A Theology of Celebration (Part I)

There has been a move within the “Cell Church” movement to describe Sunday morning gathering as “Celebration.” I never really cared for the terminology, although I grant at least the somewhat clever alliteration of church involving Cell Groups (another term I don’t care for) and Celebration. It seems to me that “celebration” is a sub-biblical understanding of gathering as a church body. But then, I don’t think “Worship Service” does better by combining two inadequate terms.

That being said, one thing I do like about calling the morning gathering Celebration is that it embraces a positive Christian understanding of the term. With the popularization of Spiritual Disciplines among Protestants in the 20th century, the term celebration has been seen more positively with both Richard Foster (in “Celebration of Discipline”) and Dallas Willard (in “The Spirit of the Disciplines”) describing celebration as a discipline that leads to spiritual growth.

Some, however, struggle with this. A wonderful

Image result for babette's feast
Babette’s Feast (1997)

Danish film that came out in 1987 was titled “Babette’s Feast” (based on a story by Isak Dinesen). The setting was a Protestant group that embraced a certain ascetic frugality. It appears as if celebration and joy were seen as wrong.

 

A friend of mine, a missionary, visited a group of devout Christians in an Asian mountain village. Discovering that one of them was having a birthday, the missionary asked if there would be a birthday party. The answer was “No.” In fact, there would be no public recognition at all. “Everything is about God. Every day is God’s. Isn’t it hubris to say to take even one day a year and say that it is about me instead of God?” That missionary was rather impressed by their piety. He may have a point, but I am wondering whether this is a healthy belief system.

A friend of mine, admittedly Jehovah’s Witness, not Christian, was talking to me about the soul-searching he was having about taking a piece of cake at the office we worked at. His religion tells him that birthday celebrations are forbidden because these celebrations are “pagan.” However, at the office, there really is no party. The secretary simply brings out some cake for people to eat when it is someone’s birthday. As my friend would say, “It feel like it is not wrong to eat cake. It is not a party, and I am not part of a celebration.” His religious training, however, leads him to a lot of guilt.

Facebook (and to a lesser extent Youtube) has become the dumping ground for people to share why celebrations are “pagan,” “devilish,” or just plain wrong. A few months ago the issue was Halloween as demonic because of its loose connection with Samhain (an animistic Druidic festival), while ignoring its strong connection to All Hallows’ Day. A few weeks later no one complains about American Thanksgiving (strangely since a stronger case could be made for its pagan roots than the others), but then complaints start up again for Christmas (linking it to a pagan holiday that doesn’t even line up with it). Now it is Valentine’s Day and people on FB again are suggesting that it is also celebration of a pagan holiday. Soon, it will repeat for Easter/Resurrection Sunday (even though it is the weakest of any of the arguments).

Why do Christians seem so quick to be bothered about celebrations— actually searching for arguments why they should not participate in celebrations? Why do so many Protestants here in the Philippines believe that culturally significant local festivities are wrong, priding themselves with their disinvolvement, while often embracing celebrations from other cultures? Why is it that when my daughter’s classmates discover that she is Baptist they react with pity because of the presumption that Baptists are against anything that brings happiness?

Perhaps there is a need for a good theological understanding of celebrations.  I would like to start the ball rolling on this one in Part 2.  You can Click on it Here.

<As one who is not much of a celebrant or any sort, it feels strange that this is a topic I would take up. However, from a missions standpoint, it is quite relevant. One of the most crucial ways that Christianity remains foreign is to reject local festivities. And one of the ways that problematic aspects of festivities are passed on generation after generation is when Christians ignore them rather than seek to reimagine and redeem them.>

 

 

 

The Counterproductive Missionary?

So… let’s talk about some well-known expansions of Christianity. One of these was the growth of the church in the Roman Empire, and adjoining territories during the first 3 centuries. The church grew rapidly. If I remember right (and am quite prepared to be wrong), the church averaged growth of around 20% per year. That is pretty huge. Both Islam and Christianity is recently growing around 3%, more or less, per year. Some smaller religions are growing at a faster rate, but 20% is pretty huge for any group.

