Mulling Weakness Missions

I am considering writing a book— or maybe only an article, we will see— on a model of missions that embraces Weak, Small, and Poor as positive, even defining, characteristics. In line with that, I was looking a bit at Mission from a Position of Weakness by Paul Jeong (American University Studies Series 7— Theology and Religion Vol. 269, New York, Peter Lang, 2007). It looks at Missions from a position of weakness rather than power as consistent with the model given us by Jesus, continued by the early Apostles, and modeled by many missionaries and mission movements since then. I hope soon to read Power in Weakness: Paul’s Transformed Vision for Ministry by Timothy G. Gombis. The title of this second one sounds interesting even if I am not convinced the vision is in any way original to Paul. But one can not know a book by either its cover or its title.

Back to Jeong’s book for now, Ed Schroeder wrote a review of the book for the journal “Missiology.” In it he gave a critique of the book where he suggested that it lacked an underlying theological foundation (not unusual in Missions writings). Jeong suggested that there are different ways to do missions, but Weakness is best because it is consistent with the example of Christ. While this Biblical argument may be good, it is incomplete. Jesus did not use satellite communication for spreading His message, but that is not enough to throw out all electronic technology in mission work. Schroeder suggests that Weakness Missions is not only the most Biblical form of Missions, it is the most theologically sound. He suggests that Weakness Missions aligns with Theology of the Cross, while Power Missions aligns with Glory Theology. Glory Theology is oriented towards power and success— seeing the Christian life as progressive towards accumulation of authority and blessing. The Theology of the Cross (consider the writings of Martin Luther) sees ourselves as weak and suffering but in a state of Grace due to what Christ has done on the cross. I will have to look into it a bit more. I am not an expert on any of this, but am aware that Glory Theology is a bit of a “straw man” to contrast Theology of the Cross. It is, however, a straw man that many take as their Christian worldview.

At this time, it seems to me that there are three pretty good arguments for Weakness Missions over Power (money, social control and political coercion, for example) Missions:

  • Biblical (Jesus gave us the example that we are suppose to follow, as well as the example of the apostles that followed the example of Christ.)
  • Theological (God’s Word leads us to an understanding of our living in a state of weakness and suffering that compels us to live and minister in complete dependence on God, rather than on utilizing strategies and forms of influence to coerce others to align with our goals and faith.)
  • Historical/Practical (History has shown that many of the most successful mission movements have followed a model of weakness, not power, and those that successfully utilize power missions often create problems that undermine their short-term success.)

An area that I struggle with is the area of divine power. If we are to rely on God, to what extent is Weakness Missions consistent with things like Power Encounter. There are many who support some form of “Vulnerable Missions” who still also promote miracles/signs as part of the ministry. Biblically, this appears to be sound. Jesus did use miracles— sometimes as an act of compassion, and sometimes as a sign of His authority to give a message. The early Apostles did the same. A look in the Gospels and the Book of Acts shows that (1) there is some ambivalence as to the results of such work, and (2) it seems as if miracles were used more at the start of ministry work and less as time went on.

But my question is whether these should be considered to work against the idea of Weakness Missions. My short-term answer (that may change) is SOMETIMES. I feel that in Missions, promoters of Power Encounter such as Charles Kraft and C. Peter Wagner clearly embraced Power Missions. (It is interesting that Jeong’s book was originally a dissertation at Fuller, a seminary that has had such a major role in promoting Power Missions (in my opinion at least).) I come from a faith tradition that is pretty skeptical of miracles in the present era. While I do believe that a somewhat open-minded skepticism is probably for the best, that doesn’t really answer the question here. If Weakness means demonstrating dependence on the power of God rather than on the power of man, when does the use of God’s power drift from dependence to exploitation and abuse. From New Apostolic Reformation, to preachers in Africa calling down curses on their competition, there is a place where what should be seen as good becomes toxic.

Still mulling this. Hopefully I will have a good tentative answer by the time I am ready to publish something.

Book Review: “Pursuing the Call” by Danny Lamastra

One thing I like to say, although often fail to practice, is that when trying to teach, one should aim for 50% Information and 50% Inspiration. Information can be gathered through research or personal experience, but Inspiration is a bit harder to attain. I think it is partly a work of God, but also a personal passion, and skill in the art of communication.

