When I was a kid I always enjoyed watching the Bill Mason’s film adaptation of Holling C. Holling’s Paddle to the Sea. It’s the story of a small, carved First Nations man sitting in a canoe. The artist creates the wooden piece and paints it in bright colours before setting it carefully in the snow. A few days later the snow begins to melt and the figurine slides down the slope, into the creek, and on its way to the sea. It’s a nice story.
A couple of things this past week got me thinking about that story and how it relates to life and the church. We often think we want to leave the small streams and creeks behind as we journey down the river to the sea, which is full of excitement. If we are in a small church, we dream of when the church will be big. We want it to grow because often we believe that a big church is healthy while a small church isn’t. If we live in a small town, we want to upgrade to the city because we feel that’s where a better life can be lived.
And I think we see the problems with this. That is why we work hard at developing smaller groups within the church. But even when small groups are working well, unless they are a part of something bigger, we feel like something is missing.
Yesterday I read a great Twitter thread by Ari Lamm on the tower of Babel. I would consider this a must read. It is a rich analysis of the biblical account that comes to new conclusions not because of the influx of any new modern ideas but by simply looking at the text itself. I highly recommend that you take a look at the thread if you haven’t already done so.
One of the key things that Lamm points out is that the tower of Babel was a means to keep humanity from spreading around the earth. God had encouraged — actually commanded — them to fill the whole earth but that didn’t seem to be something that humans wanted to do. Maybe because we like to be a part of something big?
In reality, life truly happens on the creeks and streams, because that’s where authenticity dwells. That’s where one-on-one interactions happen. That is everyday life. Often in church we are trying to create something new, for example a new community better than the one that already exists. To do this we try to go big. But that is the wrong direction. A new direction is to turn around.
I have noticed this while watching Chef’s Table. One common part of everyone’s story is that they loved food, grew up to study French cooking, started hating food, returned home to their own place, started cooking and loving food again. Food didn’t have meaning unless it was connected to their place.
My childhood friend, Dwayne Harms, pastored a small church in a small part of rural Saskatchewan. I have written about him here. Even though some may see that as being a stepping-stone to something bigger in the future, Dwayne saw it as an opportunity. He said, “Mike, if I was a pastor in a big city church, I would be one voice among a multitude of others. Here my voice is clear because I am the pastor of the Baptist church and everyone knows it.” Dwayne wasn’t looking for fame but for a voice. The Baptist church in his community was one of the originals. It was a known entity. It was an accepted part of things. That meant that as the official representative of that entity, Dwayne was entitled to voice that entity’s concerns. He was already a participant.
That’s authenticity and that’s the direction the church needs to take.
What is your experience with the streams and rivers of life? Have you tried journeying to the sea? How did that work out for you? Please leave a comment below to let us know.
Not gonna lie. Any book that includes The Usual Suspects as part of its organising motif is pretty good. But that is only a minor reason why I enjoyed reading this great book. I love how it jumps straight into discussions of structural evil in relation to patriarchy because without a complex theology of evil we can’t successfully address issues like this. But I am getting ahead of myself.
Beth Allison Barr’sThe Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth paints a picture that combines her own personal journey with her expertise as a historian of medieval times. Barr’s argument is that church history, particularly medieval church history, shows that modern understandings of bible passages regarding the status of women haven’t always been interpreted to support patriarchy. Barr looks at how certain bible passages have been variously interpreted throughout the ages, how women’s roles within the church have shifted, and how bible translations have muddied the issue. I had the opportunity to read it after borrowing the ebook version from the Saskatoon Public Library. What follows is not a review, per se, but rather a series of reflections that emerged as I read the book.
Reflection #1: Positionality.
My area of expertise is in the realm of social sciences, more specifically in gender and ethnography. One key aspect to doing research of any kind is to determine where the researcher fits into the research. The two words are used to describe this process, Reflexivity and Positionality, basically tell us that researchers and the subjects they research are intertwined. Reflexivity is “taking account of itself or of the effect of the personality or presence of the researcher on what is being investigated.” Positionality is “the social and political context that creates your identity in terms of race, class, gender, sexuality, and ability status. Positionality also describes how your identity influences, and potentially biases, your understanding of and outlook on the world.”
