Archive for the ‘Theology’ Category

The Mission of God: Christianity and Post-Modernism

Wednesday 3 February 2010

After meaning to for several months, I’ve finally started my way through Chris Wright’s mammoth book, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative. As it’s 500 or so pages long there’s no way I’m going to remember all the good quotes when I get to the end, so I thought I might post a few as I go along, if nothing else to provide myself with a summary of what stood out to me in the book.

The first section is about the Bible and Mission. Wright says that he used to teach a course on the biblical basis of mission, but became increasingly convinced that the western evangelical method of listing out a few proof texts to prove what we’d already decided was true, just didn’t do justice to the missional nature of the whole Bible, including the Old Testament.

But before we can gain a fuller understanding of such a foundational theme we need to become aware of the cultural glasses* through which we view the Bible, and the world in general, and take a step back to see the bigger meta-narrative that runs through scripture. Wright suggests that reading the Bible together with people from all nations can give us a much broader and richer view of God, and shed light on the missional theme running through every page of scripture.

Even when we affirm (as I do) that the historical and salvation-historical context of biblical texts and their authors is of primary and objective importance in discerning their meaning and their significance, the plurality of perspectives from which readers read them is also a vital factor in the hermeneutical richness of the global church. What persons of one culture bring from that culture to their reading of a text may illuminate dimensions or implications of the text itself that persons of another culture may not have seen so clearly. (p39)

And on the previous page:

There is a great irony that the Western Protestant theological academy, which has its roots precisely in a hermeneutical revolution (the reformation), led by people who claimed the right to read scripture independently from the prevailing hegemony of medieval Catholic scholasticism, has been slow to give ear to those of other cultures who choose to read scriptures through their own eyes, though the situation is undoubtedly improving. (p38)

In many ways the acceptance that different cultures will read the same scriptures in different ways reflects the trend of post-modern thinking. But Wright says firstly that Christianity in effect got there a couple of millenia before post-modernism as we know it came into existence, and secondly that the church has something unique to contribute to the post-modern way of thinking:

What we [the church] have to offer, I contend, is a missional hermeneutic of the Bible. The Bible got there before postmodernity was dreamed of – the Bible which glories in diversity and celebrates multiple human cultures, the Bible which builds its most elevated theological claims on utterly particular and sometimes very local events, the Bible which seems everything in relational, not abstract, terms, and the Bible which does the bulk of its work through the medium of stories.

All these features of the Bible – cultural, local, relational, narrative – are welcome to the postmodern mind. Where the missional hermeneutic will part company with radical postmodernity, is in its insistence that through all the variety, locality, particularity and diversity, the Bible is nevertheless actually the story. This is the way it is. (p47)

If I can get my mind around it I’ll try to continue to post some thoughts from the rest of the book as Wright explores how God’s mission to his world is an/the overarching theme of the entire scripture narrative. It might take a few months however…!

*Someone once told me he was going to Kenya for a couple of weeks to give some Bible teaching to Pastors because “they always read the Bible through their own cultural glasses”. While agreeing with his statement, I don’t think he had appreciated the irony that he also had his own cultural glasses through which he read the Bible… it’s just that our glasses are a lot more obvious to those around us than they are to ourselves.

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Onesimus Online

Thursday 21 January 2010

I have a new favourite blog to follow: Onesimus Online, written by William Black, a lecturer at Nairobi Evangelical Graduate School of Theology.

William is originally from North America, but is a strong critic of the arrogance of western theologians in assuming that Europe and North America has all the answers about God. Here’s a great explanation from a recent post about why a western perspective of the Bible isn’t sufficient for Africa

So thorough is the westernization of my African students that they don’t seem to notice that all of their education, all of their theology, all of their assumptions, can be traced to the efforts of well-meaning western missionaries. These missionaries came (and sometimes still come) with an assumed posture of superiority, namely that they are here to ‘help’ these Africans escape their darkness and get saved like us. Salvation too often means getting Africans to accept that our problems are their problems and that our solutions must be their solutions. For example, most Western missionaries assume that Christ has come to save us from our legal problem before a holy God; namely, that our sin makes us guilty before God and deserving of his condemnation and wrath. Christ resolves our problem by becoming our sin on the cross, bearing our punishment and thus freeing us from the penalty of the law. We are no longer under condemnation, but are accepted into fellowship with God, with the end result that we will go to heaven and not to hell.

