Friday, May 26, 2006

Of Pentacles and Tombstones

I am a member of several Yahoo groups related to religious studies and mission to new religions and alternative spiritualities. One of the groups, NUREL, recently included a post in the form of a story about a controversy in Reno, Nevada. The Associated Press is reporting that the family of an American soldier killed in Afghanistan is trying to get the Department of Veteran Affairs to approve the placement of a Wiccan pentagram on the tombstone of the fallen soldier. The family says that the pentagram would be the appropriate symbol for the young man who practiced this form of spirituality.

While Nevada officials work to speed up the probable approval of this request, the AP story states:
The Veterans Affairs' National Cemetery Administration allows only approved emblems of religious beliefs on government headstones. Over the years, it has approved more than 30, including symbols for theTenrikyo Church, United Moravian Church and Sikhs. There's also an emblem for atheists - but none for

This news story reminds me of the firestorm of controversy that erupted a few years ago when it became known that an Army Base was permitting Wiccan ceremonies to be conducted on the military facility. There was a minor public uproar, including complaints from many evangelicals who felt that somehow the government should be in the position of disapproving certain spiritualities such as Wicca.

In light of the controversy in Reno, and as we remember our fallen war dead and other lost loved ones, Christians in religiously plural America might be thinking about the practical aspects of our theology of religions, and remember that freedom of religion means all religions, even ones evangelicals find distasteful. That seems to me to be the Christian thing to do.

Have Western Evangelicals Become the New Judaizers?

This week I received the latest edition of Missiology journal, Vol. 34, no. 2 (April 2006). This issue is devoted to discussion of issues surrounding the shift in Christianity’s growth from the Northern to Southern Hemispheres, with decline in Western Europe and North America and growth in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. This shift has been recognized for some time by the missions community, and has been explored by a number of authors, including Philip Jenkins in his book The Next Christendom, the subject of a few previous posts and an interview with the author on this blog.

One of the articles in this issue discusses the missiological implications of the southern shift (“The Changing Face of Mission: Implications for the Southern Shift in Christianity,” by Mark Lang, pp. 164-177). In a sub-section of the article titled “Blessed Reflex,” the author discusses the revitalization of the early Jewish church that came with the growth and strength of the Gentile church. He then discusses the possibility of the Western church being revitalized and renewed by interaction with southern Christianity’s mission and theologizing, unencumbered by the Enlightenment and other Western cultural assumptions. Lang writes:
Missionaries are being sent from vibrant southern churches to the North bringing renewal and revitalizing northern churches. Coming from contexts unaffected by an Enlightenment worldview, many are able to naturally connect and communicate with the post-Christian post-modern world, where in contrast, the Western church often struggles to do so. In fact there is the danger for Western Christians, that in their quest to maintain orthodoxy, they may find themselves unwittingly defending the plausibility structures of the Enlightenment rather than defending Christianity, guarding a cultural form of Christian Enlightenment. (p. 175)
In light of my own cultural and missional studies and experience in the West I find this statement interesting. As I considered its ramifications it dawned on me that evangelicals might have unwittingly become the new Judaizers. Let me briefly explain.

One of the groups that surface polemically in the New Testament, such as in the Pauline epistles like Galatians, have been labeled the Judaizers. Scholars believe that this was a group of Jewish converts to Christianity who believed that it was also necessary to not only accept the gospel, but also to keep the law of Moses. Their error arose because of a their connection of the gospel and Christian identity with aspects of Jewish culture. In the process of this connection the gospel itself, and the unity of Jew and Gentile in one united community in Christ was undermined.

With the syncretism of the Western church with aspects of modernity and Enlightenment presuppositions I believe that we may indeed by guarding and promoting a particular cultural expression of Western Christianity as the universal and orthodox expression of the faith. This may be happening on an even grander scale among those ministries that evangelize adherents of new spiritualities in the West, where the tendency is to extract them from their subculture and to reinculturate them in the evangelical subculture, rather than presenting the gospel contextually in their cultural context and permitting the development of indigenous expressions of the faith in new cultural forms. (If this is an accurate assement it would indeed be ironic in that such ministries frequently cite Galatians and other texts addressing the Judaizers in refuting many new religions.) If this indeed the case then the Western church can learn a lot from the southern church, and my hope is that we in the West can exercise the humility and teachability necessary to learn and adapt to new roles, theologies, and ways of being in the twenty-first century.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Apologetics as Love and Relevant Communication

Some of my interactions with those who have sent along comments to recent posts made me think of John Stackhouse, author of Humble Apologetics (Oxford University Press, 2002). Salt Lake Seminary is working to secure his teaching in the upcoming fall semester as part of the intercultural studies program, and I look forward to benefitting from his instruction.

