I probably won’t have the time to develop these into any longer posts, so I’ll just stick them here with a few comments. Overall, I thought The Open Secret was a much more thoughtful and theological book that K.P. Yohannan’s Revolution in World Missions. At least, I was pleased to find a much more nuanced discussion about whether schools and hospitals can/should coincide with proper evangelism and church planting.
As usual, I am always interested in how introductions are handled – favoring humility in disclaimers. This one draws attention to the original context, which is always a good move and one that is not done nearly enough with works of theology.
I am conscious of the fact that these lectures leave much to be desired form the point of view of the scholar who is aware of the range of contemporary studies – biblica, theological, and missionlogical. I must ask the reader to remember the purpose for which and the context in which they were prepared.
On the unplannability of successful missions and and how we should allow room for the Holy Spirit to lead someone in a direction that may not seem to make sense or hold up to analysis:
My own experience as a missionary has been that the significant advances of the church have not been the result of our own decisions about the mobilizing and allocating of “resources.” This kind of language, appropriate for a military campaign or a commercial enterprise, is not approprate here. The significant advances in my experience have come through happenings of which the story of Peter and Cornelius is a paradigm, in ways of which we have no advance knowledge. God opens the heart of a man or woman to the gospel. The messenger (the “angel” of Acts 10:3) may be a stranger, a preacher, a piece of Scripture, a dream, an answered prayer, or a deep experience of joy or sorrow, of danger or deliverance. It was not part of any missionary “strategy” devised by the church. It was the free and sovereign deed of God, who goes before his church. And, like Peter, the church can usually find good reasons for being unwilling to follow. But follow it must if it is to be faithful. For the mission is not ours but God’s.
I really like how Newbigin uses this paragraph to give a definition for “obedience” and the oft-abused “discerning the signs of the times”.
Since the Christian faith is a faith regarding the meaning and end of the human story as a whole, this faith cannot be confessed except in the context of the actual secular history of the present hour. To be specific, this must mean a provisional interprestation of the meaning of contemporary secular events (discerning the signs of the times) and concrete action in the various sectors of secular life directed toward the true end for which God has created humanity and the world (Christian obedience in the common life). In other words, the question of the relation of the biblical story to the whole story of humankind is a question that has to be answered in action. The Christian confession about the meaning and end of history can make good its claim to truth over against other interpretations of human history only through actions in which this confession is embodied in deed – and suffering. If the Christian confession is true, the Acts of God do not cease with the Acts of Apostles.
An excellent and provocative passage here, sounding a bit like Zizek on a good day.
The collapse of Marxism as a world power at the end of the 1980s has to some extent discredited this [socialist/liberation theology] way of thinking, but it has not solved any problems. Indeed, it has created a situations that is in some ways more intractable. The ideology of the free market now has nothing to limit its claims. There is no visible countervailing power. There seems no sign of a check to its relentless advance. And its destructive potential, both for the coherence of human society and for the safeguarding of the environment, are formidable. The ideology of the free market has proved itself more powerful than Marxism. It is, of course, not just a way of arranging economic affairs. It has deep roots in the human soul. It can be met and mastered only at the level of religious faith, for it is a form of idolatry. The churches have hardly begun to recognize that this is probably their most urgent missionary task during the coming century.
I mentioned this passage in an earlier post and sermon about how the Holy Spirit may be, at times, leading people toward repentance of different things than the sins that may bother YOU the most.
In his account of the beginnings of Christianity in Uganda, John V. Taylor has shown very vividly how the first converts (most of whom were young men at the court of the Kabaka) felt the demand of the gospel upon their consciences in ways that had little connection with the ethical teaching of the missionaries. The later laid great stress on the necessity for an immediate abandonment of polygamy as the condition for baptism. But in the hearts and consciences of the converts other questions were being raised by the gospel and especially by the teaching and example of Jesus himself. They saw in him a new pattern of behavior, calling for humility and for willingness to share the world and the hardship of the poor. They saw that slavery was incompatible with allegiance to Christ, and they found themselves engaged in a deep struggle between the “old man” and the “new man of Christ,” of which the missionary was only dimly aware.
p.137 (from The Growth of the Church in Buganda)
One of these days, I’m going to write a much large piece titled “Whose Afraid of Syncretism?” or something like that. I’ve already hit on the topic in several previous posts. This passage will definitely be quoted.