With this in mind, I enjoyed the information and inspiration associated with the reading the recent book by Danny Lamastra “Pursuing the Call: A Practical Guide for New and Prospective Missionaries.” (Aneko Press, 2021). The work gives guidance, especially to those early in the journey, in being a vocational missionary. The guidance is tied to his own experience and early on, his personal story provides the structure for the book.

I appreciated his balanced and personal path into missions. While he described his own journey, he also talked about other paths he could have taken, but did not, especially pertaining to mission agencies and support. As one who trains future missionaries, I found his perspective quite helpful. My path was very different from his. He was a single mission candidate who joined a “faith-based” mission agency right out of college. I was married and never went through support raising, sent by my home church, and going into missions as a second (or arguably third) career. I believe Danny Lamastra’s presentation in terms of mission agencies and funding is pretty fair and balanced.

The second half of the book looks at some common issues that relate to new missionaries— issues that are commonly put under the labels of either Missionary Member Care or Missions Anthropology. These include culture shock, burnout, contextualization, spiritual discipline, and health, legal, and tax issues. The guidance is good and peppered with examples that make difficult ideas more clear. Many of the things the writer talks about I would have benefited from in knowing early back around 2003. As self-funded, church-sent missionaries, we kind of “winged it” in many ways. This book would have helped in many ways, especially in terms of health and legal issues.

Truthfully, there is little I would add or change. Maybe I would downplay the value of fasting as a Christian discipline (especially considering the mixed reviews of this practice I get from others and seeing how ambivalent the Bible is to this practice). Maybe I would say, do it if you find it valuable— otherwise, don’t. I would also caution that tithing to one’s local (in-the-field) church fully can be a bad idea if the church is small. Such a church can easily become dependent on the missionary’s giving. It may be better to split up one’s giving— after all, you can bring your tithe to more than one storehouse.

3F (Full-time, Fully funded, Forever) missions is not for everyone. But for those who suspect that God may be leading them on that path should definitely give this book a read.

Maligayang Pasko 2021

I wrote an unnecessarily long article on asceticism and Christmas, and then added the positive spin on Christmas having both sacred and secular symbols and stories. I argued that there is a balance needed in Christmas between the pressures to embrace asceticism or revelry. I also argued that there is value Christmas as a sacred activity that welcomes the secular.

BUT… then three hours of writing disappeared. That made me think that it was for the best. I think the principles were strong, but the writing convoluted. Therefore, I would recommend sending anyone interested to better posts I have done in the past. Click on the post below. God bless.

Christmas Musings

The Perfect House… A Parable

The man finally arrived at the address he was given. It was a long trip and he was cold, wet, and tired. This was his inheritance, deeded over to him. He knew he was in the will, that he would get something, but what a surprise it was to find that it was a house on a patch of land a month’s journey. But it would be worth it.

The house was, as he noted as he walked up the stone path, a bit small and shabby. He had hoped for something a bit more… grand, perhaps? Still, he had never had anything that was truly his own before— nothing that he could touch and lay full claim to.

He saw there was a light on in the house. He knocked on the door, and almost immediately an older man answered the door.

“Ah yes sir,” said this man. “It is good that you made it here safely. You can call me Benjamin if you like. Let me escort you to your room.”

Benjamin helped the man settle in. The house was all wrong. It really needed some work, but the man knew not to worry about that yet. He settled in, and slept well into the morning coming down close to the the time most people would have lunch. There was a full breakfast waiting for him. Benjamin, since there seemed to be no other staff must have heard him waking up and getting himself ready to come downstairs since the food was still piping hot. The man thoroughly enjoyed the meal and as he finished the last bit and was wondering what he should do, Benjamin came in. The man asked Benjamin what he does around here.

“Well sir, I pretty much do everything here. Your inheritance comes with my services. Of course, if you find that unacceptable, I quite understand.”

The man jumped in, “Oh no Benjamin, I have no reason to find that unacceptable. I am just not sure how I can pay for your services you understand. I hope, however, that I soon will be in a position to handle the cost of this property as well as its maintenance.”

