Robert Alter Extended Quote

I recently been reading Robert Alter’s book, “The Art of Biblical Narrative” (Basic Books, 1981). A few years ago, I wrote a book, “Theo-storying: Reflections on God, Narrative, and Culture.” A friend of mine, who has since passed away suggested that I might benefit from Robert Alter’s work on narrative in the Hebrew Bible. I finally got around to it. The following is an extended quote from near the beginning of chapter 3.

One of the chief difficulties we encounter as modern readers in perceiving the artistry of biblical narrative is precisely that we have lost most of the keys in the conventions out of which it was shaped. The professional Bible scholars have not offered much help in this regard, for their closest Robert Alter's 'The Art of Biblical Narrative' and Qur'anic ...approximation to the study of convention is form criticism, which is set on finding recurrent regularities of pattern rather than the manifold variations upon a pattern that any system of literary convention elicits; moreover, form criticism uses these patterns for excavative ends— to support hypotheses about the social functions of the text, its historical evolution, and so forth. Before going on to describe what seems to me a central and, as far as I know, unrecognized convention of biblical narrative, I would like to make clearer by means of an analogy our dilemma as moderns approaching this ancient literary corpus which has been so heavily encrusted with nonliterary commentaries.

Let us suppose that some centuries hence only a dozen films survive from the whole corpus of Hollywood westerns. As students of twentieth century cinema screening the films on an ingeniously reeconstructed archaic projector, we notice a recurrent peculiarity. In eleven of the films, the sheriff-hero has the same anomalous neurological trait of hyperrefexivity— no matter what the situation in which his adversaries confront him, he is always able to pull his gun out of its holster and fire before they, with their weapons poised, can pull the trigger. In the twelfth film, the sheriff has a withered arm and, instead of a six-shooter, he carries a rifle that he carries slung over his back. Now, eleven hyperreflexive sheriffs are utterly improbable by any realistic standards— though one scholar will no doubt propose that in the Old West the function of sheriff was generally filled by members of a hereditary caste that in fact had this genetic trait. The scholars will then divide between a majority that posits an original source-western (designated Q) which has been imitated or imperfectly reproduced in a whole series of later versions (Q1, Q2, etc.— the films we have been screening) and a more speculative minority that proposes an old California Indian myth concerning a sky-god with arms of lighting, of which all these films are scrambled and diluted secular adaptations. The twelfth film, in the view of both schools must be ascribed to a different cinematic tradition.

The central point, of course, that these strictly historical hypotheses would fail even to touch upon is the presence of convention. We contemporary viewers of westerns back in the twentieth century immediately recognize the convention without having to name it as such. Much of our pleasure in watching westerns derives from our awareness that the hero, however sinister the dangers looming over him, leads a charmed life, that he will always in the end prove himself to be more of a man than the guys that stalk him, and the familiar token of his indomitable manhood is invariable, often uncanny, quickness on the draw. For us, the recurrence of the hyperreflexive sheriff is not an enigma to be explained but, on the contrary, a necessary condition for telling a western story in the film medium as it should be told. With our easy knowledge of the convention, moreover, we naturally see a point in the twelfth, exceptional film that would be invisible to the historical scholars. For in this case, we recognize that the convention of the quick-drawing hero is present through its deliberate suppression. Here is a sheriff who seems to lack the expected equipment for his role, but we note the daring assertion of manly will against almost impossible odds in the hero’s learning to make do with what he has, training his left arm to whip his rifle into firing position with a swiftness that makes it a match for the quickest draw in the West.   (pages 47-49)

A narrative understanding of the Bible is useful, but challenging since, as Alter has noted, we are disconnected from the conventions. In some cases we can reconstruct them, but in others we must struggle tentatively forward. Jesus told great parables by not only connecting them to classic tropes in his day, but also knowing how to break the patterns. Unfortunately, it is too tempting to fall into a historico-critical perspective or simply to get lost in the words and miss the underlying story… and the story behind the story.



Mary at the Feet of Jesus

One day Jesus was invited to the house of a woman named Martha, along with a number of his disciples. The disciples sat on the floor in the main room, and Jesus began his instruction. Martha and her sister were not rich. They could not pass on the duties of preparation to the servants— servants they did not have. So Martha and Mary began to prepare the meal for their very special guests. It was a great honor, but also a great amount of work.

Mary, however, had heard second-hand some of the strange and exciting stories and teachings of Jesus. Thus, she would strain her ear to hear what Jesus and His disciples were saying inside the house. She would find reasons to linger by the door to listen. Jesus began to tell a story, and Mary did not want to walk away in the middle and not know the ending, or what the story means. She stood in the doorway for the entire story. But as the story ended the discussion began and she did not want to leave. She knew, however, that there was work to do. Regretfully, she began to back out to continue preparation; but Jesus looked at her and with a subtle motion of His hand beckoned her to sit down.

