Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Is That Biblical?

Photo Credit: this photo is from the cited article

First, read this:

I live in Thailand working with The Charis Project. So I am part of some of the missionary discussions around this article and the parallel discussions about different evangelism strategies. There has been some profound backlash in some circles. Accusations of syncretism, departure from Biblical truth, etc. Here is one comment:

Very disappointing read!!!! The author's mindset would be comparable to saying the reason all the Ninevites repented is because Jonah crafted his message to fit the culture of Ninevah. Come on, I am all for contextualization but let's think a little more Biblically and Theo-centric.

Now there are many problems with this comment but I am not about to address them here. I cite it here because it is demonstrative of a particular method of assessment that I disagree with.

From the discussions I have seen, I believe that the commenter is saying that the evangelism method that the author of the article is advocating is not Bible-centered because it is not centered on the Bible as the ultimate truth to which all other cultures are opposed and so Christianity must be preached using only explicitly Bible words and images and cultural practices. Moreover, it seems that he does this entirely neglecting that the Bible is a highly encultured collection of books and that it was not written in English or to English idiom and that he has already reenculturated it from it's original context into a Protestant and western reading.

It seems to me that the Bible gives precedent for exactly the sort of evangelism the article speaks of. This is what Paul did in Athens. The difference appears to be that where Paul’s attempt failed the same style of evangelism is succeeding in Thailand. Moreover I believe that evangelism is about growing the body of Christ rather than forming people after he image of Western Christendom.

To me, a far more important point is the way we assess the method of evangelism advocated by the author of the article.

I advocate giving a priority to a reading of scripture whereby we learn from the methodologies recorded as spirit led. This means that we would look to scripture to get a grip on how those who it records as being led by the Spirit went about coming to the conclusions they came to and then treat it as a training manual for us to learn the same methodologies.

With this in mind we should look at the first council of Jerusalem recorded in Acts as a case study. Here we have in scripture a record of Spirit led assessment of mission. The issue at hand was fundamental to the young Church’s doctrine of salvation: could Gentiles be included in Jesus’ reconstitution of Israel in himself as Gentiles or did they have to become Jews in order to be included? Remember, at this time there were no Christians. The followers of Jesus were a Jewish sect and to them the following of Jesus and his whole reconstitution of Israel project was strictly a Jewish happening. And then Peter goes and preaches to Cornelius’ household. And the Spirit comes. On Gentiles. While they were still Gentiles. This presented a problem since to them this Jesus thing was Jewish. Thus the council. So what did they do? They listened to the testimony of a credible witness about the event. From this they concluded that since the Spirit came on Gentiles the same as the Spirit came on Jews God didn’t seem to hold the same doctrine that they did. Because of this they shifted their doctrine and recognized that Gentiles could very well be members of Jesus as Gentiles. Now this is very important. In technical terms they let experiential pneumatology take precedence over soteriology. The observation of the outbreaking of the Kingdom of God trumped their doctrine of salvation.

This scriptural case study seems to me to directly bear on the testimony of the author of this article. To be in keeping with apostolic methodology we should look at the testimony and be ready to have our preconceived doctrines of how God is supposed to work trumped by the outbreaking of the Kingdom. And, we in fact find exactly this outbreaking in the Thai communities the author speaks of. Our Biblical response then is to recognize the effectiveness of the method of evangelism as taking ground against the futility and chaos of this world and to accept these Thai people following Jesus in their Thai way as our brothers and sisters in Jesus.

An admittedly not so charitable question that comes up in my mind is whether those who oppose the evangelism witnessed to in the article have a sufficient working knowledge of the Spirit of the living God to be able to recognize him when he shows up where they did not expect to see him?

As a post script, I wonder how this apostolic methodology would work in the debate over the place of LGBT folks in the Kingdom? But, I will leave that question to those of you for whom this is already an active discussion.

(Side point on the article: in discussion with some of my Thai pastor friends it appears that the historical background that the author cites as the basis of the difficulty really isn't an issue as even though they are highly educated they knew nothing about that religious/political conflict. From their perspective that historical background is a non-issue.)

Thursday, April 17, 2014

individualism, independence, differentiation, and community

(This post is a thumbnail sketch of something I have been working on for some time now. I am aware that the arguments are not fully worked out and that the language is complicated.)