“My apologies sir. I believe I must have been unclear. The inheritance more than covers my services. It also covers all of the costs of maintaining this house and land. In fact, funds are available to do whatever you desire with the property. I am quite aware that this house is… not to everyone’s tastes.”

The first week, the man became more familiar with the property and the arrangements made for him. He soon realized that he could do pretty much whatever he wanted with the house, limited pretty much only to the land it was built upon.

The man dreamed. It occurred to him that the best solution would be to tear down that odd house. It was smaller than he hoped. It had rooms set up in a seemingly haphazard arrangement. Symmetry was clearly not valued in the design, and there was hardly a perpendicular angle in the entire house. Some may call it quaint, but the man found it to be strange and a bit claustrophobic. He began working on designing the house of his dreams. He had studied some architectural design in college. Circumstances led him in a different direction and so he never really used those skills. But now he could.

He threw himself into his work with great passion. He came up with a beautiful design that filled up half of the land and would certainly meet pretty much any desire he could think of. It only took him a month to do the design. And it was perfect.

Well, not so perfect. As he looked at the design, he started to see failings. If money is not an object, am I, wondered the man, dreaming too small? He tried again, he looked at architectural design books, and pictures of the most beautiful homes around the world. It made him chuckle at the foolishness of his first design. He could do so much better. He began to make more and more changes and began to think that he would never get to a point where he was completely satisfied.

That was indeed a thought to mull over. He hardly needed a palace. So many of those beautiful homes are show pieces— created to impress others rather than to be truly enjoyed and lived in.

There was a charm to the basic plan of the house he was in. Oh sure, there were some things to change, but it had good “bones.” He can work with that basic framework and update the house. He can open up the spaces and add more natural lighting. He began to develop a whole new design— tearing down walls, adding additional closet space, expanding windows and so forth. He felt better with this plan. The creativity of the artist is brought out by limitations. Limiting the size and materials forces the artist to truly embrace his imagination and innovation. The man again threw himself into this new design task. Soon, however, he began having the same problems he had previously with the idea of a complete demolition. There were too many options. He began to see why it was good that he did not become an architect. It is hard to figure out what things are actually an improvement and what are only… new and different.

This went on for weeks, and then months. Finally, he began to realize something. He liked the strangely shaped rooms. Some of the design choices in the bedroom and kitchen for example were strange, but suited him surprisingly well. He knew that the house had not changed, but it seems like he had. The house did not need to have things ripped out or added to. There were things that should be done, but they were small things— those sorts of things that can be done a bit at a time. Some paint and spackle over there on one day, and maybe new handles for a cabinet over here the next.

Eventually, the man told Benjamin his plans. Benjamin replied, “I am quite elated to here that. I am ready any time to help with the improvements you have in mind.”

“Why is it that you are elated?” asked the man. Benjamin never shied away from hard work, and funds (as Benjamin had stated) were indeed not an issue.

“Well sir, you see… I designed and built this house specifically for you. I knew it was to be your inheritance and so I worked diligently to ensure it was just what you needed. It is not so hard to make a house to meet someone’s needs. But it is impossible to make a house to meet someone’s wants. Wants change and grow without warning.”

“Oh,” said the man. “I did not know you built this house. I am embarrassed that I spoke so poorly of it early on. And now I feel bad that I am seeking to change anything. I can leave everything as it is.”

Benjamin replied, “No sir. This is not a museum. It is your home. It is yours to change— big or little, it is good that you make this house your own. You should make some changes, and I will help you with that. But I am glad that you don’t want to make big changes. If I may say so, I believe that shows that you now know who you are. People who do not know who they will never find contentment in any place. I believe you have chosen wisely.”

“But Benjamin,” countered the man. “We have never met. How is it that you knew me so well as to make the perfect place for me?”

“Sir, it is not so much that I made the perfect house for you. I suppose I have said it without clarity. Perhaps it is better to say that the house was made for you, and you were made for the house. And in time, you will be perfect for the house and the house will be perfect for you.”

Defining Missions and Missionary

I have long struggled with defining (Christian) Missions and (Christian) Missionary. I don’t really have a problem with modern formulations of “Mission.” I find the Missio Dei understanding of Mission in terms of God’s overall plan of ministry in the world is pretty good (there are of course different specific flavors of definition). However, Missions (a human component in God’s Mission) and Missionary (one involved in Missions) I find harder to define.