She was nervous to do so, but she did want to listen if she could, and it certainly seemed right to do as their special guest requested. So she moved toward the corner of the room farthest from Jesus and prepared to sit down. Jesus responded, “No Mary. I want you to join the group, not hide in the back.” He motioned His disciples to make room in the circle, and Mary, feeling out of place, sat down in the circle. This was foreign to her— other rabbis would not have allowed her to join in such a way. It was exciting to hear the words of Jesus directly and listen to the discussion and explanations and questions. She started to have questions of her own but was unsure if it was appropriate to speak up.

Before she had resolved this in her mind, her sister peaked into the room and attempted to wave her to come out. Martha gave her an exasperated look and tried to mouth silently to her to leave the guests alone.

Jesus looked up at Martha and said, “Oh, don’t be worried Martha. I invited her to join our little group. I hope you don’t mind.”

Martha responded, “I apologize to disturb you Lord. But don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Could you tell her to help me?”

Jesus then said, “Martha, Martha. You are worried and upset about many things. If we eat now, or two hours from now doesn’t matter. If you truly need help, we all can help prepare the meal. None of that is vital. I am here not to eat or to sleep, but to teach and proclaim. That is what is most important and Mary has chosen the more important thing. I will not send her away, and I ask you not to pull her away either. In fact, if you want to join us, there is room in the circle for you as well.”

Update to Theo-Storying

I finally got around to revising Theo-Storying: Reflections on God, Narrative and Culture. I expanded one chapter, and added an entirely new chapter. The new chapter is on the use of stories for theological reflection. I alsotheostorying fixed a number of little errors from the earlier edition. Curiously, I was able to keep it the same number of pages because I adjusted the formatting slightly. This allowed me to keep the same cover. I don’t know why… but I like the cover.

For some reason I had a bit more trouble with Amazon this go-around. For the E-book version, it wasn’t accepting my .doc file. I ended up sending my .pdf file. Amazon Kindle doesn’t really recommend using .pdf because the results apparently can be a bit “wonky.” However, I saw no more “wonkiness” with this version than the normal e-book result. But hopefully later we can solve that problem. With the paperback version, it was different. Everything went in smoothly, but then Amazon said I need to verify that I hold the copyright. I don’t think I gave them any reason to doubt that, so not sure the problem. Then I found that the Edit button is disabled… so I can’t (yet) fix things. However, when I went onto Amazon, it looks like the new version of my book is there. So not sure what is going on… but it seems like it doesn’t really matter to the end user— just me.

In some ways, Theo-Storying is my favorite book. That is because it is the only book that I wrote because I wanted to write it. This is not strictly true. It is the only book that I wrote because I wanted to THAT I FINISHED. Other books I finished I wrote because of it being my dissertation, or because my wife or I are teaching a course and we wanted a book for students here in Asia that covers the topics in a way that is appropriate for the trainees.


The Curses— A Reflective Story

I wrote a story, a midrash of sorts based on II Kings 2:23-25 — the story of Elisha and the bears.

He was a man among men– gone now or so they say. Some said he was sucked up in a gust of wind some said he was taken off by horses into the clouds. That would have been amazing to see.

It is sad that he is gone. I resisted the idols, the groves, the fertility rites, but I cannot say that it is due to holy character. I have to say that it was because of the great prophet, who stood up to king and country, challenged hundreds, preaching fearlessly the message of Adonai. Baal and Ashtoreth had no one to compare to him. He was the man I aspired to be… at least sometimes.

But he has gone and another has taken his place. The great prophet, a fierce hairy man who could intimidate by his stare alone even before saying a word, is gone and replaced by one who seems so much less. The new is hardly a shadow of the old. I am not sure this is a man who would have inspired me to follow Adonai.

This new one came to our place. Some of the troublemakers came out to mock him, as troublemakers always do. Maybe I shouldn’t have, but I joined them. It was so evident that this was not the man who took hundreds of Baal’s priests to task. And yet, this new prophet wears his mantle and rumor has it that he sought twice the blessing and twice the power of the older. How disrespectful! The disrespectful should expect disrespect.

Different jeers were thrown at him, but it moved toward a rhythm— “Go on up, O bald one, Go on up.” Where are those horses who would draw you into the heavens like they did your master?

This young prophet (although quite a bit older than all of us, I think) was becoming red in the face, and he shouted a curse in our direction. Nothing happened. Some of us threw curses back at him, while others laughed. But the laughter died with the roar— the roar of two raging bears that burst from the treeline. They began to trample the group, crushing them underfoot and tearing at their flesh. Over 40 were soon dead, and many more were injured. I was more fortunate, being among just a few that made it up into the trees. I have never seen bears behave like that. They do not attack unless provoked, and even then would soon look for an escape route rather then stay around to do more harm to the injured.

It has been many days now, and the dead are now buried and only those who can afford the time to grieve are still in mourning. It has given me time to think. Clearly, only a prophet of Adonai could command wild bears. That is obvious.