Verbal orthodoxy then becomes the supreme virtue, and syncretism becomes the most feared enemy. When this is the mood, real dialogue becomes impossible. And so does real mission. The mystery of the gospel is not entrusted to the church to be buried in the ground. It is entrusted to the church to be risked in the change and interchange of the spiritual commerce of humanity.
I’m certain someone has thought of this before, but I don’t recall having heard it put exactly this way before, so I’ll give it a shot.
Science is held in extremely high regard in the modern world. It would be more accurate to say that the “idea” of science is held in high regard. Proper science of the strict and ruthlessly inquisitive sort is on the wane in the academy and can rarely be assumed to be behind many claims and ideas that smell science-y today. Regardless, science is respectable in the extreme in public.
All people have problems in their day-to-day lives – in their jobs or in their relationships – problems they try to solve and situations they try to understand. When trying to understand a problem, what tools do you reach for? You might reach for empathy, an extremely useful psychological tool. You might reach for patience or trust, something that we might put under the category of “spiritual discipline”. You might reach for your own physical strength and constitution to push through the situation. But one thing that often comes to mind in our present age, an age where science is king, is to leverage science to help solve our problems. And what is the easiest way to seemingly understand something in a science-y way? With statistics and probability.
Instead of asking, “What does this person care about?” We ask questions like, “What is the likelihood this person will get angry at me if I do such and such?” 40%? 70%? In a sample of the couples at this party, 3 out of 18 of them have prettier girlfriends than I do, so I guess I should feel pretty good about my situation – it’s well above average. For my presentation, it’s critical that I tell a joke before the 2.5 minute mark to keep people engaged. According to my food journal, I sleep better on the Tuesdays when I don’t eat gluten.
These are all just observations about the world of the sort that we all make all the time. The difference is that we now tend to express them in scientific jargon to enhance their power. If we can borrow some of the aura that put a man on the moon or that makes the 128 gigabytes of memory in our iPhone work, maybe it will help us be a better parent too or enable us to make wiser life decisions.
Earlier in history, these lines of thinking or intuitions were more likely to be described with qualitative words. Now we are more apt to use numbers. The way we describe the world and even think about the world has appropriated this new vocabulary. The problem is, that vocabulary was meant to stay in a roped-off arena and not brought into the mushy and bewildering land of human beings and ad hoc impressions. As we’ve now done this for several generations, some of the mushiness has oozed BACK the other direction. We think we are science-y about everything, but in fact we are often less so than ever before.
It dawned on me recently why the veneration of Mary is so persistently attractive. Lay aside all the later Marian dogmas about her being the queen of heaven or the mediatrix or whatever over-the-top ideas people have come up with over the centuries. Just forget those for a moment. The simple fact is that it’s easier for a great many people to imagine Mary as loving them. God the Father is too distant and abstract. Jesus is the incarnation who died for us and loves us and all that, but he is, unfortunately also kind of distant and abstract. The Holy Spirit is mysterious and his voice can sound suspiciously like that of our conscience. It can be difficult to discern between the two. When the devil whispers despair in our ears it can also sound a bit like our conscience as well. We are confused and downtrodden.
But it’s difficult to imagine Mary being angry at us. She puts a “face” on Jesus that is gentler and kinder and not at all stern. Now I know that if Jesus himself were here, he would be all those things perfectly and infinitely and that Mary, for all her virtues, was just another limited person like the rest of us. But the idea – the idea of a calm mother figure – THAT is something that can be more viscerally comforting than all of the things we’ve been taught are wrapped up in Christ.
I was feeling very discouraged one night a couple weeks ago and took a walk where I found myself talking/praying/ranting to God. I passed the statue of Mary by the nearby Roman Catholic church and it popped into my head that here was someone, seemingly the only someone on earth, who WASN’T disappointed with me. I’m incredibly disappointed with myself. I imagine God to be, even though I know that technically that is not true. But I don’t think she is. Now she’s dead of course, but I wish I could more easily see Christ as having those same qualities and same care and emotion toward me. I don’t know if it’s too much abstract theology or tainted earthly father figures or what, but the difficulty is nevertheless very real to me. It’s not accurate, and it’s probably not healthy, but sometimes, when you feel like crap, Mary seems like maybe she could be a little bit nicer than God. At least, I’m not aghast that more than a few people have thought that over the ages and to this day. The idea will likely persist to fill in the gaps of our imagination as long as our image of Christ is imperfect.
