Tag Archives: culture

Fun on Sunday

20 May

AnniversaryThere’s a first time for everything, they say. This weekend saw one of those for me.

We were celebrating the church’s 125th anniversary and had an afternoon of activities for families organized for Saturday. Shame about the weather, but that’s another story.

Anyway, one young couple came along with two kids of their own, along with various nephews / nieces / aunties / uncles / cousins / (grand)parents (-in-law); I didn’t get the complete family tree but they certainly all belonged together. The young man looked a little nervous and eventually let on to me why. “I’m going down on bended knee in there”, he whispered to me.

Sorry?”

You know, getting down on one knee. I mean, we’ve got the house, and two kids.”

What, you don’t mean…?”

Yeah, gonna ask her to marry me.”

Does she know?”

Hasn’t got a clue!”

I couldn’t quite picture it. Not the most romantic of settings, perhaps, in a church hall amidst castle-bouncing infants, cream teas, a cartoon quiz, face painting and who knows what else. But I’ll give him full marks for originality at least.

design-your-own-engagement-ringAnd so, an hour or so later, his younger cousin came running up to me to let me know he was ready – I was to be impromptu official photographer of the act – and away he went. True to his promise, down on one knee, out came the ring box, and to her utter amazement he proceeded to pop the question. Cheers, applause and passionate embrace, so I guess she said yes. Stuff the movies are made of.

As I said, hardly what I was expecting on a church “family fun day”, but there we go. We can be pretty certain that two members of this particular family at least had fun…

It’s strange how “church” and “fun” don’t tend to go together in people’s minds. Or in their experience, for that matter. Somehow when we step over the threshold of church we expect things to be different to “outside”. Who says church has to be solemn and serious? Or reverent? (And why are quiet whispers more reverent than playful chatter and laughter anyway?) Why does church have to be boring?

9781596383944-Cosby-Giving-up-gimmicks-Reclaiming-youth-ministry-from-an-entertainment-cultureWe live in an entertainment culture. True, we are not to offer a concoction of sensual imagery and mind-numbing musical rhythms in an attempt to draw people into church. But at the same time, we are part and parcel of the society in which we find ourselves living and we must express our faith in ways that “fit” with the world around us, that ordinary people can relate to and identify with. Our calling is to Christ, and to live out his life in our time and place, fully part of the world into which he has placed us. There is nothing better or worse about our society today; like any other, it provides a people with an identity, a way of relating to the world – including church. Yes, there is plenty of scope for sin, but that’s hardly new. There is also plenty of scope for engaging with visual media, music and contemporary means of communication to help us all meet with God and grow in him. Making sure that church is enjoyable as well as meaningful is not in and of itself any guarantee of spiritual health. But it certainly is a step in the right direction.

One of the psalmists knew this too: “I was glad when they said to me: ‘Let’s go to the Lord’s house’.” This is not meant to be a dry theological statement. True, there’s a whole context that needs exploring, but at its simplest this expresses the heart of someone who expected to enjoy what he was going to. Stuffy formality is not synonymous with spirituality. Church can – should, dare I say – be fun.

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Do missionaries destroy cultures?

25 Mar

MissionsKenyaChristian mission work can get bad press. It’s not just the antagonists who oppose missions – the Christian church finds itself under attack from all sides, both within and without. And the missionary arm, that which extends understanding of God’s work in Jesus to others, is often the first stop for criticism. So it should come as no surprise that Christian mission is portrayed in many circles as destroying culture. But does it? And what is the best response to this kind of criticism?

Whatever else we say, a knee-jerk denial is useless and can be positively unhelpful– a deeper answer is needed. Let’s look at this on two fronts.

Firstly, the very concept of the destruction of culture. Like energy in Einsteinian physics, “culture” itself can neither be created nor destroyed, it can only change its form. Culture can be transformed, subsumed, fused with another, engulfed, enriched… but not destroyed. As humans we are cultural beings and cultural expression will always form part of who we are, like it or not. It is easy to use emotive terms such as “destroy” in an act of demagogy that contributes little to the debate but merely tries to win the argument at any cost. Christian missions do not destroy culture as such. But they do transform it.

