Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Further Reflections on Dialogue: Rethinking the Connection to Evangelism

In my critical review of the Christian Research Journal article that took issue with Standing Together's form of dialogue between Evangelicals and Latter-day Saints I noted that one of the issues raised by those critical of this expression of dialogue is the claim that allegedly dialogue is only appropriate if it is in the service of evangelism. Evangelicals have tended toward this perspective in interreligious dialogue for many years, whereas those coming from ecumenical and pluralist perspectives have had differing views.

The issue of dialogue between Christianity and new religious movements has been a personal interest of mine and a source of continuing reflection. I have shared some of my thoughts, and the recent critique of Evangelical-Mormon dialogue with those in my network for their feedback and I recently received some interesting thoughts from Harold Taylor. Harold is a former missionary to Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, is emeritus vice-principal of the Bible College of Victoria, Australia, is a contributor to Encountering New Religious Movements (Kregel Academic & Professional, 2004), and is on the board of directors for Global Apologetics and Mission. He also has a connection to the Lausanne issue group addressing postmodern and "alternative" spiritualities.

Harold passed along his thoughts that are worthy of careful review and reflection by those interested in dialogue with new religions, especially those critical of some forms of Evangelical-Mormon dialogue. His comments specifically address the claim that dialogue is confined to the service of evangelism:

Some brief general comments on your questions re: dialogue, etc.

I think
Matthew Stone has offered some very pertinent points which merit further attention. His point 4, whether evangelism is the be all and end all of glorifying God, and his question... "May not God be glorified in other ways as well as evangelism?", touch on a continuing issue for many evangelicals.

In a recent book,
He Shines in All That's Fair ( Eerdmans, 2002) Richard Mouw, Fuller Seminary, raises a similar issue..."How does God view those not saved?.." "Are the specifically 'salvific' categories adequate to cover all God's disposition towards human beings, both redeemed and unredeemed"?... "Does God care about actions and achievements in non-elect persons in ways not directly limited to issues of individual salvation"? Mouw affirms that a true biblical perspective suggests that .. "as God unfolds his plan for creation, He is interested in more than one thing. Alongside God's clear concern about the eternal destiny of individuals, are his designs for the larger creation.... (an example being the eschatological ingathering of humankind cultural labours, as depicted Rev 21:24-26). This suggests that mutual understanding, cooperation, and other social or cultural values and activities are in themselves valuable and part of God's overall purpose, and not merely "appendages" or "aspects" in the service of evangelism. If this is so, then dialogue has a very important and integral role to play in this wider purpose.

The issue of dialogue has been around for many years, and some of the best material written in the l970's and l980's continues to point a wayforward, especially in opening up the different perspectives in evangelcal and ecumenical approaches. Many writers suggest these wider dimensions in dialogue. Two writers I have found helpful are Eric J. Sharpe,
Faith Meets Faith (SCM Press, 1977), and David Bosch, Transforming Mission (Orbis, 1991). In one paper "Faith at the Round table" ( Melbourne, 1993), Sharpe suggests the four mains ways "dialogue" has been used since the l960's ( especially in Ecumenical discussions):

Discursive dialogue in intellectual understanding and exchange of information;

Human dilalogue is the sharing of religious and spiritual values and experiences;

Secular dialogue which includes discussion where people of different faith traditions work together in the secular world without allowing religious differences to keep people apart; and

Spiritual dialogue to discuss and meditate, and share respective spiritualities weithout trying to prove any superiority, even though each person may be commited to a particular understanding and experience.

All these forms of dialogue were seen as valuable, even though they mat not have resulted in a "verdict" for or against Jesus Christ.

David Hesselgrave and other evangelicals also offered a wider understanding of dialogue, and encouraged evangelicals to participate in:

a) dialogue on the possibilities of inter-religious dialogue.
b) dialogue to promote religious freedom
c) dialogue to encourage action to meet human need
d) dialogue to break down mistrust between different social and religious groups
e) dialogue to understand conflicting truth claims.

