Problems in Christian Imagery

Devil medium
From “The Devil’s Bible”. Image via Wikipedia

I had an acquaintance who was invited to visit an “underground church” in China. They went into a tall condominium building. My friend was surprised when they began heading upstairs rather than downstairs. It took him a few seconds to remember that the term “underground church” was an expression that meant that it was not registered with the government. Although he knew that, it is so easy to take an expression and make it literal. In US history, there was a loose network of people that made up something called the “underground railroad”. This network of people helped slaves leave the southern states in the US during the 1800s and escape to Canada. The term “underground railroad” was used figuratively. The term “railroad” was used to describe the common purpose between it and real railroads– that of transport of humans from one place to another. The term underground pointed out that it was (just like the underground church) being done without legal sanction. Despite this knowledge, I tend to picture in my mind a dark tunnel that people who would travel through. Figurative language (such as the redemptive analogies mentioned in a previous post) can both enlighten and confuse. These may be harmless examples. But what happens when our language confuses us in more weighty matters. Here are three possible examples:

1. “The Devil.” Even though the Bible refers to Satan as an “angel of light,” our picture of him tends to be… well… devilish. That means horns, tail, pitchfork, sharp features, evil grin. The positive side of this imagery is that evil is shown as undesirable… as unpleasant, unlike God. The negative side is that it can engender the assumption that that which looks pleasant or enticing must be good. We are all prone to a certain dualism. If good looks good and bad looks bad, that would be great. But bad can look awfully good at times. The Biblical description of Satan as a deceiver, one who fools and confuses people, is the truth. Evil doesn’t always appear to be evil. In missions I have come across people pushing strange beliefs and behaviors justified in that it has some positive fruits. However, it is hard to imagine any evil that doesn’t, potentially, have positive fruits. Genocide may increase the food supply and decrease housing prices. Superficial fruit (like superficial appearances) can deceive… covering up its true essence. The recent vampire craze shows evil as enticing. While there are certainly problems with this craze, it at least shows the allure of evil, something that is missing with the imagery of “the devil”.

2. Images of Christ. Traditional images of Christ show Jesus as white. Some even showed him as blonde-haired and blue-eyed. As weird as it may seem, there were even some who used these traditional images (created centuries after the fact) to justify the argument that Jesus must have been fathered by a Roman soldier (explaining his less-than-Semitic appearance). In recent times, there have been a move toward showing Jesus as having, at least somewhat, Jewish features… at least with brown hair and brown eyes. However, even today, angels tend to be shown with Nordic looks. Much of this was that most Christians during the 2nd millenium were European. But with Christianity becoming more international, the imagery needs to change. This is because Christianity should not be looked at as a foreign religion. God so loved THE WORLD… not a specific region of the world. So our imagery should not confuse us. I have seen in African-American Christian bookstores Madonna and child pictures where Mary and Jesus look sub-Saharan African. Is this an acceptable alternative? Perhaps, or perhaps it creates simply a different form of exclusivity. At least images of a Semitic Christ has the advantage of historicity. The religious leaders and Roman soldiers required a kiss from Judas to identify Jesus within his crowd of disciples— so he must have at least blended in with fellow Galileans. Even here, however, any imagery that shows Jesus as foreign to a people group risks confusion. It is perhaps good that the Bible gives no details about Jesus’ appearance than that he was male, had a beard, and had an appearance that made him fit in comfortably in Jewish society.

3. “Saving souls.” In theory, savings souls means saving people. Yet some appear to take the term literally. As such, some use evangelistic techniques that appear to ignore the body and physical situation that an individual lives in. If God cares for the the whole person, so should we. Even after death, we are described as existing in/as a resurrected body. I believe that the term “saving souls” can tempt us to love souls not people. Some Evangelicals even make the argument that caring about the physical and social concerns of people is a distraction from “sould-saving.” What a horrible idea!! Truthfully, if we don’t love people (in ways that are tangible and holistic)… we probably don’t love their souls either.

4.  God.  What does God look like?  As Christians we may say, accurately that God is without form. But that is not to say that we don’t picture God regardless. One person, perhaps, may see God in terms of a doting grandfather with long white beard— waiting to hand out treats to those who ask. Another may picture a more wrathful God with lightning in His hand. Yet another may see God as serene, distant, transcendent, unconcerned. How would these images affect one’s relationship with God. In fact, if a person says that he or she worships God, the question that could reasonably follow is, “Which God?”

Who is Called for Missions?

john_eyres_4_15_2013_why_is_cold_calling_so_hardWe hear the term “Calling” a lot in Evangelical churches.

> God’s call to the ministry
> God’s call to “full-time professional Christian service”
> God’s call to “bi-vocational wholistic mission service”

I think it has had a very negative effect on Christian ministry. Here are some problems:

A. It is a great excuse NOT to minister. “I would love to serve God in ministry… BUT… I haven’t been called.” It’s an excuse that cannot be analyzed or challenged.

