I’ve been learning to say the Lord’s Prayer in Amharic, for fun, and for my daughter and the rest of the family to say at night. It wasn’t too hard to find a recording and a transliteration, but I wanted to know, literally, what each of the words meant. This is my best shot. Some of the grammar is over my head and the word order is, of course, a bit up for grabs. Nevertheless here it is for those who may be interested.
WordPress doesn’t support fidal script at this point and most people won’t have the font installed anyway so I turned it into an image to post here.
My current reading corner in the basement: Bible, cross, old vintage Game Boy, a pint of vanilla oatmeal stout, and “An Ethnography of the Religious Imagination in Africa”. Everyone else in the house is asleep, at least for a bit. Pretty happy about all that.
We think and write and preach one thing, but then do another. This is no surprise of course. If our theology has even a halfway proper view of the foolishness and frailty of man, then this is no surprise. But I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about larger groups – churches, and denominations. The leaders say one thing and nearly everyone else agrees but on the ground you find something much different and much messier. Pastors (at least ones who haven’t grown too famous or successful) still know this well. Theologians and anthropologists and other critters from the zoo of the academy, as well as occasionally even bishops speak about things as if this discrepancy were negligible. Ideals and abstract principals are easier to talk about than a conglomeration of individuals that undermine theories and discourse in a thousand different ways.
This passage from Todd M. Vanden Berg in the collection The Changing Face of Christianity: Africa, the West, and the World brings up several good points.
The second assumption that African scholars and theologians make when calling for the Africanization of Christianity is that such Africanization needs to be jump-started by theologians. This, I believe, is a false assumption that shows a lack of understanding of what has happened and continues to happen at the grassroots level of orthodox mission churches. Andre Doogers speaks of the general tendency for religious scholars to concentrate on the hierarchical upper echelons at the expense of the general religious populace when he states that “Students of religion…may develop a blind spot for the practical and the popular in a religion. Their main interest then is to systematize the cerebral side of religion, often presented as the only side or the representative side. The popular side – though majoritarian – is viewed as less interesting deviation from it.
This view would be fine if the cerebral side of things WAS the normal state of things and there were only a handful of deviations from it. In fact, in nearly all contexts, be it America, France, Africa, or China, just the opposite is going to be the case. The cerebral is the deviation. If you attend a church full of seminary students or spend a lot of time reading old books instead of going to BBQs, you can get this flipped upside down in your head.
The commentary continues:
Not only does this side seem less interesting and less important to many theologians but also, it may be a more uncomfortable topic for them to consider because it often is manifested in unexpected ways. At the grounded level, the spirit moves in mysterious ways – apparently too mysterious for some theologians. Not only may theologians’ discomfort reflect the unusual nature and character of the specific areas of integration that occur at a grassroots level but also it may reflect the challenge they may feel on issues of identity, power, and authority with African churches. For the most part, it appears that theologians feel free and comfortable to call for the Africanization of Christianity when such calls are focused on peripheral religious beliefs that do not speak to the core of what it means to be a Christian. Theologians are relatively comfortable in discussing, for example, liturgical forms such as dancing and drumming. But when the topic moves more into core religious beliefs, there is little discussion. Mission theologian Robert Schreiter observes that in discussing the relationship of anthropology to Christian missions, “liturgical accouterments and religious rites may be adjusted in light of anthropological data, but the question of the existence of a spirit world and the need for performing exorcisms may be deftly avoided by those same Christian adapters.”
I think there is more variance going on that we care to admit. This is why you can have more than a few closet charismatics in a Reformed church that is (on paper) cessationist. You can have parents feeding their kids communion even though they are under the approved age. You can have people attending spending their whole lives under teachers, say, at an Assembly of God church, who articulate a synergist soteriology, and yet they are personally completely at rest in the grace of God and not concerned with backsliding. Plenty of people practice penance of some sort (maybe without even knowing it), even if they’ve been told not too. It’s a deep reaction. And I’m not talking about problems of sin of unbelief here – this is amongst the most faithful.
A very pastoral theology has room for all this discrepancy. It fills in the cracks with love. The other kind has no room for cracks and so eventually no room for people to walk around inside.
In a 1996 report by the Organization of African Instituted Churches, based in Kenya, it says, “We may not all be articulate in written theology, but we express faith in our liturgy, worship, and structures.”