Recall this passage whenever you see someone publicly shamed or called out on Twitter or Facebook for some politically incorrect statement. The ones doing the shaming typically purport to speak on behalf of the oppressed.
When the “oppressed” acquire power, absolutely no check exists upon their use of that power. There is no righteousness over them that can judge them. The result is the kind of ruthless tyranny that we have seen under Stalin and his lesser imitators. Those who identify themselves as the representatives of the “oppressed” are in a position to combine unlimited self-righteousness in respect to themselves with unlimited moral indignation in respect of their opponents. This is the most characteristic feature of the dedicated Marxist. Since there is no transcendent righteousness that can judge and forgive both the oppressor and the oppressed, the way is open for unlimited self-righteousness.
-Lesslie Newbigin, The Open Secret, p.111
Notice what will NOT fix anything here for either side: argumentation (well-executed or otherwise), sound reasoning, sufficient dog-piling to drown out, or even an extracted apology. What is needed is forgiveness, of both the oppressed and the oppressor. The oppressor needs to repent and turn from his sin of dehumanizing his brothers and sisters. The oppressed (and their proxy defenders) needs to turn and forgive the one who hurt them, even when the perpetrator is incapable of repenting adequately or making sufficient restitution. The death and resurrection of Christ gives us a space where this kind of seemingly impossible forgiveness CAN be imagined and realized because He is outside of us and does the judging and forgiving FOR us, though in such a way that we can also follow suit. Without his judgement and love, we remain locked in a power play – each clawing for the moral high ground.
There are some really excellent observations about the nature of history and inquiry (scientific or otherwise) packed into these few paragraphs from Lesslie Newbigin’s The Open Secret.
Modern scientific historiography involves asking such questions as the flowing about all the stories that are told: What is the source of the story? Does it come from eyewitnesses or at secondhand? What evidence is there about the credibility of those who saw, reported, or retold the story? What was their purpose in telling the story? To whom were they telling it? What interests and influences would likely to shape their telling? What collateral information do we have from other sources that bears on these events? For the asking of these and similar questions historians are continually sharpening their tools and accumulating and organizing more information bearing on the story.
[BUT!] all these tools are handled and this information is arranged by human beings, whose work is also shaped by the interests and influences of their time and place and culture. The directions in which they decide to probe, the questions they ask, the weight they give to different witnesses and different types of evidence, the analogies by means of which they try to understand the events and characters reported, the models by means of which they organize their material – all are shaped by the culture of which they are part, by the experiences, hopes, and fears of that part of the whole fabric of human society in which they have their place.
It is obviously as true of the world of the historian as it is of every kind of study that we can only understand anything by relating it to the experience we already have. The language we use, the models and analogies without which we cannot make sense of a mass of information, are all furnished by the experiences of our time and place. History has to be continually rewritten because, in the worlds of E.H. Carr, history is a continuing conversation between the present and the past. (p.84)
It seems to me that religious communities will typically embrace a theology that make the most sense in their given social and economical context. If they are wise, they acknowledge that they are doing this while they are doing it and admit that the theology might take a significantly different shape, given another context. The next generation though is often taught that the shape their community has taken is sourced directly from scripture and validated by old (Reformation era) or very old (early church fathers) authoritative commentary. The next generation is of course, in theory, aware that their social/economic/cultural setting has ordered some of their beliefs, but they do not realize to what extent. Seemingly finding their grounding in scripture, they believe themselves to be primarily shapers rather than the shaped.
This weekend, I visited a friend and his large family who had moved away about a year ago to take a job in a city 2 hours away. Though he was very active in the same denomination, he commented how different the character was, it no longer being centered in a college town. When the congregation is comprised of hundreds of students, from green 18-year-olds to newly married graduate students, and the elder board comprised largely of professors or higher-ed administrators, the life of the congregation takes a rather peculiar form. It affects everything – the sermons, the rhetoric, what ministries are emphasized and most funded. All of this comes back around to shape biblical interpretation too. It happens within the bounds of the denominations beliefs, true, but it can skew heavily in particular directions.