This is standard fare for Western Evangelicals and their predecessors. And while a solid case may be made from the New Testament that this is indeed an aspect of our salvation, our polemical stance against the perceived ‘works righteousness’ of Roman Catholics has meant that this becomes increasingly, by over-emphasis, the only aspect of our salvation, or certainly the most important, and certainly what is preached from Sunday to Sunday.

The problem is that Africans on their own don’t perceive that their main problem before God is their compromised legal status. So in order to get them to understand ‘the gospel’ – or at least our Western understanding of the gospel – we missionaries must first teach them about God’s law and what sin is and what Christ has done to satisfy God’s law. Once they understand these things, then they are in a position to ‘accept Christ as their personal Savior’ and be forgiven. To this end, evangelists urge congregations to respond to the ‘free’ grace of God in Christ so that their sins may be forgiven and they be reconciled to God.

Again, this sounds so normal to our Western Evangelical ears that we may be immediately suspicious of anyone that seems to have a problem with it. But as mentioned above, most of my African friends don’t first and foremost worry about their legal standing before God. Rather, they are far more concerned about demons which seem to afflict every aspect of their lives, they are concerned about people who manipulate spiritual power for good and ill in other people’s lives, they are concerned about sicknesses and barrenness, for which there seems to be no cure, they are concerned about capricious weather that makes their crops fail and their cattle die and causes them to go hungry, and they are concerned about death. The tremendous irony that I observe is that our Western gospel has come full force into Kenya (and many other African countries) through the ministries of thousands of Western missionaries, resulting in the majority of people here and in a number of other countries professing faith in Christ and testifying to having been born again. And yet this gospel does not touch those aspects of their lives that reflect their deepest needs and most profound concerns. read more

I’m looking forward to keeping up with William’s posts as he critiques western theology and hints at alternative African perspectives.The church in Europe and North America can tend to be extremely mono-cultural in its judgement of what is and isn’t a correct reading of scripture, so it’s good to look outside of our little box occasionally to get a better perspective.

Flickering Pixels: How Technology Shapes Your Faith

Wednesday 23 December 2009

Flickering Pixels by Shane Hipps is a fascinating look at communication media and the role these media play in shaping an entire culture. While Western culture emphasises the message and generally disregards the medium, Shane Hipps argues that media affect the way we think, and that until we recognise this fact we will be under their control.

Does that sound too deep? Let me give some examples…

Shane talks about how in oral cultures, where there is no written form of a language, people store information in their minds. When something is learned, it is passed on through the community, generally through telling and retelling stories. The culture therefore tends to be very community-oriented, and people derive their identity from the community.

When literacy is introduced to a culture, people have the luxury of thinking apart from the tribe, without worrying that their thoughts will disappear. The community is no longer needed to perpetuate ideas, and people will tend to become more individualistic.

“In pre-literate societies, a person’s identity is bound to the tribe; the notion of individual has little importance. However, the technology of writing, regardless of content, weakens and even destroys tribal bonds and profoundly amplifies the value of the individual.”

Another fascinating example that Shane gives is that of writing systems. He compares the Chinese pictographic alphabet, with the western phonetic alphabet. The western way of writing is a simple, linear, sequential list of symbols. The symbols in themselves have no meaning, but when put together they are very efficient at bringing meaning. As a result, western culture values abstract concepts, efficiency, and linear sequential thinking.

The Chinese writing system on the other hand involves symbols that actually represent a particular thing. In many ways this is a very inefficient way of writing – requiring a separate symbol for every single word – but the writing system is as Shane says “a visual art form”. Eastern culture similarly has developed to be nonlinear and holistic, valuing these things above efficiency and simplicity.

These media shape our culture, and even our understanding of Christianity. The Roman alphabet’s tendency towards efficiency and simplification has meant that western churches tend to emphasise the simplicity, rather than the mysticism of the Christian message. Our approach to the gospel is to present it as A + B + C = Go to Heaven, when other non-western cultures might take a more holistic and less simplified approach.

Shane goes on to look at other media since the printing press – particularly photographs (allowing for non-textual literate communication) and the telegraph (bringing instant communication over a distance). The telegraph, in many ways the forerunner of the internet, for example changed the culture by providing a mass of information. This mass had to be sorted through, and was assigned subjective value based on how the reader responded to it, paving the way for a move away from modernism, where the printed book with its sequential argument was king, to post-modernism, where a mass of information is weighed up by each person receiving it.

