Doing Missions in the Marvel Universe. Part III

I realize that Part II, I sort of “shot my wad” in that I essentially said that doing missions in today’s culture is like doing missions in the Marvel Universe, since the today’s culture is like the Marvel Universe culture. The loop is kind of closed leaving little room for more than expounding further on the basic idea. So that is what I will do.

2.  The Social Primacy of the Individual.  You might be wondering about why I have an image here of the Justice League (from the DC Universe) when I am talking about the Marvel Universe. But take a look at the image and compare it to the Marvel image on my last post (Part II). You may notice a decided difference. The Justice League is clearly a team, a strong coherent social unit. If you websearch other images of the team, most show a similar quality. In this one, the members have a common focus and appear to have a common determination and will. They are acting as one social unity. In some other images, they stand in a half-circle looking in different directions. But even here, the idea is still of one team. Even though they don’t have a common focus, they clearly have a common purpose, to stand guard in vigilance.

On the other hand, the Marvel Universe image does not show a team… it shows a group of individuals who are, for some reason, required to share the same floor space. Truthfully, it is probably an error of many to compare the Justice League with the Avengers (or maybe the Teen Titans with the West Coast Avengers). The Avengers feel more like the Dirty Dozen in many ways… a conglomeration of heroes brought together by common necessity more than common vision.

This the world we live in today. Few places outside of North Korea (and pockets of zealots of different types) do we find groups of any sort having a higher position than the individual. Many of us (especially in the West, although this is a stereotype) have almost lost the capacity to put into words or thoughts the idea that the will of the family, corporation, church, or any other could take priority of personal freedom, personal fulfillment, or personal pleasure.

I recall an episode of House (I haven’t seen very many). In it, one of the doctor’s was having a difficult time with the worldview of one of his patients. The patient was a member of a Gypsy clan. The patient was brilliant and had an interest in Math and Science, but would not go to higher education because that was not the wishes of the clan. The doctor could not understand why he wouldn’t “live his own dream.” The patient, on the other hand felt sorry for the doctor because he was disconnected from family… giving up so much belongingness for a personal (selfish?) achievements.

So here we are. Do we embrace individualism? I would say NO. On the other hand, do we react against it, creating little Christian societal cults without individuality? NO also. We can’t challenge a culture by simply completely rejecting it. The Bible, in fact, seems to support neither. The Bible says to submit to authority in government and in church. But it also says to reject and condemn ungodly leadership. We are to honor our fathers and mothers but we are to “hate them” choosing God first. We are to be united in Christ, but we are redeemed as individuals. One might argue that the highest social unit on earth is the two member social grouping made up of an individual and God. From that grouping flows secondary responsibilities to self, family, church, government, and society. We live in a world of individuality, so we need to both embrace and challenge it.

3.  The Ambiguous Nature of Hero and Villain. It is tough to be a hero in the Marvel Universe. Spiderman is often misunderstood and mistreated. The X-men suffer from bigotry and attempts to register and control them. Being a hero may not make you loved. It may not even make you liked. You might be reviled, judged a vigilante. Like in The Incredibles, doing good often brings about bad results/destruction. Does a hero have the right to act unilaterally… serving as judge, jury, and executioner?

Heroes are often plagued with uncertainty. Why are they doing this… dressing up and placing their lives at risk for some “noble” cause. Do they live based on a high moral self-accountability, or a personality disorder? Should they use their powers sacrificially? Or is it okay to reap personal benefits?

Heroes are not absolutely sure what is moral/ethical. Does the end justify the means? Does the motive support or negate the goodness of an act? Is it right to act when one does not know for sure the results of one’s actions? In fact, in almost any act, there will be winners and losers… those who benefit who shouldn’t and those who suffer who shouldn’t. Is it better to do nothing? Must one only act in response to evil action, or can one act preemptively knowing that evil is being planned?

What about the anti-hero? This is the person who seeks to fight evil… but does it through wrong means or for wrong motivations? Should they be considered a hero or not? Punisher fights crime as an act of vengeance… he kills rather than seeks to have the justice system take over. Is that acceptable or not? Spawn (from a different comic) utilizes demonic power to fight evil. Does the noble purpose make the utilization of such evil power acceptable?

