Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

Book Review – The 3D Gospel

August 24, 2021

The 3D Gospel: Ministry in Guilt, Shame and Fear Cultures by Jayson Georges

This book was recommended by my friend and colleague JP. It’s a short read (74 pages), but it is likely to give lifelong Christians more food for thought than many much longer books.

The author worked overseas in Central Asia for close to a decade before returning to the US. He has firsthand experience with some of what he talks about in this book. His premise is that in Western Christianity the Gospel is primarily proclaimed and described as a motif of guilt/innocence. We stand guilty of sin both inherited and personally committed. The punishment for this guilt is death and separation eternally from God’s presence. However Jesus comes to pay the penalty of our sin and extend to us his innocence, making reconciliation with God the Father possible. This motif works well in our culture where rule of law is paramount over most anything else.

Sound familiar? It should.

But Georges posits two other motifs more dominant in other parts of the world.

The first is the shame/honor motif. There are cultures in the world where the primary driving concern culturally is not the rule of law, per se, but rather the idea of creating/maintaining honor – both personally and for the larger family – and avoiding shame. Using this motif, the Gospel is the story of our dishonor, exchanging the glory and honor God bestowed on us in creation and obedience for a the lie of honor on our own terms. All our lives have become now an effort to manufacture real or false honor to remove the shame we are born with. Jesus accomplishes this for us, and extends to us once again the honor we were created for and with.

The second is the fear/power motif. There are cultures in the world where the primary driving concern culturally is how to appease the spirits who are among us and can either bring us harm or blessing. Control over these spiritual forces is attempted through charms, totems, rituals and magic, just to name a few. Certain actions or words are avoided at all costs because of the danger it may expose the person (and their loved ones) to from spiritual powers. The Gospel is explained in this motif as Jesus coming as the greatest of spiritual powers to defeat the demons and other spiritual powers of this realm. Those who accept Jesus come under his protection, and need not fear the posing spiritual powers of this world any longer. There is no further need for charms or spells for protection as the individual believer receives power from the Holy Spirit.

Georges maintains this three-fold way of interpreting the Gospel is demonstrated in Scripture itself, and wise Christians (as well as those who work cross-culturally) should be aware of these three motifs and know when it might be appropriate to engage one over another when sharing the Gospel with someone from another culture. Georges references the book of Ephesians as a Biblical example of all three Gospel dimensions being referenced. Ephesians 1:7 and 2:5 reference the guilt/innocence motif. Ephesians 1:5 and 2:19 reference the shame/honor motif. And Ephesians 1:19-21 and 6:10-11 reference the fear/power motif.

It seems clear that Georges’ personal experience cross-culturally is with the shame/honor motif (as well as his native, Western guilt/innocence motif). The fear/shame motif is not explained quite as deeply in this book, but it is still well presented. Georges takes time to document various Bible verses that deal with or at least acknowledge each of these three motifs. Although the idea may seem strange at first considering how deeply we’re embedded in a guilt/innocence culture, Georges’ observations are solid and worth further consideration.

Considering the Gospel in a fuller sense than simply the forgiveness of sins can be very helpful, and certainly provides no little amount of fodder for personal reflection and meditation. While elements of all three motifs will be found in varying degrees in every culture, most cultures will have one of the three more dominant than the other two. This is a great little read that might be very helpful if you engage in any cross-cultural relationships!

A Collection of Misinterpretations

August 11, 2021

A random assortment of interesting/frustrating news articles that caught my eye today.

First, as usual a great article from GetReligion.org (the Protestant jab aside). The press is insistent on characterizing the refusal of Sacraments to public and unrepentant members as ultimately a political ploy aimed at President Biden. That’s hardly the case. The press willingly and repeatedly ignores actually reporting on the beliefs and practices of the Catholic Church (and many other Christian denominations) in favor of straw-man caricatures that suit their intentions of disparaging organized religion (particularly Christianity – you don’t see many similar articles about Judaism or Islam) or pressuring believers to view their historic and clearly articulated faith as no longer valid or binding in our more enlightened culture.

Second up in terms of allowing our implicit and explicit biases’ to affect our interpretation of things is this little article. The presence of gender-specific articles for both men and women in a single grave becomes an argument for historical evidence of a non-binary leader – someone 1000 years ago who didn’t neatly fit our allegedly cultural sex and gender classifications.

