The Gospel’s relational cure to increasing tribalism

On our  trip through the USA this summer, I began to sense that as Africa becomes more global and cosmopolitan, my native America was growing more fractured and tribal. Stereotypically speaking, in Africa relationships almost always come first. With globalization, the circle of those relationships is rapidly expanding. Increasingly in America, ideology can trump relationship and end friendship. In my environment here in Nairobi, I can move from one  radically different cultural context to another within minutes, but those shifts pale in comparison to the whiplash I felt going from one isolated American tribe to another (e.g. moving from Christian Obama lovers to Christian Obama haters.) There were times I felt like if I dared disagree, the conversation might end instantly.

In a recent TED talk, Eli Pariser argued that  internet filters (Google, Facebook, etc.) will only accelerate that fragmentation/tribalization.

OR watch his talk on the TED page

What is the answer to this perennial human blight?

At GospelFutures, Neil Williams suggests that an inbuilt critique to tribalism is seen in the life of Jesus and the gospel story–relational tranformation–a just life (the concluding post to his a series on relational transformation.)

…What relationships are the hardest to transform? Where is relational failure most evident? An answer is suggested in Jesus’s words to his disciples, “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?” (Matthew 5:46-47).

…It is difficult to read and interact with the accounts of Jesus without noticing his relational integrity with and love for outsiders. [Neil lists a few examples from the Gospels.] …If there was one thing that riled up people, it was Jesus’s relationship with outsiders…So the gospel story has an inbuilt critique and challenge to exclusive clubs. The appeal is to transform these most difficult and problematic of relationships…

Neil also anticipates some objections: “Does this mean giving up our beliefs, values, and identity? And what about our theological reasons for exclusion?”

At a minimum: Make, keep, and love friends who see the world differently than you do and disagree with you–especially those who are likely to be marginalized by your tribe. It’s not easy, but it’s the Jesus thing to do.

Cultural observations on coming back to America (Myhre)

I’ve been enjoying and relating to the re-entry reflections of Jennifer Myhre on ParadoxUganda. Here is her latests.

Some things about America remain constant, only I have forgotten them somewhat in 17 years.  Friendliness, for instance.  Africans are very friendly too, of course, but in Africa relationships like all of life are spiritually/physically/emotionally integrated…

Other things about America, however, have changed.  The penchant for safety and paranoia about liability, manifested in warnings on any and every thing, has escalated.  Cereal boxes warn you that the strawberries and milk pictured on the front are not included.  Ice cream bars warn you not to consume the paper wrapping or stick.  Really.  Again at the beach, a warning sign, that in case of an earthquake a tsunami could occur so one should move AWAY from the ocean towards higher ground.  As if no one would have otherwise known which direction to go.  There must be tens of thousands of these signs on the coast.  Last week I read about a woman suing google maps because she took a route that indicated crossing a road, and was hit by a car, and felt that google should have warned her.  I am not making this up.

All of this strikes us more as we come from a place of few rules and the assumption that risk is part of life.  Of course it means…keep reading.

5 books that helped shape how I read the Bible

I’ve been tagged by Karyn Traphagen with a book meme:

Name 5 books or scholars that had the most immediate and lasting influence on how you read the Bible. [Ken Brown has collected responses.]

I’m going to come at it a little differently than some. These books are more representations of communities and experiences that have shaped my reading of Scripture.  As you can see, some do not directly address how I read the Bible per se, but they had a radical impact on my hermeneutics in a contextual kind of way.

  1. Peter Enns – Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament along with classes by Doug Green and Mike Kelly at Westminster (also Kenton Sparks – God’s Words in Human Words: An Evangelical Appropriation of Critical Biblical Scholarship.—though more recent (2008), he gets at many of the same issues.) I guess half of you will disown me at this point; sorry.  These same Old Testament professors helped me appreciate a redemptive-historical approach to the entire biblical canon–the whole Bible as God’s story of redemption.
  2. NT Wright – The New Testament and the People of God and Jesus and the Victory of God . (Also his most recent books, but the starting point was his article on How Can the Bible be Authoritative (or pdf)—the 5th Act elaborated more in his recent book on Scripture The Last Word).
  3. Michael Emerson and Christian Smith– Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the problem of Race in America (in conjunction with other books on ethnicity & race)  helped me see how a lot of “biblical interpretation” is driven by our sub-cultures and desires to preserve certain comforts and privileges. Social environment plays a huge role in our hermeneutical stance and which texts we choose to listen to or to ignore.
  4. Kwame Bediako – Theology and Identity : The Impact of Culture upon Christian Thought in the Second Century and in Modern Africa.
  5. Laurenti Magesa – African Religion: The Moral Traditions of the Abundant Life provides some African religious context as a worldview setting for reading and inculturating the Bible). Provides the bookend with #1 in the dialogue between cultures of biblical times and Africa today into which God speaks.

