The Unappetizing Worm and the Squid Game

Photo by Sippakorn Yamkasikorn on Pexels.com

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.

The Moth Joke— Revisited

I wrote a post on another website— Bukal Life Care. I think it is quite appropriate on this site in its topic and message. However, instead of putting it both places, I will just give you the link. I took a joke from Norm MacDonald (who just passed away from cancer) modified it, and used it as an illustration of the role of religious care providers. This includes missionaries. Feel free to click on it if you are curious.

There is also an interesting article (opnion essay in the NY Times) on Norm MacDonald as a comedian who was a Christian, but who did not market himself as a Christian comedian. Norm MacDonald’s Comedy Was Quite Christian.

Publicly Broken

I put a post on the website of the counseling center I am involved in. It is called “Publicly Broken” and look at sports celebrities who have in recent times admitted to struggles, particularly psychoemotional struggles. Not all of the responses to these admissions have been positive.

There are parallel challenges with regard to religious leaders— who often have some of the same struggles that relate to celebrity. I put a few suggestions in the article of what religious leaders can do to be publicly broken while healing. You can click on the article below.

Missions Podcasts

Years ago a missionary acquaintance of mine had asked whether I wanted to work together with him on a podcast or something. At the time I said that it sounded interesting, but I never really acted on it. First, I had no real interest in dong a podcast, and second, relatedly, I never listened to podcasts.

But in the last couple of years I have started to listen to them. A couple of one’s that I find welcome from the standpoint of Evangelical Missions:

The Missions Podcast. This is done by ABWE. I have only recently started listening to it, but find it interesting and informative. https://missionspodcast.com/

Doing Theology. Thinking Mission. This is a podcast led by Jackson Wu with emphasis on contextualization and Mission theology. https://open.spotify.com/show/0S9Jd3J4AZ36d9LytcL6Dq

There are others, but only a few others have I listened to. These are the two that really draw my attention. There are other Christian podcasts that I have found interesting, but are not necessarily primary about missions. These include:

-Ask N.T. Wright Anything Podcast. https://www.premierchristianradio.com/Shows/Weekday/Ask-NT-Wright-Anything/Podcast

-Unbelievable? Podcast. https://www.premierchristianradio.com/Shows/Saturday/Unbelievable

-Homebrewed Christianity. https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/homebrewed-christianity-podcast/id276269040

The final one may not be for everyone as the theological perspectives are quite broad— drifting far from conservative Christian theology. But it is good to get out of one’s own neighborhood once in awhile.

Two-in-One Commandment

The Great Commandment exists in three forms==

  1. Listed as separate commandments. The first is listed in Deuteronomy 6:5 (“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”), while the second part is in Leviticus 19:18 (“you shall love your neighbor as yourself”).
  2. Listed as one inseparable commandment in Luke 10:27 (“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”)
  3. Listed as two separate commandments but treated as if they are one. This is done in Matthew 22:35- and in Mark 12:28-.

All three forms have advantages. It is useful to see them as separate since they have separate objects and separate relationships. One relates to one’s relationship with God and the other relates to relationships with other people. Treating it as one rule makes it clear that one cannot be claim to obey the Great Commandment if one is obeying only part of it.

But there is value in seeing them as separate but linked. Jesus did this in Matthew 22 and Mark 12. In Matthew, Jesus was asked which commandment is “first.” Jesus answered it but gave the first two rather than simply the first. In Mark, Jesus was asked which commandment is “greatest.” Jesus answered it but then mentions the second, and then says that in these two laws there is no commandment greater.

I believe the link is important. Recall the quote by Blaise Pascal

Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.”

-Blaise Pascal, Pensees

Apparently this is a bad translation of Pascal’s quote (“Jamais on ne fait le mal ſi pleinement & ſi gayement, que quand on le fait par un faux principe de conſcience”)— but I think there is an underlying truth in it anyway.

PEOPLE JOYFUL DO EVIL WHEN THEY BELIEVE THAT THEY ARE DOING IT AT GOD’S REQUEST AND WITH HIS BLESSING.

Linking the two parts of the Great Commandment undermines this in two ways:

#1. Most obviously, doing evil against people violates the second part of the commandment.

#2. More subtly, the second part of commandment points to the nature of its author. If we are to love God, we have to know who that God is. That God is the God who loves all people and expects us to do likewise.

