Onesimus Online: a blog to stir your thinking (Bill Black)

UPDATE: Onesimus Online no longer exists.

Ask any of Bill Black’s students here about him, and they will probably say: “he provokes; he really challenges us to think.”   Thankfully, for the rest of us, Bill blogs at Onesimus Online: history, theology, culture, the church, and other dangerous stuff. If you are at all interested in theology, theological education in Africa, global Christianity, missions, evangelicalism, American cultural Christianity, and other related topics, you might enjoy his blog–and having your thinking provoked and deepened. I know Bill appreciates the broader dialog.  Bill and his wife are both pastors, graduates of Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary, PhDs from Cambridge, and teachers here at NEGST.  Previously, they taught in Ethiopia. Plus, they are a lot of fun to talk to;  I’ve learned a lot from them.

Here are a few “sound bytes” from some of Bill’s posts to whet your appetite:

The passing of evangelicalism

…We Western Evangelicals thought we were the center of the Christian universe, only to discover that the glory seems to have departed and moved south to Africa, Latin America and Asia. Those tongues-speaking, hallelujah-shouting, other-side-of-the-tracks-dwelling so-called Pentecostals, even more derisively labeled as ‘holy rollers’ by the upstanding Christians in my home church who, of course, knew better, have become the most explosive force in the global expansion of Christianity ever. There is not a single individual person in my systematic theology class who would not identify themselves as either Pentecostal or Charismatic. On the ‘mission field’ at least, the old paradigms of missionary Christianity are in the process of being leap-frogged entirely. ..
…Anyway, the point of all of this is that things have changed. Radically. Decisively. The old verities and polarities don’t work anymore (if they ever did). The systems and structures which we created to manage the world as we knew it are being pressed into service beyond their capacity to cope. This is not a call to somehow change Evangelicalism. It’s actually too late for that. Its day has passed and cannot be recovered. Instead, …

A Plea for Civility, Sanity and Integrity in Theological/Political Debate (3 personal examples)

Theology is not safe:

…there is another reason why I am undertaking this blog. Theology is a dangerous thing. Theology that attempts to reduce God to what I can understand about God is an attempt to tame God. But the God revealed in the Christian Scriptures is untamable. Our Western theological traditions, both Catholic and Protestant, are attempts to mount God onto a specimen board, attempts to dissect and label God’s constituent parts, attempts to deduce divine physiology from divine structure. But efforts to catalogue the parts fails to apprehend the whole. Our orthodoxies miss the point…

…This blog then is becoming increasingly like my own incident at the fords of the Jabbok, my own wrestling with the one who refuses to be named and categorized…

The Western Captivity of African Christianity

…Not only are we forcing Western Evangelical categories on African students as the measure of all that’s true in the world, but we have simply assumed that our model of theological education itself is the baseline for all subsequent thinking on the matter…

…We theological educators in Africa are doing a bang-up job of reproducing North American Evangelicals for Africa, replete with our ways of thinking about and practicing Christianity. But in doing so, I’m not at all certain that we are either being true to New Testament Christianity or engaging effectively with the people of this continent as they really are…

Brain tumors, theological education and the church

The human brain is an unimaginably complex piece of work…Though my extended parable may be like the tumor it describes – a malignant profusion of words that obliterates the intended purpose – the purpose itself remains. The concern of this post is with theological education as it is actually practiced, especially at the higher levels, and its relationship with the church it’s intended to serve. My concerns come from my own experience as one who has benefitted from theological education and who has gone on to serve several churches in a professional ministerial capacity, and from my observations of theological education in actual practice…

…I think there are likely a number of reasons contributing to this fundamental dysfunction in our churches. First,…

….The breathtaking irony of all this is, having created such an institutionalized system for training our leaders (the theological education industry), a system that has succeeded in taking us further and further afield from that which Christ is calling us to be, we heedlessly presume our institutional model to be the most effective way to train Nigerians or Indians or Chinese or Ethiopians for the ministry…

Africa, Spiral Logic, Systematic Theology, and the Perils of Theological Education

The Indefensible Evangelical Habit of Shooting Our Wounded

Last week there was a gun battle outside our gate. Four gangsters had hijacked cars and shot drivers and the authorities finally caught up with them just over the fence from my house. In the ensuing firefight, two of the carjackers were killed outright, one escaped over the fence (and through my garden!), and the fourth lay wounded on the road…

Believers Baptism vs. Infant Baptism, Must it Matter?

Evangelicalism Inc.

…Not only are the Western Prosperity gods raking it in, but developing-world prosperity-god-wannabees are trying desperately to get in on the cash…Dare I even mention the Evangelical publishing industry, which seems to have taken on the role of God in conservative academic and popular religion circles, raising up this one and ignoring that one, and on the grounds of whether or not it is ‘marketable’. I can’t imagine Jeremiah being able to secure a publishing contract from this crowd…

…Then there are the incredibly large and wealthy Christian aid organizations poised globally to respond immediately to the latest front page disaster and who must raise gazillions of dollars not only to feed the starving, but to buy the planes and Toyota land cruisers and computers and iPhones and Blackberries and pay the travel fees for all the conferences and meetings and consultations that must happen in the background for the hungry to be fed…

Does this bother anybody else?

…I do not deny the good intentions of most (I hope) of my fellow Christians involved in these so-called ‘ministries’. But I can’t help but thinking that we Evangelicals have become like addicts hooked on methamphetamine. We’ve got to have more, more, more. We’ve got to be successful, or at least appear successful, because if we are or appear so, more people will be drawn to our ‘ministry’ which will make us all the more successful. But like the meth addict, this stuff is destroying us…We dare not take a genuinely prophetic stance on anything, because if we do, someone will be offended and we will lose support. We’ve become like Ahab’s court prophets, cunningly discerning which way the wind is blowing before committing ourselves on any issue, and viciously smacking down anyone who does not toe the party line.