I have posted quite a bit on this subject and while not trashing my previous stuff (nor assuming I won’t change my mind futher, later), I would like to add my in-the-moment thoughts here.

I struggled years ago when asked by a friend who was writing a paper (at a secular university) on missionary member care. She wanted a good definition for “missionary” but even though I had taught missions courses for several years, I had never found a definition I was satisfied with. In the end I gave Donald Macgavran’s definition. However, the definition is VERY limiting. It excludes over 90% of all missionaries. That is a problem. You can read about this by CLICKING HERE.

More recently, I shared Macgavran’s definition at a research meeting. The response is that this definition doesn’t really work for any missionary in the Philippines. Macgavran’s definition is more about pioneering missions, and few if any places in the Philippines has true pioneering missions.

So I will give a couple of definitions for consideration:

Missions is the activity of the local church to reach out beyond the boundaries of the local church, to carry out the work of God without direct benefit to that same local church.

I would like to draw out key items of this definition.

  • It is church-centered. While it is true that God is at work at all times and everywhere, missions is limited to the work of the church.
  • I use the term local church, but not because I am trying place some sort of radical downplaying of the universal church (as I have seen some others do). Rather, I am doing this to categorize it in two ways— First, to separate it from two other major ministries of the church: Member care (ministry focused on those who are part of the church family in the local church), and Church growth (ministry to reach out into the community to bring people into that same local church). The work is to support the Reign of God, but not (directly) the local church. Second, the local church defines missions. It is not defined by nation, denomination, or by culture. Missions can be local, regional, national, or international. It may be same culture, similar culture, diaspora, refugee, or completely cross-cultural.
  • It is the work of God— that work of God that God chooses to do through the church. It should not be a highly limited understanding of the work of God. It should at least be as broad as the work of Christ on earth— who was involved in proclamation, evangelism, discipleship, healing, and compassion ministry, among other things.

A missionary is a person called out by, sent out by, and accountable to the church to serve faithfully and consistently in the ministry of missions.

I would like to draw out key items here as well.

  • Called out by the church. While missionaries like to say that they are called by God, I prefer to think of missionaries as being called by the church. Some may say (as my seminary does), ‘God-called, church affirmed.” I have no problem with that. However, without the church affirmation, the person can simply be “self-called.” Much like in the movie, “The Apostle” where Robert Duvall baptizes himself as an apostle, the focus on asking about a candidates calling from God often pushes a theological agenda that may not be sound. (I recall a man showing up at a local church and telling them, “God spoke to me and told me that I am now your pastor.” That church actually did then take him in as pastor. I feel a better response should have been, “Thank you for telling us. When God tells us the same thing, we will let you know.”) I find a better thing for a church is to ask the missionary candidate about his or her journey of faith, and then to decide whether they should call the person to serve as a missionary of the church.
  • Sent by the church. I am not as big of a fan of missionaries being sent out by mission organizations, or even by denominational entities. I suppose this is because my wife and I were called and sent out by a local church. However, regardless of the institution, missions should always be seen as a sending out from the local church. This is in line with the Biblical understanding of “apostle.” An apostle was one who was sent out from the church assembly to serve a majority of the time outside of the church. I know that some people see apostles as people of great power and authority in the church. However, in the earliest days of the church, the apostles seemed to be closer functionally to mendicant monks than cardinals. Ultimately, the serve people who are not part of the church in a setting outside of the church.
  • Accountable to the church. A missionary is commonly supported by the church, but must always be accountable to the church. If someone funds themselves and calls themselves and has no accountability to anyone but God, they certainly may be serving God faithfully, but the term missionary probably should not apply.
  • Faithfully and consistently. Part-time missions and short-time missions is quite valid (although often quite problematic) forms of missions. However, I would suggest that such individuals probably should not be called missionaries— at least without an adjective in front. Perhaps it is okay to call someone a short-term missionary, at least during the short-term mission, but that person probably should not be called “a missionary.” I recall an STMer from the US talking to one of my Filipino seminary students in Baguio. The STMer from the US called himself a missionary, but quickly demonstrated to my student that he knew almost nothing about missions or what a missionary does. I think the STM mobilizer sought to motivate the team-members by getting them to embrace the term “missionary,” but embracing it and using it as a designation around others is two different things.