O, how many books and research and opinion pieces have documented the dumbing down of American culture? Few can now really handle rich or difficult literature. Our children are barely literate and being fluent in online chatroom jargon doesn’t exactly make up for the loss elsewhere. Stupid American’s make for stupid American Christians too. We’re doomed! No. We are only doomed if being a man or women of letters is some sort of prerequisite to receiving the gospel properly and living faithfully for Jesus Christ. (Hint: It’s not.)
We may have fallen from our rigorous classical roots, but consider Africa. They had nowhere to fall from. For many regions, their language has only even existed in written form for little more than a century. Some fantastic scholars and thinkers have risen from this field, but they are anomalies. The bulk of the people are still much less readers today than the dull American turning a paperback thriller that you sat next to on the subway today. The Africans are bringing their linguistic articulation game up even as we have let ours slip. But they’ve got a long way to go, and so do we. So what can be done about this? What can help our increasingly illiterate culture to receive a healthy helping of orthodox theology and knowledge of God?
The answer is via liturgy, not written words. We need better prayers, better songs, better worship forms, and better art. These don’t to need to assume giant vocabularies to be of value. They don’t necessitate a pound of abstract philosophical discourse powers. These things meet people where they are – be they smart and well educated or not so much.
Don’t write another 400-page book explaining the Trinity. (OK, do that maybe), but how about you write a better song about the Trinity? How about you recite a short creed or prayer EVERY DAY about it. Don’t depend so much on the “icon” of the written word. Consider other truthful icons – things you see through to see Christ more fully.
(This picture is of the icon of the Trinity painted or “written” by Anton Rublev in 1411. You are invited to sit down at the table.)
So we have lots of lousy worship music today. So what? Make it better! Just figure out how to do it without lots of big words. Go hit the psalms again – even the ones that don’t sound so happy. They are simple, but powerful.
When we gather to worship, we always follow some sort of pattern. Make this a healthy pattern. Don’t let it be dominated by one guy, be he a preacher or guitar player, or whatever. Diversify. Have more scripture reading. Have more singing together. Express you love for God together in the ways the church as done throughout the centuries – eating the bread of his body and drinking the wine of this blood together – the more the better. People aren’t going to get this by reading a book anymore or listening to a debate. Give them Jesus a better way.
Start a school and teach people to read well again, by all means! But don’t demand they all do this just so you can FINALLY feed them the meat of systematic theology and bring things back to snuff. Reform liturgy – our daily patterns. This is the future for much of the church of the west. We may yet become more like our brothers and sisters in Africa, not less.
All of this is a prelude to saying that I most enthusiastically support the “master plan” of biblical studies, ecumenicism, and liturgical reform that the Trinity House Institute is setting out to accomplish. Peter Leithart recently articulated their dreams and visions here. Three cheers.
This week: Get four children ready for vacation bible school each day, another for painting camp and violin rehearsals and recital, and another for blind cane training. Also work full time and do lots of chores. Am I forgetting something? Oh yes, interact with my wife. Good grief. I hope things quiet down pretty soon. I just about lost it today. Yes I know this reads more like a fairly pointless Facebook status update, but I needed somewhere to stick this highly appropriate pic.
In an academic piece titled, “Culture, Christianity, and Witchcraft in a West African Context”, Todd M. Vanden Berg attempts to chronicle the real on-the-ground beliefs about evil magic in the largely Christian region of Longuda, Nigeria. Lutherans, Catholics, Baptists and Pentecostals all make a strong showing in the area. From the pulpit, witchcraft is largely dismissed as the work of the devil and that Christians have no need or reason to fear his power. Jesus has conquered him and his work. In fact, it’s taught (or at least implied) by the Christian leaders that most of what passes for witchcraft is nothing of the sort and blaming individuals for unexplained misfortune is destructive and needs to stop.
Nevertheless, the everyday man and women on the street still believes very much in the work of witches (both male and female) and their evil work is still considered a legitimate explanation for sudden sickness or tragedy.
We have heard theologians and anthropologists alike often say that as Western religious ideas take hold, then belief in magic will naturally fade away. This hasn’t really happened though, argues the author. Instead, old beliefs about witchcraft have not gone, but rather morphed and integrated themselves into the Christian framework. He explores several affects of this.