[And since I always cheat on memes, a few more]:

  1. Walter Wink – Naming the Power series (helped me piece together together my biblical, American, and African misunderstandings of the spirit world in a somewhat unusual way—more on that some time in the future.)
  2. Anything demonstrating the more Jewish orientation of Acts (Tiede, Jervell, etc.)
  3. Sperber and Wilson – Relevance: Communication and Cognition – This book actually does a very poor job of communicating or achieving “relevance”, but the ideas that emerge out of it are important for hermeneutics and communication. (Ernest Gutt makes it more clear in Relevance Theory Guide to Successful Communication in Translation )

My hermeneutical journey went something like this.

  • At Wheaton College, perhaps the most significant “eye-opening” experiences were learning Greek, Hebrew, and textual criticism. It helped me begin to see the Bible as a living document in different ways than I had been raised to believe.
  • After my BA, I thought that if I could only figure out how the early church father’s interpreted the Bible, then I might be able to solve many of the disputes we have over interpretation today.
  • Then I studied the church fathers and realized they were just as confused and driven by culture as we are (Bediako’s book gets at that)—back to direct exegesis of the Biblical texts.
  • Through Trinity and Westminster, I became disillusioned with presentations of systematic or dogmatic theologies. (I have a relatively long list of books that paradoxically convinced me that their way of reading the Bible was untenable. The harder they tried, the less convinced I became.)
  • Meanwhile the African-American brothers and sisters began to open my eyes to the racist sub-culture of American Evangelicals and their limited readings of the Bible. They helped me appreciate the Exodus story (Exodus/New Exodus readings of the Bible) and the the importance God places on justice throughout the biblical narrative.
  • Peter Enns (I & I) and the other Old Testament profs at Westminster (Al Groves, Doug Green, and Mike Kelly) opened up the biblical cultural worlds and methods of interpretation during the second temple period. The key epiphany there was the christotelic (towards Christ) hermeneutic of the apostles. (They also introduced me to N.T. Wright.)
  • N.T. Wright opened my eyes to the Second Temple context and a more “Jewish”—story of Israel—reading of New Testament texts. Wright further helped reframe my worldview.
  • More recently, Laurenti Magesa helped me think of contextualizing the gospel in different African cultures, and along with Bediako helped me appreciate how understandings of African worldviews can enrich our understandings of the Gospel and our readings of the Bible.

And le voila; here I am: more confused than ever, but hopefully confused at a higher level. All in all, I have developed a far deeper respect for Scripture and how God continues to speak through it the Good News of salvation through Jesus Christ to peoples of different times, places, and cultures. May God be praised!!

If they feel like doing some variation of this, I tag: Rombo Kins (who you’ll probably have to catch on Twitter); Eddie Arthur; Pastor M; David Ker; Michael Kruse; Brad Wright; the newly minted REV. Simon Cunningham; and David Bawks (who should be done with exams and student council business in a couple of weeks.)

High context societies and asking the right questions; biblical hermeneutics and cross-cultural communication in Kenya.

Most American and European interpreters come at the biblical texts with a low-context set of assumptions and ways of thinking. Unfortunately for us, the Bible was written in high-context societies.

High context societies produce sketchy and impressionistic texts, leaving much to the reader’s or hearer’s imagination. Since people believe few things have to be spelled out, few things are. This is because people have been socialized into shared ways of perceiving and acting. Hence, much can be assumed. . .

– Bruce J. Malina, "Reading Theory Perspective: Reading Luke-Acts." Pages 3-23 in The Social World of Luke-Acts: Models for Interpretation. Edited by Jerome H. Neyrey. Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson, 1991: page 20 citing Edward T. Hall, Beyond Culture, (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1976) and The Dance of Life; The Other Dimensions of Time (Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday, 1983).

Some implications:

  • Many of us (Westerners) tend to falsely read the Bible as a low context document. We look mostly for explicit prescriptions; we want the Bible to tell us point blank what we should be doing and how we should be doing it. (Chapter and verse please! Preferably from one of Paul’s de-contextualized letters.)
  • A great deal of the Bible is story—narrative. In a high context culture, you don’t need much more than that; you would get it (or at least know what you need to be wrestling with.)
  • Some of the nuances of biblical stories and speeches are likely lost to us forever—at least pre-resurrection. Sad to say, we simply don’t have access to all the important contextual clues. The few contextual clues we do have (and keep hashing over and over) might actually be minor or directly misleading; the  crucial piece of info (the one piece of data that turns the whole meaning the opposite direction) might be missing entirely.

Too pessimistic you say? Maybe knowing this can help us try to be a little more humble (less dogmatic) about our interpretations of the Bible. Maybe understanding the cultural dynamics of being low-context readers of a high-context document can encourage us to focus more on the big story—the metanarrative—rather than possibly misunderstood cultural details.

Some local examples (BTW: This is why I love doing biblical studies in the African context.)

One Wednesday a few months ago, my wife Christi and I were in town for meetings, and we realized we were not going to be home in time for lunch. Wednesday is market day, so Nina (our wonderful house helper) takes the first half of the morning off and then goes shopping for us at the market; she usually doesn’t get to our apartment till around lunch time. The crucial piece of contextual data here is that our kids 8, 5, and 3 (and Nina’s 10-year old son) walk home for lunch—their school is only about 100 meters away from our apartment.

So Christi calls Nina up, and after the perfunctory greetings, the phone conversation goes like this:

Christi: We’ve just found out that we won’t be home till mid-afternoon.

