Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Muck and Adeney: Christianity Encountering World Religions

A few of the forthcoming volumes announced in the Baker Academic book catalog looked interesting, especially one due out in April by Terry Muck and Frances Adeney, Christianity Encountering World Religions: The Practice of Mission in the Twenty-first Century (forthcoming, 2009). Muck is dean of the E. Stanley Jones School of World Mission and Evangelism at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky, and Adeney is William A. Benfield Jr. Professor of Evangelism and Global Mission at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. In my view this book will make a helpful contribution to missional reflection, and the two recently responded to a few of my questions about book's contents.

Morehead's Musings: You have co-authored a forthcoming book from Baker Academic on mission and world religions. Of course, there are many books on mission, including mission in the twenty-first century. How do you seek to make a unique contribution to this body of literature and thought through this book?

Terry Muck: In our judgment, mission to people already committed to world religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam, has reached a standstill. And that from a history of ineffectiveness. Although the church has poured mission resources into evangelizing Hindu, Buddhist, and Muslim cultures, little success can be documented as a result. We think some new thinking about this aspect of mission is called for. Our book is a start in that direction.

Frances Adeney: One way we do that is by taking a positive approach to persons and cultures of other religions, learning to understand them and respect them. Rather than seeing mutual respect and dialogue as an end in itself, however, we offer a mission model that includes giving and receiving gifts from those in other religions. One of the gifts we have to offer as Christians is the good news of the gospel. One of the ways we receive gifts is through embracing the ways that God’s grace is working both in other religions and in their followers lives and communities.

Morehead's Musings: One of your key chapters is titled "Giftive Mission." Can you define this?

Frances Adeney: We see mission as a two way street. We don’t encounter people of other religions just to “give them” the gospel. Rather we receive from them as well — wisdom, friendship, community, knowledge. And we “give” the gospel story through giving gifts — our presence, action for social good, building relationships and other mission methods.

Terry Muck: We think that using the metaphor of gift giving and receiving is a good one to describe what a Christian does when he or she shares the gospel story with a non-Christian. We call this giftive mission.

Morehead's Musings: It might seem like an easily understood concept in this chapter when you state that "the way we give the gift of the gospel needs to be appropriate to the context in which we find ourselves." Have evangelicals and other Christians always been sensitive to the concern for giftive context?

Terry Muck: Not the way we think of gift giving. In all the cultures of the world, gift giving is a reciprocal process -- the giving of gifts is just seen as the first action; the gift giver then receives a gift in return. And that then leads to a return gift, and so on. In the past, if Christians saw themselves giving the gift of the gospel, they have tended to see it as a one-time, one-way gift. We think the reciprocal, ongoing dynamic of gift giving needs to be emphasized.

Frances Adeney: Yes.

Morehead's Musings: You draw attention to the fact that "Westerners think they understand" the concept of "gift-giving practices", but you state that "because of their underlying market orientation [they] can hardly grasp it." Why and how is this so?

Frances Adeney: When Americans give a gift, we also expect one in return. Even more pointedly, when one receives a gift, immediately that person feels an obligation to reciprocate. Rather than freely receiving a gift, or buildings relationships through the giving and receiving process, we tend to see gift exchange in contractual terms. The gift creates an obligation to return a gift of equal monetary value. So what happens to the concept of gift as something freely given and received?

Terry Muck: Of all the economic systems in the world, the capitalist one has the most loose understanding of gift giving and receiving. Market economies tend to reduce gift giving to market forces in a way that de-emphasizes gift giving. This doesn't necessarily mean that market economies are wrong; it just means that a strong tradition of gift giving needs to be resurfaced in such cultures.

Morehead's Musings: At one point in the chapter on giftive mission you discuss ways in which critique of another culture enters the picture, and you remind us that "no matter how sensitively expressed, [it] cannot help but come across as being at least a but judgmental, a little bit holier than thou, a little bit triumphalistic." In your experience, how aware are evangelicals of this perception in others?

Terry Muck: Evangelicals are becoming much more aware of it. In the past we have not tended to notice this because our mission work was almost always done in a context where we have the social, political, and economic power. That is changing in many places of the world, and this has left exposed the triumphalisitc nature of much mission work.