These approaches suggest that confining dialogue to the "service of evangelism" is not a true biblical understanding, but [rather must be understood as] part of a much larger divine purpose. Therefore, a wider use of dialogue is not denying the sufficiency of scripture for faith and practice; rather it is drawing out the implications of God's wider concerns for people, rather than forcing the total biblical perspective, especially the New Testament, into a false "primacy of evangelism" focus. This was a big issue for Evangelicals in those earlier years, and it remains a lively issue for many today.

Hesselgraves also suggested that "many Evangelicals are not yet ready for dialogue" because,

a) the majority are not open to it,
b) it is misunderstood in evangelical churches and missionary groups, showing the deep need for in-depth teaching, and,
c) the evangelical position and the ecumenical positions are often not understood by either camp, nd the "other" camp is seen as not interested in or ready to take dialogue seriously from a biblical perspective (evangelicals) or from a wider perspective (ecumenicals).

He also noted that this hesitation and timidness in approaching the subject applies particularly to Western Churches. One wonders whether there has been much advance since his comments were made, almost 30 years ago!!?? (See David J. Hesselgrave (ed), Theology and Mission [Baker, 1979] p., 227-72.)

Monday, August 27, 2007

New Interview with Douglas Cowan Posted on TheoFantastique

There is a new interview with Douglas Cowan just posted on TheoFantastique that may be of interest to readers of Morehead's Musings. The interview is subtitled "The Unholy Human, Fanaticism, and Fear of the Flesh" and it can be viewed here. The interview looks at the intersection between religion, cinema, and terror as it relates to the re-enforcement of concepts related to the "evil religious other." There is much here that will be of interest to students of religion and film, as well as those interested in Pagan and Christian studies.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Dialogue with the Beehive: Critical Reflections on the McKeever and Johnson Christian Research Journal Article

Earlier this week I had the opportunity to listen to a Christian radio program out of southern California which featured a strongly negative critique of one expression of Evangelical-Mormon dialogue, specifically that involving the ministry of Standing Together under the leadership of Greg Johnson, and his public dialogues with Robert Millet of Brigham Young University. During the radio program the host mentioned there was an article on the subject that was recently released. It took me a couple of days, but I was finally able to secure the article by Bill McKeever and Eric Johnson of Mormonism Research Ministry titled “The Bridge or the Beehive?: Mormon Apologetics in a Postmodern Age,” which appears in Christian Research Journal Vol. 30, no. 4 (2007). Since I have been part of this dialogue process for the last couple of years, and since I know the individuals engaged in it and its supporters, as well as many of those referenced in the article that are critical of it, I thought it appropriate to share my critical reflections on the Journal article.

To summarize the structure of the article, the authors introduce the topic with the mention of Darl Anderson, a Mormon who sought to develop relationships with Christian pastors and leaders in Utah as a means of neutralizing anti-Mormon sentiments, and then moves to five subsections. The first introduces the ministry of Standing Together and Greg Johnson. The second looks at Greg’s public dialogues with Robert Millet and considers the perspective of various critics opposed to these events. The third section then considers one of the fruits of Standing Together’s “relational approach” and does so in light of ongoing concerts over Richard Mouw’s critical comments about evangelical representations of Mormonism made in connection with Ravi Zacharias’s appearance at the Tabernacle in Salt Lake City in 2004. The fourth section discusses the LDS Church’s use of good publicity for public relations purposes, and the final section addresses the contrast between relational approaches to ministry among Mormons with confrontational methods.

I noted several positive elements in the article. First, the article appears in a leading journal of Christian apologetics by a national ministry, and this provides the potential to bring even greater national attention to the dialogue that is taking place. Second, the article also insightfully notes that an understanding of the practices and beliefs of the Latter-day Saints is necessary at both individual as well as institutional levels. In other words, balance is needed in understanding the teachings of the LDS Church as it is articulated by General Authorities, and it must also be understood in its various manifestations among the LDS people, whether at BYU or among its more rank and file population, including various expressions of “folk” Mormonism (for discussion of the diversity of LDS belief and expressions of folk Mormonism, see Richley H. Crapo, "Grass-Roots Deviance from Official Doctrine: A Study of Latter-day Saint (Mormon) Folk-Belief," Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 26, no. 4 [1987]). Finally, the article is also helpful in summarizing some of the main concerns of critics of Standing Together and the Johnson-Millet dialogue.