Positionality is important in any study and this book is chock-full of it. Barr clearly states her positionality in relation to the topic: She is a woman who has been a member of evangelical churches in the USA since birth; she’s a pastor’s wife within the same movement, an accomplished Medieval historian with a couple of graduate degrees, and a professor.
As a comparison and contrast to this, let me show you my positionality: I am a white man, who has been a member of evangelical churches since birth (as a pastor’s kid and a missionary kid), I am a pastor, I have a couple of graduate degrees, and I am a professor.
Each of us is positioned in this conversation but are different in two important aspects: I am a man and my evangelical experience is shaped by my life in Canada and the Philippines, while Barr is a white women who is shaped by her life in the USA. These differences mean that we have different perspectives when it comes to understanding the matter at hand.
Positionality is important because it identifies our place in the conversation, reveals our connections to the subject, and allows us to see our advantages and biases. My positionality has blinded me to the truths that Barr’s positionality has revealed to her. Barr’s positionality makes this book more trustworthy.
Reflection #2: Sources of truth.
Apprehending truth is complicated. One of the first systems of determining truth that I learned as a child is that God is a God of truth and Satan is the father of lies. While that statement may be true, one aspect that I overlooked was God’s sovereignty over all. I had divided the world into neat categories of secular and sacred. I connected God’s involvement in the process with seemingly holy things only: Bible, church, religious people, etc. I rejected things — the example that springs to mind is psychology — that were seemingly unholy.
I was talking with a friend yesterday about the time I began to see cracks in my process. I was taking a class on religious perspectives on death and dying from Dr. Robert Kennedy at the University of Saskatchewan. We were assigned to read and comment on Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich. I thought I was being pretty smart by saying that Tolstoy had nothing to say about death and dying because his was a work of fiction and therefore was not true. Fortunately Dr. Kennedy was a nice guy and kindly showed me how works of fiction can also contain truth. It’s a lesson I haven’t forgotten.
A few years later I went to seminary where I learned the shocking reality that all truth is God’s truth. This means that regardless of the form of inquiry — social science, critical theory, hard science, literature, history, psychology, etc. — if it leads me to the truth then I have discovered something that is from God. This means that Barr’s study of the history of how the church has interpreted passages that seem to support patriarchy is a necessary way to help us apprehend the truth. As a historian her voice needs to be heard.
Reflection #3: The very nature of Scripture.
Dean Flemming gets it right when he talks about the New Testament as contextualisation in his Contextualization in the New Testament: Patterns for Theology and Mission. When we shift from thinking the New Testament is a doctrinal document towards seeing it as a guide for contextualisation, it opens up a new framework of interpretation. It allows us to move from seeing the bible merely as a series of truths to be believed (or a series of proof-texts to be memorised) towards a series of examples on how to live out our faith in our own unique cultural contexts. From Moses, in Deuteronomy, reframing the law to a group that hadn’t personally experienced the exodus from Egypt, to Jesus reconciling what we have heard with what he really wants us to know, to John recounting a view of history that shows us what is happening behind the scenes, the bible is full of making the gospel understood in different contexts.
That’s how Barr interprets the idea that Paul is addressing specific cultural issues of the day & providing a framework for how to contextualise the gospel into those situations. To assume that all cultural situations are the same as ours — and to assume that our cultural context has no impact on how we interpret texts — is doing disservice to the text & is leading us to false conclusions about what Paul (& other New Testament writers) are saying.
Throughout 1 Corinthians Paul addresses specific issues apparently raised by the local church. In these interactions, Paul directly quotes issues that have been raised in the church and then comments on them. Included among these quotations are the following:
6:12; 10:23 – “I am free to do all things” but my freedom is limited by my relationship to others. My freedom is not an excuse to cause others to sin.
6:13 – “Food is for the stomach and the stomach for food – but God will destroy them both” is actually talking about Corinthian sexual mores. The body does have a specific purpose – that purpose being “for God” and “not for sexual immorality,” because in the end God will “raise” the body and not destroy it. Therefore, the Corinthians were to stay away from sexual immorality.