But I alone in my village, perhaps, feel sorry for this prophet. A prophet is a servant of Adonai. They speak His message to the people. Sometimes He gifts them with special powers like the great prophet– to heal the sick, change the weather, to fight evil spirits, or maybe even raise the dead. But this new prophet has the power to curse. Now that I think about it, the great prophet also had the power to curse… as did Moses. Our father Abraham, did he as well? I don’t know. God blessed him to be a blessing to all nations, but also a curse to some. Did that mean he could actually call a curse on a nation? I don’t know. But what a horrible power to have!

Having the power to curse and have the curse come true— who can handle such temptation. Even the great prophet could not fight off that temptation. He killed 50 soldiers by his word who were treating him disrespectfully. I cannot condemn him for it, because it is a temptation that few could resist. Moses could not resist it. Even the great kings David and Solomon in all of their righteous wisdom could not always resist the temptation to destroy their enemies through the power of the sword and state. I get angry and I say regretful things far too often. I thank Adonai that my curses float in the air and then dissolve to nothing.

To have one’s curses come true— that is a curse in itself. This new prophet, I think he sees how true this is. I could not look at the carnage below me, and so I looked at the prophet. I watched as his eyes were fixed on the dead and dying– his face filled with horror.


Some would talk and some wouldn’t. Mr. James, however, would always have something to say. As I did my rounds, I knocked discreetly before entering.

“I didn’t do it!” he stated emphatically as soon as both of my feet were inside the door. “They think I did it. But I would NEVER do it.

By Vincent van Gogh –, Public Domain,


The old man was sitting in the lone chair in his almost barren room, facing away from the window and towards the door that I entered. As always he was somewhat disheveled, but with still with an air of authority to him. He reminded me of a man I worked for in the military— arrogant and pitiable at the same time. I wanted to help him. I always wanted to help him.

“Do what?” I asked, even though I knew exactly what ‘it’ is.

“They think I did it. But I know the law… maybe better than anyone else. Promise or no promise… evil is evil. You know that, right Chaplain?”

“Yes, evil is evil,” I agreed. “But I am more interested in how you are doing.”

“They weren’t there. They wouldn’t know. You wouldn’t know either. But you think you do, don’t you?”

I agreed with him that I didn’t know. I know what others had told me, nothing more.

“You got that right. You think you do. I know you think you do—- but you don’t know anything….” His voice trailed off at the end. Then he buried his face in his hands and ignored me.

Awkward silence would follow. Or at least it did when I first started working there. But I soon understood that I was being dismissed. This was our ritual. The pattern varied only in the smallest of details. I wanted to think that this ritual was a comfort and a help for him. I doubted it however.

“Well it was nice talking to you Mr. James,” I said. How many times before had I said those exact words? “You know I am available if you need someone to talk to.”

He ignored me as always. So I stepped out and closed the door behind me.

Rejecting Christ in a Rejected Land

Jesus was traveling with his core Image result for fire from heavendisciples to Jerusalem for the final time. As was his practice, he traveled through Samaria rather than avoiding it. Having to stay overnight in that region, he sent a couple of His disciples ahead to prepare a place for them to stay. As these two arrived at the village gates, a group of elders stopped them and began to question them. They wanted to know where they were going. They wanted to know why Galileans would be traveling in this part of Samaria. They wanted to know why they should show hospitality to these Jewish travelers.

The elders said, “Why should we show hospitality to you? You are traveling to your beautiful temple in Jerusalem, walking right by the mountain on which the ruins of our temple resides— destroyed by YOUR people generations ago. You treat us as unclean… worse than the Greeks that bring their sinful practices into your land, and the Romans that bring heavy taxes and all sorts of misery.  Would you welcome us into your own village? …Into your own house? Ridiculous! Push off.”

The two disciples were shocked. They have been treated with disrespect before. But these were Samaritans! It was like these Samaritans were considering themselves superior to them! Ridiculous indeed.

Returning to the group, they passed on to Jesus and the disciples what happened. James and John, the fiery and protective brothers, reacted the strongest.

James said, “Samaritans! Treating us like dogs?”

John chimed in. “Yes. And such a miserable village. Rejecting the Lord’s anointed… something should be done.”

Putting their heads together for a moment, they strode over to Jesus with determination and fire in their eyes.

“Lord,” they said. “Do you want us to call down fire to destroy this village?”

Amusement and anger danced across the face of Jesus. But He knew that His time was short and so this learning moment could not be lost.

Jesus called the others over and said to them, “James and John here want to bring down fire on this village. What do you think about this idea?”

The disciples looked at each other awkwardly. Some nodded but then stopped uncertain what was the appropriate response. Not waiting for a response, Jesus pushed forward.

“We have been rejected. Do they deserve death because of this? Should we hate them because they hate us?”

More uncertain looks but the disciples were starting to see where this was going.

Jesus continued. “But do they hate us? They don’t even know us. And we don’t know them. All they know is that our ancestors fought with their ancestors. I can assure you that our ancestors and their ancestors are done fighting. And we should stop fighting as well. So I have a better plan. Let’s go to a different village.”

