Posted on March 28, 2009 by Scott Kistler
The idea of Christianity crossing cultural boundaries fascinates me. We’ve seen it since the beginning of course, with Jewish, Middle Eastern, Greek, Latin, and Germanic Christians all coming into the fold within the first four centuries of the church’s existence. And all of these catergories are certainly too broad. The most interesting issues for me are how Christian teachings are interepreted by each group. How does Christianity change the cultures that it enters? What do converts keep from their pre-Christian traditions? What effects do these changes have on the culture and the church?
So the story that I related in the last post raised some interesting issues for me.
- First, I was struck that the belief in a spirit world by the Sudanese Christians seems to mirror their traditional beliefs before conversion and probably puts them closer to the mindset of early Christians on this issue than many Western Christians today. A sermon last Sunday pointed to the idea of darkness in the world that appears in the Gospel of John, and Peter Brown and the Western Civ textbook that I use also point out that early Christians believed in a world full of hostile spirits.
- Second, some quick searching seems to confirm that Nhialic is the Dinka word for a supreme God. Lamin Sanneh said in Whose Religion is Christianity? that using African words for God, rather than trying to import European words, has helped Christianity to spread. From some of my reading, it seems that African religions tend to have one creator god over all the other gods.
- Third, this strikes me as a different approach than the early Christians took. Peter Brown writes that the early Christians viewed the pagan gods as devils rather than nonexistent. One illustration of this is in St. Ambrose’s letter to Emperor Valentinian II, arguing that a pagan altar should not be rebuilt: “the gods of the heathen,” as Scripture says, “are devils.” It seems (and I could be wrong) that Christians used the general words for deity, deus (Latin) and theos (Greek), rather than promoting a specific connection between God and a creator god like Uranus. I don’t have the theological or missiological background to defend or criticize either approach. I just thought that it was interesting.
- Finally, the idea of the cross as possessing spiritual power is an interesting parallel to the protective properties of sacred symbols and objects that has a long history in Catholic and Orthodox Christianity.
Sometimes, I’m struck by how naturalistic and secular my training in history is. It gave me the tools to explain and compare but not to comment authoritatively on differing Christian beliefs and practices. What are your reactions to the descriptions of the cross in Bor Dinka Christianity and the way that the Gospel crosses cultural boundaries?
Filed under: History as a Discipline, Modern Global Christianity, Modern World | Tagged: contextualizing the gospel, evangelism, global Christianity, missions | 4 Comments »
Posted on March 28, 2009 by Scott Kistler
I have been teaching an introductory course on the history of Christianity using Mark Noll’s Turning Points as our textbook. This Sunday’s lesson focuses on the modern-day reality of global Christianity, brought about both by missions and the “indigenization” (or adaptation to local cultures) of the Gospel. Noll agrees with what I usually hear that missionary activity is the necessary first step that needs to be built on with the appropriation of the Christian message by the converts themselves.
Noll provides an example of this from the Bor Dinka people of southern Sudan (who were deeply affected by the recent civil war in Sudan), for whom the cross is an ever-present symbol, which “represents a Christianization of existing cultural forms, for the Dinka had historically put to use a wide variety of carved walking sticks, staffs, and clubs. Among Dinka converts, the Christian symbol has filled a form provided by traditional culture.” He continues:
In the second instance, however, the Dinka appropriation of the cross has also become a powerful expression of pastoral theology. As revealed in a flourishing of fresh, indigenous hymnody, the cross is now a comprehensive reality of great power. The cross provides protection against hostile spirits, or jak; the cross figures larges in the baptisms that mark conversions; in hymns the cross becomes an ensign or banner raised high for praise and protection; the cross brings the great God, Nhialic, close to the Dinka in the person of Christ, whose suffering is appropriated with striking subjectivity; the cross is spoken of as the mën, or the solid central post that supports the Dinka’s large, thatched cattle sheds; and the cross becomes a symbol of the potent Spirit who replaces the ancentral jak ([singular] jok), whose protective powers have so obviously failed in recent years. A song composed by Mary Nyanluaak Lem Bol illustrates the depth to which the cross has entered Dinka culture in desparate times:
We will carry the cross. We will carry the cross.
