Monday, April 28, 2008

Colin Duriez: A Theology of Fantasy and the Legacy of Tolkien and Lewis

As his website states, "Colin Duriez is based in Keswick in north-west England, and writes books, edits and lectures. He has appeared as a commentator on extended version film DVDs of Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings, the 'Royal' 4 DVD set of Walden/Disney's The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and the Sony DVD Ringers about Tolkien's fandom and the impact of Tolkien on popular culture. He is also a part-time tutor at Lancaster University.

"His books include The C.S. Lewis Encyclopedia (Crossway/SPCK), J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis: The Story of Their Friendship (HiddenSpring/Sutton Publishing), Tolkien and the Lord of the Rings (Paulist Press), A Field Guide to Narnia (Sutton/InterVarsity), The C.S. Lewis Chronicles (Bluebridge/DLT), A.D. 33: The Year that Changed the World (The History Press/InterVarsity), and a guide to the Harry Potter books for The History Press and InterVarsity."

I first became aware of Colin's work through my research on fantasy and theology in a journal article, and this stimulated my interest in not only exploring the topic further, but also in talking to Colin to probe his thinking further on these issues. He graciously carved out time in a very busy writing schedule to discuss fantasy, the imagination, theology and popular culture.

Morehead's Musings: Colin, thank you for carving out some time in the midst of a busy schedule to touch on fantasy and theology. On a personal note, how did you become interested in fantasy, and how did you combine this with your Christian faith?

Colin Duriez: My reflective interest in fantasy goes back to my discovery of C. S. Lewis’s writings when I was seventeen or eighteen. These provided a key for me as an adult to the stories I had enjoyed as a child and adolescent. He along with his friend Tolkien (to whom Lewis led me through his writings) rehabilitated fantasy for adults, which had become associated with childhood in the nineteenth century. I learnt from Lewis and Tolkien that literary fantasy has its roots in storytelling, which is as old as language itself. Studying literature and philosophy at university heightened rather than diminished my interest in fantasy. It is in connection with storytelling that fantasy coheres for me with my Christian faith and thinking. Storytelling has a fascinating link with history telling. Christianity is rooted in real history. The Bible celebrates God’s hand in history. The shaping of events by God, a person, turns human history – the contingency of human actions – into story, while remaining history. For Lewis and Tolkien myth (i.e. story) became fact (or, to put it another way, fact become story) with the incarnation of Christ. This pivotal event marked the fulfilment and completion of human storytelling. My own view is that human history from the very beginning has had a story shape, as revealed in Scripture. Thus I see the Bible as historical from the first chapter of Genesis, though it is not revealed in a way that conforms to an Enlightenment mode, which dictates in a very narrow manner what is possible—that mode, I feel, is fatally crippled by a dualism of fact and meaning. I’m always fascinated by the manner in which Jesus taught so much by way of story—though it must be stressed that he was teaching in the context of a rich understanding on the part of his audiences of Scriptural history. Though story is a form of magic, casting a spell, it obeys strict rules. It is not an easy option in evangelism.

Morehead's Musings: I know you have written quite a bit on the topic of fantasy, and one article you wrote in 1998 for Themelios caught my attention titled "The Theology of Fantasy in Lewis and Tolkien." In my view, a theology of fantasy has great potential to inform the Christian faith, particularly in the West which is now seeking re-enchantment in the wake of modernity. Early on in this article you note that evangelicals tend to view the Bible from a framework of propositional truth "looking at reality in a theoretical, systematic way." But you go on and write that, "the Bible encourages, in a very basic, straightforward way, what might be called a symbolic perception of reality." How might engagement with fantasy help us regain a sense of balance between "the poetic and the prosaic, the symbolic and the literal" in not only biblical interpretation, but Christian theology and imagination as well?

Colin Duriez: The predominance in contemporary fantasy of Christians with global appeal (Tolkien, Lewis, Rowling) should provide the clue that imaginative engagement with our culture is possible. We have to remember, however, that the imagination has a very different job to do than that of theoretical argument and persuasion, though they are complementary. Would-be evangelists and apologists must know the tools in their toolboxes. The task is too important to countenance carelessness. I despaired when the first Narnia movie from Disney was due to appear and well-meaning Christians were circulating the slogan, “Aslan is Christ.” This was undoing Lewis’s careful imaginative work—that of preparing the way for the evangelist, getting past, as Lewis put it, the “watchful dragons.”

It is interesting how much of the orientation of Tolkien and Lewis, and even J. K. Rowling, is to the pre-modern. Tolkien and Lewis rehabilitated a medieval world-picture, and Rowling drew inspiration from sixteenth century alchemy, which had a vital rather than mechanistic view of nature. Tolkien and Lewis were fascinated by what they saw as a kind of enlightened paganism. They were caught up in how far the pagan imagination could go in its insights into reality without the aid of special revelation, especially the revelation embodied in Christ. Tolkien and Lewis have struck a chord with twenty-first century culture in making imaginative use of pagan insights. Similarly, in a playful way, Rowling draws upon sixteenth century alchemy—or rather the view of the world it exemplified.

These big names aside, there has been an inspiring growth in Christians involved in the mainstream arts and media, frequently in humble roles — film, television, radio, painting, architecture, sculpture, etc — very often with little encouragement from their churches. As well as more of this hands-on engagement, we need to think through the link in many people’s consciousness between interest in fantasy and the subjectivizing and privatization of faith. Responding to this unhelpful link requires hard, careful thinking and a quality of creativity in making fantasy. Francis Schaeffer’s talk of a desperate mystical leap away from the rational in modern culture remains prophetic, as does his portrayal of the rational in the modern world as leading to death and despair. He saw the modern dilemma, whereby people are equally caught by their reasoning and by their imagination. For Christians, working with the imagination is an essential task, and so is engaging in thinking and ideas. The imagination is sexy at the moment but we shall fail if we seize its opportunities but fail to think, and to call people to heed the demands of Christianity’s truth claims.

By speaking of the Bible encouraging a “symbolic perception of reality” (i.e. a seeing that is shaped by symbol) I’m drawing upon the insights of Hans Rookmaaker, C. S. Lewis, Owen Barfield and others that our very experience of reality as human beings changes at different periods of history. (It even changes during one’s life—compare, if you can, your memory of how you perceived life as a child and as an adult.) Our very sensations, consciousness, and possibly our emotions are shaped by our cultural participation. This shaping is of course complex and multifaceted, but includes our moulding by the language we speak, art forms, literature, and the myths and stories that are part of our lives, as comfortable as old shoes. History-telling, I believe, is very important in perpetuating a society and its culture. A society that is soaked in [Christian] Scripture will perceive reality in a different way from a secular one, or an Islamic or Hindu community. The belief structures of a culture are the most important condition of its makeup. The very common view of progress and evolution in human history is only an example of a conditioning belief. This is not to deny the importance of development and growth in a culture. (There is all the difference in the world between a closed, static culture and one that opens up and develops because its core beliefs are full of possibilities for enriching human life and well-being.)

In reading the Bible we begin to see the world in a new way, as we internalize its narratives, poetry and didactic sections. The Bible as The Book has an overarching metaphorical quality that gripped the West for an enormous period, and still influences the post-Christian West (you could argue that many modern ideas, e.g. ideological individualism and socialism, are Christian heresies). The Book continues to grip very many people – billions – in the developing world. The Bible engenders a way of seeing that does not prescribe a theocracy or a totalitarian fundamentalism. Rather it expresses itself in myriad forms in human societies and cultures, while meriting a genus description like “basic Christianity,” “historic Christianity” or “Judeo-Christianity” or the label C. S. Lewis brilliantly borrowed from the Puritan Divine Richard Baxter, “mere Christianity.”