6:16 – “The two of them will become one flesh.” When one commits sexual immorality, in this case with a prostitute as an act of worship in a pagan temple, then that person is united with the prostitute. The basis for Paul’s argument is from Genesis where when a man and a woman are united sexually then they become one. Paul would much rather that we were united “with the Lord” than be united with a prostitute.
6:18 – “Every sin which a man does is outside of the body” was another Corinthian saying that identifies the body as being less important that the spirit. Paul counters this argument by saying that in fact our physical bodies are now and will always be important because it is here where the Holy Spirit dwells. This any sins that we commit against our bodies are in essence sins against the dwelling place of God.
7:1 – “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” Paul connects this aphorism with the issue of marriage. Should married Christians abstain from sex? Paul’s answer is to get married (7:2). There are, however, other implications to getting married: 7:32-34 that says those considering marriage should carefully weigh the pros and the cons so that in the end they can remain pure but also dedicated to the work of the Lord.
Since this is the structure of 1 Corinthians, it’s not a stretch to expect the same thing to happen when we get to the 14:33-35 bit about women’s silence. Paul begins by quoting the issue and then comments on it.
14:33-35 – “As in all the churches of God’s holy people, the women must keep silent. They don’t have the right to speak. They must take their place as Moses’ Teachings say. If they want to know anything they should ask their husbands at home. It’s shameful for a woman to speak in church.”
Barr’s contention here is that Paul’s actual beliefs begin in v 36: “Did God’s word originate with you? Are you the only ones it has reached? Whoever thinks that he speaks for God or that he is spiritually gifted must acknowledge that what I write to you is what the Lord commands. But whoever ignores what I write should be ignored.” In her explanation, Barr brings us into her classroom and allows us to feel what it’s like to have a eureka moment when trying to understand scripture. It’s a powerful description!
Some may bristle at idea that structural sin exists. They prefer to see sin as being entirely personal with the solution being merely a restored relationship with Jesus. Regular readers of this blog will know that I subscribe to a more complex theology of evil that includes personal evil, natural evil, and structural evil. If you are interested in a more detailed explanation take a look here and here.
Barr says, “Patriarchy wasn’t what God wanted; patriarchy was a result of human sin.” I tend to interpret the famous phrase in the second part of Genesis 3:16 as negative for both parties — a turning away from God’s original intent. “Desire” — the same word used later on to describe sin’s attitude towards Cain (Genesis 4:7) — and “rule” being the key words. For me, both of these words reflect a change that happens after the fall. While they were not a normal state of affairs prior to the fall they have now become normal — a new normal as it were (with all the negative implications that term has taken on). As Barr says, “after the fall, because of sin, women would now turn first to their husbands, and their husbands, in the place of God, would rule over them” and “Adam’s rebellion was claiming God’s authority for himself, and Eve’s rebellion was submitting to Adam in place of God.”
The reality is not only that patriarchy exists but that it is an example of how structures created by God — namely the relationships between men and women — can be twisted into sinfulness. Jesus taught us to pray, “Let your will be done on earth as it is done in heaven,” which means not only do we pray it but we work to make sure that it’s true. Patriarchy then becomes an enemy that need to be defeated.
Reflection #5: Women’s rooms.
Sometimes we think that all that needed to be done theologically happened in the Reformation. It becomes the basis for how we decide if people are real Christians or not. It even seems as if all of our theology is centered around the Reformation. But obviously not everything that happened in the Reformation was enough. Barr points out that the situation of women in the church took a turn for the worse as their space became smaller. Why? Because of Reformation theology!
Here is where Barr’s positionality as a woman who has grown up in the evangelical church is especially helpful in opening my eyes to things that I am blinded to as a man. The first surrounds the idea of women’s rooms that get bigger and smaller throughout history as things change. Barr’s argument is that the current state of affairs that keep women from certain roles and activities in the church hasn’t always been defined in the same way. Rather throughout history the spaces that women are allowed to inhabit have at times been larger and at other times have gotten smaller. As Barr says, “When political and social structures are less centralized and less clearly defined, women often experience greater agency; their rooms are bigger” (pp. 113-114).