And what about the villain? Some villains just seem to be evil (self-serving, sociopathic). But some have a strong humanity to them. In some cases it seems appropriate for the heroes and villains to join forces when their is a common (and greater) enemy. Is that acceptable? Some villains actually fight evil… and do this by placing safety above personal freedom. These controlling villains… are they really doing evil… or violating a cultural norm?

Missions is like this… there is a lot of ambiguity in our actions, purposes, and motivations. If it “advances the kingdom” are all actions justified? Or do we have a higher set of standards (in action, intent, motivation, short-term goal, and long-term goal) that must be considered to see if we are on the side of the hero or the villain?
Decided to stop here. Found a great Blog on God and comics. Will reblog it.

Missiological Implications of the Symbolic Understanding of the Lord’s Supper

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Image via Wikipedia

This article is related to another one that looks at the missiological implications of the symbolic understanding of baptism. A look at the function and structure of symbols is shown there as well.

<Note: Like with baptism, I take a more Baptist understanding of the Lord’s Supper (or Communion or Eucharist). Thus I understand baptism as primarily symbolic rather than sacramental. The doctrines of transubstantiation and consubstantiation are part of a number of Christian traditions, but the symbolic view, strictly followed, sees the blood and body of Christ related to the bread and wine by metaphor only. However, I think most all Christians would agree that there is a strong symbolic aspect to the Lord’s Supper. As such, hopefully there are thoughts here worthy of consideration by all. But since the Lord’s Supper, along with Baptism, is one of the biggest divisive issues in the Christian faith, I cannot promise you will find this edifying. Also, since experts have argued over this stuff for centuries, don’t expect to be “wow’d” by this post. Just some thoughts to think about.>

The Lord’s Supper has its roots in the Passover Meal. Unleavened bread and three or four cups of wine were part of the meal. The Passover meal pointed back to the blood sacrifice of the lamb prior to the Exodus. Jesus’ is described as the lamb of God, and the institution of the Lord’s Supper with Passover appears to be quite intentional. So one symbolic purpose is:

  1. A remembrance of Jesus as the redeemer of His people.

But it does not appear that Jesus and the early Church limited itself to only this symbolic understanding. Some others include:

  1. Looking forward to the return of Christ. In fact the formula linked the past with the present and future. “Do in remembrance of Me” is linked to doing this proclaiming His death until He comes again.
  2. Shows our union with Christ and with each other. The eating of “blood” and “body” of Christ symbolizes this union with Christ, and doing it communally symbolizes the union of believers— often described as “the body of Christ.”
  3. God as provider. The symbolism of Christ as the bread of life and as living water (drink) show Jesus as one who takes care of our needs.
  4. Additionally, the Lord’s Supper is so intertwined with Christian history that our involvement connects us to fellow believers throughout history. As Islam may be drawn together by Ramadan and, to a lesser extent, the Hajj, Christians connect worldwide and through history by the Lord’s Supper.

If one takes a symbolic look at the Lord’s Supper, how might that affect its practice within the missions setting?

A. In the Cordilleras of the Northern Philippines, grapes are starting to be grown, and bread is available (although wheat must be imported). Wine and bread may have been the normal staples for 1st century Judea, but they are not that in the Cordilleras. The natural equivalents here could be coffee and kamote (yam). Another possibility might be bugnay wine and rice. Symbolically, switching makes a lot of sense. It does not hurt the symbolism… in fact, connecting it to normal staples makes clear the role of Christ as one who providess, even within a different cultural context. Perhaps the only area where the switch of ingredients harms is in the final one. The connection between the believers in the Cordilleras with Christians around the world and through time could be hurt by the change. This seems silly, but the use of unfermented grape juice by some Christians and the use of fermented grape juice has (strangely) led to divisions within the church (at least on an emotional level). So there is question on what is the ideal choice. But it seems clear to me that one should not be overly limiting in the components.