Everyone nodded, even James and John. It was a much better plan.

<A somewhat speculative reflection on Luke 9:51-56>


Rizpah– A Short Reflection

She stayed when others ran away. She stayed while others mocked and derided. She stayed while others (filled with shame perhaps?) stayed on the periphery and then snuck off. A man hung above her… and he was not alone. Her son did no wrong. He died because of the sins of others. He died because of political expediency. He died because of what he represented, not for what he did.

And the man was not alone. 0x0_10756834There were others with the condemned man. Were they innocent or were they guilty? It is not really for us to say. But even if they were guilty of wrongdoing, that hardly allows those directly or indirectly  involved with their executions to walk away hands washed of all responsibility.

She stays there… the mother. She will be faithful when no one else is. She will honor as others heap dishonor. One day she, whose own past behavior was questioned,  will be vindicated. This woman of low estate will bring even the mighty to self-doubt.

And one day, she will be honored in a manner that few have. But she did not do it because of that. Her actions came from a mother’s love— and because it was right.

-II Samuel 21:1-14

An additional website that relates to this story, and speaks of the Jewish practice of “shmirah,” is “Rizpah, Guardian of the Dead

Solomon’s 2nd Dream (a Speculative Story)

The following might be considered a “midrash aggadah.” While these can vary, they are often stories built on a Biblical narrative. Sometimes they essentially serve as a running commentary. Other times, they can be quite speculative, leading hopefully to interesting discussions.


In Gibeon Solomon had his first dream. As he slept, God appeared to him, “Ask for whatever you want me to give you.”

Solomon replied, “… Now, O Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David. But I am only a little child and do not know how to carry out my duties. Your servant is here among the people you have chosen, a great people, too numerous to count or number. So give your servant a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong. For who is able to govern this great people of yours?”

God was pleased that Solomon had asked for this. He replied, “Since you have asked for this and not for long life or wealth for yourself, not have asked for the death of your enemies but for discernment in administering justice, I will do what you have asked. I will give you a wise and discerning heart.” God also promised him riches and honor.

Solomon rapidly grew in wisdom, not only gaining understanding of governance,  but also the ability to discern the true nature of matters that he had to deal with. And he was successful— wildly successful.   But in his personal reflections, he was confused. God granted wisdom. But Solomon also knew that wisdom was inseparably linked to obedience to the will of God. Yet he still found himself commonly disobeying God and doing things that benefit himself. Surely, that is not wise. To disobey God is to be the fool.  Could one be wise and a fool at the same time?

Solomon dwelt on this matter a long time. One day, many years into his reign he was sitting in his palace, the only building in all the land more opulent than the Great Temple of Yahweh, he felt that he now understood the matter. He called out to God… but God did not answer. Many days he called out to God, but with no response. One night, however, close to giving up God returned to him in a dream.

God said, “Ask for whatever you want me to give you.”

Solomon responded, “O Lord my God. Your humble servant has served as king over Your people. You granted me wisdom, and I have sought to lead with wisdom and discernment. Yet I find failings in me. I believe I know what I should do for the good of the people, but far too often I find that what I do is guided more by what will give me pleasure, wealth, and honor. I now see that a wise man can still disobey You, and thus makes himself the fool. So as Your humble servant, I ask for strength of character, a disciplined heart and mind, to live and act wisely, not just be wise.”

The Lord was pleased that Solomon asked for this. He replied, “You have asked for something great… much greater than wisdom. It is also a much more difficult thing. A man’s character is like a boat— it moves easily as the current and the wind drive it. But to move against the wind and the water takes great labor”

God continued. “I do not grant character any more than do I make a waterfall flow upward. But if you truly desire good character, this is what I will do. I will give you suffering. I will take away what gives you pleasure, and what I leave you will not bring you satisfaction. I will give you dishonor, and grant your honor to fools.  I will scatter your wealth to those who did not earn it. It is a difficult path, and very few choose it voluntarily, but it is out of the seeds of suffering that discipline can slowly grow, and out of this growth, character  may bear fruit. Think on this.”

Solomon awoke, and meditated on his dream for many days, each day becoming more disconsolate. Finally, he called his scribe and began to speak,

“With much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief.”