Anyway, this is my thoughts for now. Comments are always welcome. I am also making an assumption that when we are talking, within the church about missions and missionaries, that we are talking about Christian missions and Christian missionaries. If a person is serving in a missionary capacity of a non-Christian group (Islamic, Mormon, Buddhist, etc.), as a Christian I can describe them in terms of missionary and missions, but only with adjectives to clarify that they are outside of the bounds of Christianity and the Bible. Essentially, that is the same as other terms such as “worship” or “theology,” where they can apply to many religions. However, when talked about in a Christian setting, when used without an adjective, the assumed adjective is “Christian.”

The Unappetizing Worm and the Squid Game

Photo by Sippakorn Yamkasikorn on

I did a lot of fishing when I was young. Truthfully, I did not care for fishing all that much. I enjoyed hiking and exploring, but fishing only allowed one to do those things for a short while followed by hours of sitting or standing in a hot sticky itchy place.

I was not good at fishing. To some extent my lack of success was due to lack of patience. I couldn’t just let my line out and then relax. Additionally, because I did not enjoy fishing, I did not become a student of fishing.

A big mistake I did in fishing was with worms. I would most commonly use earthworms to catch fish. <For those traumatized by worm impalement, please skip a bit ahead.> I would stick the hook through the worm. Then I would stick it through again and again and again. In the end I would end up with a tangled ball of worm on the hook.

Why in the world would I do that? I was afraid that a fish would come along and take a bite out of the worm and get away without being caught by the fishhook. It made perfect sense to me that a bite on the worm that did not have the hook in it is a wasted bite.

If I had talked to my friends or researched books from experts in fishing, I would have realized that having the worm alive and well and wiggling is a good thing. And having the fish take a nip on the bait without getting hooked, makes it more motivated to come in for more. In an effort to make nibbles turn into a catch, I made the worm unappealing to most fish.

Evangelism has been described in terms of fishing. Jesus described His disciples as fishers of men. More recently, there has been the modern parable where people get so caught up in the science of fishing and gathering together to discuss fishing theories that no one is actually fishing. Tied to that story is the question, “Who do you want to learn from someone who studies fishing or one who actually fishes?” Relating that to missions or evangelism, the question becomes, “Who do you want to learn from, one who does the work or the one who analyzes and theorizes about the work?” In truth, to be a GREAT fisherman it is helpful to draw from both. To be a great car driver it is good to learn from great drivers, but it is also good to talk to those who design and test cars as well.

But in this case, my lesson from the worm is a bit different. In the mid-1800s there were huge sawdust revivals. Big musical numbers of peppy gospel songs, firy preaching and a hard-sell altar call. Walking forward and praying the sinners prayer was so linked to the idea of being saved that it matched the early church’s tendency to see getting baptized as the same as getting saved.

Into the 20th century the question was how to lead people to Christ the quickest. Some suggested that one should throw out social ministry. The sawdust revivals still met a social need, since many communities had little entertainment, little quality music, and few great orators. But in a reaction to the so-called “social gospel” the removal of the social side of the gospel seemed to make sense since it took time and money— essentially slowing things down. This reached a local peak in the 1960s with Evangelical reaction against conciliar missions. Another peak in this happened more recently with focus on bible studies in creating church-planting movements (CPM). Additionally, revivals are had to quantify without a simple metric… so saying the sinners prayer became so much the focus that some methods were developed that almost tricked someone into saying the sinner’s prayer. (This reminds me of a missionary friend who was almost tricked into saying the Shahada three times by some neighbors who held a reductionist belief that doing so “made one a Muslim.”)

I think these are like what I was doing in fishing. I tried to make it so that a fish could hardly go after the worm without getting hooked. Some things done in missions seeks to ensure a positive response (even if that positive response is ambiguous). However, what I did to the worm made it more unappealing to most fish. I increased the likelihood that a bite would result in a catch, but I greatly reduced the number of bites. It is possible that our tactics can increase the percentage of positive responses to a direct plea for the gospel, but only doing so through driving more away.

