Archive for April, 2010

Communicating Faith

Thursday, April 29th, 2010

The last couple of posts have focused on the theme of cross-cultural Christianity.  The Christian faith has been re-translated and communicated across many cultures over the past two thousand years.  Because Christianity has no privileged culture that carries the faith, it has been the responsibility of Christians to share the gosepl of Jesus Christ and then allow other cultures to translate and communicate the gospel in a way that is true and authentic to who they are.  This process is messy, unpredictable and dependent on the Holy Spirit because there is no guarantee that people will “get it right”.  What if they screw it up, fail to say it right or communicate it in a way that makes no sense to us?  What if they use different ideas, language, idioms and concepts to re-translate the gospel?  Is it possible for the gospel to move from culture to culture to culture while maintaining the unity of the faith and being true to the Jesus narrative without also carrying the language, ideas, concepts and idioms of the previous culture that “got it right”?

I will leave you with the following three creeds that represent three cultural approaches to the gospel:  The Apostles Creed (one of the earliest if not the earliest creed of the faith), The Nicene Creed (created out of the trinitarian controversies of the fourth century), The Maasai Creed (created by the Maasai tribe of Africa in the nineteenth century)

Apostles Creed: I believe in God, the Father Almighty, the Maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord:  Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried; He descended into hell.  The third day He arose again from the dead; He ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty;  from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead. I believe in the Holy Ghost; the holy catholic church; the communion of saints; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body; and the life everlasting.

Nicene Creed: I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.  And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.  Who, for us men and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried; and the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father; and He shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.  And I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of Life; who proceeds from the Father and the Son; who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified; who spoke by the prophets.  And I believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church. I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins; and I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.

Maasai Creed: A man in the flesh, a Jew by tribe, born poor in a little village,  who left his home and was always on safari doing good, curing people by the  power of God, until finally he was rejected by his people, tortured and nailed  hands and feet to a cross, and died. He lay buried in the  grave, but the hyenas did not touch him, and on the third day he rose from  the grave. We are waiting for Him. He is alive. He lives. This we believe. Amen.

So who got it right?

Living the Ideal?

Thursday, April 22nd, 2010

I asked some questions last week about the ways in which Christianity engages or fails to engage culture.  One reader responded by writing that Christians have often made the mistake of trying to turn their faith and the church into an ideal rather than allowing it to be what it was intended to be, a living, transformational experience with Christ.

This practice of trying to make the Christian faith or the church an ideal reminded me of two quotes, the first by Albert Schweitzer and the second by Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

“History can destroy the present, or reconcile the present to the past.  It can even, to an extent, allow the present to project itself into the past, but it cannot construct the present.”  And I would add that neither can history construct the future.

“The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realized by God, by others, and by himself.  He enters the community of Christians with his demands, sets up his own law and judges the brethren and God Himself accordingly…When things do not go his way, he calls the effort a failure.  When his ideal picture is destroyed, he sees the community going to smash.  So he becomes, first the accuser of his brethren, then an accuser of God, and finally the despairing accuser of himself…Christian brotherhood is not an ideal which we must realize; it is rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate.”

For all the times that Christians have turned the faith into an ideal,  how often has that ideal become a pseudo-gospel that shuts others out?

Emergent…Emerging?

Thursday, April 15th, 2010

Last week I wrote about “The Faith We Know” and I raised some questions regarding the relationship between faith and culture.  In particular I raised a question regarding what it means that Christianity is a translated faith.  I ended that blog by raising questions about the issues we face in American culture as Christians wrestle with what it means to effectively communicate the gospel in this culture, with this culture, and for this culture.  I would like to restate those questions asked last week and offer the following context for a conversation.  The emerging/emergent church movement/idea has created something of a stir among certain Christian traditions and sub-cultures.  For the sake of brevity let’s locate this movement by saying that in many ways it is an attempt by Christians to enter into and respond to the whole postmodern conversation on a number of levels including theology.  My take on this attempt is that it has created both friends and enemies; it is a polarizing movement.  That fact is not necessarily a bad thing but sometimes it eliminates the one thing that it should be trying to foster; civil discourse.  Civil discourse is an art that is fast disappearing in our culture and we need to restore it in our conversations no matter how strongly we may feel about an issue or idea. 

So, here are last week’s questions offered again but with the caveat that I am raising these questions as they pertain to the emerging/emergent movement and I am asking for my blog readers to respond at maxie@maxieburch.net.

Questions:

Is American culture in 2010 the same as it was in 1960, 1930, 1890?  Are the linguistic idioms, symbols and mental constructs the same?  If not, what has changed? 

What difference does it make for the gospel that believers in America talk about Christianity in terms of modern, post-modern, traditional, fundamentalist, liberals, millennials, emergents, etc. etc.? 

What does all that language mean if culture laden language is the host for the gospel, the medium through which people struggle anew with the message and meaning of the gospel? 

Are Christians open to God providing a fuller expression of the living faith that was handed down to us from Jesus and the early apostles? 

Do our brothers and sisters in Africa, Asia, South America and other cultures offer us more than we currently know and or practice? 