However, even with these positive aspects I found much in the article with which I disagree, and the remainder of this post will address these concerns, beginning with two main problems. I will then move to consideration of various other issues.

The first main area of disagreement is one which colors the perspective of the article and therefore strongly influences the overall negative conclusion that the authors have of the Johnson-Millet dialogue. The controlling hermeneutic for the authors, like the counter-cult community of which they are a part, is the presupposition of a heresy-rationalist apologetic framework for an evangelical understanding and response to the Latter-day Saints. Evangelicals tend to draw upon a limited number of conceptual frameworks in relation to the new religions, and the most prevalent is the heresy-rationalist paradigm, or the contrast of the teachings of new religions with that of evangelical Christianity followed by a judgment of heresy and an apologetic refutation (see Philip Johnson, “The Aquarian Age and Apologetics,” Lutheran Theological Journal 34, no. 2 [December 1997]). From this perspective the LDS Church is little more than a heretical “cult,” which provides little room for additional perspectives, such as those which might be gained from broader theological reflection or consideration of the insights of cross-cultural missiology. The import of the assumption of a heresy-rationalist framework is that it lends itself more to debate and boundary maintenance approaches where doctrine is concerned, rather than balancing these concerns with other considerations which can take place within interreligious dialogue. The authors of this Journal article might have a different view of the Johnson-Millet dialogue if the framework for interpretation moved beyond the paradigm of the counter-cult community.

The second major concern in this article is the unfortunate mischaracterization of the differences and disagreements between those evangelicals engaging Latter-day Saints as one of “relational or confrontational” approaches. Not only is this framed as a needless dichotomy, but it is also stated in a way that does not do justice to the broader perspectives involved. First, just as those engaging in heresy-rationalist apologetics can be exhibit the qualities of being relational or confrontational, so can those using a more holistic and missional approach. Therefore, it is not accurate to frame this dialogue in terms of being in essence a disagreement over being relational or confrontational. Second, the main issue is the need for a critical reassessment of our theology of the religions and intercultural engagement and whether it appropriate to continue to use the heresy-rationalist approach or whether it is more beneficial to consider cross-cultural missiology and its insights in the development of a new paradigm. With this question in mind those supportive of various forms of Evangelical-Mormon dialogue, including those engaged in by Standing Together, would opt for a more reflective theology of religions that incorporates various expressions of interreligious dialogue where the emphasis is on incarnational mission approaches that emphasize relationships, but which also at times may include elements of a properly contextualized apologetic and aspects of confrontation. With this insight in mind it is clear that it is unfair and inaccurate to refer to the so-called relational approach as resulting from those who are “hypersensitive to offending individuals.” It’s not a matter of hypersensitivity, but it is a matter of appropriate sensitivity within the context of a fully orbed theology of religious and cultural interaction.

Beyond these major concerns I noted several minor issues that are problematic. But while several were noted, in the interests of brevity I will only comment on a select few.

First, unfortunately, the authors begin their article with a negative assumption about the intentions and character of Robert Millet. As noted previously, the article begins by referencing the work of Darl Anderson, a Latter-day Saint who attempted to “neutralize” anti-Mormon sentiment by drawing close to pastors and Christian leaders. The authors assume the same thing is taking place with Millet, and while caution should be exercised between representatives of these two faith communities with a history of distrust and hostility, as Leonard Swidler’s “Dialogue Decalogue” (Journal of Ecumenical Studies 20, no. 1 [Winter 1983]) states with reference to his fourth and fifth commandments of interreligious dialogue, “Each participant must come to the dialogue with complete honesty and sincerity,” and further, that “each participant must assume a similar complete honesty and sincerity in the other partners.” Again, while this is indeed difficult for members of these religious communities on either side of the divide, nevertheless as John Saliba has stated on Christian dialogue with the new religions, “To presuppose that their motives are dishonest and/or insidious would imply a rejection” of Swidler’s Decalogue (Journal of Ecumenical Studies 30, no. 1 [Winter 1993]), and in my view this follows from the limited perspectives of viewing Mormonism through the lens of cultism which then fuels mistrust and assumptions of dishonesty.