The place my friend lives now is much more blue collar and the city less walkable. There is a lot less socializing – everybody is busy with their jobs and lives too far a drive away to visit casually. The local university is not there to provide a unified workplace (and source of salary) and close living quarters. Conversations rarely tread into graduate level higher criticism or that thesis you are working on about Augustine’s City of God. Instead, they stay centered around who is in the hospital, when the troublesome freeway detour is going to be completed, and where the best place to take the kids fishing is this year. Hundreds of topics that previously seemed to be of world-shaking importance are now completely off the radar.
All these different things swirling around you change what you think about when you go to pray or read scripture. The Holy Spirit also knows what you need and will speak to you about what is present in your life at the moment (unless of course he is calling you elsewhere or waking you up to a new possibility). The end result? Your theology changes and as your memory fades, you may forget how very different life can FEEL in other times and places, even ones not terribly far away.
Skeptics and secularists will point to this phenomenon as simply evidence that religion is nothing more than a social construct – entirely subjective and imaginary, though of course “deeply meaningful”. Recent fad theologians will observe this and call in “incarnational”. Woopie. I think I’ll just call it “natural”. It’s geography taking it’s toll, no matter how fast our internet flies. It’s how people work to get their food making a big difference in their day to day lives, just like it always has everywhere, despite state’s efforts to diversify, subsidize, relieve, or incentivize
I think the right response for us to have mercy and grace on our fellow Christian. Their life is different from yours – probably more than your realize and there is probably less they can do to change it than you think. Throw them a bone and start by giving them the benefit of the doubt before you dismiss their theology as having missed the boat compared to yours. Yes, it’s entirely possible that it’s full of holes or that they’ve run off the rails in some way, but give empathy a shot.
God’s direction interaction with man follows a compression -> expansion pattern, just like a nuclear bomb.
Judah Especially (David, Solomon)
Samaritans (Heterodox Ethnic Jews)
Jewish Proselytes turned Christian
Local Gentiles (God-fearing Non-Jews)
Greeks, Romans, Egyptians Libyans, Assyrians, Ethiopians
Gauls, Germans, Africans, Celts, Chinese
Jesus Chris is the inflection point. The compression happens over about 2000 years – the bulk of the expansion in only 100. Our current age is one where the last little tiny gaps are being filled in by the fallout.
The world is filled with guilt-inducing stimuli: Tests, performance reviews, heated conversations with our spouses, the covers of fashion magazines and even many things with seemingly positive intent: exhortations to believe in yourself, train harder, or sermons “encouraging” you to be more kind, thoughtful and maybe drink less beer. The guilt pounds us and swirls around us – causing us to second guess ourselves, hate ourselves, and if we are still young enough, redouble our efforts to turn the ship around.
As Christians, we know that Jesus Christ, in some kind of abstract sense, swallowed all our guilt and took it on Himself, freeing us from sin. And yet we are still commanded to repent from our sins. So where do we start? Everyone, not least of all our own selves, are enthusiastically trying to alter our behavior. Where does one begin?
I believe it is worth considering the nature of our own consciousness and concentration. Our brains can really only think about one thing at a time well. Women may be better multi-taskers than men and able to hold a bit more in there at once during the day but the bottom line is that we can only address a very finite number of things with our mind at a time. This also means that we can only really repent of one thing at a time – not just in the moment of confession, but in the ongoing embodiment of that turning. During your initial conversion or coming to faith in Jesus Christ, perhaps you repented of a big list of things and then proceeded to effectively abandon many of them. That’s great, but our ongoing walk and growth in holiness is accomplished day-by-day, piece-by-piece.
So how does one discern between legitimate conviction (a particular feeling of guilt) brought about by the Holy Spirit, and the destructive accusing condemnation from Satan? How can you tell the difference between them? I believe that one key way of differentiating the source of conviction is by paying attention to how narrow the scope is. The Holy Spirit will typically deal with one thing at a time. There will be one thing obviously wrong, and relatively clear path forward to turn from that one thing of death toward life.