France_Paris_McDonaldsBefore thinking about the nature of that transformation, let’s just get something else clear. Culture is not static. Cultures evolve and grow, absorbing from the interface with other cultures as well as developing through their own internal cultural innovation. The Western voyages of discovery and ensuing globalization that has gradually enveloped the whole planet led inevitably to cultural encounters and a resulting cultural transformation. In the process, certain cultural practices do get overwhelmed and left behind. “Noble savages” actually wanted metal axes once they saw how efficient they were compared with their native stone. And yes, unwise distribution of axe heads by white settlers certainly destroyed the social fabric of more than one tribal people, but this is the inevitable result of cultural contact and clash. Culture is dynamic and in flux; the influences that shape it vary, but it is in a process of constant evolution. Within that, it is only natural and normal that Christian missions play their part in that process of transformation.

But there is more. Cultures change as people mingle and meet at the fringes of their own cultural basin. The majority of this change comes as an unwitting consequence of this meeting, a side-effect of cross-cultural encounter. It is not sought after, by any of the parties involved. This is where Christian missions depart from the script. At its most basic, the Christian missionary effort is about changing the deepest convictions that a people (and persons) hold about themselves, life, ultimate meaning, the universe. Christian mission aims to bring individuals and the societies of which they are a part to a new understanding, an acceptance of the nature of God, the problem of humanity, the solution Jesus offers, and the consequences of all these, as laid out in the Bible. Many of these beliefs are quite simply in radical opposition to the core values held by members of another culture. Missions seek nothing less than the overthrow of these beliefs to accommodate a new set of values and convictions rooted in the revelation of God in Scripture. This is hardly the casual transformation of cultures through the intermingling of societies, it is the planned subversion of existing beliefs in the name of a universal faith.

tribeG1708_468x3612-300x231Now, none of this is aimed at the outer trappings of culture, which is what is usually in view when talking about the “destruction” of culture. No, Christianity aims somewhere much deeper. These deep-seated beliefs, however, and core world-view, must find expression in the surface practices of culture – and not just religious ritual or the re-enactment of primal myth. Social networks, business practices, education, family structure, attitudes towards outsiders, ways of addressing cultural deviance… the list could go on. All that we do is informed by world-view and deeply held convictions, values and beliefs. It is simply impossible for Christianity in its missionary expression to engage with a culture that currently does not hold to the Christian faith without seeking a deep and powerful transformation. Call it destruction if you will. But to aim at anything less is not, in essence, Christian mission at all.

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This post was written after reading the article “Do Missionaries Destroy Others’ Cultures“. The same theme, though from a slightly different perspective, can be found in this Relevant magazine article.

BFF of sinners

6 Jun

More acronyms. BFF or FBF? Best Friend Forever or Facebook Friend? Which does your social sphere most resemble? (I realise that there are more social networking sites than Facebook, some more popular depending on location; I use Facebook as a discussion starter simply because it is the largest and most influential global site, not out of any sense of personal devotion…)

Social networking is changing both the way we relate and what language itself means. (Nothing wrong with that, by the way; this is a simple observation, not a bring-back-the-good-old-days moan. Culture, of which language is an integral part, is dynamic and in a constant state of flux, there are just times when we notice it more.) Let’s start with language.

Beyond the growing influence of txt-speak with new terms such as lol finding their way into everyday vocabulary, existing words are being reshaped. For example, a normal conversation will involve chatting, talking and listening. But not in the world of cyber-relationships. Are you a good listener? “Listening” normally involves paying attention to the content of what another wants to transmit. But in the blogosphere listening is simply skimming what is “out there” to discover “trending topics” or where our own name gets a mention. More a case of keeping a virtual ear to the ground than taking anything in. And “chat” no longer implies talk. When someone wants to “chat”, further definition is now required to know if they in fact are looking to “voice-chat” (how strange is that?) or rather write/type – probably on a smartphone if connecting with a member of the emerging “thumbtribe”, the English term commonly used to express the original Japanese oyayubizoku.

What about “follow”? Once a relatively sombre term, in certain situations even with overtones of stalking, “follow” is a term still in evolution. Jesus’ “Follow me” certainly has a different meaning in a world of tweets than in 1st century Palestine. To have a couple of thousand Twitter followers is no huge achievement; to have followers who embrace your ideals and values is a completely different story.

And then there is “relationship”. What exactly is a “relationship” these days? Sometimes it is clearly an exclusive (normally sexual) bond, as in “I’m in a relationship with so-and-so”, but more often than not it is predicated on the ties created on social networks, thus being as thick or as thin as these. A relationship becomes whatever the participants want it to be.

“Like”, is an interesting one too, seeming to resemble the “amens” in some churches, which mean anything from “Yes, preach it!” to “We can hear you at the back”. In other words it is a generic response that somehow lets the other person know that you are there and are paying at least minimal attention. A Facebook “like” does something to cement “relationship”, particularly if someone has suggested that you “like” a page they have created; it does not necessarily imply agreement with the content, or even in fact “liking” it at all.