Second, while the authors claim that being relational and civil are important virtues in Evangelical-Mormon engagement, they give the impression that one of the main criteria of appropriateness and effectiveness in ministry is whether a given audience is offended. They cite several instances in Paul’s ministry to this effect in an endnote, but curiously, while quoting Acts chapter 17 they neglect to reference Paul’s contextualized speech for the Epicurian and Stoic philosophers as he dialogued at the Areopagus in Acts 17:16-52. Neither is there a reference to other biblical texts that exemplify a sensitive cross-cultural dialogue, such as that found in John 4 with Jesus’s exchange with the Samaritan woman. The authors of this article have engaged in selective citation of Scripture which appears on the surface to support their case but does so at the expense of a balanced consideration of the relevant biblical testimony. This is unfortunate in that other biblical texts could have been cited that exemplify cross-cultural engagement and contextualization and which demonstrate their relevance to the issue of Evangelical-Mormon dialogue.

Third, there are a few references to and quotations from Ross Anderson, a pastor at Wasatch Evangelical Church to the effect that he takes issue with the philosophy of Standing Together, and feels that the form of dialogue they are engaging in is not supported by the New Testament. I know Ross and count him as a friend. We’ve had some interesting and profitable exchanges on interreligious dialogue by email, and I am familiar with the copy of his “Caveats in Evangelical-Mormon Dialogue” document that the authors cite to highlight Ross’s theological concerns. In response I would note simply that I disagree with him here, as do other scholars, such as those associated with the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization. (See for example, Terry Muck’s two articles, “Evangelicals and Interreligious Dialogue,” JETS 36, no. 4 [December 1993], and “A New Testament Case for Interreligious Dialogue?,” ETS paper presented in November 1993.) While dialogue and evangelism can indeed be linked, dialogue is not illegitimate if the two are not connected, and several scholars have noted that there are other important facets connected with interreligious dialogue, including understanding, self-transformation, and even a greater understanding of one’s own religious tradition gained in contrast with that of another, as so carefully articulated by Gerald R. McDermott in Can Evangelicals Learn from World Religions? (InterVarsity, 2000).

Fourth, like many evangelicals utilizing a heresy-rationalist approach, the authors seem intent on holding Mormonism’s feet to the fire of its orthodoxy as defined by the General Authorities. Thus, Robert Millet’s views are suspect. While we should surely consider the official teachings of the Church as defined by the General Authorities, we must also recognize that the LDS Church is not a monolithic entity, and there is great diversity of belief among its members, including a strand of belief that has been called “Mormon neo-orthodoxy.” Emphasis on one expression of Mormon belief at the expense of the others, particularly that being advocated by an LDS academic, is a mistake, but it is one that has been pointed out previously by evangelicals like Carl Mosser and Paul Owen in the past. Apparently it will take time before the diversity of the Mormonism (like all religions) is taken seriously by counter-cult critics.

Fifth, as mentioned above, one of the subsections of this article raises continuing concerns over Richard Mouw's comments at the Salt Lake Tabernacle critical of evangelical efforts at responding to Mormonism. While it might be agreed that Mouw's comments painted with a broad brush that unfortunately tarred every evangelical ministering among Mormons, this event took place three years ago (might it be time for mature Christians to move on?), and it would seem unfair to ignore the significance of the main purpose of the event (Zacharias speaking in the Tabernacle) while focusing on the unfortunate comments, and then using this one aspect of it to dismiss the entirety of the event sponsored by Standing Together.

Finally, and this is a minor point, the authors take exception to Standing Together and its opposition to the Jesus Christ/Joseph Smith DVD that received mass distribution earlier this year. This is strange in that Standing Together did not take a public stand against this DVD. I was the evangelical who took the lead on this and I did so because the product was highly problematic. In my view, as explained in a previous blog post, this DVD was not of much value to either Latter-day Saints or evangelicals. Better resources are available to assist both religious communities in their understanding of their differences and similarities. For these reasons it seems curious that these authors attempt to impugn Standing Together, and its dialogue process, in regards to a troubling apologetic DVD.