One of the key ideas that Christianity introduced is the idea of “the devil” or Satan, a somewhat abstract big, global bad guy who works against God in the spiritual world. Before, demons always were relatively small and their power highly localized. In fact, with the tribe in question, witches were only thought to have power over other blood-related members of the tribe. Foreigners from the next tribe were largely immune.
Now though, if demonic activity as afoot, it must be the devil’s fault – not necessarily the PERSON’S fault though he or she may still be the vessel. Where before, a witch was internally and intrinsically evil in and of themselves, now, they are under the influence of the devil (perhaps even unwittingly) and can be delivered from his hold. Before, you got rid of a witch by killing them or casting them out of the community. Now, they can be restored to society through prayer or exorcism or religious fervency on their part.
Completely tossing out the idea of evil spirits at work in the day-to-day has shown to be much too much for these folks to swallow in just one generation or two. But their beliefs have been shaped by Christian ideas of evil and though still not nearly orthodox enough for most western palates, has at least improved the situation for potential victims of accusations. The people still live in some fear though and that calls for more gospel, more Jesus.
I get a chuckle out of a bumper sticker I occasionally see that says, “Walmart: Your source for cheap plastic crap.” You know what I’m talking about: The $5 laundry hamper, the $8 bedside lamp, the deluxe $15 electric grill and the lawn-mower that, somehow, costs less than a day’s wages and has a half-life of approximately 40 hours.
The availability of cheap technology has been changing the world for a long time. The printing press took books from rare to common almost overnight and revolutionized communication. Radio did the same thing a hundred years ago, but I had not realized how much that even way back then its success hinged on, wait for it… cheap consumer imports from Asia. As I mentioned in an earlier post, some of these things have been going on for a lot longer than we realize.
Here is an interesting account from about 1940 where a Christian missionary is discussing his master plan for radio:
Why should we not broadcast the message of the kingdom of God? Our missionary friends in South America have seized this opportunity and the “Voice of the Andes” is heard all over the South American Continent, and its messages go out in language after language.
A Chinese friend sad down with us and, with the map of China on the table before us, he showed that he had as real a vision as had Hudson Taylor of China’s need. Only, Taylor knew nothing of the facilities that were before this man. he told how he had bought an hour on the wireless station at Shanghai and how widely his message had got out. he also told how he bought another hour and another hour, until he had eight hours a day, with missionaries on the air who knew how to tell the Gospel message. He had seen such results that on this map of China before us he had it all laid out with power stations covering the whole land. We would gladly have given everything we had to build one of those stations by which one could reach a mission souls.
The next part is the most interesting:
Then this friend said to us, “Our enemies, the Japanese, are out to undersell the world, to make the cheapest things that can be made, to undercut with their merchant navy the goods from every other country.” And he went on, “We are out to use our enemies for the furtherance of the Gospel. They have invented a cheap receiving-set at the small cost of forty cents by which one can listen to these messages anywhere. We can put them on the street, we can fix them in any kind of hall, and our Chinese people, however illiterate, may listen in to the message.”
-Rowland Bingham, Seven Sevens of Years and a Jubilee, p.122
We can broadcast our message, but nobody can listen to it. Solution? Cheap crap to the rescue! It’s perpetually both a curse and a blessing.
True story: My father used to be a ham radio enthusiast. We had a lot of nice gear including a 2000 watt amplifier. But one day he gave it away. Where did it go? We gave it to a missionary friend of ours that broadcast a pirate Christian radio station in Farsi into Iran from a secret (and moving) location. I wonder if it’s still humming today?
I wonder if, in the west, we have been taught and trained to hold too many things in tension. We “balance” work and home life, career and family, and our abstract ethics along with what we know we can actually “get away with” in society. Our marriages are often described as 50/50 give-and-take partnerships. When the balance isn’t struck, the relationship falls apart. Our ideas are held up by a web of ropes and pulleys working against each other. We like to phrase reality as a dialectic between faith and science, law and gospel, conscious and sub-conscious, and we usually imagine ourselves to be somewhere between poor and rich, regardless of our actual wealth. Forces are always pulling us in many directions and we let them. The person who streaks off in one direction is considered all kinds of crazy. In contrast, the wise man is the broadly experienced and specially trained elder who has learned to navigate this sea of forces and hold himself together, despite all the cognitive dissonance.