Coming finally to the focus of this post, take the term “friend” itself. To its definition of friend as “a person with whom one has a bond of mutual affection, typically one exclusive of sexual or family relations” the Oxford dictionary has added a sub-definition: “a contact on a social networking website”. How many of your Facebook friends would you describe as people with whom you “share a bond of mutual affection”? Friend may have been a less inappropriate term for the original Facebook restricted to a closed university context but has somehow stuck as Facebook has mushroomed to a vehicle with the potential to connect anyone on the planet to absolutely anyone else. “Friend” has lost its meaning. Given that 80% of Facebook friend requests are accepted, “friend” now refers simply to a person who has been granted access to one of the (virtual) networks that we belong to. We have come a long way from the Philia of Aristotle or Amicitia of Cicero. As Mark Zuckerberg himself said: “Facebook is the most successful social network in the world, enabling millions to share information of no interest with people they barely know”.

There are more, but that, I think, shows what we are talking about. Is Orwellian “Newspeak” able to control thought and mould the surrounding world, or will language simply express whatever is happening at a deeper level within a given society? In other words, is language a reflection of where culture is going, or can culture be steered by language? For me, this is never an either-or; language and culture are so intertwined that language will always grow out of cultural innovation, but then, in turn, will impact future social development. So, the very meaning of “friendship” has been forever altered, both linguistically and in cultural practice, through the combined social and technological revolution that is Facebook.

What does all this mean? According to the American Sociological Review study published in 2006, “friendship” is in fact in decline. The average American may have 245 Facebook friends, but in “real life” that number of close friends (not family members) drops to two. That’s right, just two friends. In 1985 the average American had three, still not enough for a football team, but statistically well above today’s figure. Worse still, that is the average. One in four Americans confesses to having no friends. None, not one. “One is one and all alone and evermore shall be so.”

Retreating into the isolation of home is paralleled by exponential growth of cyber relationships (whatever that means, as we have seen…). Friendship is largely lived out online. Socially inept individuals can avoid the angst of real-life encounters and yet still forge meaningful, intimate even, friendships with other like souls. And these do not just allow for the sharing of superficial information or interest-based activity; for many, this is where the deepest feelings are expressed and the closest ties built.

This is not being addicted to technology – it is addiction to people, connected through technology, in what Pew Research’s Lee Rainie and Barry Wellman describe as “Networked individualism”. But what has changed is that the focus is no longer on the unit, the community, the family – it is on the individual. Social networking sites link individuals together independently of the social group that formerly enabled this interaction. No wonder this manner of relating has exploded in the individualistically minded West: autonomous individuals at the centre of self-defined networks that enable multithreaded simultaneous relating to other selected individuals from the comfort of one’s chosen environment – heaven on earth!

Friendship is morphing. But Jesus is still “friend of sinners”. And we are still to love as he loved.

This is our world. Stay with it.

Be a friend, BFF to some – I reckon Jesus had a few of those – and FBF to others. (No, Jesus had no Facebook friends, but he did reach out with a similar depth of relationship to numbers on a par with our FB friend lists.) But be a good friend, especially of sinners.

And please friend me.

Beat until stiff and stand in the fridge

20 May

Words do not carry immutable meaning as defined by an entry in a dictionary. Certainly, they bring core meaning with them, but words are moulded both by the words that accompany them and the stage on which they are placed. The whole is irremediably more than the sum of its parts.

This is true of every single piece of communication, the Bible included. Meaning must be deduced from the context in which communication is constructed and the way words combine together, as much as from what any one word itself may be said to “mean”. Context is everything in interpreting language.

In biblical interpretation, the literary context is one level that needs to be explored: genre of language, the paragraph as a unit of thought, the flow of the author’s argument, grammar and syntax, and the meaning of individual words as used by that writer, in the rest of Scripture, or in contemporary writings. In that sense, the Bible is literature, and behaves like any other piece of writing. We ignore that to our detriment.

Beyond the level of literary context, historical and cultural context provide the keys for correct understanding. A couple of examples I trust will help us when we – eventually! – get back to 1 Timothy.

