Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Intersecting Seminary Classes and Theological Reflection

Two of my seminary classes have intersected this week. In my New Testament survey class we looked at N. T. Wright's writings on the historical Jesus, and have examined John's Gospel, particularly the prologue. Wright's view of the historical Jesus has been helpful n serving as a check against the tendency for us all to create conceptions of Jesus that fit our own cultural presuppositions, but which don't always represent the Jesus of Second Temple Judaism. The discussion of John's Gospel has noted how the Logos in the prologue echoes the Old Testament, particularly the creation narrative as well as the concept of divine wisdom. Johannine theology takes these Hebraic concepts and then communicates or theologizes them into the cultural contexts of the first century, including Judaism, Hellenism, and Gnosticism.

The intersection came as the New Testament survey class overlapped my theology class as we discussed the incarnation and Christology in light of John 1. As we neared the completion of our discussion on exegesis and creedal affirmations of the humanity, deity, and two naturs of Christ, the instructor asked if there were any other questions or comments. Finding it hard to resist, I threw in my two cents worth from intercultural studies.

Having studied theology and missiology I recognize the strong interrelationship between theology and culture. God has communicated Himself through differing human cultures, and in order to understand this self-revelation we need to understand not only the theological concepts, but also how those are wrapped up in cultural forms. We also need to understand the culture-bound perceptions of our own theologies, and how these influence our understanding of Scripture. Once we have taken these steps we can then struggle with how to communicate supracultural theological truths into another culture.

As I recently pondered John's prologue through my conceptual lenses of culture, theology, and missiology, I saw him utilizing a methodology as I've suggested above. He skillfully paints a unique portrait of Christ that is informed by the Hebrew Scriptures, but which communicates Christ in appropriate cultural forms.

As a result of the class study and discussion, three questions came to mind today. First, while we are working on intercultural studies in an intercultural environment in Utah, to what extent are we truly making our learning and missional praxis intercultural (and interdisciplinary), or are we replicating ways of "doing church" and theological education that have been done in other places regardless of cultural context? Second, while there are a handful of large churches in Utah that practice passive missional approaches to church and thereby reach disaffected or searching LDS, what would proactive missional approaches look like that strategically work to bring the church as the eschatological community of God into relationships with the subcultures of Utah? Third, I was reminded recently that the Hebrews did not engage in speculative theology, but instead spoke of the revelation of God gained through their experience. While it is important to recognize the distinction between orthdoxoy and heresy, and to understand the creeds as definitions and boundaries erected in response to heretical challenges, is there room in our theology for mystery and less for mental gymnastics in formulating creedal affirmations and doctrinal statements, and thus less room for our speculative theology? Has our Greek heritage moved our theology away from its Hebrew roots more than we know and caused us to engage in theological speculation that would not have been entertained by our Hebrew forebears?

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Eddie Gibbs Reviews Carson's Take on Emerging Church

Christianity Today has an article commenting on D. A. Carson’s book on the emerging church. The article is by Eddie Gibbs who has co-authored a book on this topic with Ryan Bolger due out in December through Baker Academic. Bolger had greater concerns about the book on his Blog than does Gibbs, but one point jumped out at me in Gibbs’ conclusion where he said, “The distinction between Carson and emergent leaders may lie in the difference between the faith as a ‘bounded’ set, one that defines who is inside and who is outside, and a ‘centered’ set, which is more concerned with the direction in which people are traveling, toward or away from Christ.” I believe this insight is important in understanding not only the different perspectives between the emerging church and its critics, but also the differences between missional and apologetic approaches to emerging spiritualities. For further exploration of this thought see my previous post on set theory and missional modalities.

Lessons from Missions to Muslims: Distaste for the Combative Approach

The history of Christian missions is filled with examples of those who have been willing to experiment with differing approaches to reach different cultures. These attempts have resulted in successes and failures, and a healthy debate over methodology. One striking example of such debate comes from missions to Muslims. In this context, missionaries and strategists have engaged in healthy debate over various approaches and aspects such as contextualization, specifically over varying degrees and models of contextualization known as the C1 to C6 contextualization spectrum.