When discussing “Official preaching space,” Barr tells the story of Anne Askew who argued that since “Preaching only took place behind a pulpit, and since she wasn’t behind a pulpit, she wasn’t preaching” (p. 116). This is is a clever use of logic to thwart a technicality — a technicality that doesn’t actually exist in scripture but we assume that it does. I am familiar with this idea but from a different angle. It relates to a different theological problem that we have here. There is an oft-cited idea that to be a pastor is to have the “highest calling.” It results in pastors being above reproach (even though people may have reasons to reproach them). Part of this “highest calling” is that only they are allowed inside the “official preaching space” — an area defined as being behind the pulpit.
What is interesting is that this “official preaching space” is an entirely social construct. No where does the bible mention any form of official preaching space. Looking at Jesus alone, we can see that he preached anywhere and everywhere — on a boat, by the seashore, on a mountain, on the plain, in the Temple, while walking down the road. Of course let’s not get into the idea that even “pastor” is highly constructed and bears little resemblance to what we see in the bible. (Should I point out here that one of the few people mentioned by name in the Bible as being a shepherd — another word for “pastor” — is Rachel in Ge 29:9?)
Reflection #6: Gender-inclusive language.
The final reflection that I will discuss relates to how we use language. The issue at hand is translating passages of scripture that do not specifically refer to gender in an accurate way. Barr discusses two ways that society has chosen to deal with this issue: Using gender-inclusive language or using a “universal” language.
Gender-inclusive language is language that allows latitude when referring to gender. When related to scriptures it refers to translating the original languages to accurately reflect it’s sometimes gender-neutral nature. Of course the topic of gender-neutral language is one that larger society is also facing for a variety of reasons.
The other option that society has chosen for addressing gender-related linguistic issues is a “universal” language. What this means is using male pronouns as the default even when the original is not gender specific. You can see where this would lead to problems. What I didn’t realise before reading this book is that this is a “False universal language.” This hit home for me because at least in the past I advocated for understanding words like “he” and “his” as referring to both male and female. Where this falls apart, as Barr so ably points out, is that this belief is not implemented in practice. “Words for men were used interchangeably in reference to kings, politicians, preachers, household heads, philosophers, and even to represent all ‘mankind.’ while specific words for women were used exclusively for women and mostly regarding the domestic sphere. ‘Man’ in early modern English could represent humanity, but the humans it described were political citizens, decision-makers, leaders, household heads, theologians, preachers, factory owners, members of Parliament, and so on. In other words, “man” could include both men and women, but it mostly didn’t. It mostly just included men” (p. 146). What this means is that in practice we assume “men” means “male” but look for evidence to prove that it also means “female.” Unfortunately, as Barr so ably points out, bible translators have not been as faithful at reflecting gender inclusivity in their work as is warranted by the text.
What is interesting is that Gender-inclusive language is completely linguistically-based. While that may seem like a rather obvious statement, what I mean is that different languages treat gender in different ways. Take for example one of the languages spoken where I live and work — Tagalog. Tagalog pronouns have no gender. Whether one is referring to a male or female person the pronoun is the same: siya. That means that even if I include the pronouns “he/him” in my Twitter bio, if my bio were in Tagalog it would say, absurdly, “siya/siya.”
All that to say if we take issue with making language more gender neutral we are probably focussing on the wrong things. We miss the forest by focussing on the trees.
The next step.
What if the theologies that I believe are also manufactured by others? Or what if they are based on misconceptions or misunderstandings of the text? Or what if they are based on theologies developed during a time of immaturity rather than maturity — milk rather than meat, so to speak? Or what if the narrative is not based on reality but instead on a limited understanding? The issue is how we understand something to be true or false.
Just before he went public with the truth about his involvement in the cycling world’s doping scheme, Lance Armstrong apparently said to his son. “‘Don’t defend me anymore. Don’t.’” He was believing a lie that had been repeatedly stated was a truth.