In the western world we live in the least individualized most interdependent society that has existed in human history.

In more primitive societies there is a high degree of individual self sufficiency. Subsistence farming, hunting and gathering, etc. societies are made up of self sufficient individuals that gather together for the marginal benefits of larger group interaction. However the group is not essential to their survival and well-being. Each member of the community could leave the community and do just fine on their own compared to the quality of life within the society. Leaving the group entails no substantive change in the life of the individual.

In more modern societies this becomes reversed. The the individual becomes highly interrelated within the community such that these interrelations become the primary identity of the individual. For the individual to leave the community they need to undergo significant and substantive change. Their being and identity becomes inextricably subsistent to the community. The gains of participation in the community shift from being marginal to being essential to the existence of the individual.

I am now going to make a distinction in my language. I will distinguish between community and homotype. A community is a group made up of independent individuals while the members of an homotype have lost their independence and individuality.

I posit that we as humans hunger for community. I believe further that as our social independence decreases our psychological hunger for individuality increases. This is because we want that sort of self sufficient relatedness but it has been superseded by the inextricability of our social interconnections. 

We sense this as a void, as a lack, as a pulling hunger. Greed and selfishness is a pathological response to this condition. I am not saying that this condition creates greed or selfishness but that we fall to those vices out of a desire to set ourselves apart so that it becomes possible for us to engage in community rather than be enmeshed in an homotype. Greed and selfishness are not a desire to have more but to have more than. They are specifically vices of distinction.

In some Christian circles that observe modern western society there is a strong criticism of "individualism." Part of this criticism is valid in that it is actually talking about the pathology of greed and selfishness used to individuate. This should be made distinct in the language of the criticism for the sake of coherent communication.

There is another part of the criticism that is more problematic. This part comes out of the inherent conservatism of religion. It comes out of a primitive need for cohesion. In primitive societies the marginal benefits of community were augmented by ideological hegemony. The individuals of the group had no essential structural need to remain in the community but the marginal benefits that accrued to the community were diminished if an individual defected. Ideological hegemony could mediate against this defection to the marginal benefit of the whole. This cohesion effect is one of the major historical social benefits of religion. It is because of this history that religion hungers for this hegemony and out of this hunger comes the illegitimate modern criticism of individuality. Religion continues to work to hold together a society that is already too tightly packed for human comfort. The "individualism" criticism has conflated the pathologies of greed and selfishness with the now extinct danger of social defection.

It is telling that the criticism of individualism is in the name of preserving community. A community that the forces of society have rendered non-existent by eroding the very independent freedom that individualism is the attempt to regain.  And that the criticism is of the most thoroughly interdependent society ever to exist in human history.

Though I believe that this drive for ideological hegemony is foundational to religion, however socially helpful it has historically been, I do not believe that it is at all essential to the actual movement of God in the world.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

What Are We Going To Do Tonight, Brain?

In 1999 I met Jeff Hammond. My brother, Emmet, and I had traveled to Indonesia to “research ministry opportunities and help out however we could.” Some friends in Australia had introduced us to Jeff and encouraged us to connect when we got to Jakarta. So, some flights and busses and taxis and emails and phone calls later we sat in a restaurant in a “suburb” of Jakarta with Jeff and his wife Annette. After a few pleasantries “the question” came up as it always does when expats and missionaries and such meet overseas.

“So, Jeff, what are you up to?”

“Taking over the world.”

No hyperbole, no humor, no arrogance, just completely serious. On the day-to-day Jeff was working throughout Indonesia building unity among the different denominations at the local level with a concentration on grace, prayer, and signs and wonders. But this was a stepping-stone toward the real goal of “taking over the world.”

Hearing this man say this set me free. Anything less than total global domination became too small of a strategic goal. This attitude integrated nicely with my developing kingdom theology and open, progressive, quasi-universalist eschatology along with my burgeoning rejection of the neo-platonic underpinnings of some of dominant Christianity’s beloved doctrines.

Let me tell you a story.