Binging the Squid Game this last weekend brought this to light. There were a number of references to Christianity in this Korean series. However, all of them showed Christianity as being a bit weird— people dressed funny (much like Mormon missionaries in the US and Philippines dress), and a bit loud and preachy. I don’t think anyone watching the show would come to the conclusion that Christians are called upon to be meek, kind, hospitable, loving, and self-sacrificing. If you haven’t watched Squid Game, try watching it as if you have never heard of Christianity before. What characteristics would you gain of Christianity from watching the show? Now before you get the idea that Squid Game is — “Anti-Christian”— I think it may be better to think of it as a fairly neutral portrayal of how Christians have often chosen to portray themselves. Preaching the word, using a lot of Christian-speak and dressing in a way that strongly contrasts those around them can seem like a good idea… being good witnesses of the truth. However, few would be attracted to Christianity— it is an unappealing worm— much like the primary Christian in the Squid Game is so focused on himself and his faith, that he offers nothing of Christ or himself to others that would be appealing.

This is a bit off on a tangent, but perhaps it is better today to identify people who come to Christ though tracking (believer’s) baptisms rather than through saying the Sinner’s Prayer. Neither one is actually the same as salvation (a transformation of the heart) but I suppose baptism demonstrates a deeper level of thought or commitment than does repeating a prayer that someone else gives you. Of course, there is the risk of falling into the mistake of many groups that confuse salvation with baptism, but it is probably less in error than associating the sinner’s prayer with salvation. <Sorry… just was thinking off the top of my head while I was typing.>

The Wrong Answer to Grief

A guilty pleasure of mine, of sorts, is true crime podcasts. I was listening to one recently. It was on “Crime Junkies,” regarding “The Hendricks Case.” In that case, a woman and her three children were killed in their home while the father was on a business trip. More information can be found in the book “Reasonable Doubt” by Steve Vogel.

The man, David Hendricks, along with the family were intensely religious. The exact denomination is not particularly important, but I would describe them as “Conservative Evangelical” or perhaps Fundamentalist.

Although Hendricks was convicted originally for the crime, the conviction was eventually overturned. It was determined that the evidence was not adequate to convict, and the case is officially unsolved to this day.

One thing that led David Hendricks to be thought guilty was something he said to reporters during the initial investigation. “Hendricks said that he knew that ‘Suzie and my three kids are much better off and I wish them back for me as a selfish thing, but I know that they are with the Lord Jesus in heaven, and I am satisfied in knowing this.'” Then asked about what would happen to the one who did the crime. His response was, “I would like to see him get saved. It would be worth it if one person found their way to heaven, don’t you think?” <Vogel’s book, pages 61-62>

Many people reacted strongly to these statements. The first statement could sound a bit like the presumed thought process of a family annihilator— “The world is horrible and I am doing them a favor by killing them.” The second one is just as open to uncertain interpretations. It could be interpreted as saying that killing his family is ‘worth it.’

Now, I will admit that I wasn’t really brought up in a religious setting that would answer in this way. However, I certainly am familiar with these sort of responses. Some Christians are encouraged not to cry or mourn at funerals. After all, isn’t the deceased in a better place. Isn’t it selfish to want them back? Shouldn’t we celebrate their entry to heaven rather than grieve the loss?

Even in ministry we sometimes get the “if only one person comes to Christ, isn’t it worth it?” It seems so wrong to argue against it. Nevertheless, I will. Often a ministry is done poorly— and then justified by that expression— “if only one….” The problem is that it is commonly not one gain with no loss. I have seen activities where many are potentially turned off due to manipulative tactics, ‘hard sell’ regimens, and general mistreatment. In those situations, the question really should be worded, “If dozens of people are led to believe that the Gospel of Christ is odious because of our activity, but one person comes to Christ, isn’t it worth it?” Well, in that case, the answer is clearly NO… it is not worth it. To cause immature believers to stumble and seekers discouraged to keep seeking, is a grave mistake.

Actually, if you think about it, Hendrick’s statements are very much in line with the “Use every opportunity to stare the faith— in season and out of season.” I would argue that this situation was very much “out of season” and his talk about salvation and heaven probably did more to turn people off to Christians than make people consider being a follower of Christ. Instead of thinking “Wow, Mr. Hendricks is such a man of holy faith!” they were thinking, “Oh my, Mr. Hendricks is either insane, or a killer, or both.”