But again, this is what life is like in the modern west. Primitive cultures are more straight forward. There is less noise in their philosophy. This is difficult to describe and I don’t think I can articulate it well in this post but I will try to give just a few examples.
I recently chatted with a man who spent four years in Indonesia leading a team of coal miners. He had to quickly learn their language and get these uneducated and untrained tribal men to operate bulldozers and other heavy equipment. They learned fast and were hard workers but abstract thought was not their forte. He recounted several interesting stories about how he had to learn to give them ridiculously explicit directions and not assume even the smallest detail.
I got the same impression watching an interesting documentary (in Spanish) on the Karo tribe in southern Ethiopia. They raise thousands of goats, cultivate sorghum by the river bank, and live in little thatch huts. Nobody reads or goes to school or leaves the village. Children help with the herds as soon as they learn to walk. We may think their way of life is completely backwards, but it doesn’t look to me like any of them were dumb. They know what they are doing and it’s simple. They aren’t pulled in a hundred different directions by everything they read at school, learned at church, had shouted at them on the news, were told at work, were told by their friends, heard their professor say, heard their new boyfriends say, etc. Everyone in their tight and relatively isolated culture is speaking the same word – day in and day out.
When people in these cultures come to know the gospel of Jesus, their conversions are remarkable. It literally changes EVERYTHING. Conversion experiences are dramatic and their religious fervor stays dramatic. They aren’t used to holding a hundred ideas and personas in tension and then learning to slowly incorporate their new-found faith into the mix. Instead, things go “boom!” and the difference is often apparent in all contexts.
And this changes what ministry and leadership looks like too. In the modern west, to even be considered to pastor a modest church congregation, you need to have a Master of Divinity or equivalent degree. That goes for all Catholic priests and all but the most low-church protestant groups. That means 12 years of school, 4 years of college, and then another 3 years on top of that, usually with a substantial amount of work in Greek and Hebrew. Then, FINALLY, you can have an entry level job preaching the gospel. That’s 19 years minimum. The situation is similar for missionaries. Why do you need all this education? To get your “world view” fully formed and held together amidst all the noise.
In contrast are the indigenous leaders that were encouraged and set up by groups like the Sudan Interior Mission in the early half of the twentieth century. They would baptize some new converts, teach them some really basic things from the bible for a few months, and then quickly send them on to preach at the next village. At one point in Rowland Bingham’s memoir, he describes how he visited a mission church that was flourishing in Nigeria. While he was there they took up an offering and raised about $60 (probably about 10x that by inflation today). What did he decide to do with the extra money? Pick four local guys and send them about 800 miles east to southern Sudan to start a new church there. Only two years before that, those men barely knew how to read. Now they were being sent out and would likely (by most accounts) go on to actually do a better job than most highly-education foreigners could do. They were just so gung-ho about Jesus in a way that WE have trained minds to never be about anything. We are weighed down by our riches.
Check out this passage from a Christian missionary expressing a few of his frustrations:
In Egypt and Sudan, in the Somalilands and in Eritrea, we have been denied our basic liberties [of religious freedom]. In all these years, whenever we have had opportunities, we have preached in Moslem areas without provoking a single riot. We are out to win Moslems, not to stir up their hatred.
What has Britain gained by this policy? Why is Egypt sitting back in this struggle and avowing her neutrality? Has Britain won any love by her pro-Moslem attitude there? She made her first step backward there, when Government stepped in and banned the Christian Scriptures in Gordon College and then made the Moslem Friday the official Rest Day in a Christian College, given by Christian subscriptions, in memory of the great Christian leaders, General Gordon. Why does officialdom still demand from Britishers a special passport and permit of entry? Why have they, in the last five years banned us from entering pagan tribes on the pretext that these people are in “the Moslem area”?
[Earlier], we fought this thing through at the Foreign Office. We are not going to give us our liberties gained then. When Britain has actually proposed to make a grant of land in old London for the erection of a great Moslem center, it is time for Britishers to awake to the pro-Moslem bias of their Government.
