St. Francis and the Sultan

St. Francis of Assisi and his trip to Cairo to meet with Sultan al Kamil is a very interesting chapter in a very ugly story (the Crusades). Part of what I like about it is that it involves dialogue between two people who were passionate about what they believed, while still being able to respect each other, speaking and listening.

A nice article on this is located at http://www.sufiways.com.   The article is:

St. Francis of Assisi and Sultan al-Kamil: A Bold Christian-Muslim Encounter

The Cost of Holy Languages

welshI typed in Google about “speaking holy language” and got a lot of websites discussing or arguing or maybe pontificating about the following:

  • Is speaking in tongues (ecstatic speach) a holy language?  <No. ecstatic speach doesn’t have the structural qualities of a language so it is not a language– holy or otherwise.>
  • What is the language of heaven? <The Bible says that heaven is populated with people of every language. Based on that, Pentecost, and how God created us a language innovators, it seems safest to say that Heaven is joyously multi-lingual.>
  • What does Paul mean in his (rhetorical?) use of the expression “tongues of angels”?  <Since angels are messengers— communicators— of God to people, clearly they speak the languages of the people they talk to. One might argue that their God-given task requires that they be very multi-lingual. Since that would make a lot of sense to the context of the passage in I Corinthians 13, I feel that answer would suffice.>

What I really wanted to look at was what is the cost of having Holy Languages. A sacred language, “holy language” (in religious context) or liturgical language is any language that is cultivated and used primarily in religious service or for other religious reasons by people who speak another, primary language in their daily life.”  <A wikipedia answer>

Many religions have holy languages. These would include 7th century Arabic for Islam, and Sanskrit in Hinduism. Many Christian denominations (Roman Catholic, Coptic, Greek Orthodox, Tewahedo among others) utilize a langauge that in many cases is no longer spoken by the population outside of religious settings. In many religions part of the entry to being a religious scholar is to be trained in the sacred language of the religion. The religious services are held in and sacred Scriptures are written in a language that is barely known by the adherents to that religion. On a practical level, doing so has some advantages. For one, it leaves the interpretation of doctrines in the hands of the few professionals,  keeping ecclesiastical power in the hands of a few (and this is certainly an advantage for those few). It strengthens uniformity and historical connections by having a universal liturgy. Further, it seems cheaper and safer since  translation is expensive and some leaders worry that translation may lead to false teachings proliferating. Probably most importantly, people often see the language as mystically associated with that which is transcendent or otherworldly. In effect, some feel that the mystery that is associated with religious ritual is cheapened by the use of vernacular language.

But is there a cost to holy languages as well.

  1.  False teaching. This seems to contradict what I wrote above, but that is intentional. I disagree that translation leads to false teaching. For doctrine to reach the common people who do not understand the “holy language,” either they must learn the language and then translate it (poorly most likely) internally into their own heart language, or rely on a trained person to translate it and interpret it. Translation is going to happen no matter what. The translation can either be done by a group of experts in creating vernacular texts, or it can be done poorly by the people or by individual ministers to the people. Additionally, making the people too dependent on the words of individual clerics gives them an awful lot of power and leads to the temptation to abuse or misinform. (Go to Youtube and see what individual “experts” can do to twist and misinform people who are dependent on them for their understanding of Scripture.)
  2. The Faith fails to cross cultural or religious boundaries. One of the best examples of this is the case of Christianity in North Africa. With the Muslim invasion in the 7th century, the Latin church slowly faded away. In fact there are relatively few places in the world where established Christianity completely disappeared. Why would it? While there certainly was religious bigotry and taxation and the typical ways religious majorities use their power to abuse minorities, the biggest issue seemed to be an error of the Christians themselves. They never sought to reach out to the Berber peoples in North Africa and never made the Christian faith (in terms of text, liturgy, and music) available in Berber or Punic languages. As such, Christianity was the religion of the favored Latin peoples in North Africa. But with the Muslim invasion, the favored minority became an unfavored minority.
  3. Culture becomes canon.  If one doesn’t really have the authority of Scripture available for the people, a syncretized culture commonly develops, and that culture becomes the guide for faith behavior rather than Scripture. Here in the Philippines is a great example of a syncretized folk Christianity that developed out of a Christianity that was presented in a thoroughly foreign language– Latin. The Bible was completely unavailable in local languages until the very end of the 19th century. Vernacular liturgy was unavailable until around the 1970s or so. Of course, many of us know the conflict William Carey had with the Indian practice of widow burning. This practice was perpetuated in part because it was seen as a religiously supported practice, not just a cultural practice. Carey promoted translation of Hindu Scriptures in to Bengla partly to show that the practice was not supported by their canon.