Quotes from his book on apologetics provide evangelicals with pause for reflection. The first addresses the areas of the purpose of apologetics and the attitudes of the apologist (p. 141):
Apologetics must alway look like God's love at work...Apologetics is not, primarily, about me. I can read apologetics in order to strengthen and sophisticate my faith, yes. I can engage in apologetics that can benefit me in various ways. But I ought to be commending the faith to my neighbor primarily for her benefit, to the glory of God. I ought not to be engaging in apologetic conversation out of some need of my own, whether a need to save face, or show up an enemy, or congratulate myself on my fervor. Apologetics, again, is a form of Christian speech, and as such it is always and only to offer a gift to the recipient - not aggrandize the speaker. Fundamentally, then, apologetic is about winning the friend, not the argument.

The second collection of quotes addresses adapting apologetic approaches for diverse audiences (pp. 142-3):
With love for God and love for our neighbor guiding and motivating us, therefore, when it comes to apologetics we will take each audience seriously on its own terms. We will not, that is, present apologetics to discharge a duty to our own satisfaction and then depart. In particular, we will not devise an apologetic that impresses us, but an apologetic that meets the needs of the particular audience we are addressing...Many Christians, and particularly those in the evangelical tradition to which I belong, are typically better at speaking, at proclamation, than at these two necessary skills: asking questions and listening to answers. Yet we must begin by asking questions. Who am I dealing with? What are their questions, their cognitive style or styles, their concerns, and their criteria for deciding about religious matters? Before I rush in with my package of stirring apologetic arguments, I need to ask just what my audience cares about, and how they will likely hear and respond to what I have to say.

I wonder if more evangelicals took these words to heart and modified their thinking and action as result, then would not the complexion of many apologetic and countercult ministries have to change dramatically?

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Alister McGrath on Postmodern Apologetics

My friend and ministry colleague Philip Johnson recently made me aware of an article by Alister McGrath on the necessity of apologetics in postmodernity titled "To Capture the Imagination of Our Culture: Reflections on Christian Apologetics," that appears in Anvil, volume 17, number 1 (2006), pp 5-15. Philip discusses this article as it relates to the emerging church movement's emphasis on embodied apologetics at his Circle of Pneuma blog. If by an "embodied apologetic" the emerging church refers to the need for greater emphasis on incarnating in postmodern subcultures and engaging in acts of service and hospitality, then I am all for it, provided this is done in connection with other forms of mission and apologetic as well. The emerging church needs to resist the false dichotomy of "embodied apologetic" vs. "rational apologetic."

But before evangelical apologists shout a hearty "Amen!" they need to remember that apologetics within postmodernity needs to be done very differently than in a modernist context. Apologetics, like missions, must be contextually appropriate and relevant to a culture. Evangelical apologists' penchant for modernist apologetic approaches need to be revisited in light of social and cultural shifts. Readers might be interested in a popular article I wrote on that touched on this area in "A Fresh Agenda for Apologetics in the Twenty-First Century."

Emerging church participants and apologists alike are encouraged to click on the link above to Circle of Pneuma for Johnson's comments on this issue, and to secure this issue of Anvil.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Da Vinci Code Film and Evangelical Responses: Boundary Maintenance to Missional Engagement?

A few years ago when I was participating in a short-term mission trip in Australia, I came across an issue of What is Enlightenment? magazine in a New Spirituality bookstore that caught my attention. The cover featured an illustration of an older male figure with long hair and a long flowing beard, a traditional representation of the God of Christian theism, sitting fretfully at a computer keyboard with mouse in hand. The cover story that accompanied the illustration was titled "can God handle the 21st century?" Of course the answer to this question is "yes," just as God has "handled" all the previous centuries of human existence, but I believe the question posed in the article's title should be altered to reflect a more serious question for Christians in the West. The real question is: can the church handle the 21st century? I'm not so sure this question can be answered in the affirmitive. Uni-dimensional evangelical responses to a pop culture phenomenon illustrate my thinking.