He then addresses social media (and what some might call our post-literate culture), which in many ways are a strange juxtaposition of previous media and their cultures. As a result they bring paradoxical ways of interacting with each other:

  • We are a tribe of individuals. Where pre-literate cultures value community, and literate cultures promote the individual, we long for the community of a tribe, but we define it on a strictly individualistic basis.
  • We feel empathy at a distance. Pre-literate cultures feel great empathy for others in the community, and literate cultures allow people to distance themselves from what is going on around them. As post-literates we paradoxically feel empathy at a distance – we empathise with celebrities and African Aids orphans, but we also feel detached from them and unable to relate to them.
  • We are anonymously intimate. Where pre-literate cultures are in many ways very intimate, and literacy brings the possibility of privacy and anonymity, as post-literates we are anonymously intimate. We share very personal and intimate parts of our lives with a large number of people, giving the illusion of intimacy as we present our façade to the world.

What does all this have to do with faith? Firstly Shane would say that it’s important for us to understand the culture that we live in, so that we are not trapped by it. Our culture likes to think that information is important, and the media of communication are simply serving us in our desire to pass on that information. But we need to be aware of how the media we use are actually influencing our entire view of the world, and of God himself.

But secondly Shane finishes the book by looking at the media God uses to communicate his message, and the fact that his ultimate means of communication with his people was through Jesus – a messenger who was himself the message. As Christians God has also chosen us to be his messengers, but like any medium of communication, we are part of the message itself.

“Why would God choose such a frail, failing, and inconsistent medium to embody his abiding message? Is it possible that God chose a collection of bent and bruised hearts to bear the message of redemption and reconciliation because that is a message in itself? Maybe God chose a medium of weakness to reveal his stunning power to reach through human failure, sin and sadness to grow new life.”

Flickering Pixels

I don’t feel I’ve done the book justice in this post – you’ll just have to read it for yourself. You may also be interested in listening to a sermon I gave in the US a couple of weeks ago about Peter telling Cornelius about Jesus in Acts 10, which was actually influenced by some of the ideas of how God communicates that originated from the final section of this book.

Mission After Christendom

Sunday 7 December 2008

I’ve just finished reading an excellent book – Mission After Christendom by David Smith.

The book discusses how the modern missionary movement of the last 200 years has been very much tied to christendom – Europe and North America – and the modernist worldview, largely influenced by evolutionist philiosophy and the idea that science and reason would drive mankind towards an ever increasing utopia.

Missions were from the western church to the heathen nations, who were seen as backward and in need of the religion and civilisation of the west. As such, they often went hand in hand with colonial power and ideology, sometimes with the justification that “the heathens get saved, and in return we get their natural resources”.

The twentieth century, and all the war and destruction that went with it, saw the end of modernism as people realised that science and reason alone wouldn’t guarantee that civilisation would continually evolve towards higher and higher levels of development.

The main message of the book is that when mission is strongly tied to christendom and modernism (or to any one particular culture), the message it spreads is a poor version of Christianity, severely limited by the cultural lens through which it is portrayed. In reality, by God’s grace, over the past 100 years we have seen the growth of indigenous churches, expressing the gospel in their own cultural contexts across South America, Africa and Asia. This growth is not only a blessing to the church in these places, but in fact should be a blessing to the church of the traditional Christian heartlands as it sees the gospel worked out in completely different cultures.

For the Qom [of Argentina], as for the Saxons in ninth-century Europe, a mass movement toward Christianity resulted not in the abandonment of traditional culture, but in its revitalisation. A dispirited people, threatened with the destruction of their known world by the encroachment of a highly sophisticated technological culture, found in Jesus Christ the true redeemer who gave them as Qom, renewed hope, strength and life. Thus, the indigenous church which emerged from a movement of spiritual awakening in the middle of the twentieth century, the Iglesia Evangelica Unida, reflects a dynamic inculturation of the gospel among a people whose world-view is strikingly different from that of other churches in the Chaco, which simply adopted imported Western patterns of spirituality and worship. The Qom were able to distinguish Christ from the culture of the missionaries with the result that they now believe they have something important to offer to Western Christians from within their own cultural heritage. Thus, Hugo Diaz, an indigenous Christian leader, invites Western believers to assist the church in the Chaco in language which clearly reflects the post-Christendom context for mission with which this book is concerned: “We no longer want you to come and teach us the Bible. We want you to come and read the Bible together with us”.