Njeri: Sawa sawa.  (Kiswahili equivalent for something like “OK.”)

That’s it! In our high context society, nothing else needed to be said. We knew that Nina would put the contextual clues together, shorten her market trip, and get lunch ready for the kids. [This is also a great example of the principles of the Relevance Theory of Communication at work (as opposed to linguistic code theories), but I’ll leave that topic for another date.] Actually, if Christi had been any more explicit saying for example, “I need you to get to our apt. a little earlier than usual to make sure lunch is ready for the kids”, I’m sure Nina would have felt slightly patronized. (No one really likes to be told what to do when they can figure it out.)

America is a low-context culture. In comparison, almost everything is explicitly spelled out, and we have lots of fine print. In high-context cultural settings, we Americans can seem pretty daft. Say what? Why are you beating around the bush? Why don’t you just tell me more directly what you are thinking? Why does everyone seem to already know what is going on?

He’s another example:

Last week,

Continue reading

Our TCK president: Obama and his team of third culture kids

. . . According to a body of sociological literature devoted to children who spend a portion of their developmental years outside their “passport country,” the classic  profile of a “TCK” is someone with a global perspective who is socially adaptable and intellectually flexible. He or she is quick to think outside the box and can appreciate and reconcile different points of view.  Beyond whatever diversity in background or appearance a TCK may bring to the party, there is a diversity of thought as well.

“Third Culture Kids” share certain emotional and psychological traits that may exert great influence in the new administration.

But TCKs can also feel rootless and detached. The great challenge for maturing Third Culture Kids is to forge a sense of personal and cultural identity from the various environments to which they been exposed. Barack Obama’s memoir, Dreams of My Father, could serve as a textbook in the TCK syllabus, a classic search for self-definition, described in living color. Obama’s colleagues on the Harvard Law Review were among the first to note both his exceptional skill at mediating among competing arguments and the aloofness that made his own views hard to discern. That cool manner of seeming “above it all” is also a classic feature of the Third Culture Kid.

The TCKs’ identity struggles can be painful and difficult. The literature documents addictive behaviors, troubled marriages and fitful careers. But meeting this challenge can become a TCK’s greatest strength. Learning to take the positive pieces from a variety of experiences and create a strong sense of “This is who I am, no matter where I am” gives a steadiness when the world around is in flux or chaos”—which helps explain “no-drama Obama.”

Among those of us who study Third Culture Kids (almost always because we are TCKs), it has been both gratifying and frustrating to watch “one of us” run for the White House. We began obsessively pointing out to each other the telltale signifiers of the TCK that so often went unremarked in the mainstream press. . .

– Ruth E. Van Reken – Obama’s ‘Third Culture’ Team

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Why African Christianity is "a mile wide and an inch deep"

I bristle every time I hear someone make this statement, “African Christianity is a mile wide and an inch deep.”

  1. So-called “Christianity” everywhere could be labeled shallow. I don’t think “Christianity” that happens to be located in Africa has a corner on the shallow market.
  2. Examples cited are often comparing apples and oranges – e.g. seminary students in the West to the uneducated churchgoer in Africa.
  3. The underlying assumption is that depth seems to be measured on certain intellectual articulations of “sacred” – especially Reformed – theologies. I’ll take lifestyle Christianity over intellectualized faith any day.
  4. The depth of faith I have seen in many Africans – East and West – puts any other Christianity I’ve seen to shame – especially the petty Christianity I’ve seen portrayed by so many “deep theologians” of the West.

I sometimes laugh (or cry?) when I hear Americans say that they have come here “to help strengthen the faith of the Africans.” I think to myself, “my friend, you have no idea. I hope you pay enough attention to let the African saints show you what deep faith really looks like.”

Having stated that strong caveat, I do think there is a reason Christianity hasn’t taken root to the depth that it could have. Bottom line: I think we have tried to grow the Gospel on the imported the rocks of Western and modernist cultures and have neglected the fertile soil of the African cultures. My mind was going in several directions at this point when I read Mark at Under the Baobab Tree’s review of David Smith’s Mission After Christendom by David Smith. I’ll pull out a few quotes, but you’d do well to read the whole post

. . . the modern missionary movement of the last 200 years has been very much tied to Christendom – Europe and North America – and the modernist worldview . . .

. . . Missions were from the western church to the heathen nations, who were seen as backward and in need of the religion and civilisation of the west. As such, they often went hand in hand with colonial power and ideology, sometimes with the justification that “the heathens get saved, and in return we get their natural resources”. . .

. . . The main message of the book is that when mission is strongly tied to christendom and modernism (or to any one particular culture), the message it spreads is a poor version of Christianity, . . .

The best form of Christianity:

is . . . as for the Saxons in ninth-century Europe, a mass movement toward Christianity resulted not in the abandonment of traditional culture, but in its revitalisation. . . [emphasis mine.]

. . . reflects a dynamic inculturation of the gospel among a people whose world-view is strikingly different from that of other churches . . . which simply adopted imported Western patterns of spirituality and worship. . .

. . . “We no longer want you to come and teach us the Bible. We want you to come and read the Bible together with us”. . .