Because, you know, that’s the only possible explanation, which just so happens to justify the latest in cultural fads.

Because nobody is ever buried with items from someone else – possibly even someone of the opposite sex. A meaningful piece of jewelry from Mom or Dad, for example. How is it that objects can or should be used to argue for a sexual orientation (or lack thereof) in a burial from a thousand years ago? Is that good science? Good archaeology? Or just a convenient way of appealing to the apparent swing of the cultural pendulum, a swing that might mean a few bones thrown in terms of grants or donations?

Ugh.

And finally, I’ve been loathe to blog further regarding Covid and our responses to it (or responses imposed on us). I’m simply so tired of it all. The rhetoric on both sides is ridiculous. But this article I found somewhat darkly amusing. Apparently there have been posts online referencing I Am Legend, a mediocre but different zombie movie. People are referencing the movie claiming the zombies in it were the result of a vaccine.

That’s not literally true, as this article points out. But that’s rather splitting hairs, I’d argue. Yes, this is just a movie. A piece of fiction. And I’d hope that most of the people posting the memes are fully aware of that and aren’t presuming to claim the movie as any sort of evidence or justification of rejecting the Covid vaccine.

However it is fair game to remind us all that even the best-intentioned efforts can have unanticipated consequences, something the critics of such memes are quick to forget. The fact that the scientific method and scientific processes and individual and collective scientists did and continue to do their best in formulating Covid vaccines does not, in and of itself, preclude the possibility of unanticipated, negative side-effects. Rare but causal side effects have already been identified in many of the vaccines, and such observations are quickly drowned out by shouted insistence that the benefits are far greater to far more people than the infrequent side-effects. That may or may not be true – we won’t know for some time, as more and more unanticipated side-effects are identified, and as the overall effectiveness of the vaccines becomes better understood.

The role of good science fiction is to contemplate not just literal science but potential side-effects or abuses of science. Great heroes and villains populate the genre for their manipulation of various aspects of science and technology or their responses to it. The genre provides a ‘safe’ zone for contemplating real issues in the context of make-believe. The original Star Trek series utilized it for these purposes, as have great authors such as Ray Bradbury and Walter Miller Jr. Even The Lord of the Rings could be (and has been) interpreted as a commentary on science and technology and industry, noting that it isn’t these things in and of themselves that are evil, but only how they are used or misused or, just as validly, accidentally developed or implemented without enough information to accurately determine longer-range consequences.

Back to School

August 10, 2021

It’s that time of year again. For so many years as a student, as a teacher, or as someone involved in campus ministry (sometimes all three at once!) my year was more defined by the ebb and flow of the American academic year. August and September always seem like starting months – more so than January.

This is a good article whether you’re a Christian student headed to school (really of any grade, adjusted for age-appropriateness of course), or the parent/grandparent/concerned friend or relative of a student.

Of course, these suggestions are all things that should already be going on in the life of every person of faith. If these habits and practices and skills haven’t already begun to be owned by the time college rolls around, it’s going to be a hard time for a student to pick them up. Although this article is aimed at Catholic students, the same ideas hold true for Christians of any stripe. Know who you are, where you’ve come from, where you’re going, who created and redeemed you, who abides with you constantly. Don’t expect to have an answer to every objection or criticism leveled at the Bible or the Church or your faith personally. But know that you’re likely to encounter objections and criticisms, or assumptions that you can continue to consider yourself a Christian if you don’t actually believe the Bible.

Book Review: Indonesia, Etc.

July 26, 2021

Indonesia, Etc.: Exploring the Improbably Nation by Elizabeth Pisani

If you (like me) don’t know anything about Indonesia, this is a good introduction to not just the history but the region and culture. Pisani has spent many years in Indonesia and is articulate and entertaining as she chronicles her 13-month intentional re-exploring of the island nation in the early 2000’s in preparation for this book. Her experience in the country began in the 1980’s as a writer for Reuters and continued with a stint as an epidemiologist working with sex workers in Indonesia.

It’s also clear from reading this book she has an incredibly adventurous spirit, a willingness to embrace a philosophy of “just say yes” and actually follow through on it. This affords her amazing opportunities to be with everyday people and experience what their lives are like, albeit at a cost of personal privation and with an endurance that is truly remarkable.