The cross is the gun for the evil jok.
Let us chase the evil jok away with the cross.
Note: Noll’s source for his information on the Bor Dinka is Marc R. Nikkel’s “The Cross of Bor Dinka Christians” in Studies in World Christianity 1 (1995): pp. 160-185.
UPDATE: I fixed a spelling mistake on Tuesday, March 31.
Filed under: Modern Global Christianity, Modern World | Tagged: contextualizing the gospel, evangelism, global Christianity, Mark Noll, missions | 4 Comments »
Posted on March 26, 2009 by Scott Kistler
Fouad Ajami is no doubt a brilliant man and someone with a lot of insight on the Arab world. But he seems to believe that the war in Iraq was justified because Iraqis are Arabs, and Arabs are the dominant force in Al Qaeda. I remember reading an Andrew Sullivan blog post a while back (UPDATE on 12/10/2010: I found Sullivan’s post that I referred to and another instance of the same thing here) that pointed to this idea in an Ajami article. Here it is again in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed:
George W. Bush answered history’s call — as he saw fit. The country gave him its warrant and acceptance, and then withdrew it in the latter years of his presidency. Say what you will about his call to vigilance, he had a coherent worldview. He held the line when the world of Islam was truly in the wind and played upon by ruinous temptations. He took the war on terror into the heart of the Arab world. It was Arabs — with oil money, and with the prestige that comes with their mastery of Arabic, the language of the Quran, among impressionable Pakistanis and Afghans — who had made Afghanistan the menace it had become. Without Arab money and Arab doctrines of political Islam, the Taliban would have remained a breed of reactionary seminarians, a terror to their own people but of no concern beyond. It thus made perfect strategic sense to take the fight to the Arab heartland of Islam. Saddam Hussein had drawn the short straw.
Not only is that no justification for a war against Iraq, it doesn’t seem like justification for war at all. It would seem that there are far better tools to combat “Arab money and Arab doctrines” than full-scale invasion of a country. But that’s not exactly a new criticism.
Hat tip: Tom Ricks
Filed under: Middle East and Islamic World, Modern World, Sanctity of Life | Tagged: just war, Middle East | Leave a Comment »
Posted on March 25, 2009 by Scott Kistler
There’s certainly been a lot of discussion about younger evangelicals and their differences with their parents’ generation. Matthew Lee Anderson, a “young evangelical” himself, tries to unpack the cultural trends of this group, focusing on their criticisms of their parents’ generation as well as the blind spots of this new generation. One particular trend that he discussed resonated with my own observations:
Beneath each of these shifts [including the search for "authenticity", less affiliation with political parties, and criticism of evangelical culture] in the young evangelical ethos is a tacit, yet devout, commitment to a kind of libertarianism—even while holding more paternal instincts on political issues like poverty and race. The libertarianism of my peers is less political and more cultural. It is grounded in the notion that we have—and hence, we ought to have—control over ourselves, and responsibility for ourselves, regardless of circumstance. This conflicts, of course, with many of the communitarian ideas these same young evangelicals support in regards to governmental assistance in society—but few would accuse my generation of being intellectually consistent or coherent.
For most young evangelicals, the flash points where our libertarianism comes out are traditional sources of conflict with parents: tattoos, alcohol, music, movies, language and sexuality. In each area, younger evangelicals have rejected the perceived prudishness symbolized by our parents (yes, ironically, the children of the sixties and seventies) in favor of engaging the culture around us. Often this reflects a new internalization—one might characterize it as a gnosticization—of the Gospel. Social rules, such as those which once governed alcohol consumption among evangelicals, language, and sexual behavior, are now a sign of a Puritanical legalism that has forgotten that Jesus really cares about the heart and our intentions, not our behaviors and, as such, are to be discarded.
This principle of self-control and self-realization undergirds young evangelicals’ consumption of media. The new mantra of cultural engagement provides young evangelicals an effective cover to consume the same media as their peers. They are deeply convinced that such media has no effect on their lives—remaining confident they are carefully protected from the bad effects of consumerism by their flawless decision-making abilities.