But I would like to add another reason why I think the responses here were in error. They were attempts to theologize or spiritualize, rather than address grief. Of course, maybe he “did it” and maybe he felt no grief. I simply don’t know. But assuming he is grieving, throwing out spiritual platitudes is, sadly, not a good way to deal with grief. Christians are, often, not the best at dealing with downer feelings. This is strange since the Jews are. The Laments in the Psalms are absolutely wonderful songs of sadness, grief, pain, and anger. Many Christians did not get the message. One of the silliest things I heard was a preacher who said that Jesus was crying at the gravesite of Lazarus, NOT because of grief (He knew He was about to raise up Lazarus after all), but because of the lack of faith of the people there. If Jesus had empathy, however, crying was quite appropriate. His friend was sick and died… and others were tormented in the loss. The fact that things would get better does not undermine the pain in the community and in the moment.

Loss and pain are part of being human— Christians are human too, and are at our best when we behave as humans, truly acquainted with grief.

Reading the “Lost Books of the Bible”?

I have been reading a fairly old book “The Lost Books of the Bible” that is a collection of books from much longer ago. So far I have read, “The Gospel of the Birth of Mary,” “The Protoevangelium,” “The First Gospel of the Infancy of Jesus Christ,” “Thomas Gospel of the Infancy of Jesus Christ,” “The Epistles of Jesus Christ and Abgarus King of Edessa,” and presently in “The Gospel of Nicodemus.”

One surprising things I found was that the collection was compiled in 1926. What I found surprising is that the compiler sets a strong line of demarcation between the canonical books of the New Testament and these books. Based on the title, I was expecting the compiler/editor to be seeking to “muddy the waters.” That is, based on the title, I thought the editor was promoting the idea that the present Bible was a collection of “the winners” with other books equal in reliability but kept out or lost for some reason. However, the editor makes it clear that the books of the New Testament not only have a historical basis for superiority but a textual superiority as well. For the editor, this did not suggest that the “lost books” should be ignored. Rather, one should read these books oneself and decide for oneself.

It is interesting to read these other gospels. They serve as “miracle dumps.” That is, they focus on miraculous signs. In the Four Gospels, miracles by Jesus tend to serve three purposes—- a sign of Jesus’s identity, demonstration of His compassion, and serve as a foundation for His message. The “Lost Gospels” are all about signs. A few of the miracles also point to the compassion of Jesus. However, none seem to serve as a foundation for His message (as far as I see). Strangely, some of them show Jesus very negatively— doing miracles seemingly on a whim, and sometimes as a powerful tyrant.

In these, especially the Infancy Gospels, it is pretty clear that the storyteller is struggling with Jesus as God versus Jesus as Man. Thus, in some stories, Jesus is talking like an adult while still an infant, and not needing any instruction. On the other hand, in some, Jesus is a spoiled child who harms others (miraculously) who harm Him.

From this, we see an interesting quality to many of these writings is that they often feel a bit as if they are serving as a midrash. A midrash is a commentary on a Biblical (Hebrew Bible) story. Sometimes they are works of speculative fiction. As such, they are not seeking to replace the Scriptural text, but instead seeks to address questions that a student of the NT scriptures would have. That makes some of these “lost books” works of speculative theology.

In recent years, people have banked on the ignorance of Christian and non-Christian alike regarding early Christianity. That has led to an awful lot of confusion about what early Christians believed. It is best for us to read them ourselves. While there are certainly works from the early centuries that would be described as heretical works, most are works of sincere Christians dealing with both Scripture and Experience.

We gain from learning from them through their writings… understanding that they are dealing with issues very different from our own in many ways, and very much like our own in others.

Lost Books of the Bible and the Forgotten Books of Eden

“Enoughness” Part 2

You are welcome to look back on Part 1 if you want. However, that was more of a critique of a podcast and where I was inspired by the ‘not-so-correct’ English term “Enoughness.”

For me, I would like to think of “Enoughness” as a characteristic of commonality of humans. None of us are identical with anyone, or anything, else. In fact, we are all unique.