China has been an area of great growth of the church (both “underground” and “above ground”) in the 20th century. In recent years, people have been writing about the apparent growth of the underground church in Iran, mirroring in some ways the growth of Christianity in the Iranian diaspora. Perhaps a fourth one worth mentioning is the African Indigenous (or Initiated) Church (AIG) movement.

What do these movements have in common?  One is that there was persecution. That cannot be discounted. However, persecution is not a magic growth formula. In fact, the Chinese church has undergone several waves of persecution going back to the 9th century AD. Of those waves of persecution, it seems as if the only that last of these resulted in growth (Maoist persecution).

Persecution can lead to resiliency, but that certainly doesn’t guarantee growth— perhaps nothing guarantees growth. But a few more things seem worth noting for these growth movements.  There Christianity is

  1.  …a religion of (relative) poverty. In some cases, Christianity in these movements was the religion of the poor, and the poorest of the poor. In other cases, Christianity is impoverished in terms of structure. Religious structure, in this case, refers to some things like complex organization, physical religious buildings, and paid clerical class within the church.
  2. … a religion of the people. It is started, expanded and propagated by locals, rather than foreigners, and often by laity rather than clergy.
  3. … a religion in which missionaries are not active. Or… if they are active, they are taking on a background, supportive role rather than a leading or controlling role. In fact, the AIC movement often found itself in conflict with missionaries. In China, the Christian church really began to grow after missionaries left the country. Successful missionary work done by foreigners there is now more often in terms of assisting with training or other support roles rather than leadership or apostolic tasks. Much of the early church growth in the Roman Empire happened in the 2nd and 3rd centuries when Apostles/Missionaries as a group were slowly fading away. By the 3rd century, they were barely recognized as a group. I would also suggest that the Iran church have thrived in the absence of foreign missionaries planting and leading churches, while in Iraq, the access of foreign mission workers has NOT been a boon. (Again, open to correction in this area.)

So suppose these three things are true? What does this mean for foreign missions? I would suggest three things.

  • Missionaries today seem to be selected wrong. Many mission agencies, including the main one in my denomination, tend to select missionaries based on their “evangelistic spirit” and sense of calling to plant churches. Maybe, however, this is NOT what is needed. Maybe we need missionaries who support locals who are called to be evangelists, apostles, and churchplanters. Perhaps missionaries should be selected on their passion to serve locals rather than lead, and support locals rather than replace.
  • Be very careful as to where missional churches send short-term mission teams. In many places in the world they can easily do great damage. And in places where they can go, they are more likely to be useful in supportive tasks requested by the receiving Christians, not doing the stuff that their sending churches think is needed.
  • However, missionaries, in the broader sense of the term, should be everywhere. The church is universal and we tend to remember this when we learn and grow with and from each other. Perhaps this means having people who are less thought of as “missionaries” (leaders, evangelists, churchplanters) and more as cross-cultural workers, supporting local work, as requested by locals.

This last point may seem a bit odd, but it is pretty straightforward. When Christians come to the US to serve, they do so without much “hoopla.” Some may pastor churches or be involved in various ministries, but there is no presumption that as a foreigner that they must have a very specific role of leadership or task. Rather, the assumption is that there are needs, and if that person can meet that locally-determined need, then they can serve. What makes sense in the US, should perhaps be recognized as making sense elsewhere as well.

 

 

 

Can You Learn Something Good From “Playing God”?

We generally use the term “Playing God” to

ground group growth hands
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

describe a bad thing. But let’s try to think of some ways that are a bit more positive. Being a parent (or a pet owner) and leading a government involves a bit of playing God— embracing some of the roles that God has, but on a smaller scale. In fact a couple of metaphors for God are “Heavenly Father” and “King.” However, I would look at being a Community Developer as also being an analog for many of the roles of God  A community developer seeks to take on a redemptive role among people, and to help and transform.

What are some things one learns as a community developer?