Those of us in missions to the West can learn a lot from these missional experiments, and from the debate that results, regardless of the people groups we work with. For example, I ran across an article by Charles Kraft titled "My Distaste for the Combative Approach." Much of the concerns and criticisms he brings to combative approaches to Muslim missions is also relevant to evangelical approaches to new religions. For example, those who advocate a combative approach to Muslims look to Jesus' stern rebuke of Jewish religious leaders in the gospels for biblical support for their methods, as do those using combative approaches to new religions. But Kraft writes that

"Jesus was very hard on (combative toward) those who knew a lot but practiced little of what they knew (i.e. Scribes and Pharisees). He was, however, gentle toward those who knew little (the common people). To the latter Jesus adapted his manner of life, his language, his total approach to the mesage he came to bring. Indeed, he even identified with their in their criticisms of the orthodoxy of those who represented 'God's true way' to them. The question I seek to raise is whether contemporary Muslims fall into the category of those whom Jesus sought to combat because they lead themselves and others astray (Matt. 23), or into the category of those to whom Jesus would have adapted. Undoubtedly, there are some in each category."

We could further nuance Kraft's words above to make it more applicable to the context of new religions, but Kraft raises some important points for consideration. I and others have argued that the texts often used to support combative approaches to new religions are the wrong texts, taken out of context, misapplied to new religions, thus resulting in inappropriate methodologies. Kraft raises similar concerns about these texts as applied to Muslims.

Beyond this, Kraft notes that, in general, combative evangelical approaches to Muslims involves several questionable assumptions. I would argue that these to are shared by combative evangelicals approaches. I will quote again from Kraft's article and provide brief comments on a few of the points he raises.

"1. That all Muslims know better and that, therefore, we do right to condemn their whole aproach to relating to God (as Jesus did with the Pharisees)." Is it accurate to assume that most Mormons, for example, really "know better," and therefore it is appropriate to treat them as apostates or heretics?

"2. That the meager success of our combative approach to Muslim evangelism is the fault of the unresponsiveness of our Muslim receptors, not of the approach itself - we do not, therefore need to examine critically that approach and to experiment with new approaches." While evangelicals in ministry to new religions are loathe to admit any failures in methodology, not a few have lamented the apparent unresponsiveness of Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, and many other new religions. Are they truly unresponsive to the gospel, or does the combative approach really not communicate the gospel in their religious frame of reference?

"3. That we deny or compromise the truth God has given us if we strategize our witness in such a way that we focus first on those Christian truths most acceptable to Muslims, leaving more difficult truths for later in the process." How many times have evangelicals engaged Jehovah's Witnesses over trinitarian theology as part of an "evangelistic" attempt only to come away with both parties more deeply entrenched in their respective theologies? Is it possible that we put the doctrinal cart before the horse (not to mention unnecessary stumbling blocks) by asking the new religionist to assent to doctrinal truths that may not be paramount in the initial stages of convesion and which might well be apprehended better in growing discipleship? Is assent to creedal orthodoxy the best place to start with new religionists as potential converts? If it is, why then don't we start this way with our children where we are satisfied with simple faith rather than a systematic theology.

"7. That the lack of love we often manifest in our approaches to witness has nothing to do with the way hearers perceive the love of the Christ we recommend." I know that evangelicals feel they are loving when they stand outside the Manti pageant, or new temple openings, or other events and sites, and pass out literature or hold up signs viewed by LDS as demeaning of the sacred. But regardless of evangelical intent the perception on our hearers is that we are doing anything but demonstrating the love of Christ.

Kraft includes discussion of other assumptions evangelicals make in traditional approaches to Muslims, and then follows this with five aspects that inform a more culturally-sensitive aproach to Muslims, that are also applicable to mission to new religions.

After reading the article, and reflecting on Kraft's ideas, I have to say that I'm with him, in both Muslim and new religion contexts. I have a strong distaste for the combative approach. But unfortunately I don't think it will disappear any time soon.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Bolger and "Seeker" Churches

Ryan Bolger is a missiologist who serves as assistant professor of church in contemporary culture at Fuller Seminary in California. His blog is a regular part of my viewing, and an October 12 post titled "Please, no more doing church for 'them'," is worth a read regardless of your perspective on the emerging culture and emerging church. I recommended this article to a few of my contacts, some of whom are missionally minded, and a few who are more at home with attractional church, and received a few complaints from those in the latter group. But aside from some of the concerns from attractional church adherents, I'd like to encourage us not to miss two important points raised in Bolger's post.