Pisani isn’t shy about sharing her opinions, and only with further exploration will I know how much to trust her political observations and historical interpretations. Admittedly, writing about these topics even in passing is a dangerous activity as the truth is elusive as well as oftentimes deliberately hidden or rewritten to suit the preferences of those in power.

One of the great resources of this book is her bibliography of other books, films, and websites on Indonesia. She doesn’t claim it’s comprehensive but it’s helpful for those (like me) who intend to study further. Further, there’s a website with more up-to-date observations as well as the ability to access the e-book as well as some photos (which are not part of the print book).

Slow Dating and Demisexuality

July 13, 2021

Of course we can’t have any “puritanical sensibility” in the realm of dating and sexuality, but the idea that sex isn’t best as something freely distributed to anyone and everyone at any time is making a comeback, though of course without any religious baggage.

Multiple surveys and studies for years have indicated young people are having less sex than previous generations (assuming we trust the answers of those sorts of surveys). Slow dating is one practice being promoted or defended as a better way to deeper, longer-lasting relationships. If this isn’t hip sounding enough there’s a newer slang term for people who want to build a deep relationship with someone before becoming sexually active with them – demisexuals. It can’t be common sense and it certainly can’t be that Biblical precepts (and the Bible isn’t the only religious text to stress the importance/value/benefit of monogamy and a non-libertine approach to sexuality) have been right all along. We just have to come up with a cooler way to describe people who don’t bed-hop.

Of course both slow dating and the demisexual tag both assume you’ll have multiple sexual relationships, you’ll just have them slower and one at a time, similar to the old joke about serial monogamy. At least people don’t have to feel ashamed any longer because they aren’t following our culture’s obsessive drive about sexual activity. Instead of risking being classified (and dismissed) as just religious, they can now claim to be hip and cool like everyone else.

What a relief.

In the meantime, the Biblical Word on this topic remains unchanged. God who created us knows best about how sexuality can be expressed, even when we’d like to think we know better.

Book Review – Smiles in Indonesia

July 6, 2021

Smiles in Indonesia by O.G. Roeder

I found this in a used bookstore, unsure of what it even was. Turns out to be a collection of short essays, observations on Indonesian life and culture circa the early 1970’s. I can’t find out a whole lot about the author other than he apparently wrote a biography of Indonesia’s second president and long-time leader, General Suharto. There are indications the author may have been a former Nazi official during World War II, but it’s hard to determine the truth of this.

This book is written with a dry, subtle humor. It often pokes fun at Indonesian people and culture, but always very clearly in a way that demonstrates a great love for this people and culture. The author is not of the people, but definitely finds their ways – although sometimes humorous or curious – to ultimately be worthy of observation and appreciation.

The topics range widely, from observations on the consumption of beer, prostitution, the ingenuity of officials serving in challenging situations, and every day life. The essays are short and easy to read. They don’t necessarily have a point, whether an encouragement towards change or a recommendation towards conserving old ways. The author rarely takes upon himself that level of authority, but is more content to bemusedly observe and comment on what he sees without passing excessive judgment.

Making Way

April 14, 2021

….and Elisha the son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah you shall anoint to be prophet in your place. – 1 Kings 19:16

Preach the Gospel. Die. Be forgotten. ~ Nicolaus Zinzendorf

This was part of the Old Testament reading this morning in chapel. Not the Zinzendorf bit, of course. That would be highly unusual in our culture of success and leadership, a culture that even the Church assumes in what it says and what it chooses not to say. Yet the Word of God continues to creep in when we aren’t vigilant and expose our foibles and send our idols tottering.

Elijah the last of the faithful prophets, on the run from a murderous queen after a victory that even by our social media influencer standards would be impressive, putting to death 450 false prophets of Baal after God shows his reality and presence in power and authority. Elijah despairing that he has been a failure. That he’s no better than the ones who came before him, who were also unable to turn the hearts of the people back to God, or curb the ambitions and apathy of the kings of God’s people. Hiding in a cave.

What would God say to this guy, this faithful man who has done much and suffered much and who, in his own words, has been very jealous for the Lord? What sort of half-time pep talk might we look for? A rousing, inspiring speech to reinstill Elijah with vigor and hope and purpose? To put him back on the path to personal fulfillment and professional success? How might God show Elijah his despair is out of place and what spiritual secrets to job satisfaction might the Lord of hosts reveal?