  1.  One generally learns that what people need and what they think they need are not the same. While a CD practitioner may start with paying attention to felt needs, staying with felt needs usually means working on fixing symptoms rather than curing the disease(s). Ultimately, that doesn’t bring long-term change.
  2.  Symptoms of a problem are less important than the underlying problems and one must really learn to seek the underlying problems and work on them.
  3.  Solving problems for people tends to backfire. Solving problems for people tends to make them more dependent… and that dependence often makes the underlying problems worse, not better.
  4.  CD practioners are generally seen as needing to live with and identify with the people they serve.
  5. Serving is the critical term. The goal is not to lead long-term, but to train, empower, and release people to lead themselves.

Let’s just stop at these five and consider how these may be analogous to some of the areas of theology that we struggle with.

  1.  God does not always give us what we want. God does not always answer our prayers as we wish and this does not always give us what we want. This is based on  His love for us, not His indifference or his anger.
  2.  God focuses more on our underlying problems (such as our moral brokenness and social disconnectedness) rather than the symptoms that we tend to talk about more, and more interested in having “fixed.” God may uses awesome signs to open the door… but seeks to move from there to more core issues soon. These core issues are not fixed by miraculous signs.
  3.  God doesn’t hand out “prosperity” because it is typically bad for us. As broken, selfish, disconnected people, the power associated with prosperity is likely to make our situation worse, not better.
  4.  God does not help us from a distance. God is not fully transcendent. God is very much immanent— in the temple, in the incarnation of Christ, and in the presence of the Holy Spirit.  The presence of God is not irrelevant but key to our transformation.
  5.  God chooses to work primarily through people. Dependence on God is tied to recognizing our need for God, but is NOT tied in God trying to keep us incompetent. God seeks our development and empowerment to serve. God serves us so we can serve Him, and others. We are blessed by God, not to live in a state of being blessed, but to be blessings for others.

 

 

Missions Theology— Problems of Reaction

Consider Quote from Corbett and Fikkert’s book When Helping Hurts:

As numerous scholars have noted, prior to the twentieth century, evangelical Christians played a large role in ministering to the physical and spiritual needs of the poor. However, this all changed at the start of the twentieth century as evangelicals battled theological liberals over the fundamental tenets of Christianity. Evangelicals interpreting the rising social gospel movement, which seemed to equate all humanitarian efforts with bringing in Christ’s kingdom, as part of the overall theological drift of the nation. As evangelicals tried to distance themselves from the social gospel movement, they ended up in large-scale retreat from the front lines of poverty alleviation. This shift away from the poor was so dramatic that church historians refer to the 1900-1930 era as the “Great Reversal” in the evangelical church’s approach to social problems.

It is important to note that the Great Reversal preceded the rise of the welfare state in America. Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty did not occur until the 1960s, and even FDR’s relatively modest New Deal policies were not launched until the 1930s. In short, the evangelical church’s retreat from poverty alleviation was fundamentally due to shifts in theology and not— as many asserted— to government programs that drove the church away from ministry to the poor.    <Corbett and Fikkert, page 45>

In the 1960s another shift reaction occurred but this time in Missions. During this time, theological liberalism was having a growing impact on Western Protestant missions due to the growth of belief in pluralism among Protestants, and a unique interpretation of Missio Dei. The former reduced the feeling that non-Christians needed an allegiance shift to Christ. The latter saw Missio Dei, the understanding that God is working on mission everywhere at all times on earth, as making the role of Missio Ecclessiae doubtful. In fact, from a mission perspective, if God is working in other cultures, for a missionary to come in an challenge the beliefs and practices of a people, could it not be a working against God? As such Missions is seen as a ministry of Presence rather than Proclamation.