All the above is not to say that the Johnson-Millet dialogue is perfect (no effort by flawed human beings is), or that it cannot benefit from critical reflection. For example, I will be presenting a workshop at the National Student Dialogue Conference in connection with my workshop at Salt Lake Theological Seminary that will consider the heresy-rationalist framework that brings critique to the dialogue and how we might move beyond this to better the dialogue process through reflection on the history of ecumenical and interreligious dialogue. Surely any effort can be improved, and this experiment in interreligious dialogue is no exception, but to bring such sweeping and unbalanced critique to it as these authors have done as to suggest it is completely illegitimate and inappropriate is unfair and inaccurate.

The authors close their article by stating that they “believe the Bible allows for a wide variety of approaches and certainly agree that a respectful demeanor is essential.” This is good to hear. Hopefully they will consider the approach advocated by this author and my respectful critique to be essential, or at least permissible. I hope so, but I'm skeptical. They and others sympathetic to the counter-cult paradigm have exhibited little ability to fairly understand and represent the growing cross-cultural missional paradigm, or various expressions within it, including some forms of Evangelical-Mormon dialogue. Perhaps this time will be a promising exception.

I have great appreciation for the Christian Research Journal, and consider Elliot Miller, its Editor-in-Chief a friend and colleague, but this article was not up to the journal’s usual standards of journalistic balance. The Journal has not exactly been on top of addressing the cross-cultural missions paradigm to new religions (as evidenced by their failure to review Encountering New Religious Movements: A Holistic Evangelical Approach [Kregel Academic & Professional, 2004], even though the book won the 2005 Christianity Today Book of the Year Award in the category of missions/global affairs), and their unfamiliarity with relevant theological and missiological considerations related to Evangelical-Mormon dialogue is evident in this article. I hope that in future issues the Christian Research Institute allows a response to be published in the interests of balance, but until then, my meager thoughts will have to do.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

West Memphis Three, Satanic Panic, and a Call for Christian Involvement in Social Justice

I've commented in a previous post on my discovery not long ago of a shocking murder case in Arkansas in 1993 that involved three teens convicted for the murder of three eight-year-old boys. The condemned are called the West Memphis Three, and the story of their trial and conviction is just as disturbing as the murder of the young boys.

An overview of the case are summarized by the WM3 website:

Shortly after three eight-year-old boys were found mutilated and murdered in West Memphis, Arkansas, local newspapers stated the killers had been caught. The police assured the public that the three teenagers in custody were definitely responsible for these horrible crimes. Evidence?

The same police officers coerced an error-filled "confession" from Jessie Misskelley Jr., who is mentally handicapped. They subjected him to 12 hours of questioning without counsel or parental consent, audio-taping only two fragments totaling 46 minutes. Jessie recanted it that evening, but it was too late— Misskelley, Jason Baldwin and Damien Echols were all arrested on June 3, 1993, and convicted of murder in early 1994.

Although there was no physical evidence, murder weapon, motive, or connection to the victims, the prosecution pathetically resorted to presenting black hair and clothing, heavy metal t-shirts, and Stephen King novels as proof that the boys were sacrificed in a satanic cult ritual. Unfathomably, Echols was sentenced to death, Baldwin received life without parole, and Misskelley got life plus 40.

For over 14 years, The West Memphis Three have been imprisoned for crimes they didn’t commit. Echols waits in solitary confinement for the lethal injection our tax dollars will pay for. They were all condemned by their poverty, incompetent defense, satanic panic and a rush to judgment.

I have read through a number of the materials coming out of the trials, watched the Emmy award winning documentary Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills on the trial, and recently ordered Paradise Lost 2: Revelations for a consideration of the various developments in the case since the 1994 trials and convictions, many of which are detailed here. (Additional information is available in the books on the subject, including Mara Leveritt, Devil's Knot: The True Story of the West Memphis Three, and Guy Reel, Marc Perrusquia, and Bartholomew Sullivan, The Blood of the Innocents.) As I have reviewed this case several things amaze me. First, the crime scene was bungled by law enforcement, and this was evident in the lack of forensic evidence, let alone any that tied the accused to the crimes.

Second, the suspects only came to the attention of authorities after one of them offered a confession and identified the other two as alleged perpetrators. But there are problems with the confession. It was recanted, only 45 minutes of a 12 hour police interrogation was recorded leading to questions about leading the witness, and the defendant has an IQ that puts him in the category of the mentally retarded. This hardly seems like an ideal starting place for identifying suspects, let alone securing convictions.