Frances Adeney: In the method section of the book, we walk through a process of cross-cultural understanding that can undercut that triumphalistic attitude. Christians need to critique other cultures and religions. But first we need to understand our own biases and lay them aside so that we can learn the strengths of another culture. After opening ourselves to the people and ideas of another religion or culture, we bring back into the picture our own views. When done in that way, our critique of the other culture is balanced by a true appreciation of it and so comes across as less judgmental because — well because it is less judgmental. We have gone through a process of seeking understanding that lends itself to a gracious appreciation of another culture even as we critique it.

Morehead's Musings: You also state something that might take evangelicals by surprise. You say that "[o]ur gift is not doctrine. Our gift is not judgment. Our gift is not about us, but about Jesus." In my experience, many evangelicals make an intimate connection between Jesus, doctrine, and judgment. How might this need to be rethought in keeping with your thinking in this chapter?

Frances Adeney: Every religion, including Christianity, is filtered through social and cultural lenses. Our understanding of doctrine is no different. As we keep the focus on Jesus, the Holy Spirit will teach Christians from another culture to “grow up into the fullness of the knowledge of Christ.” We don’t take ready-made doctrines to other cultures — rather we share what we have received and trust God to mediate it to others.

Terry Muck: We need to see our understanding of doctrine as less than perfect (as in imperfect minds trying to understand a perfect gospel) and more conscious that judgment belongs to God and Jesus, not to us. Those are easily said remedies, but difficult to carry out.

Morehead's Musings: You say that our "task is to suggest that the story of a people's culture fits into the Jesus Story, somehow," and later you define "story" as a narrative that is not didactic or discursive. Have evangelicals perhaps emphasized doctrine and didactic elements to the neglect of considerations related to story?

Terry Muck: Some have and some haven't. We know evangelicals who are examplars of what we are suggesting, many evangelicals, actually. For those, we are just articulating in words what is already being practiced. But many evangelicals are perhaps not as aware of the primacy of the story of what God has done for us through Jesus Christ.

Frances Adeney: Christians from the West can learn from African and Asian Christians about how theology might look in another setting and how story might relate to theology for them. Reading theologies from those places helps Western Christians begin to see the cultural situatedness of our own theologies. Books like Mangoes or Bananas: The Quest for an Authentic Asian Christian Theology by Hwa Yung from Malasia, or Communicating Christ Through Story and Song: Orality in Buddhist Contexts, edited by Paul H. DeNeui are examples.

Morehead's Musings: Toward the conclusion of this chapter you reference the religious competition metaphor as one which has largely defined inter-religious interactions. You say that, "This has created, in our minds at least, a tendency to over-rely on the marketplace metaphor as the primary one to describe inter-religious interactions. The metaphors of marketplace competition and combat are particularly strong among evangelicals in inter-religious interactions in the Western context. What steps can we take to move beyond it?

Frances Adeney: When people travel to non-Western societies they learn a great deal about other metaphors: hospitality in Turkey, community in Africa, family in Asia. Even short term mission trips can help Westerners see a different complex of actions and ideas come together to illustrate the gospel.

Terry Muck: Imitate what Paul did in the Corinthian marketplace. Acknowledge that Christian mission is a market exchange on some levels, but emphasize that at its core it goes way beyond that. Christian mission aims at giving and receiving free gifts that are not material but spiritual, not temporal but eternal.

Morehead's Musings: One final question I'd like you to provide your thought on. Your book, looks at the concept of gift giving mission in light of indigenous, Eastern and Western cultures, but some subcultures in the West are strongly resistant to the notion of the gospel as gift. Neo-Pagans, for example, say that such an offer disrespects them in their choice of spiritual pathway that ignores or rejects the gospel, and they question the sincerity of Christians who engage them, even with the idea of giftive mission, as those who have an agenda. It's one thing to share our gift with those religions that are also "evangelistic" and missionary-minded, but what about those that do not have this sense? How would you respond to their concerns?

Terry Muck: Our offer of gifts will not always be accepted. Our motives will always be challenged by some. That shouldn't stop us from doing what Christ commands, though, giving the gift of the gospel to any and all. Also, it may that there are ways to give in the context of Neo-Pagaism that we haven't discovered; gospel gift-giving must always be contextualized so as much as possible cultural inhibitors are avoided and cultural opportunities are taken advantage of.