We need to face the reality that sometimes we end up defending things that aren’t really true. It’s looking more and more like the so-called traditional understanding of the passages supporting Christian patriarchy aren’t in fact all that traditional. The traditional interpretations, as so clearly delineated by Barr, are quite the opposite to what many of us have grown up believing.
I highly recommend reading this book. If you are already moving in this direction, this book will encourage you. If you are still weighing the issues, this book will help provide balance to make an accurate measurement. Regardless of your position on this issues discussed, you won’t be disappointed. And who knows? You may be led to reflect a little on your own. In fact, you may already have some reflections of your own. Please feel free to leave them in the comment section, below.
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Image is a screen shot from the cover of the ebook I read and is copyright by Brazos Press.
The publisher’s product description says, “Jesus and John Wayne is a sweeping, revisionist history of the last seventy-five years of white evangelicalism, revealing how evangelicals have worked to replace the Jesus of the Gospels with an idol of rugged masculinity and Christian nationalism―or in the words of one modern chaplain, with ‘a spiritual badass.’”
I like reading books because of where they take me and how they get my mind to go down trails that may or may not have been the intent of the author. This book is no different. What follows is not so much a critique as it is a train of thought brought about by the book.
I enjoyed this book immensely and highly recommend it. As is obvious from some of my previous posts, masculinities are an important part of my life and ministry. Du Mez presents a view of evangelical masculinity that is frankly disturbing. Rather than evangelicals having a carefully thought out theological argument for being men, what we discover is a political argument for being men that is then adopted by the evangelical church. Each paragraph is footnoted with sources so readers can double check what is said.
At this point I need to point out that while I was reading I did find it a bit like watching the neighbours through their living room window. I was born and raised in Canada and have spent almost half my life in Southeast Asia so the American context is largely someone else’s context. Any understanding of a necessary close connection between evangelical masculinity and politics escapes me. I really can’t for the life of me understand why my evangelical masculinity needs to be so closely connected with politics and political systems.
I will say this with regards to politics: I do believe that all people need to be involved in nationbuilding, Christians in particular. We need to tell people that Jesus is the best possible leader. We need to tell people that Jesus’ Kingdom has an unparalleled set of values. We also need to work at serving them. Finally we need to spend time together discovering the truth.
But beyond that, it is not a part of my framework to connect that with some kind of political system (which I think the Bible refers to as a wild animal rather than a lamb who was slain). So that’s the part that I don’t get. I guess it makes it even harder for me to believe it when I find out that some of the American presidential candidates most hated by evangelicals were in fact evangelicals themselves (and their most loved rivals were anything but). I just don’t get it but that may be because I am not from there.
I do know the names of the key players in the story because they are also of influence in the parts of the world with which I am more familiar. I have attended Promise Keeper’s rallies and seminars. I have been encouraged by Eldredge’s books. I have shown Dobson videos to my youth group. My best friend’s father was heavily into Gothard when I was a kid. So these are familiar names. I must say that it was disturbing to me to see how carefully the crafted a version of masculinity that was so politically motivated. It made be question the things that I had learned from them and wonder what shortcomings my own perspectives have.
I will tell you one thing: As I have written elsewhere (here, here, & here), I don’t hold to universal gender roles, much less God-appointed gender roles. Rarely do we find someone who lives out their theoretical framework (read “theology” in this context) perfectly in life. And rarely do we find a framework that exactly explains everything in the world. As Rorty says, “A + B = C, unless it doesn’t.” The same applies to gender roles. My wife handles our finances because she is better gifted at it — we would be quickly bankrupt if I were to take the reins. My wife is a better missionary than be because she seems to have the abilities to make connections and carry out plans while I struggle along. Both of us are involved in public ministry as our callings and giftings determine. We both cook at home because we both enjoy it. I suspect it’s the same with you.
My wife and I enjoy watching cooking shows — particularly contest shows. What surprises me is the predominance of men in professional cooking and the fact that the women who participate say that it’s a hard industry for them to enter. Wait a minute. I thought that cooking was supposed to be the realm of women? (I see a lot of references to sandwiches on Twitter). What happened? What happened was that the framework that we have been presented with is flawed. Patriarchy still rears its ugly head even in realms where we think that it doesn’t.