But third, and even more amazing is that soon after the bodies of the boys were discovered rumors began to circulate that the killings were the result of a "satanic cult" in the area. (Shades of the Laci Peterson case where the media circulated stories about the kidnap and murder resulting from satanic cults in Modesto, California.) While good scholarly research (and at least one FBI report debunking satanic and occult ritualistic crime) points out that such conceptions of satanic cults cannot be substantiated and the evidence for them is wholly absent, this became a major facet of the prosecution's case, so much so that they brought in an "expert" in the area to testify. However, under cross-examination he that he did no coursework for either his masters or doctorate, and had taken no classes in esotericism, the occult, or Wicca in order to receive his "degrees."

With this lack of evidence and a credible foundation directed at the accused, why did the case move forward and why were the three considered part of a violent, sexually deviant satanic cult? Because of stereotypes confirmed by the way these kids looked, and the non-traditional interests (at least in that part of the country) they displayed. At least one of the defedants enjoyed heavy metal music in the form of Metallica, wears black, has read occultist Aleister Crowley, and identified during the trial with Wicca. Interestingly, in his closing arguments, the prosecuting attorney said that while these items individually are not a problem, put them together and allegedly they reveal something sinister, no doubt confirming the suspicions and fears of the Christian townspeople, and feeding into long-standing sociophobics about the evil religious other as part of our unfortunate history of not only satanic panics, but also with-hunts.

I also find it interesting (and startling) that while artists, musicians, and the Neo-Pagan and esotericist communities have gotten involved in raising awareness of this case in the hopes of righting an injustice, I could not find any Christian voice on the matter through an Internet search. Perhaps my search did not find something that is indeed out there. Or perhaps because evangelicals tend to circulate in their own subculture, coupled with the fact that this case has not received major national news coverage, few Christians are aware of or concerned about this case. Are we not concerned out of a lack of awareness, or because we lack a concern for social justice directed toward alleged representatives of those groups that represent our spiritual and cultural bogeymen?

While my blog has a limited readership I'd like to hope this post can rectify the Christian silence on this issue. We are fond of quoting the ten commandments but at times it seems as if we forget the one about not bearing false witness against our neighbor, particularly when it comes to our Neo-Pagan neighbors. This case is a classic example of stereotypical and folkloric tales of satanic cults that do not represent reality. Where is the Christian voice on this issue of social justice? There is much that we can do to help, and I hope that my Christian readers will promote this issue on their blogs so that we too can make a difference.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Mikel Neumann Interview: The Incarnational Ministry of Jesus: An Alternative to Traditional Apologetic Approaches

Dr. Mikel Neumann is associate professor of intercultural studies at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon, where he supervises the intercultural internship program and teaches in doctoral- and master's-level intercultural programs. He served as a church-planting missionary for twenty-five years in Madagasdcar under the auspices of CBInternational. Dr. Neumann was the missionary scholar-in-residence at the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College, Illinois (1995-1996), where the researched the intercultural dimension of small group ministries. His research took him to Chicago, Caraas, Bombay, Accra, and Moscow. His book Home Groups for Urban Culture was published by William Carey and the Billy Graham Center in 1999. He has degrees from Western Seminary and Fuller Theological Seminary (M.A. and D.Miss.). He is an international resource consultant with CBInternational, and this ministry has taken him to thirty-five nations to teach, encourage, and help local people.

Morehead's Musings: Mikel, thank you for agreeing to respond to a few questions about your chapter in Encountering New Religious Movements, and related issues. The title of your chapter is "The Incarnational Ministry of Jesus." Christians are familiar with the doctrine of the incarnation, but can you tell us how you define the "incarnational ministry" of Jesus and what this means?

Mikel Neumann: The idea incarnational ministry goes back to the fact that Jesus adapted himself to humans. He became one. That is the most radical adaptation in the universe known to humans. The example then, is for us to adapt to our hearers. The burden is on us to communicate in such a way as to be understood. Let the message of the cross be communicated in both our lives and words. It is a simple idea yet not so simple in working it out because it touches every area of our lives.

MM: How was this type of ministry modeled by Jesus?