First, Bolger points out that for most churches the worship service is the focal point for trying to connect with the community. Bolger rightly points out the inappropriateness of the assumption behind this practice, namely that "following Jesus is about going to church." Never mind the fact that church's will more often than not miss really connecting with the community with this assumption because they are largely out of touch with the subcultures they would like to reach, as Bolger also reminds us. Beyond this, an emphasis on the worship service as the defining point of Christian spirituality represents another example of truncated Christian spirituality in America, if not the broader Western world.

Second, Bolger argues that we need to shift to truly being missional in the Western world by engaging the culture in "the world" and embody the Kingdom of God beyond the "sacred space" of the church building. Such a state of being and acting moves us beyond the sacred/secular split of modernity, and provides an ongoing place for contact.

Regardless of whether you agree with Bolger's conclusions or not, I hope the reader will not lose sight of these important considerations, and will consider Bolger's thesis.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Missional Gadflies

mis*sion*al a primary commitment to God's missionary purposes in the world, and to the missionary calling of the people of God.

gad*fly a usually intentionally annoying person who stimulates or provokes others especially by persistent irritating criticism.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Rolland Allen and St. Paul's Missions Methodology

Roland Allen was an Anglican missionary to China from 1895-1903. Upon his return from the mission field he devoted the next 40 years to writing on missionary principles. His book Missionary Methods: St. Paul's or Ours? (Eerdmans, 1962) represents a classic in missions literature. Allen demonstrates that Paul's strategy was to plant mature, self-sufficient churches in relatively short periods of time. By contrast, Allen shares a stinging criticism of western missionary methods in the frequent establishment of paternal and dependent relationships between missionaries, sending agencies or churches, and church plants.

I found myself in agreement with Roland's general thesis, as well as numerous details within it. Of particular interest was his recognition of the positive rhetorical aspects of Paul's preaching, particularly in the messages at Lystra and Athens. He notes that Paul's preaching contained "a conciliatory, sympathetic attitude towards the heathen. There was no violent attack, no crude and brutal assault upon their beliefs, still less was there any scornful or flippant mocking of their errors" (p. 70). Writing of a previous missionary generation he stated "it is happily rare to hear a missionary revile the religion of other people, or hold up the objects of their veneration to scorn and ridicule, and it is to be hoped that it may soon cease altogether" (p. 68). Unfortunately, this is no longer a rarity in contemporary missions overseas and in North America, and this provides an additional example of our how our missionary and apologetic methods do not reflect the Pauline model.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

God, Culture and Paganism

I have been struck in the past by God's dealings with Pagans as recorded in the Old and New Testaments. In my Old Testament class at seminary we recently went through Genesis and Exodus, and I was reminded of God's dealings with Abraham and Jethro while they were still in Paganism. While little information is available for in-depth study, it appears as if God related and reveald Himself from within their cultures and drew upon elements of those cultures, including their Pagan religion.

This has caused me to reflect further on the relationship between culture and religion, and how this relates to God's dealings with Pagans in the past, as well as how this might relate to the present. I know that to raise the kinds of issues and questions that will come as a result of this post, especially the quote I will include below, is to invite questions and concerns about my orthodoxy, but I would ask my readers to refrain from judgment in order to ponder important questions.

I've mentioned Christian anthropologist Charles Kraft in a previous post. His book Christianity in Culture: A Study in Dynamic Biblical Theologizing in Cross-Cultural Perspective (Orbis, 1980), is thought provoking in the araes of culture, and cross-cultural theologizing. I present the following quote for creative contemplation:
"Paganism is, according to Maurier [Maurier, Henri. 1968. The Other Covenant: A Theology of Paganism. New York: Newman Press], the point at which God starts his saving process. Maurier claims that paganism has today enough information in it, as it has ever had, so that the addition of the proper communicational stimulus, can lead people to saving faith in God through Christ. Paganism thus, in some sense, stands in continuity with the Christian Gospel. We have usually assumed discontinuity and antagonism between Christianity and paganism. Yet it was within paganism that God stimulated Abraham (and countless others whose stories are not recorded in the Bible) to faith based largely on the knowledge they already possessed. In the Old Testament mention is made of a few of those outside Israel who apparently came to saving faith. Among them were Melchizedek (Gen. 14:18; cf. Ps. 110:4; Heb. 7)), Abimelech (Gen. 20), Jethro (Exod. 3), Balaam (Num. 22-24), Job, and Naaman (2 Kings 5). These came within paganism rather than within Israel to the same faith-allegiance to the true God that those saved within Israel experienced. In the New Testament, too, we get a glimpse of such a possibility when, in Acts 18:24-19:7, we see that there were roving bands of John the Baptist's disciples making converts without, apparently, even having heard of Jesus.