Du Mez emphasises one strain of masculinity in her book. At first I saw that as a limitation but then realised that Du Mez does periodically refer to other sides to the story but these are only in passing and in the context of having been rejected by the subjects of her book. She is in fact tracing a hegemonic form of masculinity through the evangelical church. If you don’t remember, hegemonic masculinity is a term developed by Connell to identify the form of masculinity that is the norm in the cultural psyche, even if this norm is not actually the normal masculinity when it comes to practice (Connell & Messerschmidt, 2005). It does leave me with the question of whether there is there a range of masculinities among American evangelical men? Du Mez may have highlighted the hegemonic form but what about the other, perhaps more practiced, forms that exist? How can we champion those? Is it possible to affect change in the cultural psyche so that more harmful forms of masculinity become marginalised?
I also was surprised to see the inclusion of fundamentalists in the realm of evangelicals, since the fundamentalists that I know try to distinguish themselves from evangelicals. But that is really neither here nor there since the underlying theme tracing is hegemonic masculinity.
The book caused me to reflect on what I truly believe masculinities to be. It got me to examine my assumptions on a deeper level. What is masculinity for me? How does it differ from femininity? Is it even important to make a distinction? Am I, as a man, somehow specially prepared/gifted/enabled/called to something that perhaps a women isn’t? Or are those things determined by personality? How can I best use my manhood (if that’s even possible) for the furtherance of God’s kingdom here on earth?
My own masculinity research, where I talked with men in my community, tells me that some men see themselves sometimes as humans, with the same problems that all humans share. “Tao lang ako” [“I’m only human”] is a phrase often on the lips of the men when they describe their ability to be obedient to God. It encapsulates both their desire to do what is right but also gives them some leeway in their performance since “tao lang ako.” It reiterates their weakness and sets themselves apart from God, who wouldn’t have any problem being obedient.
But men are also men and as such need to become better people. They want to redefine themselves from the traditional ideas that men are violent or womanizers into something better. Knowing Christ has helped one of my friends overcome his hot headedness. He also said that in his opinion womanizers aren’t really true men because all that results is that their families are destroyed.
I don’t have many answers yet but Du Mez’ book has helped me deepen the process of discovery. It may help you as well. Why not pick it up and read it? It may cause you to reflect on your own situation as well.
Then again, maybe God has given you insight into these things. Please feel free to share in the comments below.
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Our paths over the past 2 years haven’t been as clearly marked as we would have liked. The pandemic introduced enough changes that it felt like we were losing our way. Apart from the obvious issues associated with health and disease, there were also concerns of financial distress, social distress, disconnection, and religious freedom. Fortunately things haven’t been as bad as predicted in those areas. But it has caused us to reflect a lot on where we are going — especially in the church. It reminded me a little of driving.
Eva and I have spent the last two years in Canada. We had initially planned only 3 months but … COVID-19. While in Canada we got the chance to be reacquainted with Canadian weather; or more specifically driving in Canadian weather. We saw it all, from burning hot days with nothing but dust to blinding snowstorms. It reminded me of real life. The past 23 months have certainly been interesting, and I expect that things haven’t entirely returned to normal just yet. Who knows how many more months of uncertainty there are?
When driving, the goal is to stay on the road but sometimes that isn’t as easy as we think it might be. Here are some examples:
Some roads are clearly marked with nice lines, they are paved, they are dry, it’s daytime, and the sun is shining when you are driving. There is nothing better than this. We often have days like this, don’t we? We are in the groove and everything seems to be going all right.
Sometimes there is snow on the road. But even if this is the case, when the road is plowed you can still drive between the lines with some changes. Instead of two lanes, only one is available. Instead of being able to travel at normal speeds, snow and ice force us to slow down. But we keep on driving.
When the road isn’t plowed you hope there is someone who has already gone down it so you know generally where you need to go too. You will also need to use a technique my Dad called, “Driving by the seat of your pants.” This means that we drive more by feel than by sight. We can even say, “Walk by faith and not by sight.” But we keep on driving, cautiously.