Numbers 5:11-31 contains an example of what is known as “trial by ordeal”, a means of appealing to the supernatural for confirmation of guilt or innocence. Jealous husbands pay close attention. (Nothing here about husbands straying from the marital bed, but that’s another story…)

If a man’s wife goes astray and is unfaithful to him by sleeping with another man, and this is hidden from her husband […] and if feelings of jealousy come over her husband and he suspects his wife and she is impure – or if he is jealous and suspects her even though she is not impure – then he is to take his wife to the priest. […] After the priest has made the woman stand before the LORD, he shall loosen her hair and place in her hands the [offerings] for jealousy, while he himself holds the bitter water that brings a curse. Then the priest shall put the woman under oath and say to her, “If no other man has slept with you […] may this bitter water that brings a curse not harm you. But if you have […] defiled yourself by sleeping with a man other than your husband […] May this water that brings a curse enter your body so that your abdomen swells and your thigh wastes away.” He shall make the woman drink the bitter water that brings a curse, and this water will enter her and cause bitter suffering.

Outside its immediate historical context, this procedure is quite simply beyond comprehension, and may even strike us as barbaric and sexist. When considering a passage such as this, pretty much everyone can see the need to take the historical background into consideration. All Scripture has its own historical and cultural context, however, which conditions how a passage was written, even if on a surface level the text appears to be more immediately understandable. We cannot just assume that they thought as we think today. What would the text have meant to them, in their world, at their time, with their cultural norms?

One more. Beyond general historical-cultural context, much of the Bible was written with specific circumstances in mind, and nowhere is this more marked than in the epistles. Known as “occasional” documents, most were written to concrete people to address specific needs or questions; they were provoked by “occasions” of concern to the writers, most often situations of heresy or conflict that needed correction. It is rarely possible to unearth every detail of the circumstances behind a portion of an epistle – reading them can at times feel like listening to one side of a telephone conversation – but we must at least try. Let’s take a passage from 1 Corinthians:

Each one should remain in the situation which he was in when God called him […] Because of the present crisis, I think that it is good for you to remain as you are. […] Are you unmarried? Do not look for a wife. […] From now on those who have wives should live as if they had none. […] So then, he who marries the virgin does right, but he who does not marry her does even better. (1 Corinthians 7:20-38)

Without telling us exactly what difficulties the Christian community of Corinth was facing, Paul does at least let us know that his instructions are not permanent but relate to the needs of the moment. Imagine the theological gymnastics needed if we were to attempt obedience to Paul’s words in all places and times… The epistles do not always reveal to us the circumstances that motivated the apostle to write, but again, those circumstances were nevertheless there, and influence how the text is to be read. To interpret without attempting to see the underlying situation is to invite misunderstanding; doing this with 1 Timothy 2 has had drastic consequences throughout church history.

Sound like hard work? Mmm… maybe it is, but that does not make it any the less necessary. In our interaction with Scripture we can get motivation for the “harder” stuff by the “easier” things. Some gems sit John-Three-Sixteen-like on the surface; others require a “search for wisdom as for buried treasure” attitude to find them. Collecting a few surface gems can give motivation to dig a little more deeply, but dig we must.

Because, as you no doubt already know, a text without a context is often said to be a mere pretext. I would go a little further than that: a text without a context becomes a con-text, a word with the authority of Scripture which can be used to say absolutely anything, in order to impose already decided meaning and manipulate those who listen to us. We owe it to God, to his Word and to his people to aim to do better than that.

So, respect the literary context. Find out as much as you can about the general historical and cultural background to a passage. And discover the immediate “occasion” that underlies it. Read the text with all that in mind, particularly if reading a cookery book. Otherwise “beat until stiff and stand in the fridge” might get you into more trouble than you bargained for.

“You can observe a lot by just watching” (Yogi Berra)

25 Apr

Last week I was back in Llanelli, South Wales, but this time only via a webcam from home in Spain, teaching a short course on “Tools for Anthropological Research” to the fantastic trainees on the World Horizons Equipping for Service programme. Another reason for a gap in blogs… (What a bunch of willing guinea pigs… it was the first time I had taught the course, and they all did just great.)

“Tools for Anthropological Research”… sounds mighty fancy, but it is about simply learning to observe people and their culture, to see what is really there but remains hidden behind our own assumptions, to view the world in the way they do. It’s about having practical means that enable us to discover what is important for them, not for us, tools to help us go beyond the “wow, this culture is really different” to understanding what makes it different and take the first steps in our own adaptation to those differences. Direct involvement in and observation of the culture itself, interviews with cultural informants and learning from others’ research form the backbone of this methodology.