…you shall anoint to be prophet in your place.

It’s easy to pass over those words. Easy to focus on the first part of God’s response, which is for Elijah to anoint two new kings who are going to kick ass and probably not even bother to chew bubble gum. Promises of swords and judgment. Probably not overly inspiring to Elijah, though. Kings come and go. Elijah’s fathers were proof of that. And those final words probably occupied Elijah’s full attention. You need to anoint your successor. Your time is coming to an end.

I’ll admit I’ve never been one for reveling in youthful exuberance. Being a student both of history and an enrollee in the school of hard knocks, I’ve never been prone to Stuart Smalley-style encouragements (go ahead and look up Stuart Smalley on YouTube if you like, but I’m sure it would be considered quite inappropriate these days), and I’m a anachronistic hold-out against the modern acquiescence to ubiquitous therapy. Zinzendorf resonates with me and getting older has only confirmed his maxim.

And perhaps that maxim is useful to us as well in a culture hell-bent on exhorting and encouraging and affirming generations of people to goals they can’t possibly accomplish in carefully curated social media magnifying glass they can’t possibly compete with or sustain.

Odds are you aren’t going to change the world. Odds are you won’t reach the top of your profession. Odds are you won’t complete everything you set out to do. This is not a failure on your part. After all, who among us is really much better than our fathers before us? And what metric are we going to grab to determine that?

This isn’t a call to apathy or listlessness or despair. It’s a call to realism. A call to quit looking in the mirror, or more accurately to quit comparing the mirror to the fitness model or the wildly successful day-trader or the latest celebrity phenom. It’s a call to value and appreciate what you do accomplish today, what you do contribute, and more fundamentally, simply that you are. The real metric of self-esteem isn’t what we do at all, it’s simply that we’re here at all. We exist. We are created. And inextricably linked to this reality of created, unique existence is the reality of redemption not in what we accomplish but what our Creator accomplishes on our behalf through his Son, Jesus.

At that point we can deal with our finitude. We can deal with ordinariness, averageness. We can deal with moments of failure as well as moments of success. We can come to grips with the fact that someone is going to come after us and pick up where we left off and maybe finish some of those things we weren’t able to, and that in one way or another, we’ve done that for someone ahead of us.

How We Do Things

April 9, 2021

Tomorrow I will be installed in a new position. I move from being a parish pastor to working for my denominational polity in the capacity of an overseas theological educator serving partner church organizations in Southeast Asia. This requires the relocation of myself and my family to Southeast Asia, after a process of creating a network of supporters who will pray, encourage, share with others, and provide the financial stability for us to sustain years of work on the other side of the world.

Different church bodies handle these sorts of transitions differently. Some are very directive and a person can be moved at will by the ecclesiastical hierarchy to different locations or different positions. Some are very localized and independent and a pastor is essentially accountable to no one for the career decisions he (or she) makes. Lutherans are in this regard very consistent with our approach to most things, trying to hold together the tension the Bible sometimes creates when it describes different things without directing or prescribing them.

That means as an ordained minister I am not solely responsible and neither is my denominational body for matters of new or different positions. There are multiple entities involved in this. The Holy Spirit of God is acknowledged as a prime mover and director in these things, though in practice He is difficult to identify or quantify! I have a role to play, as does my denominational polity, and finally the specific people also affected by such changes – the congregation I have served for the last 11 years and the people I will be working with in the future. All of those entities are presumed to have a voice in this. The nature of that voice and how it is expressed vary, but they are all factors that contribute. Ideally this minimizes personal whim to some degree and provides some level of accountability.

I was issued a Call at the end of January. Think of a Call as an offer for a job. These days a Call usually occurs after some period of mutual exploration and discussion. Traditionally though, this was not necessarily the case, and a pastor in our denomination might simply receive Call documents in the mail out of the blue from some unknown congregation. In either situation, it’s the pastor’s duty to inform his current congregation of the Call, and then to prayerfully consider the Call and whether he should accept it. The Call documents should contain the basics to inform such a decision – location, information about the Calling entity, job description, compensation description, housing issues, and medical insurance details, for starters.

The pastor prays, discusses with family, and comes to a decision. If he declines the Call he notifies his own congregation and informs the Calling entity in writing and that’s the end of the story. At least until another Call arrives! I know a guy who had three Calls to consider in a period of less than six months!