In reaction to this, there seemed to be a narrowing of mission work among Evangelicals to proclamation and church-planting. Exacerbating this was a focus on what I would call Apocalypticism. That is, Christ is returning any moment, so what should we work on right this minute to be ready for this return? While this focus may seem reasonable, the result was that anything that might be considered a “long-term investment” in terms of ministry (such as poverty alleviation, cultural transformation, community development) were seen as too slow and not a priority. Further, Kingdom of God over the decades tended to be associated more and more with Heaven so problems on earth (ecological and social injustice) were seen as lacking value.  We still find these problems. I was reading a recent mission CPM book that discouraged social ministry or even friendship evangelism as “slowing things down.”

I could go on. But let’s stop here a moment and think what’s been going on:

  • Evangelical Missions has often been reactionary. Rather than centered on God’s word, it tended all too often to react against theological liberals, or pluralists, or liberationists, Catholics or others. (Often these other groups were seen as “the enemy.”) As such, Evanglicals often were guilty of what they charge others (of not treating the Bible as authoritative and basis for faith and practice).
  • Relatedly, short-term marketing choices were often given formal “blessing” regardless of whether they were based on solid principles.

There has been success in Evangelical Missions over the last 6 to 7 decades, but there has been a cost. It has lost relevance in many sectors not because of opposition but intentionally pulling out of those sectors. Failures in social justice and poverty alleviation, and focusing on Heaven only, have resulted in reinforcing the charges of Marxists that religion is about serving as an opiate for the masses. Failures to transform (or even try to transform) societies and cultures has led many to see as a failure of Christ and Christianity, rather than simply a failure of Missions theology. Focusing on UPGs (and an abusive use of Matthew 24:11) led to poorly considered and invasive tactics.

This post is long enough. But we can clearly do better.

Theology in Terms of Locality and Catholicity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stories and Dialogue

Found a section of my old book Theo-storying that had stuff that I had forgotten about. I think I will have to update my book on Interreligious Dialogue (IRD) to include this. If I have time.

Another thing that affects the impact of a story is the respondent’s (or hearer’s) attitude about stories. Let’s return to the idea of responding to movies. Robert Johnson in “Reel Spirituality: Theology and Film in Dialogue (Engaging Culture)”3 speaks of different film responses.

  • Avoidance. Films are all bad. Best to stay away.

  • Caution. Films are often bad. Be careful to avoid any sort of heresy, or bad language or behavior.

  • Dialogue. Films speak for themselves. Critique and interact with the film on their own terms, not our own.

  • Appropriation. Films may have something important to tell us. Let’s be ready to listen and learn.

  • Divine Encounter. Films may provide us an epiphany or divine experience.

According to Johnson, these five attitudes describe five philosophies of critiquing movies. He notes that they fit into a spectrum where avoidance and caution are in the region of ethical critique. By that is meant that the critic looks at the movie regarding how moral is the behavior, visualizations, and scripting. If there is too much bad stuff in the movie, the movie is judged bad. Otherwise, it may be okay. Appropriation and Divine Encounter are on the other end, is where the critique is more aesthetic. Bad behavior and language may not be the main focus, but rather whether the film inspires and enlightens.

This, I believe, is a useful way of looking at films, at least from the standpoint of film critique. However, for individuals hearing stories, there needs to be some changes. We can keep the same spectrum. However, since this is a response attitude, rather than a philosophy for critique, there will be some differences.

Avoid    Caution    Dialogue    Appropriate     Encounter

|                   |                   |                   |                   |

<—————————————————————————>

Less Educative                                        More Educative

Less Doubt                More Doubt                Less Doubt

Further to the right on the spectrum the greater the tendency to accept the story as having educative value. The further to the left, the less presumption of educative value is given. The whole spectrum can be seen as sharing the attitude of the story having entertainment value. After all, a story without entertainment value probably is unnecessary… just replace it with facts and declarative sentences (or say nothing). Combining these makes the definitions change a bit.

  • Avoidance. Stories entertain, but should not be trusted to inform. Listen but don’t learn.

  • Caution. Stories entertain, but are not a good way to inform or educate. Perhaps they may have value as case studies or illustrations for difficult concepts.

  • Dialogue. Stories entertain, but they also provide an alternate perspective and experience. Interact with them and see what they have to say.