"If the message and method are the same today as they were in biblical times, we must ask the hard questions concerning the necessity of the knowledge of Christ in the response of contemporary 'pagans.' Can people who are chronologically A.D. but knowledgewise B.C. (i.e., have not heard of Christ), or those who are indoctrinated with a wrong understanding of Christ, be saved by committing themselves to faith in God as Abraham and the rest of those who were chronologically B.C. did (Heb. 11)? Could such persons be saved by 'giving as much of themselves as they can give to as much of God as they can understand?' I personally believe that they can and many have."
In light of Paganism in the Western world we might modify Kraft's question slightly. Not only are there Pagans who may never have heard of Christ at all, there are those who have heard of the all too common evangelical caricature of Jesus rather than the robust biblical Christ of the New Testament witness. (For those wondering what the differences might be see N. T. Wright. 1999. The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was and Is. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.) Might contemporary Pagans in the West be B.C. in the sense of having rejected a misunderstood and caricatured Jesus rather than the biblical Jesus who has been communicated appropriately within their cultural contexts? And how does God's workings with Pagans in the Old and New Testaments from within their cultures, including their Pagan religions, inform our understanding of, relationships with, and theologizing among contemporary Pagans? Are the Old and New Covenants even the appropriate starting place for such questions, or should we back up to God's revelation in creation and imago Dei?

Monday, October 10, 2005

Utah Mormon Population Decline and Secularization: Disenchantment or Re-Enchantment?

This last July The Salt Lake Tribune published an article that discussed the shrinking LDS population of the state of Utah. For years the LDS Church, as well as evangelical churches, have been making the claim that Mormons represent 70 percent of the population. This number appears to be inaccurate, with the percentage slipping to 62.4 percent by 2004.

A variety of reasons were cited for this decrease, including an increase in the number of non-Mormons moving into the state, declining birth rates among LDS families, and difficulties in keeping LDS converts within the church. One element was missing from the discussion, and that is the influence of secularization on the religious life of Utah. A demographer was quoted in the article as saying "Utah is essentially becoming more like the nation." I believe he's correct, but the manner in which these changes should be understood, and their importance for missions in Utah are worth exploring.

There are a variety of secularization theses, and I have discussed this briefly in previous comments on the work of U.K. scholar Christopher Partridge related to disenchantment and re-enchantment. One version of secularization sees religion dying on the vine in favor of secularism. Another version, one I resonate with, sees a disenchantment in the West coming as a result of secularzation, but rather than religion dying out, it is traditional forms of religion that have difficulty surviving (including various expressions of traditional Christianity). The pendulum then shifts and the response is re-enchantment, toward individualized, self-oriented, eclectic forms of spiritual expression, along the lines of Do-It-Yourself Spiritualities.

Even with the LDS majority religious population in Utah, it is difficult to imagine that the state is somehow immune to the forces of secularization. The social and cultural tides impacting the rest of the Western world have been touching on Utah's shores for some time, but the question remains as to which direction Utah's population is moving in response to secularization.

In dialogue with former Mormons in Utah I have discovered that when they jettison their LDS faith, they often find traditional Christianity just as inappropriate. Both "versions" of Christianity are, in their minds, tried and found wanting. Many I have spoken with have opted instead for DIY spiritualities and forms of Paganism. Although these alternative spiritual communities remain a small part of Utah's religio-spiritual communities, they may represent a growing segment of it.

What does all of this mean for missional churches and Christians in Utah? While we need to strategize in light of the dominant LDS population, we also need to recognize spiritual diversity, both within the LDS Church itself, and in the declining number of church members who may be turning to alternative forms of spirituality in the face of secularization. Church strategists might benefit from fresh ethnographic and demographic research in the state, and also consider ways in which Utah's minority emerging spiritualties might be missionally engaged.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Post-Modernism, Post-Creedal Christianity, and Truncated Eschatology

Last week I received an email notification through the Religion and Popular Culture Yahoo group concerning a fascinating conference in the U.K. The conference is sponsored by the Research Centre for Religion, Film and Contemporary Culture, University of Chester, UK. The title and subject matter of the conference is "The Lure of the Dark Side-Satan and Western Demonology in Popular Culture."