Of course, vernacular faith does not guarantee that there are no problems. Americanism (a term coined to describe a strange mix of Evangelical Christianity with capitalism, nationalism, and militarism, and power politics) still exists despite a plethora of vernacular translations of the Bible. Within Islam, while it is certain that Jihadist madrassas have been helped to promote violence through sloppy exegesis of their faith, that does not mean that first language Arabic speakers are immune from such propoganda.

What to Do with the Unresponsive?

unresponsiveOne of my students is writing on the mission work of Paul as it may provide insight to his ministerial context. Describing the targets of Paul’s work, my student described three groups. First, he noted that Paul reached out to Jews. He would go to the synagogue and share Jesus as Messiah, Lord, and Savior. Paul would present Jesus through the Hebrew Bible. Second, Paul would reach out to Gentiles. These would include both the God-fearers, who he may find in the synagogues, and others that might be labeled as pagans. The presentation of the Gospel for the Gentiles starts out from Creation and a benevolent God, rather than Hebrew Scripture, and Israel’s redemptive history.

But then my student added a third group. That was the Responsive. I felt that was redundant. If one wanted to speak of three groups, one could choose Jews, God-fearers, and Pagans. But as I read, I could see why it made sense. My student was following the thought of Roland Allen, that a key to Paul was not just in who he targeted, but also who he did not target. Paul did not focus on those who were not (fairly quickly found) responsive. Not everyone would feel that way. One of the books we read for Evangelism class was nice in many ways, but the writer promoted a “don’t take NO as an answer” attitude.

My student quoted a passage from Roland Allen’s classic “Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours?” (p. 75 of the 1962 printing by Eerdmans)”:

The possibility of rejection was ever present. St. Paul did not establish himself in a place  and go on preaching for years to men who refused to act on his teaching. When once he had brought them to a point where decision was clear, he demanded that they should make their choice. If they rejected him, he rejected them. The ‘shaking of the lap,’ the ‘shaking of the dust from the feet,’ the refusal to teach those who refused to act on the teaching, was a vital part of the Pauline presentation of the Gospel. He did not simply go away,’ he openly rejected those who showed themselves unworthy of his teaching. It was part of the Gospel that men might ‘judge themselves unworthy of eternal life.’ It is a question which needs serious consideration whether the Gospel can be truly presented if this element is left out. Can there be a true teaching which does not involve the refusal to go on teaching? The teaching of the Gospel is not a mere intellectual instruction: it is a moral process, and involves a moral response. If then we go on teaching where that moral response is refused, we cease to preach the Gospel; we make the teaching a mere education of the intellect.

I wouldn’t say it is strongly as Allen, and I am not sure that Paul would either. Most adults who convert to Christianity, in the US at least, do not do so on the initial presentation. Still, there is an underlying truth that is worth dwelling on.

There is a similarity between Paul’s strategy and Jesus’ strategy in Luke 10. Jesus sent out his disciples to different villages 2 by 2. They would minister in different villages. If people were responsive, Jesus would come there for more ministry. If the people were not responsive, the disciples were to shake the dust of the village from their feet (taking nothing, not even dust). They would then go onto the next village. The 12 were sent out on one occasion and they were to focus on Jewish villages. On a different occasion 70 (or 72) were sent out with no constraints. As far as we know, they went to all — Jewish, Samaritan, and Pagan villages. We know that Jesus prioritized Jews, and yet reached out to Samaritan and Gentile communities as well.

In missions there has been an argument as to who should be targeted.  Should one target the hardest soils or the easiest soils? Some would say that one should reach the easiest soils. If people are coming to Christ, if the Spirit appears to be working in a place, then we should be putting our efforts there. Others would say that we need to target the hardest soils, the UPGs (unreached people groups). We need to reach everyone and especially those who have not been reached because they are difficult.

Perhaps with Jesus and Paul, we see a FAIRLY OBVIOUS synthesis:

  • Share the message with everyone
  • Focus on those who respond

One could argue that is a reasonable lesson from the Parable of the Four Soils. Some soil is going to be productive, while some soils mostly won’t. But the sower doesn’t decide that. He spreads the seeds everywhere and then tends what grows.