Smith makes a very interesting comparison with the encounter of Peter with Cornelius in the book of Acts. Up until that point, Peter, along with the other apostles, had assumed that Jesus’ message of salvation was for the Jews, with other nations being granted salvation through becoming culturally Jewish. But after his meeting with Cornelius, and seeing the Holy Spirit given to non-Jews, Peter and the apostles rejoice at the realisation that “God has also given the Gentiles the privilege of repenting of their sins and receiving eternal life.” (Acts 11:18)

In this light the whole of the rest of the New Testament continues the theme that God has united all peoples of all cultures in himself. Mission is no longer about going abroad and persuading other peoples to be like us, but it’s about witnessing to Christ and encouraging others to worship him in their own cultural context.

Almost every page of the book had a quote that I wanted to remember, but I think this one sums up well the challenge to 21st Century missions:

…are we able to imitate Peter’s missiological and pastoral response in such a situation [with Cornelius], trusting the Holy Spirit in such a manner that our urge to proselytise such individuals and movements is overcome, so avoiding the implication that following Jesus as Lord means becoming like us? Questions like these are critical on the frontier of pluralisation because devout adherents of other faiths are unlikely ever to get close to the Jesus of the Gospels as long as the lifestyle of evangelists, or the worship of churches shaped by Western individualism and modernisation, makes him appear to be the destroyer of all that is treasured within their traditions. The tragedy of the proselytising approach to mission is that it turns the Gospel into “bad news”, ensures the closing of ranks, and short-circuits the revolutionary impact of the living Christ within these religious traditions. What is more, it ignores the profound insight of John of Patmos that all the peoples on earth may bring their ‘glory and honour’ into the kingdom of God (Rev 21:26).

Which is why I believe that Bible translation into every vernacular language – accomplished as a partnership right across the worldwide church – should be at the forefront of cross-cultural mission in the 21st Century.

A Theology of Suffering

Tuesday 15 July 2008

Eddie has written an excellent post about how our understanding of God must include the knowledge that he will use difficult situations in our lives to bring glory to himself. There will be times when he miraculously heals and provides for us, but there will also be (probably many more) times when he does immeasurably more than we can ask or imagine… by allowing us to suffer for his sake.

As a Bible Translator, I’d have loved it if a miracle had put the whole of the New Testament into Kouya with a single word of power. It would have saved a lot of work, isolation, tiredness, malaria and sheer intellectual effort. But God didn’t do that; nevertheless, the example of a plainly fallible English couple who were prepared to sacrifice themselves had an impact on at least one young man who is now in a major leadership role in his country. Oh, and the New Testament was translated and is being read. No signs, wonders or miracles – sometimes more or less the opposite – but God’s Kingdom was being revealed!

What do the Scriptures have to say about this? Yes, in Jesus ministry miracles are very definitely shown as signs of the Kingdom – John even uses the word sign to describe them. I’m not knocking miracles. But look at these two sections taken from Hebrews 11.

13 All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance.

They were living by faith, but they hadn’t received the things that God had promised them. The sort of theology of faith which tells you that if you believe enough God will give you exactly what you want just can’t stand in the light of a verse like this – much less in the burning intensity of the whole Scriptural witness to God’s people being called again and again to suffer. read more

There are times when God will bring glory to himself through miracles. But there are also times when he will do it through the miracle of an obedient and faithful heart in the face of suffering.

To go back to Eddie’s first example, God could have just translated the whole Bible for the Kouya immediately, and everyone would have been amazed and could sit back and relax. But how much more could the Kouya people learn from the faithful witness and dedication even in difficult times of Eddie and Sue and others who followed God’s leading? If he had done it miraculously we would be talking about a God who does our difficult work for us, but instead we see another side of God’s character – that he chooses to involve us in his work despite our failings, and gives us grace each day to live for him. Surely it’s the miracle of “Christ in us, the hope of glory”, that has the eternal impact in building God’s kingdom among the people around us.

I was going to say a lot more, but keep finding that Eddie has already pretty much said it, so I’ll stop and just link to his post