A Question of Contextualization

“After a significant pastoral ministry indewri-mandir an urban setting in the United States, a former student of mine returned to his home country of India to minister. When visiting him, I asked, ‘What is the most significant obstacle you face?’ He paused and then said, ‘The biggest I’ve seen recently has been working to overcome the impression left by some well-intentioned American short-term missionaries. When they came to my village, they gathered and marched around a temple in the village, asking God to tear it down in the name of Jesus. Later one of the priests of the temple told me, ‘You Christians are no different than we Hindus. We practice Hindu magic, and Christians practice Christian magic. I know because I saw those American Christians walking around our temple seven times praying. That’s no different from what we do.’

Was this prayer-walk an example of contextualization or syncretism? I am sure they thought they were engaging in appropriate spiritual warfare and would likely cite the Old Testament story of Joshua marching around Jericho (Josh. 6) to confirm it. The Hindu priest, however, read their actions as a ‘Christian’ version of a Hindu magical practice. The long-term worker was left to sort through the mess after the short-termers returned home.”

-Story told by A. Scott Moreau in “Contextualization in World Missions,” 2012, p. 123

Bronislaw Malinowski separated between Religious Thinking and Magical Thinking.

  • Religious Thinking is the view that one should seek to serve or be guided by spiritual beings or forces.
  • Magical Thinking is the view that one should seek to be served by these spiritual beings or forces. The goal, then, is to find ways to manipulate these powers.

If one accepts these definitions, then the STMers were certainly acting on magical thinking just as the Hindu priest stated. Of course, Christians seek to serve God… but entreating God is not outside of the Christian faith, so Christians should be mostly religious in their thinking, but still a bit magical, in thought, as well (based on the above definitions).

As far as whether these STMers were doing good contextualization or syncretism (over-contextualization), I would argue that neither was the case. Probably they were guilty of non-contextualization. Most likely they were bringing over the theology of “spiritual warfare” that they were taught in the United States. It is entirely possible that proponents of this sort of “spiritual warfare” or “power encounter” (such as Charles Kraft and C. Peter Wagner, along with others, developed) can be faulted with syncretism, but not these short-termers. They just took what they were told in the US to do, and did it. Additionally, grabbing the Jericho story and applying it to their situation is no more contextualization than if one of them brought five stones and began to fling them at the temple using a sling (another perfectly “Biblical” activity).

But if this group was only guilty of poor contextual theology and perhaps confusing a Hindu priest (although he doesn’t sound particularly confused) that would be understandable. What is much more worrisome is that their behavior was a poor reflection on Christ.

There is, in my mind, no satisfactory justification for publicly praying down a temple (or mosque or something similar). You might be tempted to say that it is justifiable because we find some kings of Judah praised for tearing down Ashteroth poles and the like. But even if it was done as part of national policy, I don’t believe there is examples of Jewish believers going to other lands to desecrate or attack other temples in other lands.

Even if one feels that one could see justification in the Old Testament, a point I would dispute, no such justification exists in the New Testament.

  1.  Jesus did not do it. He reacted to sacrilege of the Temple in Jerusalem. In Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, Decapolis, Galilee, and more, He certainly had opportunity to decry alien places of worship, but we have no record that he had done so.  In John 4, he referred to the worship place of the Samaritans, but outside of pointing to the correctness of Jews in this matter, spoke nothing against the place or the people who worshiped there. (That is not to say that the Hasmoneans before or the Byzantines after were so respectful.)
  2. With Paul the evidence is even stronger. In Acts 17, we find him speaking publicly to the Areopagus without disrespecting the Athenian beliefs. Also, in Acts 19:35-41, we find the clerk in Ephesus defending Paul and Silas:

The city clerk quieted the crowd and said: “Fellow Ephesians, doesn’t all the world know that the city of Ephesus is the guardian of the temple of the great Artemis and of her image, which fell from heaven? Therefore, since these facts are undeniable, you ought to calm down and not do anything rash. You have brought these men here, though they have neither robbed temples nor blasphemed our goddess. If, then, Demetrius and his fellow craftsmen have a grievance against anybody, the courts are open and there are proconsuls. They can press charges. If there is anything further you want to bring up, it must be settled in a legal assembly. As it is, we are in danger of being charged with rioting because of what happened today. In that case we would not be able to account for this commotion, since there is no reason for it.” After he had said this, he dismissed the assembly.

But there is more:

3.  There is no way that people will recognize the love of Christ in people seeking destruction of a people’s treasured structure. In a somewhat parallel even here in Baguio City a few years ago, pastors and missionaries were joyous that they had managed to prevent the building of a mosque in the city. But why be overjoyed? The blocking of such a building was very temporary, it was probably illegal in a country that supports freedom of religion, and certainly helped poison a positive of witness of Christians in the Muslim diaspora here.

4.  It is inconsistent with the Golden Rule. If one is bothered by others attacking, destroying, or praying against church buildings, than one should certainly not take any of those stances against other houses of worship.

