Religion as Societal Parasite?

Religion has an important role in society. Emile DurkheimImage result for parasite among others have recognized that one of the roles of religion in a society is to safeguard it. It provides the support and underpinnings of a culture’s worldview. As such, it provides the norms for behavior as well as interpretation of experience. In a sense then it is true that religion does provide a conservative force preventing change. However, hopefully, it does not simply prevent change or idealize the past or present, but identifies principles that center our behavior. Religion commonly takes on the role of arbiter of change and conflict.

Therefore, at its best, religion is a benefactor to society. This role as benefactor may change in a multi-cultural, multi-religious setting… but the role doesn’t disappear.

Consider, however, another scenario. This was referred to by Alan Tippett in his book, “Missiology” (in Chapter 14).

“In passing, however, I may suggest that even in our modern society, if religion today seems to have become dispensable, it is probably because the Church has come dangerously near to forgetting its responsibility to society and has concerned itself too much with its own survival. It is just as this corresponding point of time, when the witchdoctors turn from being social “benefeactors” to being social “parasites” that the populace of animist societies turn to Christianity.”  (Tippet, 161)

Consider the story of the Longhouse Religion of the Iroquois. It has been suggested that part of the growth of this religion, based on the revelations of their prophet Handsome Lake, came as a revitalization movement. The former religion was polytheistic and led by shamans, and supported the worldview and values of the people. However, around the time of Handsome Lake, the people were inundated by vices from European settlers and pushed back economically, and militarily. As such, they were under great cultural stress. However, the political and religious leaders of the Iroquois, the supposed benefactors of their society had become corrupt, given into the vices that were destroying the people, and now had a parasitic role in the society. The Longhouse Religion came as a revitalization movement but also as a conversion movement. It was a monotheistic movement and supported a strongly ethical standard for the people. Despite the differences from the previous faith, it in many ways better supported the Iroquois’ self-understanding and values than the previous faith. It took on the role of being a benefactor to the people rather than a parasite.

Ezekiel 34 speaks of a similar thing where the “shepherds” of Israel, both political and religious had taken on a parasitic role in society.   I would recommend reading the whole passage, but I will put here the first 10 verses:

The word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel. Prophesy, and say to them: This is what the Lord God says to the shepherds: Woe to the shepherds of Israel, who have been feeding themselves! Shouldn’t the shepherds feed their flock? You eat the fat, wear the wool, and butcher the fattened animals, but you do not tend the flock. You have not strengthened the weak, healed the sick, bandaged the injured, brought back the strays, or sought the lost. Instead, you have ruled them with violence and cruelty. They were scattered for lack of a shepherd; they became food for all the wild animals when they were scattered. My flock went astray on all the mountains and every high hill. They were scattered over the whole face of the earth, and there was no one searching or seeking for them.

“Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord. As I live”—the declaration of the Lord God—“because My flock has become prey and food for every wild animal since they lack a shepherd, for My shepherds do not search for My flock, and because the shepherds feed themselves rather than My flock, therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord!

10 “This is what the Lord God says: Look, I am against the shepherds. I will demand My flock from them and prevent them from shepherding the flock. The shepherds will no longer feed themselves, for I will rescue My flock from their mouths so that they will not be food for them.

Today, we see religion in many forms. We see it providing group identity and supporting high values that are to be attained to. As such we see religion still being a benefactor. But we also see religion corrupted by power, coercive, and self-serving. Rather than step on toes and point out places and ways religion (very much including Christianity among the other faiths) has often moved from being a benefactor to being a parasite, I would just suggest the following question:

If the church is worried about losing influence in society, it is better to ask the question of whether it is being seen as a hoarder of human blessings (wealth, power, etc.) or a channel of God’s blessings.

 

Quitting as Lack of Faith or Act of Faith?

Going into Missions is often thought of as an act of letting go. One lets go of one’s former job, one’s home culture, and often many friends and even family.

One might think that means that missionaries

walking away

are good at letting go, but that is often not the case. In fact, the letting go in the past may make one less prone to do it in the field. One of the main challenges is letting go of ministries or projects. There can be a number of reasons. This is not an exhaustive (or exhausting) list.