The devil, on the other hand, will make us feel like a complete dirtbags by pointing out twenty things at once. A laundry list of past failings is part of the mix and there is no clear way out of the mire. Hopelessness and confusion ensues if one tries to process this shotgun approach.
When the Holy Spirit urges you to repent, it is like a beam of light shining in the dark, with a promise of freedom. When the devil floods you with reminders of your sin and failing, it is like indistinct lights in the fog, making navigation worse not better. I like how these two photographs illustrate the metaphor.
I spoke about this topic last week and today a friend of mine emailed me a link to a small daily devotional Richard Exley. I’ll repeat it here as I think it gets at what I am trying to say pretty succinctly.
When I feel guilty but I don’t know why, I usually pray, “Lord, if this guilt is produced by the conviction of the Holy Spirit, show me where I have sinned.” If what I am experiencing is conviction the Lord is quick to identify my transgression so He can deal with it. God takes no pleasure in making us squirm. His only reason for convicting us is to deliver us from evil. The accuser, on the other hand, simply wants to condemn us.
“Godly sorrow (conviction) brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow (condemnation) brings death.
— 2 Corinthians 7:10 (NIV)
Lord Jesus, make me resistant to the condemnation of the enemy even as you make me sensitive to the conviction of the Holy Spirit. In Your holy name I pray. Amen.
In reading some of Lesslie Newbigin’s work on theology of Mission recently, I came across a story about a missionary to Uganda in the early 20th century. He saw many people respond to the gospel but was personally very disconcerted by the polygamy that was practiced in the culture and frequently preached against it – urging the new Christian men to lay it aside. It didn’t have much effect though because what the Holy Spirit was speaking to THEM was conviction about the slaves or indentured servants in their community. Their abuse of the poor was what God was pricking their hearts about – not their multiple wives. Now in time, over the next generation, much reform happened and the practice of polygamy receded too. But right at that moment, the preacher had to realize that he was getting in the way of what the Spirit was doing and that he should focus his attention elsewhere. Repentance of one thing at a time changes over time.
Paul was able to say at the end of his life that he was “the chief of sinners” because he was so keenly aware of his own continuing and perpetual shortcomings – that is, stuff he hadn’t repented of yet. He, Saint Paul, died clinging to certain sins. So will we. “You can’t just think your way to rightly ordered loves.” says James K.A. Smith. One reason for this is that we don’t have enough time and we can only do one thing at a time. But we can also find comfort in this. Jesus is not asking us to do more than one thing at a time and He has already reconciled us to God regardless. The voice yelling at you to “FIX ALL THE THINGS!” but offering no clarity on what that should look like need not be heeded. The quiet and persistent voice of the Spirit is to be listened to and obeyed.
I read to the children for ~20 minutes nearly every night. I try to balance a mix of youth literature along with things that will be more challenging. This past year’s selections have included everything from Ramona the Pest and an A to Z Mystery to The Lord of the Rings. After reading The Swiss Family Robinson and Peter Pan recently, I thought I would try something a bit more grown-up with Lewis’s Till We Have Faces. What a wonderful piece of literature; but alas – after a couple of chapters it became apparent that the blood and sex would not be appropriate for some of the young ‘uns at this time.
At my wife’s initiative, I switched to The Secret Garden. Now this was a book that I had not anticipated enjoying myself. We own several copies and the covers were so very “girly” and the one-paragraph summary of the classic seemed downright boring. The reality has proved to be otherwise though. What excellent writing, excellent characters, and sufficiently interesting plot it has indeed.
Earlier this week, my wife and I watched (for the first time) the neo-noir Christopher Nolan film Memento. Though I was a bit frustrated by the ending, I really appreciated how well the audience is brought along with the main character and made to feel the confusing effects of his mental illness. The film effectively puts the watcher in the shoes of the protagonist, while maintaining just enough of an outsider perspective to keep the thing glued together.
It struck me that some of the same techniques are being used in The Secret Garden, especially with respect to language. Our young Mary Lennox is ripped away from her neglected/spoiled childhood in India and thrust into a cold Yorkshire full of people whose accents she can barely understand. But though we experience the story in the third person, we take part in much of the same confusion the young heroine does. She is constantly being bombarded with new words and ideas. But rather than being given a glossary or an aside, we are left wondering what they mean ourselves. We have to be shown as well – it’s not ever spelled out for her or us.