Frances Adeney: Yes. A few years ago, one of the students in my evangelism class became quite involved with Pagans in the Louisville area. As she got to know individuals in the group she repeatedly heard from them that she was the only Christian they had ever met who listened to them and really cared about their beliefs and practices. That’s a good place to start.

Morehead's Musings: Thank you again for talking about this forthcoming book. I look forward to reviewing it in the Spring once it becomes available, and I hope it contributes something meaningful to mission and inter-religious interactions.


Morning Angel said...

"Our offer of gifts will not always be accepted. Our motives will always be challenged by some. That shouldn't stop us from doing what Christ commands, though, giving the gift of the gospel to any and all. Also, it may that there are ways to give in the context of Neo-Pagaism that we haven't discovered; gospel gift-giving must always be contextualized so as much as possible cultural inhibitors are avoided and cultural opportunities are taken advantage of."


The tripe above is exactly what set off the pagans at the Wild Hunt when you commented there, JM. Many of them probably don't read your blog and ascribed this type of thinking to you.

As long as Christians define evangelism as part and parcel of their faith in Christ, they will be mistrusted and, frankly, disliked by many pagans.

John W. Morehead said...

Morning Angel, your comment indicates that we still have a long way to go in Pagan-Christian dialogue, in terms of understanding and acceptance of divergent views. I appreciate that you find the statement from the interivew "obnoxious," but for Christians this represents a step forward beyond the colonialism of the past in terms of how the gospel is communicated in cultures. You may indeed find it obnoxious, as many Christians would find aspects of Paganism, but my hope is that we can move beyond terms like these (and your use of "tripe") in order to try to understand and accept the views of the other even if we find them distasteful.

I knew that the concept of gospel as gift given, and my final question to Muck and Adeney would set Pagans off. Even so, I think the concept is important for Christians in their understanding of how the gospel is to be shared. In addition, I asked the final question so as to let my fellow Christians know the feelings of Pagans in regard to evangelism, whether construed as gift or tripe.

You may not like evangelism as "part and parcel of their faith in Christ," but to ask Christians to leave this aspect of their faith behind is to ask us to be untrue as disciples of Jesus. We seek to follow his command to share his story to all who are interested as a gift to be accepted or rejected accordingly. This has been the understanding of the Christian community across cultures and time. Granted, we can certainly do this better, and not share with those who are not interested, including many Pagans, but to ask us not to include the communication of the Jesus story as an essential part of our faith is to ask us not to be complete Christ-followers. It would indeed be unfortunate if you and others will continue to mistrust and dislike us for our desire to embrace the totality of Jesus' message, but embrace it we must.

Hopefully representatives of our communities can one day move beyond the aspects of our spiritual pathways which we find distasteful in order to build relationships, seek understanding, work together in the public square, and give and receive from each other as desired. But again, responses like yours indicate we are failing on many counts in this worthwhile project.

Bjorn Odinsson said...

Hi there John, I found this post interesting, and believe it is definetly an iconoclastic movement in Western Christianity. I read Morning Angel's comment, as well as your response.

I understand that evangelizing is essential to your faith, and appreciate your hinting that the new evangelical movement may not be so hip to pushing their doctrines on those unwilling to hear it. I was raised for eighteen years as an evangelical Christian and was schooled in apologetics and various other evangelizing techniques. I am Pagan now, as my deep understanding of the religion of Christianity finally drove me away and into the arms of my ancestral Gods.

I understand that Christians feel the need to protray the Jesus story to as many as possible, but this bring to my mind a question: why focus mission efforts in America? We in America are all well versed in who Jesus is supposedly. Even those who come from "non-religious" backgrounds are still culturally Christian. I believe the colonialists have been successful in that.

The reason Pagans will probably never recieve your "gift" is that we in America all converted *from* Christianity. Christianity is what we are tossing out with the other garbage, such as Conservatism, Censorship and other "old guard" ideologies.