Misinformation in the 2nd Century

Three things are alleged against us: atheism, Thyestean feasts, Image result for athenagoras 2nd century

Œdipodean intercourse. But if these charges are true, spare no class: proceed at once against our crimes; destroy us root and branch, with our wives and children, if any Christian is found to live like the brutes. And yet even the brutes do not touch the flesh of their own kind; and they pair by a law of nature, and only at the regular season, not from simple wantonness; they also recognise those from whom they receive benefits. If any one, therefore, is more savage than the brutes, what punishment that he can endure shall be deemed adequate to such offences? But, if these things are only idle tales and empty slanders, originating in the fact that virtue is opposed by its very nature to vice, and that contraries war against one another by a divine law (and you are yourselves witnesses that no such iniquities are committed by us, for you forbid informations to be laid against us), it remains for you to make inquiry concerning our life, our opinions, our loyalty and obedience to you and your house and government, and thus at length to grant to us the same rights (we ask nothing more) as to those who persecute us. For we shall then conquer them, unhesitatingly surrendering, as we now do, our very lives for the truth’s sake.

Œdipodean intercourse. But if these charges are true, spare no class: proceed at once against our crimes; destroy us root and branch, with our wives and children, if any Christian is found to live like the brutes. And yet even the brutes do not touch the flesh of their own kind; and they pair by a law of nature, and only at the regular season, not from simple wantonness; they also recognise those from whom they receive benefits. If any one, therefore, is more savage than the brutes, what punishment that he can endure shall be deemed adequate to such offences? But, if these things are only idle tales and empty slanders, originating in the fact that virtue is opposed by its very nature to vice, and that contraries war against one another by a divine law (and you are yourselves witnesses that no such iniquities are committed by us, for you forbid informations to be laid against us), it remains for you to make inquiry concerning our life, our opinions, our loyalty and obedience to you and your house and government, and thus at length to grant to us the same rights (we ask nothing more) as to those who persecute us. For we shall then conquer them, unhesitatingly surrendering, as we now do, our very lives for the truth’s sake.

Œdipodean intercourse. But if these charges are true, spare no class: proceed at once against our crimes; destroy us root and branch, with our wives and children, if any Christian is found to live like the brutes. And yet even the brutes do not touch the flesh of their own kind; and they pair by a law of nature, and only at the regular season, not from simple wantonness; they also recognise those from whom they receive benefits. If any one, therefore, is more savage than the brutes, what punishment that he can endure shall be deemed adequate to such offences? But, if these things are only idle tales and empty slanders, originating in the fact that virtue is opposed by its very nature to vice, and that contraries war against one another by a divine law (and you are yourselves witnesses that no such iniquities are committed by us, for you forbid informations to be laid against us), it remains for you to make inquiry concerning our life, our opinions, our loyalty and obedience to you and your house and government, and thus at length to grant to us the same rights (we ask nothing more) as to those who persecute us. For we shall then conquer them, unhesitatingly surrendering, as we now do, our very lives for the truth’s sake.

-Athenagoras (ca 177) “A Plea for the Christians” chapter 3

Athenagoras refers to three charges against Christians: Atheism, Thyestean feasts, Œdipodean intercourse—- that is Atheism, Cannibalism, and Incest. As ridiculous as these charges sound, each one had a very understandable, even reasonable source (at least reasonable in a context of limited communication).

  • Atheism. Christians rejected idol worship, the Greek and Roman gods, and pretty much all of the trappings of theism in the 2nd century. The God they worshipped was identifiable primarily in Negativa. It is quite understandable that they would, in their rejection of all the gods of the time, be seen as Atheists.
  • Cannibalism. The Eucharist uses metaphoric language– the blood and bady of Christ– in its description of the wine and bread. Thankfully, in the 2nd century the reification of the metaphoric language had not yet developed, so Athenagorus did not have to address that awkwardness. Despite the language, Christians were not cannibals.
  • Incest. Christians commonly used, as many still use today, close familial language for fellow believers in Christ. If Christians describe each other as brothers and sisters while also being married and producing children, the confusion is understandable.

That is the value of people like Athenagoras, who was willing to bridge the gap between US and THEM. He was able to clarify and dispel confusion.