Counter-cultural Contextual Storying

From Chapter of Same Name in Theo-Storying: Reflections on God, Narrative and Culture
I believe that Counter-cultural contextualization best describes making the Christian message relevant and resonant in a specific cultural setting. The goal is to contrast the Christian message to the surrounding culture, but without being “anti-culture.” Counterculture suggests a critical agency to use the culture, esteeming the good, while challenging that which is false.
Tied to this is the idea of the “subversive fulfillment” of symbols and cultural characteristics. By this is meant that each culture has good in it and the symbols/metaphors that are within the culture can be used to tear down (subvert) aspects of the culture that are destructive, fulfilling the potential of that culture to be a holy environment of God’s people. As noted in Endnote 1 for Chapter 7, Crossan described parables as narrative that subverts the world. If that is accurate, then parables are perhaps the best form of narrative for subversive fulfillment and counter-cultural contextualization.
The idea that the Gospel comes as “subversive fulfillment” of a culture was put forward by Hendrick Kraemer, where the Gospel fulfills the needs found in cultures while also challenges much of the worldview and underlying beliefs. The same can be said of symbols and concepts. The following is a quote by Willem A. Visser ‘t ‘Hooft,
Key-words from other religions when taken over by the Christian Church are like displaced persons, uprooted and unassimilated until they are naturalised. The uncritical introduction of such words into Christian terminology can only lead to that syncretism that denies the uniqueness and specific character of the different religions and creates a grey relativism. What is needed is to re-interpret the traditional concepts, to set them in a new context, to fill them with biblical content. Kraemer uses the term ―subversive fulfillment and in the same way we could speak of subversive accommodation. Words from the traditional culture and religion must be used, but they must be converted in the way in which Paul and John converted Greek philosophical and religious concepts.
If the message of Christ is presented as an attack on the entire culture, it will be rejected, or accepted as a foreign faith acting as a thin veneer over the underlying worldview. Paul Hiebert would call this non-contextualization. One is reminded of the Jehovah’s Witness religion where anything that is labelled as having “pagan roots” is rejected. Since almost everything has pagan roots at some point, one can quickly be straight-jacketed by such a principle. Or one can look to the Islamic practice of diffusion of faith (as described by Lamin Sanneh, contrasting translation of faith) Both viewpoints in the end tend to bless a specific culture, whether it be New Testament Greek Christian culture, or 7th century Western Arabic culture.
If the message of Christ is not presented so that it is subversive or counter-cultural, if it is presented to be compatible with the broad culture (both good and bad), there is a tendency to create a syncretistic faith. Hiebert would describe this as uncritical contextualization.
What is needed, using again Hiebert’s terminology, is “critical contextualization.” While others may disagree (and do disagree) I see critical contextualization as best related to counter-cultural contextualization. Stephen Bevans in “Models of Contextual Theology” classifies the different forms of contextualization into six broad categories. It seems to me that the one that is the closest to the truth is the category he describes as “Counter-cultural contextualization.” He notes that some describe this form as “encounter contextualization” or “prophetic contextualization.” I don’t care for those terms since they appear to over-spiritualize a process that may or may not do justice to the term.
Repeating what was said before, Counter-culture is not Anti-culture. An anti-cultural attitude rejects a culture without making the effort to recognize and redeem the good. A counter-cultural attitude rejects failings in a culture while living with and within, and even affirming other aspects of, that culture. This suggests that a counter-cultural contextualization requires:
1. Understand the symbols of the culture. If the basic characteristic of culture is its formation and utilization of symbols to provide the interface between individuals in society with the natural world, one cannot understand a culture without understanding its symbols…. its values, stories, myths, priorities.
2. Analyze the culture through the eyes of Scripture. This process requires solid exegesis to avoid the extremes of cultural imperialism on one side and excessive accommodation on the other. In some cases, the analysis may lead to modest rejection of surface behaviors. In other cases, important aspects of the worldview must be challenged. However, the good should always be affirmed.
3. Utilize the symbols of the culture to challenge it. This should be done sympathetically, affirming of the good within the culture.
This is what Jesus did in the form of parables. Jesus used relevant symbols within the 1st century Jewish culture to challenge aspects of that culture. Wine, vines, shepherds, sheep, marriage feasts, light, salt, slavery, and other items ingrained in Jewish culture were used to challenge common perceptions and values in that culture.
Since parables are stories rooted firmly in the symbolic structure of a culture and attacks certain beliefs within that culture, parables are an important part in counter-cultural contextualization. Counter-cultural contextualization is grounded in solid hermeneutics. However, its application is definitely dependent on the creative and artistic.
Great, But Now What?
How can this be done? It is difficult to train to be artistic. But a few things come to mind.
A. Learn the stories that people in a culture enjoy to discover cultural themes. In the US, a dominant cultural trait is achievement (the Horatio Alger, “rags to riches” motif). Another is the American Dream (economic ascendancy of a family over succeeding generations). Another could be the underdog as victor (David over Goliath). In the Philippines luck (suarte) and fatalism (bahala na) appears to be a major concern. Another could be the Philippine dream (Educating children so they can get good jobs overseas and send money back home). An additional one could be the appreciation of getting along with one another despite substantive disagreement (pakikisama). Another one (although starting to reduce) is the (unwarranted) sense of inferiority to foreigners. These traits provide the language of stories, but also the areas to challenge.
B. Read and watch stories that practice the form of the parable. This can be uncomfortable. A story that challenges an important part of American culture is likely to be considered Un-American. Such
writers may be thought of as being Un-American, or troublemakers. The same is true of writers who act in the counter-culture of other cultures and nations. Christians in a particular culture tend to strongy distrust the counter-culture, because it impinges on their own comfort zone. But even if one ultimately rejects the messages of the counter-culture after critical reflection, there is value in listening. A story such as “Citizen Kane” or “The Treasure of Sierra Madre” can challenge materialism, for example. Listening to news from other countries (or other viewpoints within one’s own country) may attack excessive nationalism or mono-culturalism.
C. Master the short-story. I enjoy reading O Henry stories although they are decades old. They are often humorous, short, and have a twist at the end. Even today, “The Gift of the Magi” (O Henry) and “A Christmas Carol” (Dickens) are remembered and provide a challenge (if one takes the time to hear the challenge in the story). A good parable can be harsh or dramatic, such as “The Treasure of Sierra Madre” but can also be given in humous form (a similar message is provided in the movie “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” for example). Seek competence in the narrative form over the didactic, or polemic forms. Entertainment value is a real value. A good story with a good message that has little to no entertainment value is, simply, not a good story.
D. Practice. One can look at existing stories and parables and see which ones can be used or modified for a new culture. For example, I have seen the story of the Prodigal Son reinterpreted very successfully for the Highlands of Luzon. The tribal groups here have seen far too many of their children leave the rice terraces, lured into the Lowlands and the big cities (such as Manila or Baguio City) and the corresponding vices there.4 The parable of the Prodigal Son only needs modest changes to be very relevant in showing the father who overlooks the shamelessness (walang hiya) of the son and risks personal status to forgive and restore him into the tightly knit family and village. Taking a well established story or story form and changing perspective or roles can greatly surprise and change the message.
E. Live it.  Jesus created stories by living them. Jesus challenged legalistic cultural rules of His time by violating them. These violations (grabbing wheat berries on Saturday, or not ritually washing) may not be understood in a different culture, but they were easy to recognize in that culture. Stories are not simply told… they are lived out.
Final Thought
It has often been said that the pen is mightier than the sword. Is this true? The jury is still out on that one. Sometimes, the sword has won out over ideas and writing. However, the impact of ideas and great storytellers has typically been greater than great warriors. Warriors must train well to use the tools of their trade well, and be sure of their targets and objectives. Those who are involved with “theo-storying” must, then, be even that much more concerned with their training and objectives. The research into the culture and the care in crafting illustrations, revelations, myths, and parables should be considered to be as much part of ministry as preaching, evangelizing, and discipling.

