Friday, June 15, 2007

Questions, Misconceptions, and Responses

I recently received a couple of emails from someone who misunderstood and misconstrued my views on the issue of new religious movements. I thought it might be helpful to list some of the questions and misconceptions I have encountered over the last few years as I work with others to develop and utilize an interdisciplinary and cross-cultural missions model to new religious movements. This will provide both my response to such matters, and provide a post that I can refer to as these issues surface in the future.

I'll begin with a personal issue and will move on to issues of conceptualization and methodology.

1. John Morehead is now postmodern, emerging church, or liberal in his theological views.

While I think there is value in the postmodern critique of modernity; in the emerging church as it seeks to rethink ecclesiology and cultural engagement in light of postmodernity; and in liberal theology in dialogue with conservative theology; and I recognize that it is indeed possible to be Christian and be postmodern, emergent and liberal; none of my critics who classify me in such ways can find any written or verbal statements that would put me into such camps. I may make folks uncomfortable within certain segments of evangelicalism, but I still consider myself evangelical even though I am continually engaged in a process of reflection as to what this means and how it is worked out in the Western post-Christendom, postmodern, pluralistic, and post-9/11 context.

2. It is unfair to attack fellow evangelicals who engage in counter-cult approaches to new religions.

In the disciplines of theology and missiology it is common for people to present their views in the public square and then to have colleagues review and critique these ideas. For example, in theological studies N. T. Wright's views on Pauline theology and justification by faith have been critiqued in scholarly circles, and in missiology various expressions of contextualization in Islamic contexts have been subjected to various forms of debate and critique. This is simply part and parcel of presenting ideas for public scrutiny. It is unfortuante that those who incorporate critique as an essential part of their methodology, but who have no formal peer review process of their own, should cry foul when a former member of their ranks raises critique about their concepts and methods. Perhaps we can raise the bar and recognize the legitimacy of criticism while engaging in critique that is fair and does not engage in personal attacks.

In terms of critique of my views, the cross-cultural missions model that I have advocated has been put forward in the book Encountering New Religious Movements (Kregel Academic & Professional, 2004), which won the Christianity Today Book of the Year Award in 2005 in the category of global affairs/missions, has received favorable reviews across the board from academic theological and missiological journals and publications.

3. Their is little difference between the missional approach that John advocates and counter-cult approaches.

I and others are advocating an interdisciplinary understanding and approach to new religions, and one that is solidly rooted in examples of contextualized engagement exemplified in Scripture, the history of Christian missions, and the discipline of missiology. This involves a cross-cultural missional approach that seeks to contextualize the gospel for the global cultures of the new religions, to communicate the pathway of Jesus in the religious and spiritual context of the "religious other," to identify as much "religious capital" (in the words of Rodney Stark) that can be retained by new followers of Christ from new religions, includes contextualized forms of apologetic when appropriate but which sees apologetics as ancillary to the misisons process, and develops contextualized expressions of Christian community and church in these cultural contexts. This is in dramatic contrast to much of the counter-cult approach that tends to draw upon a heresy-rationalist model that is heavy on the apologetic contrast of Christian orthdoxy with heresy and which seeks to refute the doctrine and worldview of "religious others." These approaches represent differing paradigms with major differences between the two.

4. John uses a relational evangelism approach and doesn't appreciate confrontational forms of engagement.

It is inaccurate to distill the essence of the cross-cultural missions and heresy-rationalist models to relational vs. confrontational. There may be times when both approaches include elements of relationships and confrontation. The issues are more complex and cannot be reduced to these labels.

5. John misconstrues and misrepresents counter-cult ministry.

I would remind those that make this claim of my previous "counter-cult pedigree:" I was on staff with Watchman Fellowship (one of the largest and oldest counter-cult ministries); I utilized a counter-cult methodology for a number of years; I served on the board of Evangelical Ministries to New Religions (EMNR), including two years as president; and I served as a consulting editor for a few select chapters in the current issue of The Kingdom of the Cults (although I have asked that my name be removed from subsequent printings). I understand the counter-cult model.

6. Why did John invite two "cult apologists," Gordon Melton and Douglas Cowan, two speak at an EMNR conference the last year he was president?

Although this incident took place several years ago, it still seems to be an issue for some in the counter-cult community. My philosophy is that we can learn important things from critics in that they have the critical distance that insiders often lack, and both of these gentlemen have written important works that include criticism of typical evangelical approaches to new religions, with Melton's coming in the form of an article in Missiology journal, and Cowan's in his book Bearing False Witness? (Praeger, 2003). I had hoped that members of EMNR could set aside their disagreements with these men in order to think reflectively and critically of their understanding of new religions and how they engage them. Although a firestorm of controversy ensued prior, during, and after their visit, I think their contributions to the conference were valuable, and I consider both of them friends and academic colleagues.

7. When asked about his cross-cultural missions paradigm John frequently refers us to a body of material for reading, thus putting off a response to questions and criticism.

In response to inquiries I receive from those using a heresy-rationalist approach to new religions I will often refer them to Sacred Tribes Journal, the book Encountering New Religious Movements, the Lausanne issue group paper on Religious and Non-Religious Spiritualities ("New Age"), as well as recommended bibliographic materials from various disciplines including the history of Christian missions, missiology, religious studies, and the sociology of religion. This is not done in an intent to avoid answering questins or critique, but rather, to provide the inquirer with the necessary foundation and background information in which to understand the model I am advocating, and to engage in critical reflection on other approaches. Since I bring an informed understanding of counter-cult and missiological approaches to the topic, it is not too much to ask that my critics do their homework as a prelude to dialogue.

I hope these responses are helpful.

1 comment:

Matt Stone said...

Thanks for detailing that John