I think that if they truly felt the need to pray against the Hindu temple, they could have done so quietly and privately. Why hamper Christian ministry by behaving publicly in such a disrespectful manner?

(By the way, I do strongly recommend A. Scott Moreau’s book. It is a great expansion of Bevan’s book on Contextual Theology. One can click on the title after the top quote to get more info on it.)

Ambivalent Reflections on Miracles in Missions

Previously, I had done a post on “Ambivalent Reflections on Spiritual Warfare.” Although I am ambivalent on Spiritual Warfare, I tend to view it negatively as it relates to missions (because of its generally negative tone, and the tendency to be built on a syncretized animism). However, I have a more positive view of the miraculous. Some would argue that spiritual warfare and miracles are nearly synonymous. But I tend to make a functional distinction.

Jesus Moses Elijah
Jesus Moses Elijah (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For me, Spiritual Warfare is offensive (in multiple senses of the term). It is about tearing down the enemy. Personally, I believe God uses LOVE and TRUTH as spiritual offense more than miracles (again, generally, in my view). However, miracles (as I am using the term) is a positive sign or proclamation. I will develop this idea later.

But first, consider three very basic views on miracles today. These are CAN’T, MUST, and MIGHT.

CAN’T.  God can’t do miracles in this view. Historically, this could be a Deist viewpoint. or in some circles, a Pantheistic view. However, within Evangelical Christian circles, this is more likely a Cessationist view. That is, God stopped doing miracles after the first century of the church. (Miracles as I am referring to them here are limited to “big” stuff, not simply God interacting in the world.)  I don’t care for this view. I am not impressed with the Biblical argument for this view. Additionally, there seems to be some level of continuity of the miraculous through church history.

MUST. God must do miracles… or more particularly, the miracles we want Him to do. Some argue this from the verse that God is the same, yesterday, today, and for ever (Hebrews 13:8). Some take strong statements in the Bible of God promising to answer our prayers as supporting this viewpoint as well. The Hebrews 13:8 passage is a very weak argument. First, the passage seems to be more about character than action. Second, it is pretty obvious from the Bible that God’s actions DO vary at different times and places. Much of the rest of the book of Hebrews talks about how God has changed in actions in different times. Regarding prayer, a solid analysis of prayer from the Bible shows that God maintains His role as God. He does not hand that over to others. When we ask in Jesus’ name, we are acting on His behalf, acting according to His will. God does not subjugate His will to ours. So I don’t believe that God MUST do (showy) miracles.

MIGHT. I believe a balanced view is that God MIGHT do (showy) miracles. “Might” implies “Might not.” As such, God retains control. But why would God do showy miracles at times and not at others?

I have talked to evangelists and churchplanters who work in places where the church is NOT. Their experience is that God does showy miracles as one enters an unreached community or people. Once the community is effectively entered, the miraculous goes away. This suggests that miracles are primarily meant as  SIGNS. That is, they demonstrate the entry of God’s kingdom into a new community.

This seems consistent with the Bible. While there are times when showy miracles were done in the Bible when the idea of community entry (as a sign) does not apply that well (Elijah and Elisha are strong examples), miracles tend to be clustered in places where they act as a sign of God doing something new in a new place (miracles of Moses and of Jesus are strong examples of this). Other times, miracles were few and far between. Israel was often reminded to look back to the miracles of Moses as support for their love by God as His people.

This also seems to be consistent with early church history. The early church fathers (such as Ireneaus) note that miracles had not disappeared, but there is a strong indication that miracles had long since lost their “normalcy.”

So suppose miracles are primarily a SIGN that God uses to enter a new territory, what does that imply for missions and ministry?

1. Recognize that God seeks to have His church reach all peoples.

2.  Entering a new territory, I am not sure that we should EXPECT miracles, but we should be ready for them as God gives a positive sign of entry into the community.

3.  Where the church is established, showy miracles probably should not be expected, and certainly should not be “conjured” up, either through fakery or through over-hyping.

4.  Missions and Ministry is God’s work, not ours, and empowered/steered by Him, not us.

Ambivalent Reflections on Spiritual Warfare

Plate 22 of 22 for the Macklin Bible after Lou...
“SATAN BOUND” Plate 22 of 22 for the Macklin Bible after Loutherbourg. Bowyer Bible. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I often find myself on the side of downplaying “spiritual warfare” and “power encounter.” I see myself doing this not so much because I see these as purposeless. I have seen missionaries working in particularly difficult places coming down with horrible maladies. I am not sure I can simply chalk that up to stress and convergence disorder. They appear to have been drawn into a battlefield that they are challenged to survive, to say nothing of thrive. However, I find myself arguing against a certain Christ-paganism that has crept into the church and Christian mission. I don’t claim to be an expert in this area (and don’t plan to become an expert) but here are some thoughts I believe to find a healthy balance in Spiritual Warfare and Power Encounter for reflection.