B. It is highly subjective. The Bible talks about calling in very concrete terms at times (eg. Moses and the burning bush). But today, despite words like “God spoke to me and said…”, people generally say they are “called” if they feel a strong emotional pull to do something.

C. It is used to justify bad decisions. Someone is completely unsuited for a task but keeps trudging along because he believes to change profession is to reject God’s calling.

D. Calling tends to be confused with profession. Now we don’t just get called to serve. We are called to a “bivocational youth pastorate in a cross-cultural context”, or a “professional minister of music in New York”, or a “Barefooting, tent-making, ESL Missionary in Peru”.

E. Worst of all, it is used to divide and deny. Many seminaries will not train people who will not describe some mediocre set of experiences that they describe as their “calling”. Mission boards and pastoral search committees will reject people who can’t describe something akin to a “call”.

It is an unconscionable thing that a concept that is supposed to enhance one’s ministry has become a tool to keep people unused and ignorant.

Many people look to the calling of Paul as a guide for how we are to look at God’s calling. It was real… it could happen again, but it is no sense normative. Paul’s conversion and calling was so dramatic because he would have listened to God no other way. We should not seek to live in such opposition to God’s will that we could only respond by such drama. The vast majority of passages in the New Testament on “calling” refers to the call to salvation, open to all. The few verses that do indeed refer to a call to ministry, have had a lot of strange theological baggage tied to them. So…

-I don’t see calling as (necessarily being) miraculous.
-I don’t see calling as a unique aspect of the clergy.
-I don’t see calling as a test of service.

I see calling as a path, and a relationship. When Jesus spoke to Peter, Andrew, and others on the Sea of Galilee, he did not say, “I am calling you to a job as a professional apostle.” Rather, he said “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men.” It is like Jesus was saying,

“Be with me. If I go here, you go here. If I go there, you go there. Wherever you are will be home because that is where I am. Do what I am doing, where I am doing it, and it is enough.”

Missions and “Time-setting”

It has been a hobby of Christians to set a date for the return of Christ. Even non-Christian groups such as “Jehovah’s Witness” fall prey to this lure. There is a long history of this. The church of Thessalonica in the New Testament had members who were so sure of the imminent return of Christ (not sure if they set an exact date) that they quit their jobs and relied on the working members of the church to provide for them. Paul told them that if they don’t work they shouldn’t eat (this passage has, unfortunately, been misused to justify being uncharitable).  1000 AD, 1848, 1914, and more have been used. Here in the Philippines, a group out of South Korea is using the movie 2012 as if it is a Biblically-based description of the end of the world. The group is using it, not surprisingly, to draw people to their own faith group. May 21, 2011 is being spread now by a group that uses the tagline “Noah knew. We can know.”  Technically speaking, it does not appear that Noah knew. He just did what he was told. But I suppose the point is not hugely relevant here.

Consider a personal experience I had. I was on an airplane returning from a business trip in the late 1990s. I sat down next to an Arab-American. He was a very nice individual, and I discovered that not only was he a Christian, but that he had a Christian radio program. After ascertaining that I was also  “born again”, thus not needing the plan of salvation, he asked me to open my Bible. He took me to several passages (I remember one was in Hosea). Using these passages, he attempted to convince me that Jesus was absolutely returning between 1999 and 2002 (he did not feel he could be more dogmatic than that). It is 2010 now, and it certainly appears that his conviction, and interpretation, was wrong. I wonder what affect this error has had on his ministry.

The question is whether date-setting is missiologically useful. I believe the Bible teaches that we won’t know and shouldn’t try to know… but I am aware that some verses in the Bible could be read as if some might recognize the signs of His approach. The question here I am bring us is pragmatic, rather than theoretical.

There seem to be two obvious justifications for date-setting from a missions standpoint.   <A> Setting a near date may cause some people to repent, believing that they have only a little time left. One need only look at the story of Jonah to see justification for this argument.  <B> Setting a near date may cause some Christians to be motivated to be involved in missions and outreach sooner… believing that answering the call is “now or never.”

But let’s consider the down-side.

1.  Many groups have been hurt by date-setting. The Millerites were hurt greatly when Jesus did not return in 1848. the “Jehovah’s Witness” religion has been hurt by date setting (1914 is their most famous one but they have set several dates). Their attempt to describe their literal failure as a metaphysical success has been less than convincing.  A nice little webpage listing some of these dates is

2.  It draws into question the human source. The Bible describes a false prophet as one who claims a truth from God that is later demonstrated to be wrong.  Edgar Whisenaunt came out with the book “88 Reasons that Jesus Will Return in 1988” that lost interest after September 13, 1988 for obvious reasons. His sequel “89 Reasons that Jesus Will Return in 1989” did not draw much interest… again for obvious reasons. Should one, who confidently sets a date of Jesus’ return (and is then demonstrated wrong) be considered a false prophet?