The Gospel will always critique the elements of a culture that are bent away from God’s intentions and distort the image of God that humans bear. Unfortunately, many of the critiques that came in the name of the gospel were simply against things with which Westerners were either unfamiliar or uncomfortable. As a result, many of the Christianities in Africa became schizophrenic. On the one hand, we have the “church world” where we can say and sing all the right things. On the other hand, we have the rest of the world which we know to be true from our basic worldviews. Sometimes the two worlds never met.

If we truly understand the contexts of Scripture, we will see that God’s Word has always been presented in the language and images that resonate with the worldviews with which they come in contact. (Andrew Walls and Kwame Bediako show us how this was done in the ear of the early church.)

A couple clarifications:

I don’t ever want to diminish the self-sacrifice and compassion of the self-sacrificing, pioneer missionaries, but I do wish that there had been more cultural awareness and appreciation for where African cultures reflected the image of God. There are many examples of missionaries who did this brilliantly.

This is also not to deny that there are many gross distortions of the Gospel here. But the bottom line is that African cultures and many manifestations of African Christianity have a lot to offer the West when it comes to deeply rooted faith.

This is a subject I’m bound to return to many times.

Something about people who have grown up abroad; the instant connection between TCKs

Sometimes I pick out totally random things from a news article. For example:

Obama got to know Geithner “during the final weeks of the campaign,” said the senior Obama aide, and the two hit it off immediately. Like Obama, Geithner had partly grown up abroad, and this gave the two an immediate connection. It led to “an ease in conversation,” and the two discovered they “also share a common temperament,” including a calm demeanor and a curiosity about the thinking of others.

– E.J. Dionne Obama’s brain trust (Washington Post)

Obviously, these guys are in a totally different league – very different from me, but this brief description resonated with me. There’s something about growing up abroad that gives you a certain connection and shapes you  in certain ways (of course all stereotypes are problematic). I wonder if the calm demeanor might originate from trying to blend in places where you feel out of place. Those who know me well, especially Christi, know that the “calm demeanor” can be a huge facade.

The curiosity about what other’s think is definitely a part of me. I wonder if that comes from having to learn how to navigate new cultural worlds where the “rules” aren’t so obvious; you have to be curious just to figure out what’s going on; it’s a survival technique.


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Two things that mess up "good" theology . . .

Two things throw a monkey wrench in “good theology”

1. Reading the whole Bible carefully in light its original historical, social, and cultural contexts.

2. Trying to translate and to apply the Good News of Jesus in a totally different language and cultural way of thinking.

The first helps us come to grips with the fact that God has always revealed himself in ways that speak relevantly to a specific language and cultural way of thinking; God is contextual. The second helps us come to grips with how culturally bound our own ways of thinking about God are – even when we think we are being faithful to the Scriptures.

My guess is that anyone who has spent a significant portion of his life doing one or both of these things is going to have theology that is “messed-up” in one way or another. These two things make it hard to force everything into our neat, theological boxes. So who is likely to have the most “messed-up” or controversial theologies? biblical scholars and cross-cultural missionaries; contrast these folks with church historians and systematic theologians and you frequently get sparks. (Does the name Paul ring any bells? Think of the flack he took for cross-culturally reinterpretation of the Scriptures.)

So for those of you on the home front, if your missionary dares to open up to you about some of her theological struggles (risking her livelihood), cut her some slack. She’s just encountered the God of the Bible in a different language and cultural expression.  “The Gospel will never be fully understood, until it has been expressed in every language and culture.” (William Dyrness quoting somebody.)

Ben Witheringon III has some important thoughts about the limitations of “good” theology:

. . . And all too often, the apparent intellectual coherency of a theological system is taken as absolute and compelling proof that this view of God, salvation,the world must be true and all others be heresy, to one degree or another. But it is perfectly possible to argue logically and coherency in a hermeneutical or theological circle with all parts connected, and unfortunately be dead wrong– because one drew the circle much too small and left out all the inconvenient contrary evidence. This sort of fault is inevitable with theological systems constructed by finite human beings.

A minutes reflection will show that intellectual coherency, as judged by finite fallen or even redeemed minds, is not a very good guide to what is true. The truth of God and even of the Bible is much larger than anyone’s ability (or any collection of human being’s abilities) to get their mental calipers so firmly around it that one could form it into a ‘coherent theological system’ without flaws, gaps, or lacunae. . .

. . . While I certainly believe that God’s own worldview is coherent, and that some of it is revealed in the Bible, the facts are that the Bible does not reveal everything we always wanted to know about God . . . Indeed, the Bible is pretty clear that God quite deliberately did not ‘tell all’ either in general revelation in creation or in the Scriptures(read Job), not least because God wants us to trust him and to build a trust relationship with him. What God has done is that God has revealed enough so that we may be redeemed but not so much that we do not have to trust God about the future.

I must confess that as a NT scholar I am inherently suspicious about theological systems . . . rather than give a pat answer I am more apt to repeat the words of John Muir who said words to the following effect– “We look at life from the back side of the tapestry. And most of the time what we see is loose threads, tangled knots and the like. But occasionally God’s light shines through the tapestry and we get a glimpse of the larger design with God weaving together the darks and lights of existence.” . . .