We need, I think, to rehabilitate the idea (which goes back to Samuel Taylor Coleridge) that imagination is integral to our mental processes, and thus to truth-gaining. Fantasy is a power and product of the imagination, as thinking is a product and power of the intellect. While imagination and reason have distinct and differing roles in truth-gaining, their integration is essential in knowing. In my view, the sciences in practice rely enormously on imagination (e.g. in modelling) whether they are the hard sciences or cosmology. As C. S. Lewis pointed out, the sciences are often concerned with realities that cannot be touched, smelt or otherwise experienced with our normal repertoire of physical senses—we rely on metaphor to conceive of unseen realities.

Morehead's Musings: In your article you also state that now that we are in a post-modern culture, the “character and social role of fantasy might change and become more central, as it was before the Enlightenment became dominant." Can you discuss how you see this taking place in Western culture since you wrote this article ten years ago, and suggest areas in which the church needs more imaginative engagement?

Colin Duriez: There is no doubt that fantasy has returned to a central place in our culture. Even in academic literary circles it has become acceptable to take writers like Lewis and Tolkien seriously, even though I come across the occasional academic who still complains that Tolkien only appeals to people who have not progressed past adolescence (rather like atheists who claim that belief in God is for people who haven’t grown up). As well as the globally popular filming of works by Tolkien, Lewis, Rowling and Pullman, there has been a plethora of popular TV series like Lost, Heroes, Dr Who and Pushing the Daisies. The Church needs to support believing filmmakers, writers, artists, dancers, who are working in mainstream culture. This must include a rigorous intellectual underpinning of creative work, as for instance Tolkien and Lewis had in Oxford in the thirties and forties in their friendship, and their wider friendships through the Inklings, their club of literary and like-minded people. We have two thousand years of Christian thinking to get us started! The nearest thing I’ve seen in the recent evangelical world is L’Abri, founded by Francis Schaeffer and in several countries, providing a spiritual Shelter, not as a retreat from the world but as a place to be nurtured and enabled to survive in and contribute to the seasoning and redemption of the world. There are other groups as well. They can be as small as where two or three are gathered.

Morehead's Musings: As the title of your article indicates, it addresses a theology of imaginative fantasy as it relates to the writings of Lewis and Tolkien. Can you touch on Lewis's notion of imagination as "meaning making," and Tolkien's concept of the imagination as "sub-creation" and how these ideas might inform a contemporary theology of fantasy and post-modern cultural engagement?

Colin Duriez: Imaginative work results in the making of meaning. Human history itself, as I mentioned earlier, can be seen as creation of meaning, as it is shaped by human beings and ultimately by the Divine hand, who is the Lord of history. Tolkien (and Lewis was influenced him in this) followed the logic of the imagination as making (poema) with his distinctive idea of “sub-creation”—creating in the image of God’s creation, primary reality. God has established primary reality as full of, indeed overflowing with, meaning. In their view imagined worlds by necessity capture knowledge of and insights into the very nature of reality. Lewis was undoubtedly more aware than Tolkien of the apologetic potential of imaginative work. He believed that stories and the making of myths for a contemporary audience could prepare the ground for the gospel. Stories and parables and other imaginative work can help to create a climate favourable to understanding the evangelist’s message. They can get past those “watchful dragons.” They aid the creation of a context within which the Christian claims and dogmas are meaningful and thus effectively communicated; in a sense, given the post-Christian character of the modern world, the Christian message is translated. As medieval scholars, they realized that the human imagination, unlike God’s, does not start with nothing. They picked up upon the symbolism, iconography, and archetypes of what they saw as an enlightened paganism, which in its patterning over time had captured insights congenial to the embodying of Christian meaning, where Christ is the fulfilment of pagan dreams. Similarly J. K. Rowling appropriated imaginative patterns from sixteenth century alchemy and a neo-platonic and Romantic view of nature as vital rather than mechanistic to incarnate what are also essentially Christian meanings.

There are of course many ways in which Christians can make meaning imaginatively today, building “secondary worlds” that through their large metaphors and narratives help contemporary people to see in a restored and re-enchanted way—through story, through social structures (like Schaeffer’s L’Abri experiment), through cinema, art, architecture, a life that expresses what being human is, building and restoring relationships, through loving, through churches that demonstrate the healing of barriers of race, poverty, age, and sex. As Schaeffer remarked: “The Christian is the really free person . . . whose imagination should fly beyond the stars.”

Morehead's Musings: In your Themelios article you discuss a number of facets of the "implied theology" of Lewis and Tolkien, two of which stuck out for me, that of otherness and the numinous. Can you flesh these out a little and touch on why they might be significant for our theology today?

Colin Duriez: Lewis picked up upon what might be called a phenomenology of human experience. In The Problem of Pain he makes use of Otto’s study The Idea of the Holy, which highlighted an aspect of human experience which for Lewis went beyond “the walls of the world”—the numinous, which is part of our experience of the “other.” Lewis’s view of otherness is exceedingly rich, and tied in with his constant, hallmark quest for the real. He was totally counter to the incipient narcissism of our day. As a writer and storyteller he struggled to capture the real in words, which by their nature generalize and universalize. His guiding pattern, I think, was the Incarnation of Christ, where, as he put it, “myth became fact.” For Lewis, the “other” could range from our experience of the spirit (evidenced for him even when we think) to the encounter of man and woman. There is a beautiful passage in his science-fiction Out of the Silent Planet about the first encounter of alien rational species: “Neither dared let the other approach, yet each repeatedly felt the impulse to do so himself, and yielded to it. It was foolish, frightening, ecstatic and unbearable all in one moment. It was more than curiosity. It was like a courtship—like the meeting of the first man and the first woman in the world; it was like something beyond that …”

For Lewis experiences of the “other” (for instance, in tasting other worlds in fantasy) are pointers to the fact that reality is created by God, imprinted with his presence. He saw his task as storyteller (and, I think, as scholar) to remove “the veil of familiarity” so that our perception of reality is restored, in order that we begin to see things as they really are, lit up with their full meaning. Such a re-enchanted view helps provide a context for meaningful communication of Christian truth claims.

Morehead's Musings: With our culture's continued interest in fantasy, and the church in the West scrambling to adjust to cultural changes in living in this environment and communicating the story of Jesus in this context, do you think that Lewis and Tolkien will continue to provide a stimulation for the theological imagination into the foreseeable future?

Colin Duriez: It is remarkable that two scholars within the closeted world of Oxford in the thirties and forties, who talked, drank and socialized in smoky pubs, were thinking and writing in a way which was to grip hearts and minds across the globe in the twenty-first century. Their popularity and appeal was not created by the blockbuster movies of Middle-earth and Narnia—it was established before then, though of course on a smaller scale. But cinema is one of the most powerful and distinctly our-age art forms—and this in itself tells us something of the relevance of their concerns with imagination that is connected into deep and thorough thinking and theology. They understood who the human being is, and this, I think, explains their global appeal.