1.  In Spiritual Warfare, the primary battle is with oneself. It has become popularized to externalize evil. We may talk about the spirit or demon of depression, lust, or hate. But really, Pogo (as written by Walt Kelly) was ironically correct when he said “We have met the enemy and he is us.” The Bible drama makes it clear that man sinned, man fell, man lives in a state of rebellion (warfare) with God. We need to be changed positionally, and renewed continually to be brought to where we are (at least on some level) at peace with God. Demons and Satan appear to have a fairly modest role in this, and much of that is obscured from us.

2.  In Spiritual Warfare, the secondary battle is with others. We not only sin (live in rebellion) but are also sinned against. Social Justice is not simply a nice thing for a Christian to work for, it is very much at the heart of spiritual warfare. Read the major and minor prophets and you will see how important social justice and challenging abuse of the poor, weak, and innocent is to God.

3.  In Spiritual Warfare, the heavenly/spirit realm cannot be discounted. As noted in Ephesians 6, the world we see is not the only world… we may live in rebellion, others may live in rebellion, but there is a grander story that we are part of, and we each have a part to play. Therefore, it is not correct to simply make our work to be only about self and other people.

4.  Our Ignorance of the battle in the heavenlies was intentional. God gave us lttle more than tiny snippets of information about the “spiritual” battle in the heavenlies. However, our primary  activity is focused in the here  and now. Our activity as Christians can be seen for the most part in God’s command to all mankind in Genesis 1 and 2 (multiply and rule… as a good steward), Genesis 12 (be a channel of blessing to the entire world), the Great Commandment (love God and, as a result, love people), and the Great Commission (act as witnesses of God’s good action and good news). Primarily speaking, the battle in the “spirit realm” is not our battle. Spiritual warfare is primarily dealing with evil here and now by those who do evil here and now.

5.  Our understanding of Spiritual Warfare should be built from the Bible. Certain individuals have popularized a form of “Christian Paganism.” There is a verse or two that suggest some sort of territorial spirit… but such references fall far short of the the fanciful imaginings that have sprung up. Such local demons (as well as the above-mentioned oppressive demons) generally have more in common with forms of Animism than with Biblical Christianity. I am not one who labels things as “pagan” to castigate them. Every culture has some truth in it. But when our doctrines are more firmly grounded in a different religious system than Biblical or Historical Christian Theology, there is reason for concern.

6.  Based on the Bible, Satan does appear to be a real being, and angels and demons also appear clearly to exist in an objective sense. Some have gone the other way, and have turned anything that is not judged as “natural” as metaphoric or mythic (mythic in this case meaning untrue stories). Yet the Bible does describe them as real, problematic, and active. The comment from C.S. Lewis seems appropriate.

“There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.” (The Screwtape Letters)

7.  The Bible appears to be pretty ambivalent about power encounter as well. The two biggest power encounter events in the Old Testament (Moses and the Pharoah, and Elijah and the Priests of Baal) both had mixed results in their ability to effect real and lasting change. Jesus did power encounter, yet often did such activities in secret (asking that the activity would be kept private) or even actively refusing to do signs and wonders. The mixed record of power encounter compared with (I believe) the much better record of love encounter (battling sinful prideful abusive self-centeredness with divine love) clearly tells us where our priorities should be.

8.  We need to be open-minded about what we see and experience. Satan and demons may not (in fact probably don’t) work the same today as they did centuries ago. Today, some Christians see mentally ill people and assume they have a demon. Since demons are thinking beings, unlike viruses, corrupted genes, or bacteria, their symptomology is likely to vary based on effectiveness in a given culture. Two thousand years ago, a demon oppressed (I prefer that term to demon possessed… personal thing) person was effective by being wild, scary, and insane. Today, such a person would be jailed or drugged to hinder their effectiveness. If demons are at work today in and through people, expect to see that action in ways that are effective today, not ways that render themselves useless in spiritual battle. On the other hand, being too quick to label what we don’t understand as being demonic is risky. Labeling does not reduce ignorance… it can actually enhance ignorance and cause greater trouble in the long-run.

9.  Our activities have eternal consequence. There is a battle going on and we, indeed, are a part of it. God’s word, God’s Spirit in our lives, and God’s love are vital equipments for us to incorporate into our lives. These are likely to make us more effective in spiritual warfare than prayer walking, prophecy events, and regional prayer exorcisms.

10.  Although our activities have eternal consequences, the battle (ultimately) is already won. We do not live in a dualistic universe. As Crowley says in Good Omens… God is playing solitaire, not chess. God is in control, even if He has allowed us to pilot the ship (poorly) for awhile. We are to be prepared for trouble, but not fearful for we are ultimately on the winning side and so we cannot (again ultimately) lose.

11. The war metaphor is important, but not necessarily the most important. The Bible appears to ultimately be a love story not a war chronicle. Recognizing the war metaphor is valuable… but it should be given its proper place. The book of Hosea appears to be a more important description of God’s relationship with us than the book of Joshua.

Anyway, these are my thoughts today.  Who knows… I may have new ideas tomorrow. One should be ready to learn and grow.