This is one of the deep ironies of the young evangelical ethos. While vehemently rejecting the consumerism of 20th century evangelicalism, young evangelicals have adopted a new consumerist mindset under the guise of engagement with culture—a mindset that earns them access into the social standing they desire. The consumerism that has infected the core of evangelicalism has not been eradicated in the younger generations—it has simply been subsumed under a new teaching. Young evangelicals aspire to be urbane, sophisticated, and not appear judgmental or harsh—they want to be cool. And being cool means tossing aside the social mores that many of them grew up in, and transforming themselves into faith-soaked libertines.
Here young evangelicals’ approach to marriage and sexuality is instructive. The social institutions governing mating processes among young Christians continue to erode. While isolated pockets of evangelicals have attempted to buttress them against the impending tide of libertarianism, in reality couples decides for themselves how they want to approach marriage and sexuality. The slow but inevitable relaxing of codes of conduct at evangelical institutions is indicative of this trend—and it is a welcome trend to students who have to deal with being “weird” for attending a school with arcane rules. The new consumerism and the new libertarianism go hand in hand.
I know it’s a long quote, but I’ve noticed (and often succumbed to) this as well. People don’t want to be the “weird” kind of Christian, and so while wanting community they also want to have their own lives unregulated. I thought that Anderson’s explanation was the best I’ve seen of this mindset.
Does anyone else notice this?
Hat tip: Internet Monk
Filed under: 21st Century | Tagged: American evangelicalism, postmodernism, young evangelicals | 4 Comments »
Posted on March 24, 2009 by Scott Kistler
Well, I obviously missed this when it was posted in January, so perhaps linking to it now is kind of lame. But if you want to read a bracing assessment of the current state of evangelicalism, check out the Internet Monk’s posts: reasons for the collapse, what will remain, and the effects. Here are his first two reasons for the collapse:
1) Evangelicals have identified their movement with the culture war and with political conservatism. This was a mistake that will have brutal consequences. They are not only going to suffer in losing causes, they will be blamed as the primary movers of those causes. Evangelicals will become synonymous with those who oppose the direction of the culture in the next several decades. That opposition will be increasingly viewed as a threat, and there will be increasing pressure to consider evangelicals bad for America, bad for education, bad for children and bad for society.
The investment of evangelicals in the culture war will prove out to be one of the most costly mistakes in our history. The coming evangelical collapse will come about, largely, because our investment in moral, social and political issues has depleted our resources and exposed our weaknesses. We’re going to find out that being against gay marriage and rhetorically pro-life (yes, that’s what I said) will not make up for the fact that massive majorities of evangelicals can’t articulate the Gospel with any coherence and are believing in a cause more than a faith.
2) Evangelicals have failed to pass on to our young people the evangelical Christian faith in an orthodox form that can take root and survive the secular onslaught. In what must be the most ironic of all possible factors, an evangelical culture that has spent billions of youth ministers, Christian music, Christian publishing and Christian media has produced an entire burgeoning culture of young Christians who know next to nothing about their own faith except how they feel about it. Our young people have deep beliefs about the culture war, but do not know why they should obey scripture, the essentials of theology or the experience of spiritual discipline and community. Coming generations of Christians are going to be monumentally ignorant and unprepared for culture-wide pressures that they will endure.
Do not be deceived by conferences or movements that are theological in nature. These are a tiny minority of evangelicalism. A strong core of evangelical beliefs is not present in most of our young people, and will be less present in the future. This loss of “the core” has been at work for some time, and the fruit of this vacancy is about to become obvious.
If this whets your appetite, check out all three parts (and check out his disclaimer at the top of the first part).
Filed under: 21st Century | Tagged: American evangelicalism, conservative movement, culture war, young evangelicals | Leave a Comment »
Posted on March 24, 2009 by Scott Kistler
In 1994, a 10-year-old and an 11-year-old tried dropped a boy of just 5 to his death out of a 14th-floor window in a housing project. Prosecutors said it was because the younger boy had refused to steal candy for the older boys, although one of them now says it was purely an act of bullying.
The perpetrators were sentenced to prison after the Illinois legislature lowered the minimum age for prison-sentencing from 13 to 10. The Chicago Tribune ran a story today that followed up on the two boys now that they have grown up. They’ve both been back in prison since getting out the first time. Even more disheartening is the fact that the victim’s brother is now on trial for murder.