Morehead's Musings: Colin, thank you again. This was fascinating, and it points me once again to continued reflection upon myth, imagination, fantasy, and the contributions of Lewis and Tolkien to these areas.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

New Book by Amos Yong: Hospitality & The Other

Yesterday I received a review copy of a new book courtesy of its author, Amos Yong, and the publisher, Orbis Books, titled Hospitality & The Other: Pentecost, Christian Practices, and the Neighbor (Orbis, 2008). I have been impressed with Yong's work in the past in developing a theology of religions in light of our pluralistic, post-Christendom and post 9/11 context, and his interest in interreligious dialogue as well. Readers might recall my previous interview with Yong that can be found here and my summary and interaction with one of his articles here.

My initial skimming of Yong's latest book indicates that it looks very promising. As the back cover summarizes the contents:

"Building on careful biblical scholarship and insights into the practices of Jesus and the early church, launched on the day of Pentecost, Amos Yong shows that the religious 'other' is not a mere object for conversion but a neighbor to whom hospitality must be both extended and received. Contemporary practice, he shows, needs to catch up with the revolutionary biblical notion of extending hospitality beyond every boundary of faith, nation, and ethnicity."

This volume promises to make a new contribution to both scholarly and popular understandings of a Christian theology of religions and interreligious dialogue, and it provides a challenge to a neglected aspect of Christian attitudes and life in an increasingly pluralistic world. Look for an interview with Yong on this book here in the near future.

Spirituality, Culture, and the Imagination

With this post I'd like to recommend to sources that provide for an exploration of Christian spirituality as it engages culture and the imagination.

The first involves my friends at Cornerstone Festival held June 30 to July 6 in Illinois. I have been privileged to be part of the seminars in various venues in the past, and this year's lineup looks great, both through cstoneXchange as well as in the Imaginarium. The topics and speakers get better and better each year, and this venue for reflection and exploration on theology, culture, imagination and the arts is "must see" for those interested in fresh ways in exploring the Christian faith in the West and in engaging a culture seeking re-enchantment.

The second is a conference going on right now and concluding April 26 called Imagination and the Gospel. As they describe this gathering,

"We will address questions like "how does the gospel address the deeply felt need in our culture for reenchanting the world? How did C. S. Lewis and the inklings integrate reason and imagination in their gospel communication? How do we harness the imagination in our own gospel communication?"

In my view these are questions that have been negelected for too long in Western Christendom, and it is time to "listen" to Lewis, Tolkien and others as they point us forward in an imaginative and mythic way for the twenty-first century.

I encourage my interested readers to explore these resources.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

LDS Church Commentary on "Respect for Diversity of Faiths"

Yesterday I was made aware of a recent commentary on respect for the diversity of faiths and the importance of interfaith cooperation released by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The commentary, published April 18 of this year, begins by stating,

"A respect for the diverse beliefs and unique contributions of all the world’s faiths is one of the hallmarks of Mormonism. From the earliest days of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Joseph Smith elevated the principle of religious liberty and tolerance: 'We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may' (Articles of Faith 1:11).

"In that same spirit, Church President Thomas S. Monson made a plea during general conference, a semiannual worldwide meeting, for more religious understanding: 'I would encourage members of the Church wherever they may be to show kindness and respect for all people everywhere. The world in which we live is filled with diversity. We can and should demonstrate respect toward those whose beliefs differ from ours.' Latter-day Saints accept all sincere believers as equals in the pursuit of faith and in the great work of serving humanity.'"

The commentary concludes by addressing the relationship between interfaith cooperation and the integrity of the boundaries of religious communities in ways that might be reflected upon by evangelicals:

"It is important to note that interfaith cooperation does not require doctrinal compromise. Though the Church asserts its ecclesiastical independence and recognizes its doctrinal differences, this does not prevent it from partnering with other faiths in charitable projects. These efforts are based on universal values. A different interpretation of the atonement of Christ, for example, need not diminish the mandate of Christ to 'love thy neighbor as thyself.' Therefore, it is necessary to maintain a separation between charitable efforts and doctrinal tenets, while at the same time sharing mutual concern for those in need. People of good faith do not need to have the exact same beliefs in order to accomplish great things in the service of their fellow human beings."

With the passing of Gordon B. Hinckley, the previous president and prophet of the LDS Church, questions existed about the new stance the Church might take in relation to dialogue and interfaith activities. This document answers these questions in positive ways. The entire commentary can be viewed here.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Mackay: Malleus Maleficarum in Translation, History, and Legacy

I recently became aware of a new scholarly translation of the infamous Malleus Maleficarum by Dr. Christopher Mackay of the University of Alberta. For those unfamiliar with the Malleus (translated as" The Hammer of Witches"), this is a medieval text that served as a resource for those in the church of the time as they sought to identify and address witchcraft. This text was extremely influential in the time, it would later inform the various witch trials and "burning times,"and it continues to exert influence in stereotypical notions of witchcraft and alleged connections to satanism in various aspects of pop culture.

Dr. Mackay agreed to an interview to discuss his translation, and the history of the Malleus in the past and the present.

Morehead's Musings: Dr. Mackay, thank you for providing some time to discuss the Malleus and your recent translation efforts. For those who may not be familiar with this work, who wrote it, what time frame was it composed in, and what is it's basic content?

Christopher Mackay: The book was published in 1486. The text itself refers to two unnamed authors, and in the public attestation that forms the approbation (certification of orthodoxy) provided by the theological faculty of University of Cologne in 1487, the Dominican inquisitor Henricus Institoris (known in the vernacular as Heinrich Kramer) states that he wrote the work along with another Dominican inquisitor named Jacobus (i.e., Jakob/James) Sprenger. The argument was made in the nineteenth century by a scholar hostile to what the Malleus stood for that the approbation was a forgery by Institoris and that Sprenger had nothing to do with the composition. The evidence for this is in my view very tenuous (and the main argument is clearly invalid). Nonetheless, once the argument was put forward, it took on a life of its own, and people continue to advance arguments in favor of the idea that Sprenger's involvement was a falsification perpetrated by Institoris, despite the fact that this argument was vitiated from the start.

Anyway, regardless of Sprenger's role in the composition, the work is meant to be a demonstration of a specific conception of witchcraft in order to rebut those whose disbelief in that conception was thought to obstruct the prosecution of witches in secular courts. The work is broken down into three sections (books). Book One is a demonstration of the existence of witchcraft in general and of the specific interpretation advocated for it. Book Two covers the practical details of the effects of witchcraft and is itself subdivided into two sections, the first dealing with the practices of witches and the second of the legitimate means to counteract these. Book Three treats the manner of investigating accusations and of dealing with the accused judicially.

Morehead's Musings: How influential was this document in Christendom in first few centuries following its composition?

Christopher Mackay: There are several ways to view this. In terms of the publication history of the book, it was reprinted numerous times until 1519. During this period, the book was apparently quite popular, and presumably it was read as an up-to-date manual on the topic. There is then a gap until 1574, when reprintings resume, continuing until 1669, the last year in which the book was published until the appearance in the early 1990's of two separate facsimiles of the first edition. There was something of a lull in witch hunting activities during the mid-16th century, when the disturbances associated with the Reformation were something of a distraction, and when things calmed down a bit later in the century and there was more free time to worry about maleficent witchcraft, the Malleus began to appear as part of "omnibus" editions of "great hits of witch hunting". Other books were by that time the "up-to-date" treatments.