It is easy to think of these as separate. It is easy to think of oneself as loving God. And then it is easy to think that one should hate what God hates. We are pretty sure God hates sin, so it seems pretty reasonable to assume that we show God how much we love Him by showing how much we hate those sins God hates. While we may mouth the principle, “Hate the sin, love the sinner,” it is really hard to demonstrate the former while simultaneously demonstrating the latter. (It is curious that did not appear to be traumatized by living in a sinful world, and appeared to make no real effort to convince His Father of His hate of sin.)

The previous paragraph doesn’t work. What works is recognizing that the God we are to love is the author of both parts of the Great Commandment.

Is It Worth It?

Quote from the movie, “Men in Black”– where “K” explains what it means to become a member of the the ‘MIB”

Edwards: What’s the catch?

K: The catch? The catch is you will sever every human contact. Nobody will ever know you exist anywhere. Ever. I’ll give you to sunrise to think it over.

Edwards : Hey! Is it worth it?

K: Oh yeah, it’s worth it… … if you’re strong enough!

In the movie, the statement of K is questioned by the narrative where it starts to become clear that “K” is less than fully satisfied with his life as a member of MIB. He gave up the love of his life to gain knowledge of “What is out there.” But slowly he began to question this decision, and by the end, seeks to leave MIB to take the path not (initially) taken.

Does that truly undermine his statement, or simply point out that he is not strong enough?

Many missionaries have asked the same question.

—Is it worth it? Does the question depend on one’s strength (resilience, sense of calling, faith)?

—Can “strong missionaries” struggle with this answer?

—Is it wrong to even ask questions such as whether it is worth it to be a missionary?

The issue is not really so much about strength or faith. Rather it is about Opportunity Cost.

When you take one path, you miss the opportunities that other paths hold are lost and never come back.

Years ago, I quit my job, we sold our house and traveled to another country. I could have stayed on my old path as an engineer. Perhaps we would have a large house and a beautiful car. I don’t know because we did not take that path. Maybe our children would do better… or worse. I don’t know… but things would be different.

I Corinthians 15:12-19 I feel speaks of this sort of Opportunity Cost. Paul notes that if there is no resurrection from the dead that all Christians are have only this life and are lost in their sins, and the dead are simply dead. This seems reasonable enough. But then he adds, “If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable.” The previous verses would suggest that Christians are equally miserable. But in verse 19, Christians are “more to be pitied’ (eleeinoteroi) than all other men. This suggests that Christians would actually be in a worse state than all others because they have invested in something that did not pay off, unlike the rest.

Luke 14:25-33 records Jesus talking of the cost of being one of His disciples. He makes it clear that it is important to ‘count the cost.’ Reading the Bible, I believe it is quite clear that God is telling us that IT IS WORTH IT to follow Him. But that does not imply that God does not want us to go through the effort of running the numbers.

The “Rich Young Fool” decided that the cost of following Jesus was too much. However, this was not a unique occurrence. Judas Iscariot changed his mind. So did Elijah quite… for awhile. So did John Mark. Many of the Kings of Judah (Saul, David, Solomon, Uzziah, Hezekiah, Josiah, for example) started out good but struggled in holding to the true path.

It is very human— meaning very normal for us, being human— to question whether being a missionary is worth it. It is healthy, and the impulse should not be stifled. Any missionary that struggles with this should be listened to, non-judgmentally, and sensitively.

It is worth it… but it sure doesn’t always feel like it.

God as Author and Actor

A story is:

“an account of characters and events in a plot moving over time and space through conflict toward resolution.”

The Bible obviously has characters and events, which takes place over time and space. It moves through conflict to resolution. To me, the bigger question is whether there is a plot. A plot to me suggests a couple of things.

First, it suggests intentionality. A recording of stuff happening does not make a plot. A plot, for fiction, involves crafting of events in a coherent fashion so that the early events link, and mean something, within the timeline of the story. In non-fiction, history, events are chosen and displayed in (again) a coherent fashion to give the events meaning within a timeline. Because the Bible has God, working within history, as the main character, the protagonist, the story of the Bible has aspects of both fiction and non-fiction. The story of the Bible is non-fiction in that it claims, on the whole, to describe what happened, is happening, and will happen. The story of the Bible is like fiction because God is more than a character in the Bible, and more even than a historian, but the author of history. Thus, the story is more than simply the collecting of events, but the crafting/creating of events for the plot. The dual qualities of fiction and non-fiction are difficult for some. Some focus on the human element of the story where God becomes more of a character and less of the author. On the other hand, some focus on God as sovereign author to the extent that people become nothing more than characters in a play— props–, plot devices. It seems to me that the Bible works in “creative tension” between God as author and God as character.

Quote from Chapter One of “Theo-Storying: Reflections on God, Narrative, and Culture.”