  • We have different experiences. I cannot say to someone else “I know exactly how you feel.” I cannot do this because I don’t know exactly. We have had different experiences, and different ways of emotionally coping.
  • We have different social connections. Some people thrive under stress, while others crumble. We may think it is about “strength of character,” but often it is because of network of support and history of support that each of us (uniquely) have.
  • We share cultural and language similarities with some and not with others. This cultural and language uniqueness draws us to some and pushes us from others.

But this uniqueness is balanced by a certain “enoughness” of similarities that we have with all. I don’t want to draw out this point since I am looking at it more from a missiological perspective. However, even though there are thousands of human languages, all human languages share many common features. The similarity is so strong that all of them are generally translatable… or translatable enough. For humans, there is certainly a language barrier, but that barrier is quite porous. Two people with the same language, culture, and even family brought up together will never be able to communicate fully with no limits or errors. On the other hand, two people from wildly different settings (I am ignoring here the question of one or more people suffering from a severe mental or neurological malfunctions) can come to the point of pretty good mutual understanding with some effort and time.

There are enough similarities in humans such that human languages are mutually translatable with each other. You may think that all languages no matter the source would be translatable. However, that is pretty uncertain. We are struggling to decide if other animal species have something akin to language. Some appear to, but we are not able to understand their communication beyond the most surface-level. Some animals are able to understand and respond to human language on a rudimentary level. However, if some animal species do have language as we do, there does not appear to be enough similarities for mutual comprehensibility. We are able to communicate with computers but we designed computers and their language interfaces. But if an alien intelligent species came and landed on our planet, would we be able to communicate? Perhaps, but perhaps not.

There are certainly cultural barriers… but the barriers are also porous. We can never completely change cultures. However, the similarities among humans does carry across to cultures, where even the strangest cultural habits can generally be explained in such a way as to be understood through comparable traits in another culture. Even if one found something completely incomprehensible in another culture, the vast majority of traits would make sense because of common human needs and social drives.

When we take these areas of “enoughness” into account (and I am only taking a couple of examples for our purposes here), I think a couple of things are worth considering.

#1. There has been a lot of discussion about the “supracultural” quality of the gospel of Christ. In some ways this could be thought of as about the commonalities of culture… but ultimately it comes from the enoughness of similarity of human needs. However, sometimes this has led people to think that there is no need to contextualize the gospel. I think that is a mistake.

#2. The same cultural needs are present in all cultures but not in equal amounts. So all cultures have social motivators of seeking honor in one’s social grouping, meeting ethical standards, living without fear, and achieving personal pleasure or mastery of one’s environment, but they are not equally important.

Because of this, when one says that the gospel must be radically contextualized/localized to make it intelligible in another culture, it is not really true. They can understand (at least potentially) that the gospel meets needs that they have. However, often when people speak of the supracultural aspect of the gospel, what they are saying is that the emphases that they resonate to in the gospel are the ones others should be resonant to as well. That certainly is in error.

The gospel of Christ provides:

  • Recognition of being ‘guilt-free’ before God.
  • Honored member of God’s family.
  • Ultimate peace and power over fear.
  • Meaning and purpose in life.
  • Communion with Christ.
  • Ability to endure in the face of pain and suffering.
  • Having a right relationship with God.
  • Achieving harmony with God and creation.
  • <Add more if you wish>
  • Free from the “Second Death.”

Not all of these are equal. I feel strong connection with peace and endurance. Many Evangelicals focus on the guilt-free aspect of the gospel. I understand its importance from that perspective, but (truthfully) it is not one the resonates with me. So if one shared the gospel with me from the perspective of being guilt-free or avoiding the second death, I would be likely to understand the message as well as its relevance. However, it would likely not resonate with my primary concerns.

So where does that lead us. One does not need to wait to have the perfect contextual presentation of the message of God before entering a culture. Jonah certainly did not know how to enter Ninevah with a nuanced contextual presentation. Perhaps it was the miraculous act of God that caused the people of the city to respond. Still, they had lived through plagues and famines and wars to connect these with a message of divine judgment. There is likely to be some who will respond to most any linguistically intelligible presentation of the gospel. However, caring nothing of the differences can make the gospel (filtered through the priorities of the missionary’s culture) seem relatively uninteresting or unimportant.