By this standard, the Malleus was of comparatively short-lived significance, but I'd say that in the broader perspective, the Malleus was much more important. It presents a view of witchcraft known in modern scholarship as diabolism (satanism) that can't be traced before the early fifteenth century (though it builds on long-accepted concepts). Only one earlier work that sets out this notion, the Formicarium of Johannes Nider, appeared in print (remember that moveable-type printing began in Europe only a generation before the appearance of the Malleus in about 1450), and there the discussion is simply part of a discussion of moral reform in Christendom. The Malleus, on the other hand, is a full-fledged attempt to justify the new conception in terms of the scholastic discourse that was the dominant mode of intellectual argumentation in late-medieval Europe. Thus, I'd say that the Malleus was responsible for the acceptance of a new "paradigm" (in the sense advocated by Thomas Kuhn) about witchcraft. That is, the dissemination and widespread acceptance of the point of view (or world view) that underlay and instigated the so-called "craze" of witch hunting in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries can be attributed (ultimately) to the Malleus. Now, it is the case that some of the major elements of the craze are either downplayed in the Malleus (e.g., the so-called black sabbath) or entirely absent (e.g., the devil's mark), but all that shows is that people added, after their own fashion, to the paradigm that the Malleus did so much to help disseminate and make respectable.

Morehead's Musings: What portrait of Witchcraft was painted by the Malleus?

Christopher Mackay: In modern scholarship, the view advocated in the Malleus is known as the "elaborated theory of witchcraft". Belief in magic (however defined) goes back to long before Classical antiquity, and it was taken for granted in the earlier middle ages as a practice that in some way involved the participation of satanic forces, but this was not worked out in an elaborate manner. One particular form of magic/witchcraft related to the behavior of heretics (that is, groups of Christians who rejected fundamental principles of the orthodoxy recognized by the Church). Heretics were thought to meet in covert assemblies (conventicles or synagogues) that Satan himself attended as the sower of heresy. There the heretics were imagined as engaging in promiscuous (sometimes incestuous) sex and in particular in using pastes made from killing babies for various nefarious purposes. The elaborated theory of witchcraft took these associations of religious heresy with witchcraft and Satan a step further by arguing that there is a specific heresy that consists of nothing but practicing maleficent witchcraft. That is, instead of associating witchcraft (and other forms of despicable behavior) with heretics, it is now held that these heretics have no specific religious views on which they disagree with the established Church, and their heresy fundamentally consists of nothing more than rejecting the Christianity that they had taken on through infant baptism and carrying out evil through witchcraft for its own sake. Basically, this "heresy" is an element in Satan's attempt to subvert the true Church and to offend God as an end in itself. Thus, the evil that is believed to be caused by the adherents of this "heresy" needs no further explanation--it's simply something that Satan wants. This means that once this "paradigm" takes hold, there arises both a sense of urgency on the part of those who accept it, and no particular need to explain examples of the crime in terms of normal motives. It is a dangerous thing when you believe that heinous crimes are committed for "illogical" reasons and you can use judicial torture as a means of extracting confessions from those suspected of such crimes.

Morehead's Musings: Why did it finally disappear historically, and when did it resurface in translation?

Christopher Mackay: As I said, the Malleus was already "old fashioned" by the late 16th century, though it continued to be published as long as notions of witchcraft were still intellectually respectable. The issue of why the old "paradigm" about witchcraft broke down fairly rapidly in the early to mid-17th century is a very complicated one, but certainly by that time the intellectual and scientific underpinnings of the work were mostly incompatible with the overall understanding of how the world works as determined by the scientific discoveries of the 16th and 17th centuries.

As for its translation into English, the first translation only appeared in 1928. The translator, Montague Somers, is an interesting figure in his own right, but let's just say for present purposes that in terms of competence, his version is amateurish. He clearly didn't use the oldest edition, he garbles the many references to earlier authorities, and he not infrequently guesses when he doesn't understand something. Also, he writes in a crabbed, old-fashioned style that I think borders on the incomprehensible at times. Finally, he adopts the perspective of curmudgeonly Catholic from the Middle Ages who entirely believes in the view laid out in the work. In his history of witchcraft from the post-First World War period he equates Bolshevism and feminism (the main ills of his own world) with medieval witchcraft. This sort of thing is amusing, but not scholarship.

If I might be allowed to flog my own wares, let me add that as it is, my version only appears in a rather expensive two-volume bilingual edition, but by the start of next year (I hope), a stand-alone paperback edition of just the translation should be available at a much smaller price.

Morehead's Musings: By all means, feel free to promote your work of scholarship. You were recently asked to produce a new translation of the work, which has been released in a two-volume set with commentary. How did this retranslation and your involvement in the project come about?

Christopher Mackay: I was asked by a colleague mine and an MA student of his to come up with a new translation to replace Somers' obviously unsatisfactory version, and they were to provide this translation with an introduction and notes. Eventually, for various reasons the others dropped out, and so the work as it stands is just mine.

In working with a facsimile of the first edition, it soon became clear to me that a proper text of the Latin text had to be established, and this soon became my main focus, though obviously I also translated it. In working with the Latin text, I undertook the laborious task of tracking down as far as I could all the sources used in the text (the authors make it clear in their introduction, which Somers omitted, that to a large degree the substance of the work is copied from earlier texts). You get a much different impression of what's going on in the text from tracking down the sources. Basically, though nearly eighty sources or authors are cited, there are only three main sources, and all the other references come from the small number of main sources.

Morehead's Musings: In your view, how might the Malleus have continuing impact into the present in shaping pop cultural views of Witchcraft?

Christopher Mackay: Well, I think the Malleus is like the Necronomicon of the "crazed Arab Abdul Al-Hazred" in that it is frequently referred to but seldom read in its own right. I should explain that flippant remark by saying that the Necronomicon is a fictional work made up by the writer H.P. Lovecraft that gets referred to in later works as if it really existed (and I gather that someone actually has written a book by that name to make good the lack). Now, naturally, the Malleus really does exist, but it gets mentioned a lot in works of fiction by people (like Dan Brown) who I suspect have never read it (and who could blame them if the only translation available was Somers' version?). I hope that this situation will at least in part be corrected by my new translation (and coincidentally, right around the time of the appearance of mine, another translation also came out, but it's not a complete one, isn't based on the first edition, and doesn't involve all the work on the earlier sources that I've put into mine). As a matter of fact, I recently was reading a book about the role of notions of Satan in the Spanish understanding of the new world, and was surprised to see the Malleus characterized as a work in which witchcraft is conceived of as an offense against the community rather than as a form of idolatry. I don't see how anyone who's actually read the thing could think that in that the work goes on and on about how Satan wishes to promote the heresy of witches as means of angering God against the human race because Satan thereby "steals" people who belong to God via baptism. Apparently, this is a form of treason against the majesty of God, and in retaliation God will give greater permission for witchcraft to take place (peculiarly, the argument of the work is that since God is omnipotent, absolutely nothing can take place without God's authorization, so to some extent the increasing prevalence of witchcraft can be viewed as a penalty for the existence of any in the first place, in a sort of downward spiral of infidelity and retribution).