  1. Fear of Change. We are creatures of inertia or homeostasis. It takes energy to change, to learn, to grow. If we have been doing something, we are likely to try to keep it going (1st order change) rather than stop and do something different (2nd order change).
  2. Comfort. Not unrelated to the first one, but now expressed in a more positive way. We get good at something and it feels like we have found our niche or our calling. It feels right to stay where we are and it feels wrong to cut ties… break relationships… end what has been so much of our present. Innovation and new challenges seem wrong, because we have gotten good at thinking “inside the box,” and hanging out in our “comfort zone.”
  3. Sense of Ownership or Privilege. We identify our ministry work with ourselves rather than with God, or with locals. The ministry feels like “ours” and not “theirs.” We sympathize with the writer of Ecclesiastes whose complaint was of how the rewards of one’s hard labor eventually go to those who did not work for it or earn it.
  4. Hubris. It is tempting to think that a ministry cannot survive without us. To let go can feel like dooming a ministry to collapse. Unfortunately, that attitude can actually create this reality. Thinking one is indispensible can lead a missionary not to train up others to take his/her place.
  5. Unable to Recognize the Times. I Chronicles 10:32 speaks “Of the sons of Issachar, men who understood the times, with knowledge of what Israel should do,…” Missionaries don’t always recognize when times have changed and situations changed. A need may disappear. A missionary may have transitioned from pioneer, to parent, to partner, to participant, and can (and should) move along. Many projects come to their natural end of life, but instead of being celebrated as a completed task, are put on life-support and maintained in a state of ineffectiveness.
  6. Fear that it Suggests a Lack of Faith. When is giving up on a project a sign of lack of faith, and when is it an act of faith? This takes a great deal of discernment, because leaving can be a calculated plan to follow God’s calling, or a running away from difficult tasks and choices. Retreat can be an act of cowardice or a an act of sound strategy. Leaving too soon is bad, but so is leaving too late. For some people it is a lack of faith because they believe the calling of God is static (“God has called you to this place for this ministry… until death”) rather than dynamic (“Calling is following God wherever He leads”).

If you are looking for easy answers, you will find none here. Listening to God and to wise mentors and peers are important, but these will remove all doubt. It is somehow right that MINISTRY rhymes with MYSTERY. There is, and should always be, a certain amount of uncertainty. Ultimately, our decisions must be Acts of Faith.

Writing Status

I have been writing more lately and so thought I would update my status on books that are and books that will probably never be.  For the books that are you can click on my Amazon page…. HERE.  With the exception of my medical missions, my books are not formally edited so they are what I (or in two cases what my wife and I) thought were worth saying.

Dynamics in Pastoral Counseling and Training

  • Subject:  Pastoral Counseling and Pastoral Theology
  • Target Reader:  CPE Trainee, or Bible School student
  • Status:  Just published September 2019
  • Comment:  Co-authored with my wife, who is a CPE Supervisor.  A follow-on to “The Art of Pastoral Care.” Takes an Integrationist or Christian Counseling perspective to the relationship between theology and psychology.

Dialogue in Diversity:  Christians in Conversation with a Multifaith World

  • Subject:  Interreligious Dialogue
  • Target Reader:  Missions student
  • Status:  Published January 2019.  About to go through minor revisions in preparation for a new missions class
  • Comment:  Takes a perspective of Dialogue more focused on Clarification and breaking down barriers to conversation between adherents of different faiths, rather than an apologetic or a “common ground” approach.

The Art of Pastoral Care

  • Subject:  Pastoral Care & Counseling
  • Target Reader:  Bible School student, CPE trainee, or Churchmembers seeking competency in lay-pastoral care.
  • Status:  Published December 2017.  Revisions are not scheduled at this time.
  • Comment:  Co-authored with my wife who is a CPE supervisor.  This is actually our most popular book.

Ministry in Diversity:  Applied Cultural Anthropology in a Multicultural World

  • Subject:  Cultural or Missions Anthropology
  • Target Reader:  Bible School or Missions School student
  • Status:  Latest edition December 2017. Collecting minor corrections to be incorporated sometime in 2020.
  • Comment:  My second most popular book.  A pretty accessible entry-point to the subject.

Theo-Storying:  Reflections on God, Narrative, and Culture

  • Subject:  Theological Reflection and Storying
  • Target Reader:  Those who like to use stories to hear, reflect, and theologize.
  • Status:  Latest Edition June 2015.  Undergoing a modest revision with at least one more chapter.
  • Comment:  I think this is my personal favorite work since I wrote it because I love the topic (as opposed to writing it for courses I am teaching).  Enjoying updating it at the moment.

Principles and Practices for Healthy Medical Missions:  Seeking the Church’s Role for Effective Community Outreach in the Philippines and Beyond

  • Subject:  Christian Medical Missions
  • Target Reader:  People, churches, and agencies involved in Christian medical missions. (Focus is on the Philippines)
  • Status:  Latest Edition February 2015.  No updates planned.
  • Comment:  This is the condensed book form of my doctoral dissertation.

Books that I started but will probably never finish

  • Book on Missions Theology.  This is probably the most viable book of the ones I started but did not finish. Took a lot of stuff from that book and put it into my other books that I did complete.
  • Book on Holistic Ministry.  A lot of good stuff in it… but also a lot of stuff that did not stand up well upon rereading later. Again, took the best stuff and incorporated in other books, or in class lesson plans.
  • Autobiographical Book on Missions. Wrote this pretty early… only 4 years into missions. Maybe something to do— EVENTUALLY. However, will wait until I am older (or maybe won’t do it). I have read a number of autobiographical works of missionaries. Some are great. Some are… meh.

 

 

Theo-storying Again

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

theostorying
New Edition a few weeks awaybook,

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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