I don't believe that Christianity can be contextualized enough to remove it's basic poison, or to make penance for fifteen-hundred years of oppression. No amount of cultural appropriation will save Western Christianity. Even if it could, the "Christianity" that resulted after the massive makeovers and contextualization would hold no resemblance whatsoever to it's current doctrines and dogmas.

Christianity is a dying belief because it cannot evolve, it's orthodoxy does not allow it flexibility to adapt to changing cultural climates. It is caught between a rock and a hard place. The choices before the Church are: keep the Bible as the center of Christianity, and follow it to the letter as the precise and literal "word of God", or toss the Bible and adopt a sort of Wiccan eclecticism with Jesus as the central diety. One way your faith dies, drowning in the tides of change and Pagan revival, and the other you lose the essential spirit of the law that Christians are so fond of referring to.

Bjorn Odinsson

seerkind said...

Hello JM,
I must say that I had to take a few moments after reading this article and your dialouge with Morning angel before responding. I am shocked to say the least.
Let me tell you about me first, I am a celtic/nordic reconstructionalist (pagan if you don't know what that means) who practices the ways of our ancestors that stem back 15000 years before Christianity was even thought of.

The "gift" you speak of, is no gift at all, but a clever lie in sheep's clothing. The gift of the gospel has desimated my peoples culture and infused it with an underlying seed of control and domination called Christianity. If you would like to read some of the disgusting ways early missionaries minipulated others into following them, read, "Things Fall Apart" by Chinua Achabee. It tells the conversion from a different perspective.

How do you know that anyone wants to hear your gift anyways? Yes, I always love to recieve gifts that make me ashamed of my body and destroy my indigenous faith by telling me my gods are evil, and then being burned at the stake if I do not conform to your beliefs.

I realize that you do not do these practices any longer-or at least you want to and are unable, but you are still promoting the same underlying values.

Your training in apologetics, won't work with pagans-sorry to disappoint you-but I'm being honest. There is too much hatred there. Just as African Americans will always remember slavery, (even though it no longer happens here)pagans will never forget what your kind has done to us. We are not afraid, just cautious when it comes to anything related to Christianity.

I also understand your religion preaches that you must give the gospel to those who haven't heard it. But I'm pretty sure the entire world has heard it, and Jesus has still not come for you like the scripture said he would.

Face it, your religion is in it's death throws and your attempt to convert pagans is evidence of that. You don't know what else to do with our growing numbers, so its not a matter of how long it takes to convert us, but how long it takes for us to convert you.
Have a nice day and Blessings!

John W. Morehead said...

Seerkind, thank you for taking the time to read my interview and the comments, and to leave comments of your own.

I appreciate your concern, but I hope that you and other Pagans who may share your views can lessen the rhetoric and make a greater attempt for us to dialogue on this issue.

I clearly recognize that there have been abuses in the history of Christian missions that were wrong and for which Christians should be ashamed. However, it is wrong for Pagans to equate this with Jesus and the gospel message he gave his followers to take to the world.

Second the gospel is not to be equated with denigration of the body, other cultures, or religions, even though Jesus' followers have often lived up to the abuses you rightly decry.

With this in mind the gospel does not entail problematic underlying values and Christians like me who are attempting to move Pagan-Christian understanding and dialogue forward are not basing our efforts upon the concerns you raise.

And with all due respect, the shift of great growth and vitality of Christianity into the Global South indicates that Christianity is growing and vibrant and hardly experiencing the initial stages of its demise. It is indeed struggling in the West and it is in this region that I and others are attempting to breathe new life into our theological and dialogical efforts.

John W. Morehead said...

Hello, Bjorn. Thanks for stopping by and sharing a little of your background.

You raise some good questions. In response to some of them, I think that there is a difference between a generic cultural Christianity and understanding of Jesus and a deeper grasp of him and his story historically and culturally.

Second, I disagree over the issue of contextualization as the successful history of contextualization of Christianity and the resulting diversity of cultural expression and theologies that have resulted and continue to result indicate. Beyond this, as I mentioned to Seerkind, Christianity is not dying, even while it struggles in the West, as its growth in the Southern Hemisphere indicates (see Philip Jenkins in his book The Next Christendom for a popular discussion of this phenomenon).

Thanks again for sharing your views.