Please understand that I am not suggesting that we should not think logically and coherently about our faith, and do our best to connect the dots. Nevertheless, we should be placing our faith in God, not in a particular theological system. There is a difference. In the former case the faith is largely placed in whom we know and whom we have encountered. In the latter case the faith can be too often placed in what we believe we know about God and theological truth.

. . . Humility is fostered more by a recognition of and an owning up to what you don’t know about God, than what you do. This is not because we do not know a good number of things about God both from the Word and the through the Spirit. We do. We know enough to trust God for what we do not know and understand. And in the end our posture should be that of Anselm– ‘fides quaerens intellectum’ faith seeking understanding, not ‘intellectus quaerens fidium’ ‘Understanding seeking and defining and limiting faith’.

Read Witherington’s [now re-contextualized] post: John Piper explains why Calvinists are so negative. Listen to John Piper respond to why so many Calvinists and Reformed seem mean or abrasive.

The “black cats” of our Christian traditions

My sister and brother-in-law (also named Ben) always have great stories in their newsletters (see why Jesus turned water into wine.). This month they share the following parable from Paul-Gordon Chandler’s Pilgrims of Christ on the Muslim Road: Exploring a New Path Between Two Faiths:

chandler-pilgrims-of-christ-on-the-muslim-road“One day while a Sufi master was speaking to his disciples a black cat kept walking around, distracting and annoying him. So the Sufi master tied the cat to the chair every time he spoke to his disciples. Years later, the black cat died. And the disciples ended up bringing another black cat to tie up every time their Master addressed them. Eventually their master died and a new master comes and every time he speaks to them they first tie up a black cat—as this had now become part of their tradition.”

The newsletter goes on to talk about some of the “black cats” in Christian tradition that hinder relationships with people from other cultures.

What are some “black cats” in our Christian behaviors that you can think of?

Are short term missions turning people into beggars? maybe; maybe not

Kruse Kronicle has just posted Religious Tourism – republished from Bob Lupton’s October newsletter. Here are some excerpts – read the whole story at Kruse’s Religious Tourism.

“They’re turning my people into beggars!” . . .

. . . . Juan was not blaming his people for becoming beggars. He was faulting the affluent, well-meaning U.S. church for its unexamined generosity. His accusations, now pouring forth with considerable force, were directed at naïve “vacationaries” who spend millions of dollars traveling to his country, perform work that locals could better do for themselves, and create a welfare economy that deprives a people of the pride of their own accomplishments — all in the name of Christian service. The unintended consequences of such mission work was undoing the very vision Juan had given his life to — helping his people emerge from poverty through training, entrepreneurship, saving and hard work. . .

For some reason U.S. churches, filled with results-oriented members, seem oblivious to the abysmal outcomes of many if not most mission trips. Perhaps because it feels so good to be giving to those so much worse off, or because unconditional serving seems so Christ-like, the Western church embraces with great pride an unexamined form of charity that our nation as a whole rejected with the passage of the Welfare Reform Act of 1996. We know that welfare creates unhealthy dependency, that it erodes a work ethic, that it does not elevate people out of poverty. Yet, in the name of Christ, we perpetuate this very welfare principle in the way we do missions. And the trend is growing!

A Princeton University study found that in one year (2005) 1.6 million church members took mission trips — an average of eight days — at a cost of $2.4 billion. And the number has grown every year since. “Religious tourism” as some call it has become a growth industry. The web is full of agencies (denominational and para-church) ready to connect churches to a “meaningful mission experience” in an exotic location rife with human need. The Bahamas, for example, receives one short-term missionary for every fifteen residents. . . .

Read the stories of contrasting water projects

. . . PS: Some believe that short-term missions trips whet the appetite for long-term mission involvement. Research does not support this claim however. In spite of all the moving testimonies of “life-changing experiences” by returning short-termers and the occasional example of full-time missionaries who point to a mission trip as the catalyst for their calling, there is no evidence that missions as a whole has benefitted. As a matter of fact, while short-term mission trips have increased dramatically over the past two decades, support of long-term missionaries has declined. Strangely, the correlation seems to be inverse. Perhaps because we have spent so lavishly on “religious tourism” we feel that our financial responsibility to missions has been discharged. Or is it that long-term missionaries do not serve the immediate self-interest of our church?

For more on short-term missions see the earlier post Short Term Missions or Religious Tourism and all the related links from RESOURCE ON SHORT-TERM MISSIONS at the bottom of Kurt Ver Beek’s page, (Calvin College)

I’m pretty ambivalent about what I call “missionary tourism” – Barna’s self reported results. There is even a safari company in Nairobi called “Missionary Tours.” At first I self-righteously scoffed at the concept. Then part of me started thinking why not? As long as people are going to do tourism, why not have some of the proceeds go more directly to some local communities and projects instead of the game parks and Serena hotels. You can start a safari lodge or you can start a community development project; both can bring in foreign income. (It’s just a different kind of capitalism at work; you give your money in exchange for feeling better about yourself 😉 I just get concerned when this kind of tourism comes with a “we are saving the world attitude.” Then again, what about my own motives for being here? (Call of God? Or a something I enjoy doing that makes me feel good about myself?) Don’t we all want to feel like we are making a difference?