If the current culture we live in has changed from the one in which we first encountered the gospel of Jesus Christ, how will we respond to those changes? 

If the faith is larger and deeper than the one I know and practice, how large and how deep will I let it be for me? For others?

The Faith We Know

Thursday, April 8th, 2010

In what way is the faith that we know and practice a full expression of the living faith that was handed down to us by Jesus and the early apostles? 

I ask this question because I am re-examining the relationship between culture and faith.  Christians believe that the core of their faith is the gospel of Jesus Christ.  What Christians must also remember is that the gospel of Jesus Christ has been re-translated thousands of times using the linguistic idioms, symbols and mental constructs represented by a multitude of diverse cultural expressions.  Another way of looking at this issue is to ask the following question; since the first century, the Bible has been translated into how many different languages?  Each language represents a unique culture.  A culture’s language reflects and articulates its values and worldview.  When the Bible is translated into the language of a culture, that language becomes the host for the gospel message.  It is through their culture laden language that people wrestle and struggle anew with the message and meaning of the gospel.  What we know and how we know it is shaped to a great degree by the cultural language we use to understand it.

So what?  So what does it mean that the the gospel of Jesus Christ has been filtered through the following cultures:  Jewish, Greek, Roman, Northern Europeans, British, Irish, Syrian, Persian, Indian, Chinese, Japanese, American, Brazilian, Argentine, Guatemalan, Zambian, Nigerian, Algerian, Egyptian…

Another question:  what if the culture within a culture changes?  Is American culture in 2010 the same as it was in 1960, 1930, 1890?  Are the linguistic idioms, symbols and mental constructs the same?  What difference does it make for the gospel that believers in America talk about Christianity in terms of modern, post-modern, traditional, fundamentalist, liberals, millennials, emergents, etc. etc.?  What does all that language mean if culture laden language is the host for the gospel, the medium through which people struggle anew with the message and meaning of the gospel?  Are Christians open to God providing a fuller expression of the living faith that was handed down to us from Jesus and the early apostles?  Do our brothers and sisters in Africa, Asia, South America and other cultures offer us more than we currently know and or practice?  If the current culture we live in has changed from the one in which we first encountered the gospel of Jesus Christ, how will we respond to those changes?  If the faith is larger and deeper than the one I know and practice, how large and how deep will I let it be for me? For others?

Just some thoughts.

Gone and Forgotten

Thursday, April 1st, 2010

We all know the old phrase, “gone but  not forgotten”.  Well, there is also the reverse, gone and forgotten.  Over the past three decades historians of Christianity have developed a growing fascination and focus on the nature of Christianity as a global faith.  Prior generations of historians primarily focused on Christianity as it expanded and grew in the northern hemisphere.  Christianity was seen primarily as a western faith that was defined and dominated by Christians living and working in the northern hemisphere.  Christian history was the steady growth of the faith from the Middle East through Europe to North America.  Research on Christianity in the southern hemisphere or in the non-western world was viewed as specialized and or associated with the history of Christian missions.  Whatever the historical and theological  norm was for Christianity, that norm was established and maintained by western Christians living in the northern hemisphere.

If would be fair to say that in terms of historical research into Christianity as a global faith, we are in a period of transition, but I would suggest that over the next decade we will witness a growing challenge to the way Christianity has been understood.  Lamin Sanneh, a native of Gambia, West Africa and the D. Willis James Professor of Missions & World Christianity and Professor of History at Yale University stated the challenge this way, ” The day will come when the West will continue to hold the purse strings of the church, but at the same time Christianity will cease to be the monoploy of the West…That is part of the cultural clash that has now erupted between a post-Christian West and a post-Western Christianity.”

So in the midst of this reexamination of global Christianity, what has been rediscovered that up to this point was largely forgotten?

Before Christianity in Europe was even a viable faith in terms of numbers and organizational stability, there was a vibrant, growing,  and large Christian presence in Asia and Africa.  In the eleventh century Asia was home to at least a third of the world’s Christians.  Syria and Iraq were home to two Christian churches (Nestorian and Monophysite) that had grown and expanded into present day Afghanistan, Iran, Turkmenistan, Armenia, India, Sri Lanka, and China.  The cities of Basra, Mosul and Kirkuk were thriving Christian centers centuries before the coming of Islam.  These churches existed well into the fourteenth century and they operated in multiple languages:  Syriac, Persian, Turkish, Soghdian and Chinese.  In the eight century, Nestorian churches had been established in China and were influencing the spread of Christianity into Japan.

So what happened to this earlier global Christianity?  Why is this history of Christianity as a “global faith” not only gone but also forgotten?  What would it mean if we recaptured our larger global history and began to understand ourselves as a non-western faith?  What if the world outside of the west and the northern hemisphere ceased to be thought of only as a ”mission field” and was understood as a valuable and viable part of indigenous Christian history?

If you are interested at all in these questions I would encourage you to read two books, one by Lamin Sanneh, Disciples of All Nations and the other by Philip Jenkins, The Lost History of Christianity.