Without a practical and systematic approach, cultural learning becomes a bit hit and miss, not to mention a minefield of potentially awkward moments waiting to ambush us when we least expect it. However, even if the carrot of better understanding and integration is attractive, it can also seem like a whole lot of hard work. Why even bother? Can’t we “just preach the gospel” without all this cultural adaptation stuff? Get in there, give ’em the gospel, and be done with it!

¡Ojalá!, as we say here (“I would that it were so”). But no. Just as the gospel cannot be separated from the language used to communicate our message, in the same way the cultural world in which communication happens becomes part of the message itself. And if we do not understand how our intended audience see the world, we have no hope of knowing how they will understand us, much less being in a place to construct a message in such a way as to make sense for them and which responds to their needs and concerns. There are no short cuts to effective cross-cultural communication, which is perhaps the greatest reason why so many have yet to really hear the gospel in a way they can understand and respond to.

Learning to observe is not as easy as it might at first sight appear. What we take for granted from our own cultural milieu can blind us to what is there — or is absent — in another. More obvious behaviour may stand out to us, but we can remain ignorant of the motivation behind actions as well as failing to see beyond these superficial aspects. And what we give importance to in the way we have been taught to relate to the world around us can prevent us from seeing what they prioritize. Although totally subconscious, the process we were subjected to in becoming compliant members of our own culture was extremely effective; we enter another’s world only with a good measure of dedication and focus.

The book of Proverbs (24:32 NIV) says something similar:

I applied my heart to what I observed and learned a lesson from what I saw

Or as the NLT puts it:

Then, as I looked and thought about it, I learned this lesson

Learning starts with seeing — I use this in the wider sense, involving all of our senses, not just physical sight — and seeing is the product of conscious looking, of patient and deliberate observation. Then comes thinking through, applying our mind and all the abilities that God has given us to understanding what we have seen. Learning finishes with the practical application to our own lives, taking on board what we have learned and allowing the implications to affect the way we relate to those around us and communicate.

This process applies to all of culture, including religion. In building bridges for the gospel we must start from both sides, from where the hearers are too, not just from the perspective of our own understanding of the gospel. A people’s religious views provide much needed context for understanding how to transmit concepts that will inevitably be seen by our hearers as belonging to the realm of religion.

Now the concept of “religion” is much wider than the supernatural and whether people believe in God or not, or how that belief, where it exists, is expressed. “Religion” connects our day-to-day experience to a wider cosmic framework; it relates to a person’s basic understanding of how the universe fits together and our place in it, a position that is the result of deeply held beliefs, not logical deduction. The supernatural may or may not come in to it, and a belief system such as “New Atheism” certainly fits within anthropology’s understanding of religion.

Engraved plaque containing Apostle Paul's serm...

Engraved plaque containing NT text of the apostle Paul's sermon, at the Areopagus, Athens. (Wikipedia)

In his mission to the Gentiles, Paul engaged with unfamiliar religious scenes. During his stay in Athens, learning through observation and enquiry laid the foundation for debate with local philosophers:

For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you. (Acts 17:23, TNIV)

His careful observation (ἀναθεωρέω, anatheoreo, meaning “to consider attentively, to look closely or repeatedly”) of the Athenians’ religious scene combined with his Greek education to give him the tools he needed to interact with those present in the Areopagus. Understanding of contemporary philosophical currents and familiarity with religious themes found in Greek poetry helped him bring a relevant message and bridge the gap to his proclamation of Jesus and the resurrection. Whilst our ability to participate will always be limited, cultural learning through close observation of other religious practices is a necessary part of the learning that we need for effective cross-cultural communication.

And finally, please do not think that this belongs solely to the realm of “overseas missions”. If the Church in the West is to engage effectively with the wider world it must invest time and effort to understand its culture, a culture which is now foreign to that of most of our churches; evangelical preaching is not destined to unlock the hearts of the majority in the West today. Look. Watch. Observe. Interact. Think. Understand. And adapt accordingly.

“El Suspiro del Moro” (The Moor’s Sigh)

21 Feb

I spent this last weekend in Granada, a city steeped in history. Not that visiting with two fifteen year olds is particularly conducive to the appreciation of history… But Granada – it was here that the Nasrid dynasty built the Alhambra palace and survived for over two centuries as the last bastion of Muslim Spain. Civil war internally, and pressure from “Christian” forces externally, finally led to the surrender of the city in November 1492, thus ending nearly eight centuries of Muslim presence and rule in the Iberian peninsula.