In the story, the moor is often spoken of. But what is a moor exactly? We aren’t ever told – only shown and often only obliquely. I still am not entirely sure even now. The wikipedia article of fen wetlands is perhaps worse than useless.
She sat and looked out of the window, curious to see something of the road over which she was being driven to the queer place Mrs. Medlock had spoken of. She was not at all a timid child and she was not exactly frightened, but she felt that there was no knowing what might happen in a house with a hundred rooms nearly all shut up—a house standing on the edge of a moor.
“What is a moor?” she said suddenly to Mrs. Medlock.
“Look out of the window in about ten minutes and you’ll see,” the woman answered. “We’ve got to drive five miles across Missel Moor before we get to the Manor. You won’t see much because it’s a dark night, but you can see something.”
In other cases, a definition could be given by another character, but it nearly never is. Experience fills in the meaning.
“Listen to th’ wind wutherin’ round the house,” [Martha] said. “You could bare stand up on the moor if you was out on it tonight.”
Mary did not know what “wutherin'” meant until she listened, and then she understood.
And so we the reader feel like we are in the shoes of the character in the story because the author has very much limited the amount of information fed to us. We end up feeling just as afraid and full of wonder as Mary is, in a way that we never would be if we had been familiar with the context through exposition.
I know I’m likely discussing techniques that are probably staples of the 3rd week of any respectable “Fiction 101″ course. Insert an eye-roll for anyone who has studied the craft in any detail. But I’m noticing it for the first time, or at least articulating it for the first time. It seems to me that not often is all this done well.
A couple weeks ago I wrote a bit about Sia, who is clearly a master of the songwriting conventions this decade of pop music demands. On the third single from her recent album, she sings in anguish:
I’m at home
On my own
Check my phone
I may cry, ruining my makeup
Wash away all the things you’ve taken
I don’t care if I don’t look pretty
Big girls cry when their hearts are breaking
Big girls cry when their hearts are breaking
Big girls cry when their heart is breaking
The poor are frequently envious of the rich for their ease of living and luxurious material possessions. They often scoff at the complaints of the wealthy. The women in this song is “stuck” at home, surround by custom delivered food, expensive pay-per-view television, and her iPhone 6+ phablet. Later in the song we hear about the private jets and campaign she keeps for company. But what’s her current state? Agony.
In a way, the agony of the rich can be even greater than that of the poor. They have the added pressure of feeling as if they SHOULD be happy and thankful. When the poor feel like crap, it makes more sense. Psychologically they have a much easier time processing their misery. Their lack of food, stability, warmth, and medicine makes for a completely plausible source of despair. The rich on the other hand, still feel like total crap, but have the additional dissonance of being surrounded by everything they could ever want – maybe even plenty of friends. So what the heck is wrong? “Why is a broken heart so damn terrible?” they wonder. But of course, it is.
I think the net stress and existential angst of the rich and poor ends up being about equal. It just takes different forms. If anything, the value we place on money and wealth today serves to further aggravate the poor (offering them a false hope) while being especially maddening to the rich. Wherever we personally are on this continuum (middle America, etc.) we end up experiencing an equalizing mix of both.
In what direction lies a cure? To that end, I offer this quote a friend of mine recently posted from St. John Chrysostom:
The sins of the rich, such as greed and selfishness, are obvious for all to see. The sins of the poor are less conspicuous, yet equally corrosive of the soul. Some poor people are tempted to envy the rich; indeed this is a form of vicarious greed, because the poor person wanting great wealth is in spirit no different from the rich person amassing great wealth. Many poor people are gripped by fear: their hearts are caught in a chain of anxiety, worrying whether they will have food on their plates tomorrow or clothes on their backs. Some poor people are constantly formulating in their minds devious plans to cheat the rich to obtain their Wealth; this is no different in spirit from the rich making plans to exploit the poor by paying low wages. The art of being poor is to trust in God for everything, to demand nothing-and to be grateful for all that is given.
(On Living Simply, Homily 7)
(A clarification: I am not arguing here that the rich DON’T have it better off than the poor. In many respects they certainly do. What I am saying is that frequently the rich do not legitimately FEEL better off, because of complicated circumstances, and paradoxically, sometimes FEEL even worse.)