2003 Missions Reflections

This is a sermon I spoke at Philippine Baptist Theological Seminary chapel, on February 28, 2017. Actually, I suppose it is more of a testimony than a sermon.


A number of you will be doing internship this Summer: It could be Short-term Missions (STM), it could be church internship, it could be Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE). Some won’t be officially doing internship, but will be serving God somewhere, perhaps your home church, during the Summer break. You can look at it as a burden… a task you just got to do… Or you can learn and grow through it– become a better person and minister through it. I like the fact that PBTS now requires Interns to give a testimony of their summer. When I was a student, this was not done… and that was truly a missed opportunity.

I am going to use, primarily, the example of a short-term mission trip I joined way back in 2003. That was a year before my family and I came to the Philippines. I joined a group that went to Londrina, Brazil.

Lesson #1. Talk About It.

Talk about your internship. I don’t mean up in front of church showing a couple of pictures of you standing in front of a Buddhist Temple, or dressed in a Highlands costume. I don’t mean a quick little “Praise God” testimonial. I mean find people who have the interest and the ability to understand non-judgmentally what you went through and talk to them about the good and the bad, the miracles and the struggles. That is not always easy to find. When I came back from Brazil, I never had much of a chance to share my feelings about the trip with anyone except family and a couple of team members. Until today…

A couple of years later that happened again. Celia and I, and our kids, went to the Philippines for a year. We promised ourselves we would stay at least a year and then see what God has for us. We decided to stay long-term, but returning to visit our sending church I expected people would be so interested in wanting us to talk about what we had experienced. Surprise surprise, they really weren’t. Sure, they would ask a question or two, but then would quickly switch the topic to something they were more interested in– purchasing a new car, refinancing their house, local sports. So boring… I was really quite surprised. Then a friend of mine, came over and started talking. He said “Bob, I would like to share with you about my mission trip to Belarus… because I know you would understand. I had been in the Philippines for a year, and he wants to talk to me about a 2 week trip to Belarus? But I thought for a moment. He must have had a similar problem of people who did not appreciate what he had experienced. Something important happened in his life and he needed to be heard. He thought I would understand. So I listened. Soon after, friends who did a mission trip to Italy shared about their trip, and we listened. It’s important. Since then, we found two families at our home church who understood and would listen.

Years ago, Randy Friesen, a missiologist from South Africa, did his dissertation on the results of Short-term missions– particularly on the participants. Many of the results were positive. One negative, however, was that participants in short-term missions commonly were less involved in their home church one year after the trip. Why was this? Part of it was that there was no debrief, no evaluation, no follow-up to the trip. The church never helped them put their experience into proper perspective and to integrate that into their spiritual life journey.