Mikel Neumann: He became human in space and time, identified as to family, tribe and nation. He lived among people and served them at their point of expressed need. He taught them in a way they understood. There are a number of examples in the gospel of Jesus communicating in different ways to different audiences, whether the religious leaders of Jerusalem, the common peoples of the Middle East, or his discussions with Gentiles.

MM: In your chapter you discuss definitions of ministry, or as you say "getting it right" in ministry, as whether people respond positively. Another definition of success often used by pragmatic evangelicals is counting the numbers of converts, another way of looking at a positive response. How do you define correct ministry, or whatever term we want to use, in relation to an incarnational ministry model as exemplified by Jesus?

Mikel Neumann: I would suggest that if through our lives, service, and finally, words we have opened people’s minds to the gospel message and it’s implication for them, we have succeeded. I’m not against counting people but that is not the primary success indicator.

MM: In your article you discuss relationships, levels of cultural interaction, and practical demonstrations by Jesus as aspects of his incarnational ministry. How is this applicable to cross-cultural missions approaches overseas, and how might it also be applicable to the West, particularly where the new religions and alternative spiritualities are concerned?

Mikel Neumann: Many people wiser than I have spoken of cultural interactions in cross-cultural situations. However, in dealing with new religions and alternative spiritualities we have a different situation. We still need to incarnate the gospel but we also must maintain our identity in Christ. Because many of these groups, particularly those related to the Christian tradition, are often aggressively evangelistic in nature and apologetic in approach we can find ourselves being led in a fruitless direction. Personal service to these people and our own spiritual pilgrimage by way of personal testimony may evidence more fruit.

MM: You also discuss the book of Acts, and contrast a traditional apologetic response with that of incarnational ministry. Can you summarize and contrast these for us?

Mikel Neumann: By traditional apologetic I mean giving a logical/philosophical reasoning as to why the Christian faith is correct or superior to another. While I see a lot of correction of false practice and belief in the new system it is directed to Christians. The incarnational ministry assumes the truth and serves people at their point of need, declaring the gospel truth in understandable ways.

MM: One of the most interesting parts of your article for me was your discussion of an apparent change in Paul's ministry as it developed. I think many of us hold Paul in such esteem that we forget that he didn't always have ministry figured out correctly, and that he was making mistakes and modifying his methods as he pursued missions in the first century. How do you see Paul becoming increasingly relational in his ministry with the Gentiles?

Mikel Neumann: Yes, and increasingly gentle. Immediately after his conversion he was the same fiery preacher he was before conversion (Acts 9:20ff) which as he became more and more powerful caused people to try and kill him. I take that to mean he was so much better at proving his point that the leaders realized the only way to stop him was to kill him. They were not convinced by his arguments. That is the problem with an “apologetic” approach. Later in his ministry we see his gentleness, especially in the epistles. The two approaches can work together but a incarnational spirit must precede any would-be apologetic.

MM: You propose an incarnational ministry approach to new religionists. This involves recognition of and interaction with various cultural levels and an incarnational application. Can you summarize the model you propose and tell us how various facets of incarnational ministry interact with the various levels of culture?

Mikel Neumann: I used the model that Dr. Donald K. Smith brings forth in his work, ­Creating Understanding. It’s a simple, yet useful, model for this approach. He uses an onion to demonstrate four levels of communication. The outside or most surface level, the onion skin, is the behavior level. This level encompasses speech, culture, non-verbal communication and other obvious interactions. Our works of service can be applied as incarnation at this level. A second, slightly deeper level is designated authority which subsumes both formal authorities (governments, religious books, etc.) and informal (charismatic leaders, peer pressure, etc.). Experience is a deep level of culture that is unique to each person. That is the level where testimony can be effective whereas apologetic really only works at the more surface authority level. Core values are the deepest level and those change only gradually over time. Peeling an onion causes a lot of grief and tears. The metaphor is apt as we seek to communicate with those we love and desire to see understand the gospel message.

MM: You conclude your chapter with a comparison of traditional apologetic approaches with incarnational approaches, and you illustrate this with a helpful chart. Can you describe the similarities between these approaches, and touch on the very real differences in terms of tendencies?