Anyway, from my perspective, the interest of the work is mainly historical, but in that regard, apart from the interest of why people in the past believed and acted as they did, I think that the witch craze, which is Malleus did much to promote, can give us lessons for understanding human behavior even today. What I mean is that one could readily compare the results of believing in the notion of diabolism, that is, the great witch hunts of the 16th and 17th centuries, with the major scare about child abuse in daycare centers that spread across the .U.S in the 1980's. At that time, because the notion had taken root that heinous crimes (often associated with devil worship) were being committed against children in some daycare centers, certain mild complaints that had nothing to do with such activity quickly snowballed into gargantuan legal cases that defied all rational interpretation of the evidence (I'm thinking of cases like those involving the McMartin and Little Rascals daycares). It was only in 2004 that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts managed to get around (very reluctantly, I might add) to partially remedying the injustice resulting from one such case when Gerald Amirault was finally released after spending eighteen years in prison for a crime that no rational human being should have believed in the first place, much less on the absurd evidence presented in the case. Now, the word "medieval" is sometimes used to mean "characterized by irrational and superstitious beliefs", but before we get on our high horse of feeling superior to the benighted past, it is worth remembering that all ages are subject to unwarranted and irrational behavior that is based on a deep-seated anxiety. The process that dislocates logical reason in both instances is the same, that is, an overriding "paradigm" delineating the sorts of crimes that are thought to go on in the world can cause people to act in defiance of the actual "evidence" because they form specific expectations in light of the overarching paradigm and then interpret what they "see" on the basis of what they expect.

From a religious point of view, I'm not the one to ask. But I can say that I've gotten two diametrically opposite reactions to the work from committed Christians. One person took me to task for undertaking the job of editing and translating the work at all on the following grounds: "Why is it you -or anyone- think that something as dreadful as the Malleus should be perpetuated? I see no reason for it and in the current climate of unbridled anti-religious bigotry to produce yet another edition seems to be just pouring fuel on the fire." Apparently, this person thinks that the "church" (I'm not sure whether he means Christianity in general or the Catholic Church in particular) looks bad through association with the work, which he strove to show (erroneously, as it turns out) was repudiated by the church. If it is the case that the Malleus makes the church "look bad," that's hardly my fault. On the other side of the spectrum, I recently received an email from a woman who took umbrage at views expressed in my introduction as laid out in an article published in my university's newspaper about the edition. Among other things, she wrote:

"It wasn't clear from the article, though, about the source documentation used for your critical introduction. In the article, you mention 'a place where demons inhabit the earth....and plot to ensnare them in their evil-doing and have sex with them....' as having no basis in reality and the Catholic Church concocted their ideas out of nothing. These are very strong statements and most difficult to prove. Indeed, it's always easier to prove a positive than a negative i.e. it would appear easier to prove that the Catholic Church contains the full deposit of the Truth, that there are witches and that Satan exists, that people do have sex with demons... My husband [cut] has a personal testimony that encompasses all of these subjects. He will be giving this testimony at the Edmonton Catholic Charismatic Prayer Breakfast..."
The text isn't entirely clear to me, but if I understand it rightly, she thinks it to be Catholic dogma (as laid out in the Malleus?) that not only do witches and Satan exist, but demons in fact walk the earth and have sex with humans, as her husband can attest, apparently through personal knowledge. I don't think I want to know what this personal knowledge could consist of. Seemingly, in this woman's mind, demons are a metaphysical reality in the world around us and the Malleus can still serve as a guide to understanding this phenomenon. For my own part, in the Edmonton that I live in, there aren't any demons. I guess it just depends on the paradigm you use to make sense of the world!

Morehead's Musings: Dr. Mackay, thank you again for making time to discuss this interesting historical document with far-reaching influences.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Steve Hu: Newbigin, Syncretism, and the Emerging Church

Not long ago I was doing some research on the Internet on syncretism in connection with missions and I was fortunate to come across a paper mentioned on the Tall Skinny Kiwi blog by Steve Hu titled "Are We Syncretizing the Gospel: A Reflection Upon Lesslie Newbigin's Definition of Syncretism for the Church's Missionary Encounter with Culture." Steve presented this paper to a regional meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society in 2007, and as I read it I thought it was very helpful in reflecting upon the topic of syncretism and the contribution of Newbigin to this timely topic.

I did a little Internet detective work and tracked Steve down. We have had a few email exchanges and have talked by phone, and he consented to discuss his paper here.

Steve graduated from Rutgers University, New Jersey with a dual bachelor’s in English and Journalism. Before entering seminary, he worked as a technical writer and briefly as a newspaper reporter in central New Jersey. He attended Biblical Theological Seminary and completed a dual master of arts in missional theology and Old Testament in May of 2007. He is currently serving in a large Chinese-American church as a pastoral intern. His particular interest and research area include the interplay between culture and Gospel, and also between culture and culture. He notes that the challenge of ministering in an Asian-American context is to discern the underlying and implicit Confucian values that sometimes govern how ministry is done in such a context.

Morehead's Musings: Steve, thanks for agreeing to discuss your interesting paper. Let's begin on a personal note. What is it about the subject matter of the paper that led you to write it? Your appreciation for Lesslie Newbigin's thought, aspects of the emerging church movement, or the timely issue of syncretism in the West?

Steve Hu: When I first came across Lesslie Newbigin’s work, I was dumbstruck with the idea he was articulating, that the church needs to send missionaries to the West. Why would the church needs to engage in missions in the West? Hasn’t the West already been converted or “won” (if you want to use a Western movie motif)? It’s only the non-Western locales that needs the Gospel, not the West. I was completely boggled by this concept. As I delved deeper, I began to see that the missionary encounter which the Gospel has with culture occurs in all locales, at all times – past, present, future.

I was also intrigued with the emerging church movement in that they seriously are taking the challenge and call of embodying and incarnating the Gospel in our post-Christendom context here in the West. It is because the ECM has taken up the call to seriously engage culture and embody the Gospel that it has been criticized of syncretism, or diluting the message of the Gospel. What drew me to this issue is that Newbigin’s ecumenical tone, and the fact that both sides of the emerging debate read and cull Newbigin’s work for insight. Newbigin challenges not only those in the ECM, but those outside of the movement as well. So the lessons we can learn from Newbigin speak broadly to the church as a whole if we are to seriously take up the challenges of embodying a biblical Christianity to this culture.

Morehead's Musings: I found it interesting that you began and concluded your paper with reference to the missionary work of Matteo Ricci in China in the sixteenth century. I found his contextualization work in China most intriguing when I considered it for my intercultural studies courses at seminary. What is it about his work that interests you and how do you make the connection to the subject of the paper?

Steve Hu: I first became interested in Matteo Ricci’s life and work when I attended the “Splendors of Imperial China” exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City in 1996. This exhibition featured 350 pieces of art which spanned 4,000 years of Chinese history. Toward the end of that exhibition, I came across several paintings by Jesuit missionaries in China in the 18th century. I was intrigued by this since in this huge collection of Chinese art one would not expect to see works by European artists. I have always thought of China as a monolithic and homogeneous land, a society whose culture was never influenced by the outside world. (After all, China considered itself the “Middle Kingdom”, a country where others revolve around her.) As I soon discovered, throughout her history, China has seen and greeted many outsiders, cultures, and systems of thought. As a student of Chinese history and Christian missions, it is this encounter and interplay of cultures that interest me.