We Evangelicals are seriously compromised. And seriously compromised people are like salt that’s lost its savor…

And much, much MORE.

My Book

I hate to break it to you world, but Obama is still American

Obama Unlikely to Find a Quick Fix for U.S. Global Image (Pew Research Center):

No question that Barack Obama has a great personal following around the world, especially in comparison with President Bush. But to restore the global image of the nation he now leads, the new president must overcome a number of fundamental criticisms. And issues arising from the global economic crisis and other world problems on Obama’s agenda seem likely to resonate with key criticisms about America’s leadership in the Bush years. . .

. . . While President Obama has been extremely popular personally, his international agenda may not be, given the global mindset about the U.S. Take for example his desire to gain more European support for the war in Afghanistan. In 2008 most Europeans surveyed by Pew Research, save the British, favored withdrawing NATO troops from that country. An American president urging reluctant Europeans to use force is hardly likely to allay concerns about U.S. militarism.

Then there is Obama’s economic stimulus plan encouraging consumer spending and entailing greatly increased budget deficits. This apparently strikes at least some European leaders as reckless. The new president’s efforts to sell this policy approach may well feed into the prevailing notion of the U.S. going its own way in dealing with mega international problems.

Even more importantly, . . .

. . . while it seems likely that other nations will, in general, react favorably to Obama’s style and more conciliatory approach compared with President Bush, that will only go so far and so long in changing minds about what America stands for and its global leadership. In the end, actions — and their consequences — will resonate more widely and strongly than words.

The quiet coup in Washington; America’s legalized corruption (the Atlantic)

Having divested myself of all expectations of regular or thoughtful blogging; I freely offer some of my Sunday evening reading to you – pure parasitic blogging. Links to some other great “Sunday evening reads” can be found on the right in my – Links of the Day. I highly recommend the Truth about Forgiveness from last Sunday’s Washington Post; it’s not the kind of thing you can excerpt quotes from. (HT: Scot McKnight who always has good links in his Weekly Meanderings: e.g. Is America Losing Faith or the future of leadership: The Facebook Generation vs. the Fortune 500 by Gary Hamel. 12 values you will have to take into consideration.)

Simon Johnson, formerly of the IMF has a fascinating article in the Atlantic (May?). This falls under the topic of of what I frequently refer to as the “legalized corruption” in the West, which seems to be far more lucrative than the illegal corruption we rightly condemn here. (I seem to be on an economics kick lately):

[Intro:] The crash has laid bare many unpleasant truths about the United States. One of the most alarming, says a former chief economist of the International Monetary Fund, is that the finance industry has effectively captured our government—a state of affairs that more typically describes emerging markets, and is at the center of many emerging-market crises. If the IMF’s staff could speak freely about the U.S., it would tell us what it tells all countries in this situation: recovery will fail unless we break the financial oligarchy that is blocking essential reform. And if we are to prevent a true depression, we’re running out of time.

In a primitive political system, power is transmitted through violence, or the threat of violence: military coups, private militias, and so on. In a less primitive system more typical of emerging markets, power is transmitted via money: bribes, kickbacks, and offshore bank accounts. Although lobbying and campaign contributions certainly play major roles in the American political system, old-fashioned corruption—envelopes stuffed with $100 bills—is probably a sideshow today, Jack Abramoff notwithstanding.

Instead, the American financial industry gained political power by amassing a kind of cultural capital—a belief system. . . . Over the past decade, the attitude took hold that what was good for Wall Street was good for the country. The banking-and-securities industry has become one of the top contributors to political campaigns, but at the peak of its influence, it did not have to buy favors the way, for example, the tobacco companies or military contractors might have to. Instead, it benefited from the fact that Washington insiders already believed that large financial institutions and free-flowing capital markets were crucial to America’s position in the world.

One channel of influence was, of course, the flow of individuals between Wall Street and Washington. . . These personal connections

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Cognitive and neural foundations of religious beliefs; what an MRI might tell you about your beliefs in God.

There’s a new study out that studies brain activity and religious beliefs – abstract and links.  PDF here (only six pages including pictures). A related article in the Independent gives the bottom line:

. . . people of different religious persuasions and beliefs, as well as atheists, all tended to use the same electrical circuits in the brain to solve a perceived moral conundrum – and the same circuits were used when religiously-inclined people dealt with issues related to God. The study found that several areas of the brain are involved in religious belief.

. . . “There is nothing unique about religious belief in these brain structures. Religion doesn’t have a ‘God spot’ as such, instead it’s embedded in a whole range of other belief systems in the brain that we use everyday,” Professor Grafman said.

Page 1 from the published study results:

Religious belief and behavior are a hallmark of human life, with no accepted animal equivalent, and found in all cultures (1). The biological basis of religion, though, is fiercely debated in fields as diverse as evolutionary psychology, anthropology, genetics, and cosmology. Contemporary psychological theories consider religious belief and behavior as complex brain-based phenomena that may have co-emerged in our species with novel cognitive processes for social cognition, such as Theory of Mind (ToM), and successfully engaged fundamental cognitive mechanisms, such as memory (2–4).

Remarkably

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Ahmadinejad: Christianity & Islam spread the same message

Ahmadinejad, visiting Kenya, in today’s Daily Nation:

. . . “Today, most of the oppressive governments are headed for destruction and only those countries that are just and fear God will survive.” The President [Ahmadinejad] said he was hopeful that deals signed with the Kenyan Government would bring about development and cooperation.

He said he wished good health for all Kenyans and Iranians and called for unity among Muslims and Christians, stressing that both religions spread the same message. . .