On May 19 The Da Vinci Code movie will premiere in the U.S. The movie is, of course, an adaptation of the best-selling novel by Dan Brown. It is directed by Ron Howard and stars Tom Hanks. The combination of a story loved by millions who purchased the book, and an Academy Award winning director and actor suggests that this film will be a blockbuster.

Evangelicals have been responding to concerns ab0ut the Da Vinci Code since the book was first published. With the film ready to debut, evangelicals are cranking up their responses to the movie as well. Some of the responses by evangelicals have been well done, providing a reasoned consideration of the church's traditional understandings of the Bible, the life of Jesus, and the history of the church. Of course, the church does have a responsibility to respond to the historical and theological inaccuracies within Brown's fictionalized novel. Nevertheless, thus far Christian groups seem largely (or solely) focused on defensive reactions to issues of theology and history, while ignoring equally significant cultural aspects of Brown's novel.

For examples of the types of evangelical responses, Tyndale House Publishers is organizing a "Da Vinci didn't convince me" marketing campaign for churches, while the Josh McDowell Ministry has included "Da Vinci packs" in their Beyond Belief campaign. Again, the church does need to understand its history and theology in light of the counter-claims of Da Vinci Code, but in the process we're assuming the church will be heard outside of its walls when we engage the culture, and we're ignoring another imporant angle for cultural engagement. In light of America's post-Christendom and post-modern culture, the church must engage culture in different ways and address the specfic concerns of that culture. Christendom culture approaches will not work in a post-Christendom environment. In addition, not only should we be thinking about what the church will say to the culture, but what is the culture's interest in Da Vinci Code saying back to the church? The Da Vinci Code raises several interesting isues for the church's critical self-reflection:

Concepts of the Divine (masculine and feminine imagery, particularly with concerns over patriarchy).

Christ (emphasizing his humanity as well as his deity, where the church may overemphasize one at the expense of the other).

Gnosticism (the church's denunciation of "New Age" in the 1980s and beyond did little to address the West's continuing fascination with various forms of Gnosticism and neo-Gnosticism).

Women (gender roles in church and society).

Sexuality and the body (moving beyond Puritanical concepts).

Conspiracy theories (why they continue to grip our imagination).

Church (as authority structure, and its relationship to popular culture).
The church in the West must discover ways in which to move beyond mere confrontation in order to embrace missional engagement with the culture that is self-critical, positive, proactive, and holisitic, addressing not only theology and history but contemporary culture as well. If we continue to merely respond defensively, outside the church as well as within, we will perpetuate our continuing marginalization and isolation. Can we move beyond confrontational approaches to popular culture and our propensity to preach to the choir to seize the opportunity presented by this new movie? I'm afraid I'm not very optimistic.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Symbol Wars: Cautions and Considerations for Evangelical Approaches

As I mentioned in my last post, I recently completed the Cross-Cultural Hermeneutics course at Salt Lake Theological Seminary, and in our last session one of the topics we discussed was symbolic anthropology, specifically the work of Victor Turner. I had read some of Turner previously, and read other anthropological commentary on his perspectives, while completing my work on a project for this course, and I immediately recognized the implications of symbolic anthropology for not only my project, but for evangelical engagement with LDS culture as well.

In this post I will briefly summarize some of the thinking from Turner's symbolic anthropology (at the risk of oversimplification), and will then apply it to a clash of symbols in popular culture, and will conclude with consideration of the ramifications of all of this for ministry among the religions. I beg the reader's patience with the initial academic discussion of anthropology.

Symbolic anthropology, especially as presented via the work of Victor Turner, understands culture as composed of symbols which sustain society. Turner's work obviously includes both a methodology of studying the symbols as well as a theory of the symbol. In terms of theory, every culture may be thought of as made up of both signs and symbols. Signs (also called referential symbols) have a one-to-one relation between the signifier and the signified and the connection between the two is arbitrary. The meaning is referential. We master our world by signs.

Symbols, on the other hand (also called condensation symbols) fuse affect and value. That is, they have both affective and moral poles associated with them. Primacy is on feeling and willing, not on referential thought. Because of this emphasis on the affective, symbols have mobilization efficacy. If it is said that we master our world by signs, then we master ourselves by symbols.