Matteo Ricci’s life and missionary work came closely before Western colonial expansion began in Asia. Ricci is seen by scholars as the precursor of modern Western influence in China. Though Western influence would later encroach forcefully upon Chinese culture in the modern period, Ricci’s work did not exemplify this infringement. He was the first ever European to gain an audience in the late-Ming imperial court and permitted to live in the capital city, Beijing because the scientific and mathematical knowledge he was able to offer to the Ming court. While Ricci’s missionary method is based on Francis Xavier’s contextual engagement with Buddhists in Japan done decades previously, Ricci understood in order for the Gospel to gain foothold in China, he must first become an astute student of Chinese culture. Ricci took on the role of a learner instead of a proselytizer. He did this so to become an “integral part” of Chinese society so to reach the Chinese in their own terms. Since the highly literate Chinese valued philosophy, knowledge, science, Ricci first presented himself as a Buddhist monk to the Chinese. Not realizing Buddhist religious men were not revered in China as they were in Japan, Ricci realized his mistake and in due course became a Confucian literatus so he may present himself as a learned man to the Chinese. To this end Ricci also spent years studying the Chinese language and Confucian classics to prepare for the missionary encounter he would have with the upper echelons of Chinese society. In short, Ricci wanted to understand and speak the language and culture of the Chinese so he may present Christ in Chinese terms to that culture. Ricci’s approach represents an organic and imbedded missionary strategy so he may dialogue and converse with the Chinese literati in their own relevant cultural terms. And since the Chinese literati highly valued literature, Ricci took up writing in Chinese to “sinicizing” Christianity. Ricci did this by interacting with Confucian classics and explaining the concept of the one true God in Confucian terms.

Ricci’s missionary approach was unique for his time. He painstakingly took time to contextualize the Gospel message in Confucian concepts, a system of thought that governed most of Chinese social, familial, and state behavior at the time. This method of appropriating a “foreign God” is what helped the Chinese Ricci was trying to reach make sense of the Gospel. China scholars like Donald Treadgold has termed Ricci’s methods “syncretistic” but it was exactly this approach that garnered early Christian missions great success in China. The criticism of syncretism arose because Ricci allowed new converts to Christianity practice ancestral worship. Since this deep-seated ritual was so central to a culture that highly valued honor and shame, dismantling ancestral worship would bring instability to Chinese society. Ricci also opined that such rituals carried no religious significance, that they were merely symbolic means of expressing filial piety to one’s family. Of course Ricci’s methods were controversial and many viewed him as someone who compromised the Gospel. While opinions differ on the value of Ricci’s approach, most China scholars view this approach as Ricci’s way of engaging the deep-seated Confucian beliefs of the Chinese culture. As John D. Young puts it, Ricci’s method was more a tactical strategy rather than an intellectual compromise of the Gospel.

While Ricci’s scientific knowledge afforded him credibility among the Chinese literati, Ricci knew his first and foremost task is the engagement with the Chinese for the sake of the Gospel. Ricci believed the direct act of proselytizing would not help this cause, that the introduction of a very foreign concept into Chinese thought would be an “assault” on Chinese culture. Ricci adroitly overcame this obstacle by pointing out to the Chinese that the one true God was already present in Confucian classical texts by appropriating the Confucian concepts of “heaven” and “Lord-on-high”. Ricci poured his efforts into this argument, and wrote voluminously in Chinese arguing for the existence of God and saw Confucian philosophy preparing the way to the true God. Furthermore, Ricci would also use Confucianism’s highest virtue, filial piety, to argue for the need to love God and to love one’s neighbor.

With all the talk in toady’s missiology of being “relevant”, I find Ricci as a perfect pioneering example who understood the challenges and the stake involved in contextualizing the Gospel for it to be understand and lived out by its target audience. Ricci was no different from the early church fathers who saw Greek philosophy possessing a kernel of truth which points to Christ. Ricci did the same with Confucianism, and in due time impacted a great deal of Chinese whom he lead to Christ. Not only did Ricci impact these individuals spiritually, he also shaped scientific understanding in China. For this impact, Ricci is still honored today in China as the Christian who brought about scientific advancement and reintroduced ethics to Chinese society.

Morehead's Musings: Your paper addresses the charge of syncretism leveled against the emerging church. What types of allegations are made?

Steve Hu: D.A. Carson, one of the most vocal critics of the emerging church, has pointed out if the ECM continues down the line toward a wholesale adoption of postmodern epistemology, then the ECM will also without doubt become more syncretistic. According to Carson, this is because postmodern epistemology disallows any particular claim to reality or truth. This catering to postmodernism promotes an uncritical tolerance in which all things are accepted as true. On this basis, truth becomes relativized. Carson argues that if postmoderns are to be postmoderns, then they have to disallow claims to any reality thereby increasing the need (and desire) for syncretism. Because our cultural milieu is becoming more and more postmodern, anyone who does not hold a pluralistic worldview would be seen as “old fashioned”. Carson also charges the ECM has desiring to find positives in every “ism” while dismissing modernism.

The allegation of syncretism also comes from other critics of the ECM, from writers and authors like J.P. Moreland, Albert Mohler, Millard Erickson (see Whatever Happened to Truth and Reclaiming the Center, both published by Crossway). The charge these authors bring up is that the problem with postmodernism is its “relativistic understanding of truth and knowledge” as it conceives truth in context of a linguistic community (hence the “linguistic turn”) while rejecting the correspondence view of reality. The allegation of relativizing truth claims logically leads to the charge of syncretism. If truth is relativized, then it’s easier to pick and choose what one perceives as good from each “ism” or worldview.

These are certainly serious issues for the ECM to consider, that the possibility of “catering” to postmodernism would lead one down the road of syncretism. But for critics of the ECM to link wholesale the entire movement to these wide-ranging allegations is a bit rash. There are still those in the ECM who hold firm to the proposition that Christ is “the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6).

Morehead's Musings: Would you identify yourself with the emerging church movement? And simply because you are critiquing the allegations of syncretism in the ECM this does not mean that you necessarily believe that the ECM does not have issues it might be more self-critical in regards to. Is this correct?

Steve Hu: I am not part of the ECM nor was I ever part of an ECM community. I do, however, identify myself with the general tenets of this movement since it provides valuable insight to evangelicalism as it is currently understood and practiced in the West. As some critics of the ECM want to toss out the baby along with the bathwater, I actually find it helpful to think of the ECM as a movement that can offer positive correctives to our current understanding and practice of Christianity. Similarly, in history we see Romanticism grew as a corrective to the overly rationalistic enterprise of the Enlightenment. Movements will never cease to spring up in history, and the challenge for the church is to discern and identify both the positives and negatives of such movements in order to appropriate the Gospel message in such context. There are a number of strengths in this movement (many would quickly cite the positives of the ECM as Eddie Gibbs and Ryan Bolger points out in Emerging Churches). In particular, I see the ECM’s purposeful discernment of culture for the intentional engagement with culture and its desire to be on mission with God as strengths of this movement. The ECM’s intentional desire to incarnate the Gospel in the world seeks to bridge the divide between the public and private spheres, an artificial dichotomy modernism has created. This is another positive I see in the ECM.

Despite these positives, caution is still needed when appropriating Gospel in our growing postmodern context. This is where I think there is room within the ECM can be more cautious and self-critical, particularly in its assessment of modernism. I generally agree with Carson’s critique of the ECM’s reductionistic understanding of modernism. Like its critics, the ECM also wants to throw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater by completely jettisoning modern epistemology. But if postmoderns truly believe that no one has the whole picture and that we need one another to help ourselves to fill in the blanks, then why is there such outright rejection of modernism? Perhaps the new way of understanding the world is found in both the linguistic turn and a correspondence theory of truth. To synthesize these two, the church would thereby practice syncretism par excellence.

In some ways, the ECM sees itself as the panacea to the woes and ills of the modern, Western church. Despite this view, the ECM is still mostly confined to the WASPy demographic of this country. I have yet seen the ECM make inroads in the African-American, Hispanic, or Asian churches in this country. Why? Perhaps these issues are not even pertinent in ethnic churches. Perhaps such issue like the dichotomy between public and private is only inherent in Western constructs. So for the ECM to garner all the attention and for it to say that their approach is the way forward is a bit premature.