I know many today who like to go on about “FAKE NEWS.” Ignoring the laziness of the terminology, this sort of misinformation has been with us for centuries. I have friends who are unhappy with sources I use to get information, because they say they are sources of “fake news.” Sadly, those people actually perpetuate such problems by discouraging communicatuon, or even awareness, between groups. In the 2nd century, Non-Christians knew little about Christians— just enough to be very confused about them. Part of these was due to Christians trying shield themselves from legal and moral dangrs. This action of separating oneself off from others’ views, boycotting people who you find (for some reason) distasteful, not only makes the problem worse, it essentially creates the problem.

Misunderstandings and stereotyping come from a failure of dialogue. Additionally, misunderstandings and stereotyping are likely to increase as lack of dialogue causes each group to become more extremist in their thinking.

Here Athenagoras says that if there are such charges against Christians, it is the responsibility of non-Christians to investigate, bring forward evidence and judge rightly. I can hardly disagree with that. However, we don’t have really have the ability to require others to do what they should do, we only have the ability to do what we should do. That is why Athenagoras does not leave the situation dumped on the the non-Christians to investigate. He spends many more chapters presenting a case to correct misunderstandings.

What Athenagoras was doing was breaking down barriers to conversion. While ostensibly about reduce persecution of Christians, he was also seeking to show Christians as commendable, virtuous based on the writings of great Greek and Roman poets, philosophers, and orators. Clearly a person at that time would be more interested in beliefs of a virtuous sect, than a sect of godless incestuous cannibals.

If non-Christians in the 2nd century thought that Christians were godlessuch s incestuous cannibals, the failure is at least as much on the Christians, as it was the “news media” of the Roman Empire. Christians are supposed to reveal Christ in word and deed. It is their responsibility— NOT the responsibility of non-Christians to investigate and “get it right.”

Fade or Flourish in 1st Millenium Urban Churches

One of the mysteries in Christianity is why some churches thrive and others fade. Some see the fate of churches as a direct result of their faith. A church of bad or inadequate faith will fade away, while a church of solid faith will endure and prosper. In other words:

Faith Determines Fate

(But is that really true?)

This belief can become a tautology. A church that prospers is then seen as having a robust faith while a church that dies is seen as having inadequate faith. In truth, this is heavily presumptive.  A fading church is seen as having inadequate faith, and this inadequate faith is demonstrated by the fact that the church fades away.

Consider two cases— the Roman church of North Africa (modern-day Libya, Tunisia, and Algeria) and the Nestorian church of the Central Asian traderoutes— both of these in the 1st millenium AD.

Both essentially died out (or at least became tiny enclave minorities). Why? Some would say that it is due to the Muslim Invasion (especially for the North African churches) or Muslim and Mongol rule in Central Asia. Yet, the church of Egypt survived and even thrived in almost 1400 years of Muslim rule (despite occasional pogroms). The same can be said of the church in Syria. In some places, like Greece and Spain, Muslim rulership had almost no long-term impact. In church of China in the 20th century (as well as the early church under Roman rule) grew tremendously under sporadic and sometimes systematic persecution. It is hard to see a general pattern.

Still, at least in some cases, one can make a good guess. Consider the churches of the Silk Road(s) in Central Asia. They thrived for centuries and then began to fade out. Why? There are several possible reasons. However, one major reason was probably the fact that Nestorian Christianity was primarily a religion of the traderoute cities in Central Asia. In other words, it had not worked its way into the countryside for the most part.

To understand the importance of this, one must note the fact that until the growth of sanitation methodologies in the 1800s, cities had a negative biological growth rate. That is, for a city to maintain its population, people had to keep moving into it from surrounding areas.

cITY

A traderoute city had a transient population of traders, and a local population of residents that must be regularly restocked with people in the surrounding lands to maintain itself. For several centuries a large percentage of the traders (transient population) were Christians. Many residents in the city were Christian as well. However, since the surrounding countryside was not generally reached, the resident population was regularly dealing with an inflow of non-Christians. For the Christian church to survive in such a setting, the church needed to do more than simply raise up Christian children. Because of the negative biological growth of cities (more dying than born), the church had to constantly convert those moving into the city. This was helped by a large transient population of Christian traders. However, as the new Millenium was starting, the number of traders who were Christian began to drop. This may have been due to some new laws in Muslim-held territories. It may have also been due to Christianity being declared illegal in China starting in the 9th century.