La_rendición_de_GranadaHaving handed the keys of the city to Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castille, Boabdil, the last Nasrid emir, headed south towards the coast. The path wound up and away from the fertile plains of the Genil river into the Alpujarra hills, the foothills of the Sierra Nevada that lie between Granada and the Mediterranean. After riding for twelve kilometres with his back to the city, he turned for a final glimpse of his cherished Alhambra and broke down in tears, sobbing “Allahu Akbar” (God is great) in resignation to his fate. His mother’s retort figures amongst the most famous in Spanish history: “Weep, weep like a woman for what you failed to defend like a man”. The Al Badul pass where he broke down and that would forever hide Granada from his view now finds its identity in that event, being known in Spain as “El Suspiro del Moro”, The Moor’s Sigh.

Christian monarchs and Muslim emirs, Spanish Catholics and Moorish followers of the prophet Muhammad. This was not just another conquest, another battle won, another city possessed. wa-la ghaliba illa-LlahTwo civilizations had collided; the wa-la ghaliba illa-Llah of the Nasrids – “there is no victor but Allah” – had given way to the Te Deum and “Santiago, Santiago” of the new occupants. (Santiago, the patron saint of Spain, is popularly known as Santiago Matamoros, Saint James the Moorslayer. His help was in constant demand during the centuries of reconquest, and, if legend is held to be true, on more than one occasion he was happy to oblige and make an appearance on his white horse to personally despatch a few thousand of the infidels…)

Conflict does not just happen because of religion — the reconquest had witnessed plenty of fighting within both the Christian and Muslim camps as well as cross-religious alliances against common enemies, of whichever faith. However, religion certainly helps to create a deep-seated sense of identity and belonging that can also fuel mistrust and antagonism of “the other”. For there is nothing like “otherness” to feed the flames of fear and hatred that contribute to conflict and emphasize the lines of separation between communities. When we understand a nation to be “a group of persons united by a common error about their ancestry and a common dislike of their neighbours” (attributed to Karl Deutsch), religion becomes a powerful element in the creation and defence of perceived ethnicity.

This is what makes conversion such a touchy subject even today. To be Spanish – until very recently at least – was to be Catholic, albeit in name only; you are not expected to be practicing, or even to believe everything that the catechism says you are supposed to believe. It is a cultural construct, a national sense of belonging, rather than a personal faith or practice. To be Moroccan is to be Muslim, Sunni Muslim at that. After the wave of deportations in 2010 aimed at those who were perceived as a threat to national stability because of their “proselytizing” activities, the debate there about religion and national identity continues.

Whenever embracing the message of the gospel involves taking on a cultural identity not shared by the community, the potential for conflict exists; where a declaration of faith is identified with a foreign power, conflict is virtually guaranteed. Two notions follow on from these statements.

Firstly, it is vital that conversion be to Christ, not to “Christian culture”. Somehow, the peoples of the world need to have the chance to believe in Christ and then express that faith within their own cultural framework, whether African community awareness, Confucian filial piety or Western postmodernism. As any missiologist will confirm, separating “the gospel” from the cultural trappings with which it has become associated is not simple, but the inherent difficulty in no way removes the obligation. Then, just as the person of Christ must be central in proclamation, the person of the Holy Spirit must be trusted in the formation of Christian communities. In the West we tend towards cultural blindness to the syncretism of the Semitic gospel with Greek philosophical thought that produced Western theology. We are thus loathe to allow others the same freedom to explore creative understandings of eternal realities, being very quick to label as “heresy” anything that does not square with our own definitions and deductions. Both ecclesiology and theology need to be given the space to reflect local realities.

Secondly, the sooner the gospel is freed from identification with the West, the better. As long as Christianity is perceived as a Western religion then in many parts of the world conversion will remain an act of treason, a public political statement as much as a personal religious choice. We hear much about martyrdom and persecution in the Roman Empire, finally brought to an end by the conversion of Constantine at the beginning of the fourth century. We hear less about the effects of this event on the then flourishing Christian communities in the Parthian Empire, Rome’s eastern neighbour and sworn enemy. Overnight, Christians became labelled as potential fifth columnists; the ensuing persecutions were massive and bloody, claiming many, many more lives than were ever lost under Roman emperors.

This imperative need for the de-Westernization of Christianity – in the eyes of the watching world, for statistically we are already there, and have been for a good few years – is the one consolation I draw from the progressive secularization of the West. If the conscious and deliberate moving away from their Judeo-Christian heritage that seems to have Western nations under its grip at present, together with the impressive growth of the non-Western churches, can contribute to the realisation that Christianity is not a Western faith, I for one will be happy.

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