The church assumed that the STMers had not changed, but they had. The church sought to put them back in their old roles in the body, but those roles no longer fit. The STMers no longer felt that they fit in their home churches. This is completely unnecessary. Debrief not only helps the STMer understand what they experienced, it helps the church understand as well… and then to work together afterwards.

Talking provides an avenue for personal reflection. We went to Londrina, Brazil to build a church building. We also did some speaking, some music, and two members worked with a children’s ministry.

The local pastors asked a favor from us. People who come up to us will ask us, either in Portuguese or in very very broken English, what we do back in the United States.

American STMers typically don’t like to answer that question, but will give some Christian-ish phrase like “Well, I am just a fellow brother in Christ” or maybe “A sinner saved by grace, just like you.” (Much like the Greenwich commercial: sobreng cheesy.) The Brazilian pastors asked us to answer truthfully. The reason? Brazil has that Portuguese/Spanish belief that professionals do not get their hands dirty with hard work. If you are a nobody, you do menial work… if you are a somebody, you don’t…. that labor is somehow, degrading. The Brazilian pastors said that they wanted to change this attitude. They wanted the people in their church to recognize that all work done for God is honoring. On our team I was a mechanical engineer, but we also had an electrical engineer, an owner of a construction firm, a retired Air Force major, a company manager, two teachers, and more. It actually seemed to work. We did have at least some small role in changing attitudes at the mother church– Igreja Batista Monte Siao (Mount Zion Baptist Church).

The time there was strange. The church put us up in a 4-star hotel. Crystal Palace Hotel. Strange… We could have stayed in the host church. It was a big church. We could have stayed at a livelihood center they owned. We could have stayed in a much simpler hotel. Hey, we could have stayed in tents on the construction site. We don’t need to be at a fancy place.

We would get up and have a wonderful breakfast and Brazilian coffee (50% espresso, and 50% milk) at the hotel restaurant. Then we would dress for work, and drop off our keys with the concierge, walk through the atrium of polished marble past bellboys and doormen in perfect uniforms and load up in a van to go to the worksite. We would put in a long, hard, day. Then we would get back to the hotel. We would walk past the doormen and the bellboys in perfect uniforms, while we were covered in dirt and sweat dropping bits of red Brazilian mud onto the immaculate polished marble floors of the atrium. I would go up to the conscierge and say “Dos Sero Seis” (206) to get my room key– I still remember the room number. We did this day after day after day. It was actually rather embarrassing.

But then we would clean up and they would take us to a churroscaria or a rodizio-style pizzeria— absolutely fabulous Brazilian-style restaurants, drink a LOT of guarana (a wonderful Brazilian drink… non-alcoholic in case you were concerned) and then go back to prepare for another day. But all the time I kept wondering. “Do they think that just because we are Americans, we expect things to be this fancy?”

Finally it hit me. I understood. Our partners in Brazil put us in a fancy hotel because they were putting into practice what they were teaching their people. Every work for God is honoring, and everyone serving God is honored no matter what they do. To make that clearer to their church members, they treated us with honor. It makes sense. If you want people to honor someone, don’t just talk about honor… you demonstrate honor. That revelation came to me two months ago as I was preparing for this talk… 13 years late. We need to talk to others, who are interested and have some understanding of our experiences, and through this, reflect on it– learn and grow.

Lesson #2. Respect the Hosts as Experts

One of the former students here at PBTS was telling a story of talking to an American guy who was doing short-term missions in the Philippines. This American guy liked to describe himself as a “cross-cultural missionary” and threw around some fancy terms in missions, but my student quickly, correctly, realized that this guy really knew next to nothing of cross-cultural interaction and missions. This can happen. Many who do short-term missions go with enthusiasm but without knowledge. But even for the best prepared, the best trained STMers, they know less about what is needed in a community than the host.

We were working on the church building, and discovered that there was a 5 meter wide lot right next to the church lot that was for sale. We started discussing amongst ourselves. Maybe our team could come up with the money to buy that plot of land. If we can’t, maybe we could contact people in our church to come up with it. It could be used for parking. They only have parking for like 3 vehicles. It’s crazy!!

That’s not enough. We tell our hosts, and they smile and say that is not necessary. We persist and they say, “Thank you… but no.” We still persist, and finally one of our hosts, the one with the strongest English talks to us and says. “Look. They don’t need that land. They don’t need more parking, and if you did raise money for that land, they would use the money for something else… something that they need more.” So we stopped. And over the next few days, we learned about our hosts. They took us to their prayer room, where they prayed as a group and did their strategic planning. They showed us the master map in which they are sketching out their churchplanting activities. The churches they have completed, the ones presently being established, and the ones planned over the next few years. They talked about why they chose the location for the church we all were building. The location was a bit out of the way, but in 5 years, the new airport would be opening, and the road the church is on will be on the primary road to that airport. During our visit we met the members of that new church and the pastor of that church. Close to two years before they move into the new church building, a pastor and core group had already been established for the church. We realized that the Brazilian Baptists were an awful lot more organized and diligent in their planning than we were in the United States. They knew more about what they have and what they need than we know.