At the beginning God brought this world into being. He did this because he thought it would be worth doing. He formed and sculpted the world doing, by his standards, a good job of it all along the process. Till at one point he said, “Yah, that’s pretty good I reckon. I am about done with working on it from the outside. I will now get in there and finish the work.” So God made humans to be his own idol of himself, to be his very presence in the world and put his life and power into them so that he could finish what he started through them. To have them go out and subdue the earth, to finish forming the formless and filling the void.

A significant problem developed when the humans set up an abstract system of rules about fairness over against mere direct obedience to God. They obeyed the rules as if the rules were God. So, to protect the as yet unfinished world from accelerated damage, God removed his life and power from them and the “complete the world” project went on hold. The whole earth has been groaning for that life and power to return so that it could finally be completed and actually get started with its real story.

For thousands of years God worked to disabuse the humans of their infatuation with law and judgment and to retune them to grace and obedience. Finally he put his own image back in the world again to decisively and concretely enact his own obedience and grace in the history of the world. The result being that the presence and power came again into those humans who accepted that grace and obedience and finally the stalled completion of the world got back on track.

We now work in grace and obedience for the fullness of creation. Not bound by law and judgment but filled with the life and power of God to complete what God has begun.

Now, a consistent problem with all theology is that it is problematic. Every way of telling has it’s problem verses. What I like about this story is that it provides a robust explanatory matrix that significantly shifts perspective on a number of historically intractable problems ranging from the problem of evil to foundations for evangelism given the universal grace of God to the paradox of continuity/discontinuity in the movement from “Old” to “New” covenants. But what really gets me about this story is that it is truly and deeply beautiful. The other thing is that it provides an organic impetus (nearly as a categorical imperative) for “mission.” We all know that mission is important but we seem to be at pains to say why in a way that doesn’t continue to feel like it is tacked on rather than absolutely fundamental to our very existence. In this story salvation and mission and calling and existence are absolutely inextricable. We as humans exist to be the very presence of God in the world to complete the creation that is still “under construction” and in Jesus we have been reinstated as that presence to fulfill that calling and re-empowered to live the mission to all the world.

In this telling, evangelism and discipleship cannot separate. Rather, our fundamental human purpose dictates that all our life, including our human interactions drive toward the completion of creation. When It comes to other humans we work to empower more competent world builders. From this perspective evangelism and discipleship are exactly the same thing. So we go out and preach the gospel in all things because that is what Jesus commanded us to do and also because the gospel is the power of God, living and active, the salvation and freedom and empowerment to competently and consciously participate as wholly engaged and alive humans, integrated images of God, ushering in the New Heavens and New Earth, the completion of this world.

We have been given the honor and the responsibility of materially participating in and contributing to the completion of creation. I want to see what happens when the creation is complete and the real story gets rolling. I look forward to the resurrection so that I can get in on that story. I work now to invite and equip as many as I possibly can as well as I possibly can to be world creators, like our Father, together with me. I work now to hone my skill as a craftsman in the likeness of Jesus working by obedience and grace and cunning strategies as one called to participate in completing this world.

I work with a development organization. We work at the intersection of care for at-risk children and community development. We are not street corner witnessers, however we do not hide the one who we serve. We are working through trial and error and (hopefully) the inspiration of the Spirit to develop structures of human interaction that are self reinforcing and that produce ever increasing positive externalities. We are working on food security because there are no hungry people in the Kingdom of God. We are working on solving problems of abuse because there is no abuse and are no victims in the Kingdom of God. We are working primarily with children because it is more effective to shift a social structure by shifting those who are coming into it than to attempt to shift those who have a vested interest in the status quo, this is not a “burden” or “calling,” it is goal-oriented pragmatism.

Now, 15 years after I met Jeff, I am working with an organization whose marketing talks about “sustainability through entrepreneurism,” “deinstitutionalization of orphan care,” and “deployable models of effective development.” Bullshit NGO/UN terms that I hate but that are helpful to both indicate and obfuscate that what we are really about is executing a legit plan to achieve total global domination. Like Jeff, we are not kidding. Like Jeff, we are not overstating our goals. Like Jeff, we are not boasting. This is a weight and a responsibility that is only achievable at the intersection of the full grace of God and the intense and sustained effort of people. Our true success is measured by our participation in manifesting the fullness of the Kingdom of God, by how well we participate in God’s work to complete the creation.

You can do much worse with your life than to try to tell a beautiful story.
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