Morehead's Musings: In your paper you interact with the writings of Lesslie Newbigin. How have you found him helpful in this context?

Steve Hu: Newbigin is a tremendous figure in missiology and his writings provide profound insight on the church’s missionary encounter with Western culture. Born in England, Newbigin served as a bishop in Madras, India for a number of years before returning to the West. As he settled in England, Newbigin began to analyze the interplay between the Gospel, Western culture, and the church. Newbigin came to realize the Western church had lost its missionary vocation by co-opting the Gospel. Surprisingly, the West also syncretizes the Good News by dressing the Gospel in Western forms, styles, and epistemology. Newbigin would not have been able to notice this if he had not spent time in a non-Western context. It was through serving and working with his fellow Indian brothers and sisters that he began to see his own conception and practice of Christianity as syncretism since it is couched in a layer of Western assumptions. The problem Newbigin faced is how to discern the “contextualized character” of the Gospel in the West because at first he considered Western forms of worship and theology as “normative”. As Carlos Carodoza-Orlandi puts it, if this consideration is taken without critical reflection, then the Western church would be “blind to the interplay between the gospel and their culture(s), the ways in which their faith shapes and is shaped by the context where they live.”

Newbigin’s analysis demonstrates syncretism is not just an obstacle missionaries face in non-Western locales, but it is quite a real and live issue in the West as well. How exactly does the church in the West syncretize the Gospel? The Gospel is accommodated when the church latches Christianity onto modernism. Newbigin argues further this is seen in the artificial dichotomy between faith and reason, values and facts, public and private. The most obvious symptom of this malaise is the ineffectiveness of the church in the public arena as the church has accepted being relegated to the private sphere. In this manner, Newbigin forcefully asserts the church is practicing nothing more than a dualistic, gnostic religion, a religion much like that of Hinduism than a biblical Christianity.

Within today’s evangelical circles, Newbigin’s writing is gaining popularity since they offer an accurate diagnosis of the symptoms of syncretism in the church. A prime example of the relegation of the Western church to the private sphere can be seen in the modernist-fundamentalist controversy at the beginning of the 20th century in which the church retreated back into her walls of safety. Newbigin’s writings are incredibly piercing, and he helped me see how my own understanding and practice of Christianity may be accommodated or diluted. I’ve also come to realized that my own conception of the Gospel is couched in Western forms, styles, and epistemology. I find it quite helpful that in being aware of this co-option, my conception of the Gospel is not all that “normative”. This awareness also helps me cultivate a constant self-examination of my own understanding and practice of Christianity so that I don’t thrust up my understanding of the Gospel as the one true orthodoxy.

Morehead's Musings: Let's talk a little about syncretism. This is perhaps one of the key issues facing the church in the 21st century in both theology and missiology. The word "syncretism" is almost always considered a negative term but you remind us that it has a long history with both positive and negative connotations. Can you comment on this?

Steve Hu: Syncretism, like the word “postmodernism”, has really gotten a bad rap over the years. When was the last time you associated something positive with the term “postmodernism”? In the popular evangelical mind, postmodernism represents a flippant disregard for truth, relativistic, an “if it makes you happy, I’m happy” approach to life. If you’re a Bible-believing Christian, then you better stay away from the bogey man of postmodernism since he’s out to get you.

Syncretism has the same bum rap. When this term was first used by Plutarch in the 2nd century A.D., syncretism meant the coming together of two allies to battle a common enemy. (Plutarch used this term to describe the Cretans who banded together against a mutual enemy.) The Dutch humanist Erasmus also used syncretism in such positive light. It wasn’t until the Reformation that this term began to take on a negative tone. In the 17th century when the Reformation was in full swing and many Protestant sects branched out, George Calixtus, a German theologian, sought to unify and harmonize the different doctrines of these sects. Calixtus used the term syncretism to exhort Protestant sects to reconcile their doctrinal differences. Instead, critics of Calixtus labeled this as an “unprincipled jumbling together of religions”.

By the Protestant missionary movement in the 18th century, syncretism became a pejorative term since it was used by missionaries to describe the dilution of the Gospel as it came in contact with indigenous cultures. According to one missiologist, Western missionaries associated this term with the idea of decline and loss and many of them warned against accommodating the Gospel to local rituals and religions by labeling such acts as syncretistic.

Morehead's Musings: You reference "syncretism" as a power word. What do you mean by this?

Steve Hu: In light syncretism’s etymology and historical usage, one can see how early missionaries applied this term to cross-cultural contexts they encountered overseas. This term has been used by missionaries to determine what conforms to Christian orthodoxy. For the Western missionary entering into a non-Western context, the only basis on which he can delineate Christian orthodoxy is his own Western Christianity. In such cases, converts were asked to adopt Western styles of worship, ecclesiology, and understanding of the Gospel. For the In a locale where the missionary determines, delineates, and imposes a Christianity that is overly Western in style and form without considering the local context can certainly be seen as “power” play. The missionary’s task and situation are both further complicated by the close tie perceived between colonialism and missions, in which Western culture and the Gospel were propagated together. Regardless of their best efforts, early Western missionary’s proselytizing and standards of Christian orthodoxy were still couched in Western style, something that is foreign to the local context. To the locals, the missionary is seen as someone who wants to maintain control so that the newly converted would not fall into theological heterodoxy.

Morehead's Musings: How does all of this relate to the issue of "contextual theology"?

Steve Hu: Contextual theology is simply theology that is done in any given context in attempt to understand the Gospel. Stephen Bevans reminds us there is no such thing as pure “theology”. The question the missionary should ask is “Whose orthodoxy is normative?” Contextual theology takes into account that our own experiences and context may not be normative. Our approach to theology cannot be contextless or else we assume truth can most clearly be seen from our own context. A contextual theology must take into consideration the past which is recorded in Scripture and seen practiced in tradition that is faithfully passed down to us. When one practices theology, he must also consider the present or the context of where he resides. This context incorporates four things, as Bevans defines it: personal and communal experience of the local community, culture, social location, and social change. It’s helpful to realize that our theologizing is always guided by our context. Theology is done in context, for a particular context, and by the same context. So the missionary, whether he is speaking with his neighbor next door in suburbia America or in a Tibetan village, must be a student of the local context so he may learn and grasp the nuances of the local culture to appropriate the Gospel in a way that is understandable in that context.

The question that is raised is that if the context is elevated as a focal point for theology, then would not this act relativize the Gospel message? The answer is no. The task of the missionary is to critically engage the local context alongside with the Gospel, allowing the Gospel to challenge the assumptions of culture. Without the Gospel, the missionary would be lost.

Morehead's Musings: Toward the end of your paper you draw upon Robert Schreiter's suggestion that "it is time for the church to redefine syncretism." What do you have in mind here?

Steve Hu: Seeing how the term syncretism has slowly evolved to take up such a pejorative connotation, before we use this term in any way we should at least be aware of the how syncretism came to be associated with the negatives of diluting, co-opting, and accommodating the Gospel to any culture or religion. We should also be aware how this term has been used in Western mission to delineate orthodoxy while Western missionaries failed to apply a self-reflexive examination of their own “normative” understanding and practice of the Gospel. In some sense I am generalizing Western missions as an endeavor that infringed upon native cultures. There are many fine examples of contextualization, missionaries who took the time to learn and understand their local context and embodied the Gospel in such manner that turned many lives toward Christ.