Sound familiar? Egypt trying to look neutral to the international community while oppressing Christians on the ground. Christian prayers being banned in universities while Muslim holy days are officially observed. Substantial chunks of public land given build Mosques in large western cities. Is the passage above from an op ed piece in the Wall Street Journal last week? Could be. But no, it was actually written in 1942, over 60 years ago, from Rowland Bingham’s memoir about the Sudan Interior Mission (p.90).
Some things have been going on for a lot longer than we may realize. Most of the things we complain about today we do so as if they just started up a few years ago when in reality they happened in our grandparents’ age, and perhaps, under their watch.
It’s been pointed out that nothing brings Christians together in unity quite like serious persecution. Minor doctrinal differences melt away in the face of great challenges. We don’t have time to argue with each other over the finer points of doctrine when we are just trying to keep our families safe. The same would seem to be true for missionaries working on the frontier as this passage from Rowland Bingham’s account of the Sudan Interior Mission in the 1920s indicates. Here we find mode of baptism (a oft-divisive idea since the reformation) becoming a non-issue with almost no overt ecumenical effort:
My Baptist friends were especially insistent that I declare myself on the form of baptism to be used on the field. I said it would be time enough to consider it when we came to baptizing our first converts. I preferred not to influence any of our pioneers in the early days. They were accepted without regard to their denomination. But a strange thing happened. The one denomination that was seeking to enter the Central Sudan with us was the Church of England. Their custom at home is well known, but on the Sudan field they came to baptize their first band of converts before we did. To the astonishment of every one, they decided to revert to the very early practice of their Church – baptism by immersion.
Our senior missionary on the field was Presbyterian, but when it came to the baptism of our first converts, he decided to follow the example set by our Anglican friends and immerse that first band of Christians. This became the general practice upon the field, so that we had no baptismal controversy and only one practice in the Central Sudan. Our missionaries have had minor doctrinal differences, but facing millions of people in the darkness of their heathenism, there has been a unity in presenting Christ as the Savior of sinners and “able to save to the uttermost all that come unto God by Him.”
-Seven Sevens of Years and a Jubilee, p.115
When you are living in the jungle and working tirelessly to translate the bible, preach the gospel to hungry hearts, and not get malaria, comradery is stirred up between anyone even barely on the same “team”. We see this in other accounts of Christian missions among pagans where cessastionists find themselves taking up exorcism and folks from an acapella psalm-chanting tradition find themselves ministering during a 4-hour worship service with drums and dancing. What happened? They discover that certain things just don’t matter near as much as they thought, especially given the context. They need all the friends they can get.
I imagine that when the early Christians were thrown to the lions, they prayed alongside their brothers, be they dispersed Jew or newly converted Greek. In the comfort of their homes these men might have argued with each other about this or that, (I am of Paul, etc.) but that is far, far from their minds in the face of war or martyrdom.
What is the flip side to all of this? Prosperity breeds schism. When everything is fine – there is tons of food to go around, everyone is safe and the police can be trusted, then we are freed to… bless the world? No, apparently not. We are freed to hash out contentious minutia within our family. And that is why we have the Presbyterian Church of America (a healthy and growing denomination) spending hundreds and hundreds of skilled man-hours trying to (once again!) give Peter Leithart a formal slap on the wrist for not articulating the Westminster Confessions in such a way to make certain folks happy. The canon lawyers could be home playing ball with their kids or some such thing, but they need not since everyone is apparently fat and happy. The mighty prosperity of the modern west has given them the leisure time to get bored with their lives and turn to picking bones with their brethren.
Contrast this with the people of the Coptic church in Egypt who are just trying to survive amidst very real danger. This picture is of firefighters at a church in Cairo last year after it was attacked by after rumors circulated of a Christian man dating a Muslim girl.
Do you think the folks from this church are sitting around in their bible studies debating the precise efficacy of the sacrament? I doubt it. Any port in a storm and that means that in hard times the walls that prevent our unity dissolve. Only in the ridiculously prosperous west do we have the time and energy to differentiate ourselves so much. When you are starving you will accept a cold glass of water from even an enemy. Only when you have a fat bank account will you turn up your nose at him.
I think that perhaps when we pray for Christian unity, we may be inviting war or at least economic hardship. That seems to be the most fertile ground for its growth. I guess I’ll take it.