More responses to Lupton’s letter:

1. Sometimes local sustainability is a lot more complex than the success story noted here makes it seem.

2. My fear is that if we make it sound too complicated, even well-intentioned people might stop giving at all. There are plenty of other things they will happily spend their money on – e.g. their own new church buildings. It’s hard enough getting people to be generous, and the needs over here can be overwhelming. Every bit of extra cash helps; infusing extra cash into the local economies can’t be all bad. (It’s not like it’s a $700 billion dollar bailout of Wall Street).

3. Why is it an either/or proposition? This particular true of the connection between short-term missions and long-term wealth generation.

Three personal examples:

Example 1: My brother-in-law worked very hard to do all the things recommended in the article on his own water project in rural Uganda – community organization, local investment, sustainability, ideas for wealth generation, etc. Still, until the overall economy of that area of the country rose high enough for parts to be more readily available (as well as water engineers becoming more prevalent in the area – thanks to other NGO’s). He still spent years trouble shooting emergencies to keep it going. It’s possible that some remote parts need a little bit more of the basic infrastructure to be able to sustain these projects.

Example 2: This August, I was a last minute addition to an entirely Kenyan pastoral training team to rural Western Kenya. In conjunction with this training, a team had come out from the US to do vacation Bible school (VBS), and help build a classroom (naturally). While the women and teenagers did VBS, the two men went to help build the classroom. Over breakfast the next day, I was talking to one of them named John who is a real estate project manager back at home. On the first day, he had rolled up his sleeves to help with the building, and was hustling pretty quickly as he moved bricks over to the wall they were building. Then as he looked around, he realized that all the young laborers had gradually quit working and were sitting under a tree; he had just taken all their jobs. So he went over and sat with them, and eventually they trickled back to work. He spent the rest of the week, talking to various people, learning about their local culture, and visiting several different projects. Most of his time, he just listened and learned about all the local challenges .

John got it right because he paid attention and set aside his own goal orientation, and in the end, he benefited a lot more. He now knows that he has just begun a long journey of learning all the paradoxical complexities – of poverty, economics, culture, and wealth generation. He wants to come back again next year to build on the relationships he started this time, but now he is thinking more deeply about how to be God’s instrument in truly partnering ways that help the community more long-term. Next time he comes, he will come with a completely different set of plans and expectations. That’s the way it should be, but he had to come that first time – “just as I am.”

Example 3: Not too long after Christi arrived, she was asked to be on the school board of the primary school where our kids go. The school always seemed to having financial problems and teacher moral was low – their salaries weren’t always paid on time. Then as the new school board started researching the issues, they discovered that many of the parents weren’t paying their kids tuition fees (about $100 a term). The principle was a soft-hearted women who saw the school as a ministry to poor seminary students, and she always felt bad demanding the payments. Once the school board helped her implement a stricter payment policy, suddenly the school was financially viable, the teacher salaries could be raised, and everything seemed brighter. (It wasn’t easy, after the new policy was implemented and the payment deadline arrived, the principle had to swallow hard and send about half the kids home for non-payment; about 90% of them returned within 30 minutes with the full payment. A staggered payment plan is also available.) Here was an example of a small policy change that transformed the whole ethos of school.

While the the main issue of financially sustainability has been resolved, the primary school still benefits from the largess of short-term missionaries. There is a dramatic difference between the amount of supplies and books this little school has and what the nearby American missionary school has. (Tuition there is about 10x as high; something none of these kids can dream of affording). So this little primary school thrives on short-term missionaries who bring lots of craft supplies and basics such as crayons and markers. A group in the US donated an entire children’s library to the school; excess books are being sold to generate more income. A copier that was donated by a church in the US is now being used to generate the salary of a computer teacher. Had people not freely donated computers, these kids wouldn’t be taking computer classes period (there just isn’t that much up-front cash in the local economy to purchase these kind of modern “luxuries”.) Has it turned the school into beggars? Hardly. All the income to run the core business is locally generated; the generosity of the short-term missionaries goes to improving the quality of life.

Early in Lupton’s letter he says,

What peasant scratching out a bare existence could refuse suitcases bulging with new clothing for his family? What struggling pastor could resist the temptation to accept a steady salary and generous church income in exchange for hosting visitors, organizing volunteer work, and staffing funded programs? What village would borrow money to dig a well or buy books for their school library or save money to build a church if these things were provided for them free of charge? If all they had to do was make their wish lists, show up for the schedule arranged by the donors, and smile graciously until their benefactors head back home, who would blame them for accepting this easy charity?

And I ask, “What’s wrong with that?” Why shouldn’t they get a bunch of free clothes from the affluent West? Why shouldn’t a pastor get a steady salary? Don’t we all want a steady salary? Maybe the issue isn’t the free clothes. Maybe the issue is that they simply don’t don’t know how to generate wealth. In other words, we may be talking about apples and oranges – two completely unrelated issues.