We might also note that given the strong connection of the affective or feeling to symbols, individuals and cultures often attach a strong sense of individual and corporate identity to them. The significance of symbols to a culture, the importance of the deep affective dimension of symbols, and how this plays out in cross-cultural interaction, can be illustrated through an example from popular culture.

It is not possible to drive along America's roadways for long without encountering the Christian fish symbol on car bumpers. The fish has long been a historic symbol of the Christian faith stretching back to the early centuries of the religion. As an expression of their identification with Christ and their faith, contemporary Christians created various expressions of this ancient symbol and proudly displayed them on their car bumpers. However, it did not take long for another American subculture, atheism and agnosticism, to recognize the significance of the fish symbol for the Christian community, and they responded with a modification of the symbol. The addition of "Darwin" and feet to the symbol provide an evolutionary twist that is included as a means of both establishing atheist cultural identity while also mocking both Christianity and individual Christians through the use of symbol.

Not surprisingly, when the conservative Christian community noticed that their symbolism was being appropriated and mocked, this did not lead to their interest in exploring the secular worldview and the rejection of Christianity. Instead, Christians responded with a further modification of the symbolism wherein the Christian fish was depicted as carnivorous and devouring the atheist evolving fish symbol. In this development of the symbolism, Christians responded defensively to the attack on their symbol, which was interpreted as an attack on the essence of the sacred in their culture, Christ himself, as well as Christianity and individual Christians.

There are at least a few things we might take away from a consideration of symbols and their place in culture, as well as the popular culture example of symbol wars.

1. Symbols are significant to a culture as an embodiment of the sacred or the highly valued.
2. Individual and community identity is attached to symbols and their expression.
3. The manipulation of symbols by cultural others leads to perceptions of threat to individual and community identity, and attack on the culture.
4. A defensive reaction may follow from attack on cultural symbols.

Given the strong connection between a culture, identity, and the affective and symbolism, it is not surprising to expect a negative reaction when a given culture perceives that its symbolism is being attacked by a cultural other. For this reason missionaries would be ill advised to engage Hindus during their life-cycle initiations (samskaras) pilgrimage, or Muslims during the hajj. The presence of cultural outsiders at places associated with a symbolic sense of the sacred would provoke a strong negative reaction by the culture, thus alienating the missionary from the participants of the culture making effective communication difficult if not impossible. The insights of symbolic anthropology in dialogue with missiology teaches us that there are appropriate and inappropriate cultural venues in which to engage those we are called to reach.

With these considerations in mind we might this discussion a little more close to home. Scholars have noted several aspects of Mormon culture, including its emphasis on ritual, the significance of death and death conquest, as well as pilgrimage. While we might not normally think of Mormon participation in community celebrations (such as Pioneer Day), pageants (such as the Mormon Miracle Pageant at Manti), and temple visits as pilgrimage, Douglas Davies has stated that, "Mormon spirituality cannot be interpreted without some idiom of pilgrimage" and that "the Mormon practice of temple visiting" is legitimately understood as an aspect of pilgrimage.

Other aspects of Mormon culture are worth considering, including the connection between Mormon identity and ideology of place connected to sacred geography, temples serving as a social symbol, and pilgrimage as a social context where Mormons participate in a narrative rehearsal of the collective sacred.

If we connect the dots of our discussion, including the significance of symbols to culture, and the defensive reaction of a culture when its symbolism is attacked (or the mere perception of threat exists), we might reflect once again as to whether outreach at Mormon temples is culturally appropriate. In light of the preceding discussion the answer must be a resounding "no." Just as evangelicals were not motivated to consider a secular worldview when one of its sacred symbols was attacked, but instead reacted defensively, Mormons are not motivated to consider a traditional Christian worldview when their cultural symbol is attacked by the presence of evangelicals as cultural outsiders. I submit that while evangelicals have the best intentions in their outreach programs at various expressions of Mormon pilgrimage, and worthy goals of education and evangelism, ignoring the symbolism of Mormon culture results in not only a widening of the divide between our subcultures, but also deepens their commitment to their worldview in response to perceptions of attack. While evangelicals may disagree with this assessment, they will have to carefully consider symbolic anthropology and its ramifications for ministry before immediately dismissing this thesis.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Worldview Approach to Culture: Assumptions, Shortcomings and Benefits

Last Friday and Saturday I participated in the final classes of the Cross-Cultural Hermeneutics course at the seminary, led by Robert Priest of Trinity. One item of discussion was the worldview approach to culture. Evangelicals tend to utilize this particular approach to culture in general, as well as various new religions and world religions as well (consider Jim Sire's book The Universe Next Door as an example). What follows are notes from Priest on the topic.