Reading these two stories and watching the video interview embedded in the first story gives a survey of some of the problems of our inner cities today: family breakdown, the dismal failure of the Chicago housing projects, lack of education, and the difficulties that convicts have in reentering society. Of course, none of these things cancels out the responsibility of the individuals to act morally, but they do provide the context for this awful crime.
How can Christians address the systemic problems that provide the context for the individual choices? I don’t know. I think that part of the answer has to do with getting to know our inner cities better and supporting those who are doing good work there. It may involve more intense and intentional involvement by those who God calls to minister in the cities.
I know that one of the first reactions to reading stories like this and watching one of the murderers interviewed can be contempt. Sometimes the victims perpetrators in this story seemed to feel sorry for themselves, and perhaps the journalist allows them to do that too much. I can envision people reading this story and saying that the murders murderers are “trash.”
But I hope that our last reaction as Christians isn’t contempt, no matter what our initial, gut-level response is. If John Piper is right that “All truth exists to display more of God and awaken more love for God,” then we can remember that Christ died for people just like these murderers. I pray that they will come to a knowledge of Christ, in whom all of their sins can be washed away. It’s their, and our, only hope.
UPDATE (6/5/09): I realized that there were a couple of mistakes in my original post. I have fixed them while striking through my original text.
Filed under: Sanctity of Life, Urban Issues | Tagged: John Piper, justice system, Urban Issues | Leave a Comment »
Posted on March 18, 2009 by Scott Kistler
Justin Taylor heartily recommends The Case for Life: Equipping Christians to Engage the Culture by Scott Klusendorf.
This strikes me as exactly the kind of thinking and reading that Christians need to be doing as we seek to persuade a moderately pro-choice culture to value the lives of the unborn. I hope and pray that this book can equip us to do so.
Filed under: Reading List, Sanctity of Life | Tagged: abortion, Justin Taylor, Reading List | Leave a Comment »
Posted on March 15, 2009 by Scott Kistler
I think that I first encountered the saying “All truth is God’s truth” when reading Mark D. Roberts’ Can We Trust the Gospels?. He explained that he felt nervous about studying the Bible from a secular perspective in a Harvard course, but that John Stott gave him this phrase to ease his fears. I believe that Roberts said that Augustine was the originator of the phrase. This attitude is a helpful one in learning about almost anything.
The history of Western Civilization, the United States, and even Christianity are often marred with things that we wish we could erase. Especially over the last 50 years, it seems, critics of Western culture, Christianity, or both have highlighted these errors, and honest people have to sadly acknowledge legitimate criticisms.
The attitude that “All truth is God’s truth” has provided a guideline for me in navigating criticisms of Western culture (which are sometimes extremely necessary) and Christianity (which are much more troubling to me). In other words, God and the gospel are not threatened by Christians facing up to the murderous violence during the Crusades, the dispossession of Native Americans by many Americans who claimed Christ as their savior, and a host of other sins. Talking honestly about these tragedies requires us to provide context (the Muslims had conquered the Holy Land themselves, of course, and Native American tribes certainly waged war against each other), but we can feel confident that dealing with the past isn’t a threat to the core of our faith.
But then along comes John Piper, challenging us to elevate our understanding of this idea to the highest possible plane:
Alongside “All truth is God’s truth,” we need to say, “All truth exists to display more of God and awaken more love for God.” This means that knowing truth and knowing it as God’s truth is not a virtue until it awakens desire and delight in us for the God of truth. And that desire and delight are not complete until they give rise to words or actions that display the worth of God. That is, we exist to glorify God (1 Corinthians 10:31), and merely knowing a truth to be God’s truth does not glorify him any more than the devil does.
And so there is a new challenge: when we learn, are we using it to increase our understanding and love of God? Do we see all learning as ultimately in his service and for his glory? I pray that I might, with God’s help, see how the truths that I learn ultimately show his glory and display more reasons that I should love him.
Filed under: History as a Discipline | Tagged: Christian mind, John Piper, wise words | 3 Comments »