B. Who can join in the Lord’s Supper? Tradition puts a great limitation on who can take communion. But even within groups that view the Lord’s Supper as symbolic, not sacramental, there is often still a great deal of limitations. Some limit communion to those within the local church (curiously, some of the great traditional leaders within my denomination were deeply committed to “closed communion.”) Others may allow for communion with people of other churches as long as they from churches within the same denomination, or of common faith (on some level). This gets touchy. The symbolism makes sense within the context of believers. So having non-believers join in the Lord’s Supper spoils the symbolism. However, rejecting fellow believers because of being a member of a different church or denomination (I am assuming theologically orthodox denominations) fails to fit the symbolism of union with Christ and fellow believers throughout the world and throughout time. Since the Bible tells us how we may know we are His children, but does not tell us how to know if others are believers, I believe we must be generous in determining who is eligible for Lord’s Supper. While it may be justifiable to hold off new believers from baptism somewhat until they understand the symbolism of the act, it seems to me the value of the union of believers through Communion/Eucharist/Lord’s Supper suggests that rapid incorporation of the believer with the communion of believers through the Eucharist is appropriate.

C. How should the Lord’s Supper be done. I was raised up with precut bread and grape juice in individual cups. Later on the church switched to precut wafers (because leavening at times symbolizes sin). Others share a common cup and common bread broken on the spot. Clearly, breaking bread is more historical, and the original unity of both cup and bread show Christ’s unity and the unity of the believers with each other better. On the other hand, the concern about disease has caused some to be worried about sharing a common cup. In the end, this is a matter of conviction. Having precut bread and separate cups does not destroy the symbolism… but it may be useful to find ways to show the unity. For example having separate cups but filled publically from the same ewer.

D. Who can lead the Lord’s Supper and where can it be done. Sacramental understanding of the Eucharist leads to only a very limited number of people who can offer communion. In some places, adjustments are made (like on warships where lay people are trained to provided specially blessed bread and wine), but major limitations on who and where remain. Even where a symbolic understanding of the Lord’s Supper exists, often it is felt that it must be offered by an ordained minister, served by that minister or by ordained deacons, and must be done in a traditional church setting. In the mission field there may be no ordained ministers, and the gathering of believers may be a small group in a house. If one holds to the symbolic understanding, the officiator and the server don’t really need to be ordained. Likewise, the place does not matter that much. What matters is that it is a community of believers. Of greater question would be whether there is value in doing the Lord’s Supper with one individual. With a sacramental understanding, it may be valuable to provide Eucharist for one. Symbolically, there are a couple of ways it could be looked at. On one side, the communal idea of the Eucharist is lost with serving on person. On the other hand, for shut-ins for example, serving Eucharist may help demonstrate that they are also part of the body of Christ.

E.  How often to should Lord’s Supper be done. Within sacramental traditions, the Eucharist is done frequently. Priests may carry out Eucharist many times a day and laity are encouraged to attend frequently… even daily. With the symbolic understanding it does not need to be done as frequently… but how often. In truth, I don’t know. Sometimes there is a fear to do it too often because of Christ’s warning of “vain repetition.” But the key is the adjective “vain.” Repetition does not have to be vain. However, if the symbolism is not explained and reminded, the Lord’s Supper is likely to degenerate into vain repetition. I was in a church plant here in the Philippines where we did Lord’s Supper about once a year. Why? One reason may have been that many of the members came from a sacramental tradition, so there was fear that people were involved with the Lord’s Supper because it was thought to be a “dispenser of grace.” I think that the main reason was that the leadership (including myself) had lost the symbolic relevance of the Lord’s Supper so we did not value it. However, because of the significance of the Lord’s Supper (symbolically and historically), the end result was that we were too lazy to teach its appropriate role in the life of the church. So I don’t know the appropriate frequency, but clearly, the symbol of the Lord’s Supper must be taught and reminded. The educative value of the Eucharist should never be forgotten.

I don’t suppose this answers much. However, I believe that in the mission field, flexibility is necessary but not so as to destroy the symbolic value of the Lord’s Supper. As with all symbols, it should link the meaning with