Priest noted that a worldview approach to culture is affirmed by a minority of anthropologists, but is used by a majority of missiologists and evangelicals who think about culture. The worldview approach to culture assumes that the order observable in culture is primarily cognitive and rational; that such order is related to basic philosophical categories; that such worldview order is deep, implicit, assumed, and largely unconscious; and it assumes a direction of causality in which cognitive order provided by worldview determines other things. Worldview is the base, the first cause, the primary root.

Priest continues by describing the worldview perspective on persons whereby it assumes they have a strong drive for rational order and consistency, and also assumes that humans act rationally, given their cognitive assumptions.

Moving to a theoretical critique, Priest notes that many times culture is shaped by other forms of order, other organizing principles than that of cognitive order. He also states that even the cognitive order which is there is grounded in and shaped by metaphor, symbol and story rather than by abstract rational thought. He continued by noting that human action and speech is often less rational and less rationally determined than is often thought.

In terms of methodological problems, Priest noted that worldview analysis tends to be removed from lived reality. It is often abstract and distant from the data. Other approaches are more closely tied to the data and the method of engaging data. He notes the problem of etic (outsider's perspective) as the starting point, and the propensity to privilege the intellectual's explanations and justifications as the correct ones.

In terms of missiological problems with the worldview approach to culture, Priest states that the language of worldview frames things in philosophical terms, as a question of truth or error. If every cultural difference is thought to be the result of a worldview difference, then every cultural difference invites people who think they have the right worldview to enter into judgment.

Priest concluded this discussion by stating that worldview analysis is valuable if:

1. Worldview is treated as one kind of order, not the only kind of order.
2. If direction of causality is understood to move in more than one direction. It is one contributor to action, not the only or necessarily the primary contributor in any given situation. Much of culture is not contingently dependent on a particular worldview.
3. If it is studied by sophisticated anthropologist with profound knowledge of culture at multiple levels. (It results from multiple research steps beginning with empirical.)
4. If it includes a judicious mix of emic (insider) and etic (outsider) perspectives.
5. It is especially important in context where systematic efforts at rational order are pursued by members of the society.

As I reflected on this discussion I noted the importance of its application to both missional expressions of church in Western culture, as well as to engagement with the cultures of new religions and alternative spiritualities. Evangelicals can benefit from considerations of worldview, but we must also recognize its limitations, and balance it with other considerations in order to arrive at a full orbed understanding of the culture's we seek to engage.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Brueggemann on emerging church

ReligionLink recently disseminated a piece on the emerging church. The brief resource written as an aid for religion writers included a list of contacts that could be approached for further comment on this phenomenon. One of the scholars listed caught my attention when I saw the name of Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann. Dr. Brueggemann is described by ReligionLink as “an appreciative observer of the emergent conversation. Brueggemann is professor emeritus from Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, GA. He is also the author of a number of books including An Introduction to the Old Testament: The Canon and Christian Imagination, The Prophetic Imagination, Texts Under Negotiation: The Bible and Postmodern Imagination, and Deep Memory, Exuberant Hope: Contested Truth in a Post-Christian World.

I found an appreciation for the emerging church by a noted Old Testament scholar of great interest and I gave him a call to discuss it. We spoke briefly, and Dr. Brueggemann told me that his introduction to the emerging church came by way of a phone conversation and later lunch with Brian McLaren. While Brueggemann does not claim to have an in-depth knowledge of the complex and diverse movement of the emerging church, he said that he is appreciative of its desires to seriously engage the culture, and he appreciates its social and missional activities. Brueggemann also shared concerns about evangelicals who condemn the entire movement as heresy.

I was glad to see that a respected scholar was open to a different expression and experimentation with church forms and ways of being in the West. Perhaps others might consider such openness, or at least be more willing to withhold judgment against the movement, and pause before raising red flags relative to missional Christians who include emerging church links on their blogs.