With the transient population becoming increasingly non-Christian, the inflow of new residents being predominantly non-Christian, and the negative biological population rate of Christians in these trade cities, the decline was hardly shocking.

North African had a similar situation, but even more extreme. The church in this region was quite vibrant in the major cities, but also had little impact in the rural areas. Additionally, Christianity had a Roman flair to it that was out of touch with the majority of (“Hamitic”) residents of North Africa. With the Muslim invasion, and the corresponding reduction of interaction with Roman/Western lands, the city population was maintained by the inflow of people from the surrounding areas who were not only not Christian, but had little in common culturally with the Christians living in the cities. In places like Egypt, Christianity had well overflowed the cities into the countryside so the church endured and prospered. In the rest of North Africa, the decline was swift.

This is a hypothesis and I am not sure how solid it would be in terms of predicting results. But it is also true that things are a bit different today.

How are things different now.

  1.  Cities do not necessarily have negative population growth rate.  Sanitation and health practices have changed over the recent decades.
  2.  People are still moving to cities for opportunity, but this migration is causing many cities to not simply maintain but grow. This has led to mega-cities or GUCs (Great Urban Centers).

Because of this, it may no longer be true that urban Christianity has to reach out intentionally beyond the urban areas to survive. There is now a growing outflow that occurs naturally that  may in some places more than match the inflow of peoples. That being said, history has not smiled on Christian efforts that limit themselves by ignoring the cities (at one extreme) or ignoring the countryside (on the other).

I believe we live in the fourth wave of Protestant Missions. The first three waves were : Coastlands, Interiors, and UPGs (Unreached People Groups). I think we are really in a fourth now. That is the GUCs (Great Urban Centers). Human migration, combined with the changing social and demographic dynamics of cities has moved away from UPGs to pluralistic urban communities. This does not mean that rural areas can be ignored. But it does mean that the dynamics of the 1st Millenium do not fully apply today.  Ministry in the GUCs can impact the surrounding areas due to outflow. (Note that it was the unregulated outflow of residents of Jerusalem due to persecution that initially started the great expansion of the church in the first century.)

I do think it is safe to say that persecution is NOT a cause of church extinction. Neither is disempowerment. There are far too many examples of the church thriving in these situations. However, the church has not done so well when it ignores the ethnic diversity of its surroundings, or bases its outreach on the presumption that the status quo will remain unchanged into the future.

To fail to prepare for change is to prepare to fade.

Some Seeds Take Longer to Grow

I spoke as the graduation speaker at Aurora College of Intercultural Studies. I spoke on Acts 1:8 (a pretty typical verse for a missionary training school). I suggested that the focus on Power is unnecessary. Rather,

If one embraces God’s Purpose, one has God’s Presence and God’s Power

I used two stories from the Bible. One was Samson who had great power, but generally rejected  God’s purpose. His life was ultimately forgettable except as a cautionary story for children.BA65580-56a6d3745f9b58b7d0e5001c

I also used the story of Moses who was given a purpose by God in Acts 3 and 4. When Moses waffled, God assured him of His presence. Then after further trepidation on the part of Moses, God gave him empowerment (spokesman, God’s word, snake stick and water to blood).  Moses, embracing God’s purpose, saw some success during his time, and eventually became a worldchanger.

However, as a third story, I used the story of Justinian Van Welz. I have commented on him before HERE.

His story is actually an odd illustration of the above statement. Van Welz (1621-1668) became a deeply devote follower of Christ. Prior to that, he was apparently pretty nominal in his allegiance to Christ.

But everything he did was a failure. His family thought him a fool. His church thought him a heretic. His friends thought him a dreamer. He left as a missionary for Surinam and died within two years died.

How could this be an example of God’s Presence and Power?

That’s because Justinian was a seed planter. He tried to convince those around him to be involved in missions. Few expressed interest. He developed something he called a Jesus Loving Society. When one looks at the concept, it was essentially the same as the Missionary Society proposed by William Carey 150 years later. In fact, supposedly Carey was familiar with the work of Van Welz. He was also able to inspire some later generations in missions (including today).

Van Welz was a pioneer. He planted seeds that would take scores of years to bear fruit.

This is not unusual. William Carey and Adoniram Judson were pioneers. They both spent many years serving without success. Both were blessed to live long enough to see some measure of success.

It is true, however, that many will not live long enough to see the seeds they planted bear fruit.