the students should become Muslim was pretty abysmal. The argument boiled down to something like “Islam is not a religion but an ideology. It has adherents in every country on earth and is the fastest growing.” If one was of a mind to argue one might respond with “#1. There is no clear line separating ideology and religion, and since Islam has chosen to embrace most of the trappings of a traditional religion, calling it an ideology does nothing to enlighten. #2.  Christianity has adherents in every country on earth as well. It would be pretty likely that this would be true of Hinduism and Buddhism as well. Hardly an interesting bit of trivia. #3. In sheer numbers Islam is growing faster than Christianity right now, but both religions have gone back and forth over the centuries in who is winning the adherent race. Not very persuasive, and even less so in that many religions have a growth rate (including Evangelical Christianity) that far outstrips Islam. And finally, the ideology of secularism right now is almost certainly growing in numbers faster than either Christianity of Islam.”  Sorry, did not mean to turn it into an argument. But you can see that the presentation was really poor.

Last year one of the young men at the tawhid school there tentatively tried to start a debate. My students told him that they were not there to argue but to listen and learn. (I love it when my students listen to my instructions. Some years they do not.)

This year, my students described the presentation my the mosque leadership as “persuasive.” That is quite different from what has come back to me in the past. Therefore, I asked them to talk about the presentation. A few key points came up:

First, The presenters first noted the many things in common between Christianity and Islam. We worship the same God (well… sort of). They (Muslims) see the Old and New Testaments of the Bible as written by God, and they also see Jesus as a prophet of God and a miracle worker.

Second, They noted differences after first noting the similarities. They see the Bible as having become distorted due to copy errors and translation, thus explaining why it disagrees with the Quran, Hadith, and Islamic theology. They also noted that they do not see Jesus as being one with God.

So why did my students find this presentation to be more persuasive than that from previous years? Clearly, there were problems with their presenation. The part where they say that Jesus is not part of the Godhead is hardly new. Most people are well aware that Muslims see God as having oneness without discernible divisions. They also balk at most anything that presents God in terms of immanence (with the exception of some Sufist groups). The part where they suggest that the Bible would agree with the Quran and Islamic beliefs if it weren’t copy and translation errors… well as seminary students they knew that this is highly dubious. We have the Bible available in the original languages so there is no errors from that. As far as copy errors, perhaps 300 years ago that argument may have sounded plausible. But in the last couple of centuries there have been great strides in textual criticism. It is pretty clear that there are substantive differences between the message of the original autographs of the Bible and the message of the founder of Islam (as it was compiled a few decades after his death at least).

Since the second part of the presentation wasn’t very compelling, presumably what made it compelling would be the first pat. This was the part where the presenter pointed out all the things that Muslims and Christians can agree with. Of course, these agreements were a bit deceptive. To say that Muslims agree that the Bible was from God, but since they teach that it is reliable only to the extent that it was correctly transmitted– and correct transmission is only recognized if it doesn’t disagree with the Quran— the Bible is given NO AUTHORITY by the followers of Islamic teaching. However, that is not whay my students heard. They did not hear the presenters say that Muslims give the Bible no authority. What they heard was that Muslims believe they Bible was given by God.

This is classic marketing, right out of Dale Carnegie. Carnegie noted that to influence another person, get them as soon as possible to say “Yes” to you or “I agree.” Additionally, to get them to agree with you, you agree with them as much as you possibly can. A lot of Christian evangelists and evangelistic presentations seem more focused on disagreeing with or discounting others beliefs.

Interestingly, Paul focused on agreement in his presentation to the Athenians. He agreed with the philosophers on many many things, before finally bringing up the divisive point of the resurrection of Christ.

What the presenters at the mosque did was actually what we as Christians should be doing. Start with finding common ground and agrement, before bringing up differences. Although their argument was, to be honest here, a bit weak, it sounded strogner because they started with building agreement from the beginning.

In sharing our faith, we should START WITH AGREEMENT, NOT ATTACK AND NOT ARGUMENT!

Dreaming Small in a “post-Christendom” World

I am reading through the dissertation of one of my students when I was struck by a quote. She quoted Ed Stetzer who was in turn quoting Douglas John Hall.

“Our Lord’s metaphors for his community of witness were all of them modest ones: a little salt, a little yeast, a little light. Christendom tried to be great, large, magnificent. It thought itself the object of God’s expansive grace; it forgot the meaning of its election to worldly responsibility.”

(Ed Stetzer, Planting New Churches in a Postmodern Age, 15)

This quote reminds me of one of my favorite posts, “Dream SMALL!!!” Feel free to read it HERE.

The context of the above quote is that of three eras of church history, as suggested by Alan Kreider (also referenced by my student):

  • pre-Christendom EraImage result for small
  • Christendom Era
  • post-Christendom Era

The pre-Christendom era began to end with Emperor Constantine (circa 311AD). The Christendom era began to disolve between the two World Wars. In Christendom, the Church and State are strongly linked.

I am a citizen of the United States and I minister in the Philippines. The Philippines is a product of Christendom. The archipelago was made up of many different peoples who did not have common identity until Spain came with a cross in one hand and a sword in the other. The first 300 years of its collective identity found Church and State strongly linked together. Since then the Philippine identity has been more complicated.

The United States has been complicated from the very beginning. I have many friends back home that will loudly declare that the United States “is a Christian nation.” They argue that the US was founded on Christian principles and has some unique link between the Christian faith and the governance and identity of the US. I also have friends that make a nearly opposite claim— that the United States is the first “secular state.” The US governance radically separated ecclesiastical power from civil power, and absolutely rejected the notion of a “state religion.” Both views have strong support (as well as weak aspects). Probably a more accurate statement than either is that “The United States was the first post-Christendom nation.” The governance of the US was not founded on rejection of Christianity. On the other hand, it was seeking to break free from the strong link between church and state found in Europe. It was post-Christendom.

That is not to say that everyone was comfortable with that back then, or now. I am a Baptist missionary. I find it interesting that the Protestant Reformation was a challenge to (Catholic) Christendom in Western Europe. The Baptists, Anabaptists, and other Dissenter groups challenged the Westphalian Christendom accepted by both Catholics and Protestants. Despite this double-strength rejection of Christendom, Baptists are likely as any other group to struggle with understanding the Christian faith in post-Christendom terms.

We like “Big Dream” metaphors:. War (“Onward Christian Soldiers, Marching as to War), Victory, and “Civilization.”

But the metaphors of pre-Christendom are small— As noted by Hall above, Jesus utilized yeast, salt, and light to describe Kingdom of God. That is interesting since the term “Kingdom” sounds big and much in tune with the thoughts of Christendom. Yet, Jesus makes it clear that the Kingdom is small— it is here and not here— it is inside of us… it is a bit of yeast worked into dough, a tiny seed hidden in the soil. It is a small grapevine in a big vineyard. Paul’s metaphors are not any bigger. The church is as a human body, or as a family.

In post-Christendom we can disengage our faith from our culture. We are not stressed out whether our government is passing laws that make our faith practice more comfortable or less comfortable. We are not concerned whether geopolitics appears to be working in our (however we define “our”) favor vice anothers’. We can be that bit of salt, light, and yeast used by God to transform bit by bit where we are.

Our language is not “Winning the world for Christ,” but being a witness of God’s grace to my neighbor and being an agent of transformation in my community. As I noted in the other post, “Dream SMALL!!!,” the Great Commission is actually pretty small— share your faith with someone, bring them into the church body, disciple them to be faithful followers of Christ, and repeat. It’s success is in its smallness— a perfect process for the post-Christendom world.