If the pastor decides to accept the Call, he informs his congregation and the Calling congregation as well and plans to transition. Transitions are hard and therefore are recommended to be reasonably swift without being too abrupt. The congregation the pastor is leaving needs to begin making plans to Call a new pastor and hanging around for months and months is usually counter-productive to this.

All of the various necessities of relocation and other things are secondary to the installation of the pastor in his new capacity. A formal installation is a public event wherein someone called to an official position in the Church is installed in this capacity. Ideally it’s a public witness that the process of reaching this point has been conducted in good faith, though that isn’t always the case, unfortunately. But it is the public declaration that this person has been asked to perform these particular tasks on behalf of the Calling congregation or entity.

In my case, the Call wasn’t from a congregation but from our denominational polity, and specifically from the part of that organization overseeing overseas church work. In this situation, my installation has to occur here in the United States, with a local congregation essentially standing in and representative of our denominational polity. The congregation I am leaving will voice support for and acceptance of my work in this new capacity on behalf of the larger church body. The installation happens here rather than on the other side of the world because here we have congregations who can speak on behalf of denomination.

Installation is a rite, something our church body has developed under the influence of Scripture and in an effort to be faithful to it, but ultimately it’s something we have created for our own use. I’m installed by another representative of my denomination – oftentimes an ecclesiastical supervisor or designated representative. In my case, I’ve asked to be installed by a retired pastor who is a member of my congregation but also spent the first decade of his ministry career serving as a missionary in the Philippines. I like the symmetry of someone who has worked in that part of the world on behalf of the church installing me in my new role in that area, even if my role will differ markedly from his.

Installations can be big affairs – entire church services crafted around the Rite of Installation. I’ve opted for a more stripped-down approach. It’s more appropriate to have a big celebration when the installation is in the congregation where the pastor is arriving. It’s a little harder to celebrate when the pastor is leaving that congregation (though of course there are times when that kind of celebration is pretty appropriate!). I’m a simple guy. A simple service will do.

Once that installation is complete the transition will be final. It is the final acknowledgement that all parties involved trust that not simply human agency was involved in this transition, but God himself. It’s his glory and purpose we’re after, in the end, not our own personal preferences (although I believe He can use those preferences). It isn’t a guarantee of success, but rather how we do things in an attempt to be faithful to God’s Word and God’s people. When it’s done properly it can be a beautiful thing, but it is also a system involving sinful human beings and so it can be manipulated.

Hopefully, this transition is one of the former rather than the latter!

Silencing Dissent

March 29, 2021

Thanks to Ken for this Wall Street Journal article discussing how social media companies censor religious speech and even eliminate accounts and access to their platforms when it disagrees with vaguely defined rules against fake news or simply contradicts the cultural narrative they prefer to reinforce and support. This means affirming the inherent value of all life (contra abortion or euthanasia) or other traditional and ancient religious views may be grounds for content being banned or deleted. The appeal process in such a situation is by no means clear or guaranteed to result in a restoration of access or content.

A good reminder that while free speech remains a Constitutional freedom, when private companies hold monopoly-level power over digital communication that freedom becomes a technicality. Private companies are not bound to respect freedom of speech and are free to impose their own limitations on what sorts of statements and content are permitted. While they will find politically correct descriptions for these limitations, the effect is further limiting the expression of viewpoints held by a large (perhaps even majority) proportion of our nation.

Again, I urge people to reconsider supporting these platforms and their monopolies through continued membership and usage, whether it costs you anything or not. Between the blatant bias against conservative, traditional Biblical Christian beliefs and the increasingly egregious collection of personal data, the corresponding benefits of such social media giants (and other tech companies such as Google) become questionable, at best. It’s ironic and sad that Google, a company whose motto was originally Don’t Be Evil has come to represent some of the most questionable practices in terms of gathering data on the people who use it’s products.

Making wise choices is not easy, nor is it guaranteed to be easy or inexpensive.

Ashes, Ashes…

February 17, 2021

Another Ash Wednesday, and Christians around the world will participate in an ancient rite linking us to our mortality and to the promise of God that in Christ, our death is not the end. Growing up in a particular culture and religious tradition I presume a certain uniformity to rites such as the Imposition of Ashes. But that would be mistaken. Things are done in different ways and different places, something that shouldn’t be surprising but a good reminder of our unity in the midst of variation.