Mikel Neumann: I think the practical difference is one between winning a debate (apologetic) and winning a person (incarnational). The former brings forth a tendency to verbal interaction, the later causes the much more difficult effort toward involvement in a person’s life.

MM: How might we shift from approaches that are largely apologetic-based and move to a blending of incarnational ministry informed by cross-cultural missions and that of contextualized apologetics?

Mikel Neumann: The shift is already in place. Many colleges and seminaries are teaching these principles in their intercultural studies programs. That is a huge change over the years. Many theologians as well have had cross cultural experiences that have brought them understanding of incarnational approaches. The basic issue is one of caring for people enough to become their friends, spending time with them, to the point where our “words” will be heard. Then the gospel can be made plain. That is the goal.

MM: Mikel, thanks again for taking the time to answer these questions.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Christian-Pagan Intolerance, and the West Memphis Three

In posts on this blog, as well as TheoFantastique, I have commented on my ongoing research project related to Western esotericism and Neo-Paganism, and how film and television in horror and fantasy help shape popular conceptions of these spiritual pathways. One of the issues that I am passionate about that relates to this is that of intolerance. I note that it takes place in the Christian community in relation to Pagans and other esotericists, but it also takes place on the other side of the coin as directed at Christians and Christianity. In my recent reading of the Pagan site Witchvox, I was therefore pleased to read the article "Anti-Christian Prejudice in the Pagan Community" by Pax. At least if we recognize that it exists in both communities, and we talk about it publicly, perhaps some of us can begin to deal with these issues. I know that I try to do my part with my dialogue with Pagans, and in my participation in the list for the Alternative Religions Educational Network, where the motto is "Freedom for religion means all religions."

Beyond this, my research project also made me aware of an interesting case that I am surprised I had not been aware of until just last week. I refer to the infamous West Memphis Three. As the WM3.org website describes the case:

Shortly after three eight-year-old boys were found mutilated and murdered in West Memphis, Arkansas, local newspapers stated the killers had been caught. The police assured the public that the three teenagers in custody were definitely responsible for these horrible crimes. Evidence?

The same police officers coerced an error-filled "confession" from Jessie Misskelley Jr., who is mentally handicapped. They subjected him to 12 hours of questioning without counsel or parental consent, audio-taping only two fragments totaling 46 minutes. Jessie recanted it that evening, but it was too late— Misskelley, Jason Baldwin and Damien Echols were all arrested on June 3, 1993, and convicted of murder in early 1994.

Although there was no physical evidence, murder weapon, motive, or connection to the victims, the prosecution pathetically resorted to presenting black hair and clothing, heavy metal t-shirts, and Stephen King novels as proof that the boys were sacrificed in a satanic cult ritual. Unfathomably, Echols was sentenced to death, Baldwin received life without parole, and Misskelley got life plus 40.

For ever 14 years, The West Memphis Three have been imprisoned for crimes they didn’t commit. Echols waits in solitary confinement for the lethal injection our tax dollars will pay for. They were all condemned by their poverty, incompetent defense, satanic panic and a rush to judgment.

I have done enough reading on the satanic panics of the 1980s and 1990s, and the various historic witch-hunts to know that this case may be a tragic legacy of these strange socio-cultural phenomena. In addition to these considerations, "according to the DNA Status Report filed on July 17, 'none of the genetic material recovered at the scene of the crimes was attributable to Mr. Echols, Echols co-defendant, Jason Baldwin, or defendant Jessie Misskelley.'" For further information on this case see the WM3 website, and pick up copies of the documentary on the case on DVD titled Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, as well as the book Devil's Knot: The True Story of the West Memphis Three.

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to recognize that something is very wrong with this case, and this may indeed be an instance of gross misjustice that Christians should be involved in just as much as Pagans. Perhaps we can work together to overcome our intolerance toward each other, and to right a social and judicial injustice.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

New Interview on TheoFantastique: Esotericism and Witchcraft in Entertainment and Commodification

Readers might be interested in a new interview posted on my other blog, TheoFantastique, titled "Jason Winslade Interview: Esotericism and Witchcraft in Entertainment and Commodification." The interview touches on Western esotericism and Wicca and how these topics are portrayed in popular culture. The interview can be found here.