The conference involves Christopher Partridge, a scholar out of the U.K. who's work in the field of religious studies I appreciate and admire quite a bit. I've commented on his work previously in connection with his exchange with John Drane on the new spiritualities. In addition to Christopher Partridge, another scholar working with him in the area of popular culture, theology, and religious studies is Gordon Lynch. Lynch teaches at the University of Birmingham, and he is the author of a number of books, including Understanding Popular Culture (Blackwell, 2005), After Religion: 'Generation X' and the Search for Meaning (DLT, 2002), and Losing My Religion: Moving on From Evangelical Faith (DLT, 2004).

As I poked around Lynch's web page, and did some further research on Google, I came across an article he wrote titled "Dreaming of a Post-Credal Christianity." As conservative evangelicals read this article they will no doubt react to someone who has left their religious fold, and thoughtful reflection does leave sound intellectual reasons to disagree with Lynch's conclusions on the viability of a creedal expression of Christianity in the post-modern world. Some of the problems with Lynch's assessment have already been provided in comments provided by Matt Stone on his Blog. But before we get our feathers ruffled up in disagreeing with his views on creeds and propositions, I wonder whether evangelicals might benefit from not only finding areas with which to disagree with Lynch, but might also benefit positively through reflection in at least four other areas touched on in the article.

First, we need to take his reminder seriously that evangelicalism (and other expressions of Christianity) face serious challenges to credibility in the post-modern West. We put a lot of eggs in the basket of Christianity and rationality, but post-modernism seems to be more concerned with credibility, at least initially.

Second, we need to feel the pain and existential angst that Lynch experienced in his own loss of faith as an evangelical in the U.K. He lost his faith in creedal Christianity, and searches for some kind of alternative that will satisfy individuals in the new spiritual mileu. While some may disagree with his assessment of the viability of creedal aspects of Christianity, we must sympathize and emphathize with his angst and search. He is not alone in this quest, as the voices of growing numbers of evangelicals, and emerging spirituality adherents will attest.

Third, he recognizes that something important changed in the course of the development of Christianity as it moved to become an institutionalized religion in the West. The Hebraic emphasis on the relationality and embodiment of truth in persons, and ultimately God, which is and must be demonstrated in the lives of the believing community, has been lost (or at least seriously neglected) in favor of another emphasis on truth in terms of propositions, one more philosophical in response to modernity than relational in a Hebraic sense. As Lynch puts it:

"Now one of the most astonishing revisions of the gospel narratives in the history of the Church is the shift from the proclamation of the arrival of the Kingdom of God by Jesus of Nazareth to the notion that Christianity is fundamentally about adhering to a set of doctrines. Jesus understood his mission as being one of being a witness to the reign of God that he saw breaking into the world. And when Jesus saw signs of this reign taking shape here on earth, he saw it in particular moments of transformation. These were moments when the blind saw, the deaf heard, the lame leapt, those oppressed by demons were liberated, and the poor heard the good news that a new time was coming in which they would be valued and honoured. Jesus never saw the arrival of the Kingdom of God in terms of growing numbers of people adhering to some kind of doctrinal orthodoxy. Jesus' mission was one of effecting transformation here on earth, not of inducting people into a particular set of beliefs. Yet the gradual institutionalisation of the movement that Jesus set in progress has seen his emphasis on transformation in this world sometimes forgotten at the expense of that institution's desire for people to assent to its own particular way of thinking about the world. "
Fourth, in reflecting on Lynch's comments above we should be reminded that through Jesus' kingdom actions and announcements, his ministry of life transformation was truly eschatological, in the proper, robust, and Hebraic sense of the idea. N. T. Wright and other Third Quest scholars remind us of the central place of eschatology in Jesus' entire ministry. By contrast, our "end times" models seem more like truncated, if not emasculated versions of truly biblical eschatology.

Evangelicals have used a lot of toner, ink, and pixels in responding to epistemology and relativity in academic postmodernism. Might we have a few more things to learn if we stopped long enough to listen to the right questions being asked by popular level post-moderns? Even if we find their answers problematic, they seem to be asking the right questions, and we should be struggling with them too.