Let’s take the issue of the different water projects. Why can’t Juan say, “that’s great that they got a free water project. Let’s talk about how we can invest their resources in sustaining it or in creating other wealth generating projects.” Surely, there are other ways of generating wealth besides water projects. Or does Juan’s job security play some role in motivating his comments? For the record, I love what he is doing, but someone might cynically make the case that all these NGO’s supposedly setting up “sustainable” projects are primarily about generating salaries for themselves. (They are simply a different kind of capitalistic entrepreneurship, well-meaning as they might be.)

Bottom line: The heart of the issue may have more to do with a changing global economic paradigm than short-term missions per se. (Are long-term missions doing more to generate wealth?) Many of these cultures have had well-entrenched habits of patron and client relationships long before any missionary showed up. A society that has been doing fine for centuries on subsistence farming is suddenly faced with a population explosion and the costs of increased living standards in a globalizing world (all good things.) And mixed into all this is the good news of Jesus Christ – in all it’s different cultural manifestations.

Let me be clear, I’m the first in line to cheer for sustainability and helping people generate wealth. (I’ve tried to make that point repeatedly elsewhere.)  I’m also quite critical of the self-centered nature of short term missions. It boggles my mind when I think how how millions of “missionary tourist” dollars could instead be invested in local, long-term economic growth. But I also know that without the missionary tourism, there probably wouldn’t be any cash infusion at all. The locals all get this, so they just smile and wave. Maybe with a little bit of tweaking, we can have a both-and scenario.

Believe it or not, when I started this post, I didn’t expect to be defending short-term missions. All I’m trying to say here is that maybe short-term missions and their short-term generosity are just an easy whipping boys for what is really a much more complex economic and cultural mix.

How Americans see themselves: making a positive difference in the world (78%) and caring about social justice (86%)

From the latest latest Barna Report:

. . . Americans also think of themselves as difference-makers and concerned about the world around them. In all, three out of every four adults say they are “making a positive difference in the world” (78%). In fact, close to nine out of every ten Americans (86%) describe themselves as “caring deeply about social injustice.” A similar percentage of adults are “concerned about the moral condition of the country” (86%). . .

hmmmm. . . .


. . . their sense of peace and simplicity is often thwarted by their strong desire to make more money and do more in life: seven out of ten Americans say they are “totally committed to getting ahead in life” (68%).

Read all of latest Barna Report on American Spirituality

Did Africans really worship their ancestors? An African perspective

Guest post by Andy Alo

Many Africanists interested in African Traditional Religion have made the assertion that Africans worshipped (or are worshipping) their ancestors. However, field research that I conducted from 2002 to 2005, and completed in August 2008 in my own Lugbara ethnic group leads me to the conclusion that the worship of ancestors by Africans is a theological myth.

Simply Semantics

In the Lugbara language, the concept INZI conveys any attitude which externalizes consideration due to a person’s status. It means ‘respect’ when describing a person lacking respect for his superiors. Children’s respect for their parents (‘honor’) is expressed by the same concept INZI. Today, INZI is also applied to ‘worship’ or ‘adoration’ of God in Christian settings, but older native speakers of Lugbarati do not equate their previous ‘honor’ (INZI) towards ancestors with the present ‘worship” (INZI) of God. Ancestors were simply honored or given due respect.    

If the Lugbara did not worship ancestors, why then did they give ancestors food in some sacred places

Why give Food to Ancestors? 

Commensality [eating together] in Lugbara culture is the ultimate way of expressing communion and brotherhood. All the members of the community not only share their resources by helping each other, but they also eat together. Traditionally, the ancestors have been part of the community; they are “present” even though they were gone. The Lugbara people would say, “They are with us.”

Every member of the community (except children) knew very well that the ancestors did not literally eat the food offered to them. The servants or “priests” of the community took the food on behalf of the ancestors. Sharing the food symbolized the communion between the living members and the members of the community who had gone on to the other side of the world.

Thus, communion with the ancestors was not a form of “worship” or “adoration,” it simply remembered ancestors as part of the community. They were cherished and honored in the collective memory because they were metonymically representing the body of knowledge that guided the community in the different dimensions of community life: ethics, socio-economics, family matters, etc. Most references to ancestors occur in relation to the quest of truth, ethical decisions and other deliberations.

[To be continued: Part 2.]

© 2008 Andy A. Alo

Andy hails from north-eastern Congo and is currently writing his dissertation at NEGST on translating the metaphor of light.

NT Wright on Scripture, the Last Word, and publishers (Lambeth)

I finally got around to reading NT Wright’s lecture at Lambeth on the Bible and God’s Word (30 July 2008). He begins by drawing attention to his book on Scripture and the Authority of God and says:

It was published in America under the strange title The Last Word – strange, because it certainly wasn’t the last word on the subject, and also because if I was going to write a book called The Last Word I think it ought to be about Jesus Christ, not about the Bible. But such are the ways of publishers.

More seriously, for those of us who have read Wright before, there’s nothing entirely new, but I found it to be refreshingly enjoyable and helpful read.