Sometimes the weather takes over and makes things extremely difficult. When you are driving in freezing rain you need to use all your resources. Turn the heat up full blast on the defroster. Use the wipers and fluid constantly. Stop every now and then and clear the windshield. Open the side window to know where you need to turn. But we keep on driving, slowly and cautiously.
Sometimes you can’t even see the world around you. When the snow is still falling, and blowing, and you can’t see more than 3 metres in front of you, and you spend each moment in fear wondering if you are going to hit the ditch, or worse, drive off a cliff in the mountains, you need to rely on your wits in order to make it. Have you driven the road before? Does the GPS tell you where the curves are? Can you see anyone’s tail lights ahead? But we keep on driving, foolishly.
This is perhaps how many felt when the pandemic began because the pandemic affected the roads that the church normally drives down. Eva and I arrived in Canada on a Monday, with great plans to visit friends and churches from Port Alberni to Thunder Bay. By Thursday of that same week all of those plans went out the window because of the implementation of anti-COVID-19 measures. All of a sudden we were doing church by the seat of our pants. It was quite the ride. We all became experts at new things: Zoom, preaching to a camera, uploading videos to Vimeo, livestreaming, building community in new ways. It was weird. It was uncomfortable. But somehow it worked.
We did manage to visit friends and churches — in fact we spoke in more churches than we could have if we can been in person. The ministry of the South East Asian Theological Schools boomed with more classes and students from around the world. We connected with lots of people on Zoom. We even celebrated a significant birthday with nothing more than a computer, some videos, and and internet connection. We kept on driving — and so did you!
We know this because we have talked to many of you. We discussed plans for how to do church in a pandemic. We debated on Facebook about the proper approaches we needed to take. We chatted on Zoom about the future of the church. We even taught classes about what to do next. We used all the resources available to us: Theology, church history, Biblical studies, Christian fellowship, meetings, conversations, books, blog posts, videos, and sermons. Even though the road was treacherous at times, we now appear to be coming out of it (I hope). And guess what? The church is still here. People are still committed. Hope continues to be renewed. The mission continues. And we have lots of new understanding and tools to use for the future.
God is good!
How has it been for you? What kind of “driving” have you been doing lately and how have the roads been? How has your church been made stronger because of the trials of the past 2 years?
Feedback is always welcome. Please use the comment box below.
Have you ever thought about your preferred form of church polity? Church polity basically means the ways church organise themselves. There are four main types of church polity: Episcopal, Presbyterian, Congregational, and Hybrid.
Episcopal. This word is derived from the the Greek word episkopos, which basically means overseers or bishops. As you might have guessed, these churches often have people serving in the role of Bishops. Churches in this tradition include Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, Episcopal, Lutheran, and Methodist. They find biblical support in Acts 6:6; 14:23; and Galatians 1:19; 2:9. They claim connection to the biblical Apostles because of Apostolic succession.
Reformed. The picture at the top identifies this as “Reformed” but a better term might be Presbyterian, derived from the Greek word presbuteros, which means basically elders. Presbyterian, Lutheran and Reformed churches all have this polity. The find biblical support in Acts 20:17; 1 Tim 5:17; and Titus 1:5. They claim connection to the biblical Apostles because they follow Apostolic teaching.
Congregational. Congregational churches put the congregation at the top of any organisational chart because it is the congregation that makes the decisions for the church. Churches in this tradition include Baptist, Mennonite, Evangelical Free, Congregational. They find biblical support in Acts 15:12, 22-25; Colossians 1:18; and 1 Peter 2:9. Like the Presbyterian system above, they claim connection to the biblical Apostles because they follow Apostolic teaching.
Hybrid. A blending of the above three. Churches in this tradition include many Pentecostal and charismatic groups. Because they are a blend, they find biblical support in the verses used by the other three traditions. They claim connection to the biblical Apostles because they exhibit the Apostolic signs.
As we can see, each of these systems has a series of biblical supports that they use to prove that theirs is the true biblical way. Of course that means that, if each of them has biblical proof, each one of them is biblical! It also means that none of them is actually prescribed by the Bible.