  • Appropriation. Stories entertain, but they also are an educational tool. We need to learn from stories.

  • Divine Encounter. Stories entertain, but they also inspire and transform. We need to hear God’s voice (or perhaps “divine wisdom”) coming through the story.

But Which Response Is Best?

If one is telling a story with the purpose of informing and inspiring the hearer, which response attitude is best? The immediate thought may be that Divine Encounter is best. And in one sense that may be true. It is nice when the respondent already starts from the presumption that what you have may be, not merely true but, the TRUTH. But I might suggest that Dialogue is a better starting point. Why?

Dialogue, the center of the scale is most likely the highest position of doubt and critical faculty. As one moves towards Avoidance, there is a lessening of doubt and critical faculty as one is more sure that the storyteller does not have something of value. Likewise, as one moves towards Divine Encounter, one is lessening doubt about the storyteller/story and lessening the critical faculty. Strong faith often comes from critical wrestling with doubt. It may not be desirable for the respondent to start from a lesser amount of critical faculty and doubt.

Take the example of the story of the Good Samaritan. An avoidance attitude is likely to lead the respondent to think that the Good Samaritan is a nice and pleasant story… but has no personal relevance or application. Divine Encounter attitude may lead to an uncritical acceptance of the story. That may sound good, but the uncritical acceptance may lead to a trite understanding (“It is nice to be nice to people”). Or, perhaps, the hearer will have an understanding of a deeper meaning, but not take time to see how to integrate the message with the hearer’s life. On the other hand, Dialogue means that one is open to hear the story, interact with the story, and “wrestle” with it. Elwood P. Dowd may have “wrestled with reality” for 35 years, but we can and should wrestle with stories. We grow through the process.

One should not minimize the concept of meditation or rumination. It is a cognitive and affective wrestling with the story. Two of the greatest defenders of the faith of the 20th century, G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis, only came to faith through a long process of this sort of wrestling with truth.7 In the case of the Good Samaritan, what does it mean to truly love one’s neighbor as oneself, when one’s neighbor can be one who hates you? In the case of the the priest and Levite, is Jesus saying that religious piety should be set aside to help someone you don’t even know or like? (If you have read the Gospel Blimp by Joseph Bayly,8 one of the main characters begins going to church less often to invest time with a non-Christian friend on Sundays, to the chagrin of his Christian friends. Not completely a parallel story, but it does have elements of commonality.) If loving one’s neighbor includes friends, family, fellow believers, and enemies, is there any way in which one’s actions should differentiate these relationships? Are you TRULY loving your neighbor as yourself while you are reading this paragraph about loving one’s neighbors? The more you meditate, the more questions you are likely to have. Questions show that we are still learning, or at least open to learning.

Theo-storying Again

Okay. I finally finished working on my wife and my have struggled

theostorying
New Edition a few weeks awaybook,

with, off and on, for close to three years, Dynamics in Pastoral Counseling and Training.  I have decided to start updating and fixing my previous books. I have decided to start with Theo-Storying: Reflections on God, Narrative, and Culture. Although it has actually aged fairly well as far as I can see, there are reasons that I am starting with it.

 

#1.  This is the only book I have written that was not written because I am teaching a course on that subject. I wrote it because of the love of the topic.

#2.  I had actually started to write a sequel to Theo-Storying. However, in the end, I decided to take some of the ideas from the sequel and bring it into an early revision of the book. Since then, however, there are more things I would like to add. Most importantly the role of Theological Reflection, and its connection to Midrash Aggadah.

#3.  I had also started to write a book on Missions Theology.

theology-and-missions
The early version of the cover of a book I never finished.

I actually made good progress on this one. But in the end I lost interest in the project. But I did not lose interest in some of the topics covered. Some of the ideas were moved into Dynamics in Pastoral Counseling and Training, but some really belong in Theo-Storying.

 

Hope to be done soon. I think I can get it done in the two week break between semesters here at PBTS and ABGTS. I will keep you updated.