3.  It often draws on questionable, even occultic sources for determining or confirming. Harold Camping uses numerology as his basis (back in 1994, and now for 2011). Some like to use ghosts or ghostly images for confirmation of a mystical return.

4.  It seems to lead to bad behavior. If Jesus was returning next week, why would you be selling your house, dressing up in white clothes, or stand on a mountain? But some did this, while others like the Thessalonians, abused the hospitality of others while waiting. Jesus said to be watchful, ready, and faithful to the end.

5.  It leads to sloppy missions. If Jesus was returning next year, perhaps it makes sense to simply spread the gospel thin and wide and pressure people to mumble “the sinner’s prayer”. <Perhaps> But if Jesus is coming in 200 years, what would be more effective? Developing reproducing, discipled Christians, planting 4-self churches, and perhaps transforming communities wholistically. If we don’t know when Jesus is coming, which path should we go? I believe the shallowness of short-term methods hurts the long-term growth of God’s kingdom. Sloppy, short-sighted methods should not be justified by date-setting.

6.  It makes us question our role here. Some say that we should spread the gospel to every people group so that Jesus will come sooner (based on a poor understanding of Matthew 24). It seems pretty doubtful that we can make Jesus come sooner by our own actions. But suppose we could. Is that a worthy goal? Quickly spread the gospel to the last “unreached people group”, thus ensuring that many billions in “reached groups” will be doomed? There seems to be a flawed thinking here. This thinking tends to make us “more heavenly minded” and “less earthly good”. If we are convinced that Jesus is coming soon, and so soon that what is going on here does not matter, then we shouldn’t care about poverty, the environment, disease, social injustice and such. But if we are faithful stewards doing what Jesus has called us to do every day (regardless of when the Master returns) we should care about our neighbor, our community, our country, and our world.

I believe that date-setting for Jesus return (whatever one says about whether it is possible) is missiologically unwise… at best. At worst, it is a destructive obsession.

Hard Soil

Jesus (in Matthew 13) described “hard soil”– hearts that are unreceptive to God’s message.  But one can’t assume that those hearts that are “hard soil” are all the same. Commonly those in this category can be looked as those who are invested in a different faith to the point that they reject a new faith.

Brian McLaren (“Finding Faith”, 1999, page 31) defined faith as “… a state of relative certainty about matters of ultimate concern sufficient to promote action.” This definition makes clear that atheism and other “non-religious” beliefs can still involve faith.  But faith can be divided into at least four categories.

-True versus False faith. One can have faith in something that is untrue. Strong faith does not necessarily make that faith true any more than a rejection of a belief makes it false.

-Good versus Bad faith. This designation is also from Brian McLaren… and has to do with how faith manifests itself. After all, if faith is a belief strong enough to promote action, faith is demonstrated by how it manifests itself through actions.  McLaren describes some characteristics of “good” faith and of “bad” faith. (The terms “good” and “bad” are to be interpreted on a human, practical level… not on a theological level.)

Bad Faith (some characteristics):   arrogant, unteachable, dishonest, apathetic, regressive.  In other words, faith that creates a bad, unloving, destructive individual is bad faith… even if the faith is true.

Good Faith (some characteristics):  humble, teachable, inquisitive, grateful, honest, active, tough, and relational.  Faith that generates a kind, loving, constructive individual is “good” faith… even if the faith is false.

The result is the development of 4 possible combinations.

The four choices are:

A.  True and Good Faith. This is the goal for a Christian. One hopes and should expect that the Christian faith should manifest itself in goodness (salt and light to the world).

B.  True and Bad Faith. Sometimes one has a strong Christian faith, but carnality has resulted in a Christian with a hateful, bitter, even violent behavior. This is very difficult to deal with. Jesus had more trouble from religious leaders who had true but bad faith than any other group.

C.  False and Bad Faith.  This is easy for Christians to understand. If one accepts a false faith, it is very easy for Christians to expect these individuals behaving in a recognizably bad way.

D.  True and Good Faith.  This is difficult for Christians. Because we recognize that we are unable to please God in our own ability, we tend to have trouble with those of a false faith who behave good. Yet, the term “good” here is defined in human, not divine terms.

Group A (good and true faith) is certainly the goal.  However, the other groups can be described as hard soils. How do we disciple those who have a true faith but demonstrates it in bad action?  How do we share true faith with those of false and bad faith. Do we attack the bad faith? Do we act surprised that a false faith leads to bad behavior?  And what about those people who (at least on a human level) are good as the outworking of a false faith? How do we share faith?

Much of our methods for evangelism target “good soil” or receptive people of weak faith. But Jesus targeted, at times, hard soil… particularly those of true but bad faith. Only God can change a heart, but God has made us part of his plan for change. What do we need to learn to work with hard soil?