Here is an outline:

1. Scripture and the Authority of God

a. Scripture as the vehicle of God’s authority

b. God’s Authority and God’s Kingdom

c. Scripture and the Story of God’s Mission

2. Scripture and the Task of the Church

a. Foundation: Bible and Culture

b. The Bible and Gnosticism

c. The Bible and Empire

d. Postmodernity

I liked this early quote

Debates about the authority of scripture have tended to get off on the wrong foot and to turn into an unproductive shouting-match. This is partly because here, as in matters of political theology, in the words of Jim Wallis ‘the Right gets it wrong and the Left doesn’t get it’. And sometimes the other way round as well. We have allowed our debates to be polarized within the false either/or of post-enlightenment categories, so that we either see the Bible as a holy book, almost a magic book, in which we can simply look up detached answers to troubling questions, or see it within its historical context and therefore claim the right to relativize anything and everything we don’t immediately like about it. These categories are themselves mistaken; the Bible itself helps us to challenge them; and when we probe deeper into the question, ‘what does it mean to say that the Bible is authoritative’, we discover a new and richer framework which simultaneously enables us to be deeply faithful to scripture and energizes and shapes us, corporately and individually, for our urgent mission into tomorrow’s world.

Some more of my favorite quotes:

Continue reading

What Americans want (Barna)

From the latest Barna Update: (based upon telephone interviews conducted by The Barna Group with a random sample of 1003 adults selected from across the continental United States, age 18 and older, in May 2008.)

Three-quarters of all adults identified the following as being very important elements in their ideal life.

  • good physical health (85%),

  • living with a high degree of integrity (also 85%),

  • having one marriage partner for life (80%),

  • having a clear purpose for living (77%),

  • having a close relationship with God (75%), and

  • having close, personal friendships (74%).

Items listed by at least half of the adults interviewed:

  • a comfortable lifestyle ( 70%),

  • a satisfying sex life with their marriage partner (66%),

  • children (66%),

  • living close to family and relatives(63%),

  • being deeply committed to the Christian faith (59%), and

  • making a difference in the world (56%).

Seven conditions that only a minority of Americans deemed worthy of including in their vision of their desired future life:

  • having a college degree (46%),

  • being personally active in a church (45%),

  • traveling throughout the world for pleasure (28%),

  • working in a high-paying job (28%),

  • owning a large home (18%),

  • owning the latest household technology/electronics (11%) and

  • achieving fame or public recognition (7%).


What Adults Want Their Future to Include

Desired Outcome 2008 2000 1993 1991
having good physical health 85% 91% 92% 93%
living with a high degree of integrity 85% 81% n/a 76%
having one marriage partner for life 80% 79% n/a n/a
having a clear purpose for living 77% 75% 71% n/a
having a close relationship with God 75% 70% 74% 72%
having close, personal friendships 74% 75% 79% 73%
having a comfortable lifestyle 70% 61% 72% 59%
having a satisfying sex life with your marriage partner 66% 63% n/a n/a
having children 66% 55% n/a n/a
living close to your family and relatives 63% 60% 63% 67%
being deeply committed to the Christian faith 59% 53% n/a n/a
making a difference in the world 56% 47% n/a n/a
having a college degree 46% 51% n/a n/a
being personally active in a church 45% 42% n/a n/a
traveling throughout the world for pleasure 28% 26% n/a n/a
working in a high-paying job 28% 29% 43% 36%
owning a large home 18% 21% 30% 23%
owning the latest household technology/electronics 11% 9% n/a n/a
achieving fame or public recognition 7% 6% 10% 10%

survey sample size 1003 1002 1202 1003

(Source: The Barna Group, Ventura, CA)

COMMENT [Ben]: I’m actually a little bit surprised, and somewhat impressed. I kind of wonder how the survey was conducted – whether the way the questions were asked influenced the outcome in any way. My second question is: how much do lifestyle choices reflect these desires. In other words, are the choices people making reflecting these stated desires? Do our lifestyle choices and actions betray a different set of real desires?

Visit the Barna Update for more details and analysis.

4 Responses to Culture Shock

[By a friend – see previous post]

Four kinds of responses that people tend to make when they are caught up in cross-cultural situations:

1 passing – the individual, particularly in contact situations in which the second culture has a higher status, may reject the (old) culture of origin and totally fall for the new culture.

2 chauvinist – the individual, after coming into contact with a second culture, rejects those influences as alien, and retreats back into their culture of origin and becomes a militant nationalist and chauvinist.”

3 marginal – the individual vacillates between the two cultures, feeling at home in neither, an effect that has been referred to as the ‘marginal syndrome’.

4 mediating – some people seem to be able to synthesize their various cultural identities, the equivalent of integration at the personal level, and acquire genuine bicultural or multicultural personalities. Such individuals are relatively rare, and Bochner has referred to them as ‘mediating persons’.

Bochner, Stephen and Adrian Furnham. Culture Shock: Psychological Reactions Unfamiliar Environments. London: Methuen Publishing, 1986.

Ultimately Furnham & Bochner suggest that one’s viewpoint must be different. The situation will not be different, but how we approach it will be. All new situations are traumatic, even in one’s own culture. But the hope is that in learning, not merely adjusting, we who are sojourning in another culture will learn to accommodate to the new situation, and recognize that we are in a growing period.