It’s time that we apply the same process to our own understanding and practice of the Gospel to see whether we are co-opting it to Western styles, forms, and epistemology. The redefinition of syncretism is just this: that we quit labeling each other’s approach to appropriating the Gospel as “syncretistic”, and that we begin to examine our own assumptions of how the Gospel can be understood. Only when we engage in serious self-reflection can we come to realize our own tendency to co-opt the Gospel in our own presentation of it. Once we begin to see this, there is an increased potential in the church to move beyond the pejorative labeling. This move would also allow ourselves to seek out one another to point out our own blind spots. This is what a real syncretism is, the coming together of different elements in the church to engage the world, a coming together that would allow the church to faithful live out and embody the Gospel with relevance and without compromise.

Morehead's Musings: To bring this full circle, how do you see all of this applying to the emerging church, and beyond?

Steve Hu: This negative label is often cast upon the ECM and I think if both those inside and outside the ECM can examine their own assumptions, seriously think upon the changing cultural context of the Western world, and meditate upon the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, then the church would realize that both sides are working toward the same goal of faithfully presenting and incarnating the Gospel.

The sign of our times point to an ever-increasing diversity in our world, especially in the Western context. The recent Pew report on U.S. religious trends indicates a continuing "browning" of the church here in this country. As growth of Christianity continues to shift toward the Global South, we would do well to engage those in the church who are different from us for the sake of presenting and incarnating a Gospel that is always aware of its context (think of Jesus as a first-century Jewish man). This engagement is needed for our own reflection and for the sake of embodying a vibrant and robust Gospel.This critical examination cannot occur in a one-sided conversation. This dialog takes two partners to talk and think through, and once the church can move beyond the criticism, a genuine partnership can develop in bringing the Gospel to this world.

Morehead's Musings: Steve, thanks again for this discussion and a great paper. I look forward to future discussions and your scholarly contributions to the church.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Media Treatments of Controversial Sects - Revised

Today the media has been filled with reports of the latest legal problems for the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Readers will likely recall that last year the group made headlines as its prophet, Warren Jeffs, was convicted of various crimes. The group became the object of new national attention as police entered the property of the group and removed 401 children as temporary wards of the court. A judge gave approval for this action after allegations of abuse by a sixteen-year-old girl with the threat of alleged physical abuse or the imminent threat of such abuse.

But as this story has developed a few thoughts came to mind as I reflected on media treatments of this controversial sect. I don't want to be misunderstood here or to become the focus of new evangelical critiques as an alleged "cult apologist," so I'll state what should be obvious: If crimes against minors or adults have taken place within this marginalized religious group then authorities should take action just as they would in a situation involving a secular group or a more traditional religious setting. But I am intrigued by media treatments surrounding this group that seem to paint it in less than objective light as the facts in the case continue to be discovered in the wake of the allegations.

First, most media reports on this incident refer to a raid of a sect "compound." Why isn't it referred to as the group's property, community, or living quarters? The term "compound" has been used of fringe religious groups that have come to embody the worst in the popular consciousness where religious extremism is concerned, being associated with things like Jonestown in Guyana or the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas. Is "compound" used because the assumption is made that religious groups that live on the margins of traditional society and religion are automatically suspect? Is there an unconscious connection with the use of the word to those religious groups that have come to personify the worst of religious "cults"?

Second, it is interesting that this recent frenzy on the part of the media and the general public in relation to a controversial religious sect comes with allegations of child abuse. Recall that one of the initial reasons the BATF engaged the Branch Davidians was over the same allegation. Perhaps these allegations will be proven true, perhaps not. We will have to wait for all the facts and evidence to be released in order to know for sure. But we might consider that given our culture's extreme sensitivities to child abuse that the mere allegation of abuse is enough to initiate the removal of children by authorities and their separation from their parents, and many times the allegations are never proven only to see the children and parents reunited after a long and stressful time of separation. And once an allegation of child abuse is made, it is never possible to completely remove the stigma that the mere allegation raises. (We might also consider that child abuse occurs with unfortunate regularity in both secular and mainstream religious settings as well, so we should exercise caution before throwing stones at an alleged child-abusing "cult.")

The concerns raised by the two items referenced above seem to come together in the Fox News report on the issue this evening. The network reported on a "polygamous cult" and included soundbites from a former member of a polygamous sect that painted a portrait of all such groups as opposed to basic human rights and interested in little more than power, manipulation, and sexual gratification. I am sympathetic to the negative experiences this woman may have gone through, but it appears that her negative personal experiences have become part of her personal template for interpreting all polygamous groups. If this is the case, then while her own pain is very real and tragic, as she applies her views to the FLDS Church she may be less than objective and her commentary will need to be carefully cross-checked against the experiences of women and children in the Texas FLDS group as their experiences are verified over time. In addition, sociological data on former members of new religions (so-called "apostate testimonies"), and positive testimonies of those currently in polygamous groups, provide important considerations for more balanced media treatments of groups like the FLDS Church. As in the instance of terminology, and allegations of child abuse referenced above, the use of former members in media treatments of controversial sects must be used carefully by the media and assessed critically by the viewing audience.

We might also consider that as media coverage of this story has unfolded since the initial raid of the group's property it has taken on a familiar popular media type anti-cult treatment of controversial relgions that draws parallels between a contemporary sect and notorious groups of the past. For example, in a recent Newsweek article online, the headline reads, "We just hoped it wouldn't be another Waco." Why would a very different religious sect in the present cause anyone to draw connections to another from the past, unless there were concerns that the government would create another debacle in its intervention? For these reasons, it does not seem like much of a stretch to question the objectivity of media reports on the FLDS Church raid in Texas.

Most recently, NBC News included a story providing the sect mother's perspective on the children's living conditions.

What do I mean by all of this? Simply that we need to be careful about taking media reports about controversial sects at face value, and to remember that even those religious groups that fall outside the mainstream deserve the same legal protections and benefit of the doubt as mainstream religious institutions. Perhaps we can withhold judgment while the scenario plays itself out.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Pew Forum Religion News: U.S. Mormons and Muslims Share Deepening Ties

The current email newsletter for the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life includes an interesting article that notes a growing relationship between U.S. Mormons and Muslims. Pew points to a story from the Los Angeles Times titled "U.S. Mormons and Muslims share deepening ties," with a byline that states, "This connection is based not on theology, but on shared values and a sense of isolation from mainstream America." The article goes on to note that:

The Mormon Church has to be among the most outgoing on earth; in recent years its leaders have reached out to, among others, Latinos, Koreans, Catholics and Jews.

One of the most enthusiastic responses, however, has come from what some might consider a surprising source: U.S. Muslims.

"We are very aware of the history of Mormons as a group that was chastised in America," says Maher Hathout, a senior advisor to the Muslim Public Affairs Council in Los Angeles. "They can be a good model for any group that feels alienated."

Which perhaps explains an open-mosque day held last fall at the Islamic Center of Irvine. More than half the guests were Mormons.


What binds them has little to do with theology: Mormons venerate Jesus as interpreted by founder Joseph Smith, while Muslims view Muhammad as god's prophet. Based on shared values and a sense of isolation from mainstream America, the connection was intensified by 9/11 and cemented by the Southeast Asia tsunami. It is especially evident in Southern California, with large Mormons and Muslim populations.

The entire article can be accessed here.