On the final Friday, three days before we were flying home, our hosts said that tomorrow we were going to the hot springs. We said, “No no no. There is so much more that can be done. Sunday is the commissioning of the church building, we want to get more things done.” They said, No. Enough has been done, it is time to rest. They were right. Enough had been done. Short-term missions is not primarily about getting stuff done, it is not about being experts, but it is about relationships that develop with others from other parts of the world. A reminder that God’s church is ultimately a unity despite its diversity, and because of its diversity.

Lesson #3. Have Proper Priorities

On the final Friday that we were there, we were concreting the floor. This was no simple thing. It is a large church and was designed stadium-style so much of the floor was sloped. In Brazil they build backwards. Roof first, then the walls, and finally the floor. But it seems to work.

They used to build smaller churches but found that the membership would exceed the building capacity within 6 months. My task was to shovel sand for the concrete. I was partnered with Cesar, a Brazilian man. We developed a bit of a competition.

Who could go the longest shoveling sand without taking a break. It was hard. Cesar was a good worker… but I kept going, pacing off of him. I felt tired, I wanted to quit… but I told myself that I wasn’t going to lose, I had to win. On and on it went. But I refused to give up. I kept looking at him and screaming in my head, “Why don’t you stop!!” Finally… Cesar put down his shovel, grabbed a water bottle, and sat down. I kept going ten seconds longer just to make it quite clear that I had won, and then I rested.

Do you think I felt good about that victory? Truthfully, not that much, for a few reasons. The first reason was that Cesar was twice my age. Literally. I was 38 at the time and he was 76. Second, he was half my size. I was 100 kilos. He might have been more than 50 kilos, but certainly not more than 60. Third, is that Cesar did not know that we were competing. I didn’t tell him we were competing and since he did not know a single word of English, it would not have helped if I had told him. In fact if he knew that we were competing, he probably would have just kept going until I was taken to the hospital. So NO… I did not feel all that great about winning. And perhaps, fourth… competition is not really a good motive for missions anyway.

But we struggle sometimes, because we bring our strange quirks and motives into missions. It is uncomfortable feeling like little children, unable to communicate. It is embarrassing to need help with some of the simplest things. I remember the first time I had to use the CR in the Philippines. I went in and could not figure out how to make the toilet flush, nor the shower to work. I had to ask for help. It’s frustrating. These stresses sometimes bring out the worst in us. We bring our pride, our selfish goals, our ignorant expectations into our missions. Frankly… we can’t really do that much about it. You can’t remove your attitude and prejudices and lock them in a drawer at home while we travel on mission. They come with us.

But some motives have to be set aside, or we must be set aside. Barry Philipps, a missionary that visits PBTS periodically, wrote a book on short-term missions and he tells a story of a guy he knew who joined a short-term mission team who clearly came with the intent of exploring the potential wonders of international dating. His behavior, in fact, sabotaged ministry work in the area for years. Another, appeared to think his role is to be taken care of hand and foot like he was staying at beach resort. The local hosts were too kind to complain, publicly, but the following year when the same church wanted to send a team, the hosts had to tell the US church that this one guy will not be accepted back and that the church needed to do a better job of screening applicants.

Some other motives are not as bad as long as they are not given priority. For those who want to experience “new places and adventure”– no problem, but that should not be your highest priority. For those on internship, getting credit so you can graduate… no problem, but that really shouldn’t be your highest priority either. What about the Great Commission? Should that be your highest priority? At risk of being controversial, my answer has to be NO… the Great Commission is simply an application of the Great Commandment. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart soul and might, and love your neighbor as yourself.” I feel like if that is your priority, much of the rest of the chaos that is missions will become more clear.

So for upcoming 2017 Interns, here is my advice:

  • Talk about it. Share concerns, questions, and insights, before, during and after your internship. Reflect on your experiences, open to gain new insights from it. Find those that are able to understand, and willing to listen non-judgmentally…. rejoice with you, grieve with you… pray with you. Don’t wait 14 years.

  • Respect the Hosts as Experts. Are they experts? Maybe… maybe not. But they know their community better than you do, and are the long-term presence there… so work with them, not over them, and not against them. Be a learner.

  • Have proper priorities. Loving God through serving others needs to take priority over the other motives that we tend to bring with us. But acknowledge that you have other motives and desires. If you take care of what is most important, there is a pretty good chance that the less important things will turn out okay.

And if you want a fourth bit of advice. Try to have fun… but even if you find it miserable (and that does happen sometimes)… be ready for God to still use it to transform your life and the lives of others… flowers for ashes… making all things beautiful in His time.

Thank you for taking the time to listen.