My missions professor in seminary, Dr. Vern Middleton, made an observation about church polity that has stayed with me until today. According to his observations a church’s polity is more a reflection of the political situation at the time the church was initially formed than it is of any biblical influence. Thus the Episcopal system was developed largely when Emperors, Kings, and Queens ruled; the Presbyterian system was developed largely when city and state councils ruled; the Congregational system was developed largely when democratic systems ruled; and Hybrid systems have developed only in the past 100 years or so. For example, in the Philippines many evangelical churches — even while being from a congregational tradition — often incorporate features from Episcopal systems because of the country’s long relationship with the Roman Catholic church.
More to the point, the term “New Testament church” should actually be the “New Testament churches“ because there was more than one of them. We often assume that the New Testament church is the one in Jerusalem as described in Acts. But what then about the other churches — in Corinth, Rome, Galatia, Ephesus, Philippi, etc? Are they not also New Testament churches? What also of the 7 churches in Revelation 2-3? Are they not also New Testament churches?
More importantly, does polity really matter? We often argue and act against other ways of doing things regardless of whether they matter or not. Oftentimes it’s merely an issue of preference or habit.
What really matters is functionality. Functionality is one of the main organising frameworks that I use in this blog so it shouldn’t be strange to us. In a nutshell, we propose that a church begin measuring its functionality using the fourfold matrix of kerygma, koinonia, diakonia, and marturia. Here is an example of what this looks like in real life.
I want to hear your voice. That’s why feedback is always welcome.
Sharing is what friends do.
Image from Vencer, A. (2004), DAWN Vision and Strategy (DAWN Ministries Leadership Development).
I hear a lot of talk about the how the Christian influence in the west is slipping away. Sometimes this is referred to as the culture wars. Other times it’s referred to by terms such as multiculturalism, open borders, and statements like, “When people come to our country they should learn to do things your way because this is our country!” This is coupled with an uptick in things often labelled as “persecution” often tied to complaints that others are now calling the shots when it comes to values and morality.
And one can’t deny that change is happening. There is a definite change in Western societies’ values and morals and the influence of the church is definitely waning. Values that have long been identified as being Judeo-Christian are being replaced by other values and this has some Christians worried that the church is dying.
There is another perspective to this, however. Sometimes we confuse church with Kingdom and assume that our little corner of what God is doing is everything. Change can happen in various parts of a Kingdom without the Kingdom itself being destroyed. I grew up in Saskatoon, a small city in Western Canada that was fairly homogenous. Most people living there 30 years ago had a European heritage with some First Nations and Metis peoples seemingly on the fringes of society. That has all changed. Saskatoon is now a very cosmopolitan city boasting citizens from all around the world, with large non-European immigrant populations. The voices of the First Nations and Metis peoples are also stronger in the new society. In spite of all these changes Saskatoon is still Saskatoon — it is just a better and more interesting Saskatoon than when I was younger.
Andrew Walls, a missiologist and church historian, talked about the nature of the church worldwide. He saw how through church history the centre of the church would shift from one place to another. Walls described this is shifting “serial” rather than progressive. This means that the centre tends to shift from one place to another. For example, even though the church may have started in Jerusalem, Jerusalem is no longer the centre of the church today. That centre has shifted throughout history from one place to another. When we look at the current situation in the west that has been the centre of the church for so many years we can see that centre is shifting away. A 2009 study by Johnson & Chung tracks this center around the Mediteranean from Jerusalem, north through Europe, and currently moving south in Africa. Others have made similar claims.
So what does that mean for us today in the west? Well, we can mourn the loss of influence that we are having in the world and will have. We can also rejoice that God is moving the centre of his church to other places who are taking up the challenge of leading his church into the future.
We can understand that we can also survive on the fringes. After all, many of our fellow Jesus-followers have been there for a long time. They can teach us how to live under persecution, how to live even though no one focusses specifically on our spiritual needs, how to live when theologizing happens primarily in a language foreign to us, and how to live when the recognised spiritual authorities are from somewhere else.
Part of our responsibility is to help facilitate this transition. How can we help the transition to become smoother? We need to be gracious and realize that the things are changing are important. We need to listen to the voices of those who were previously been a minority even as we now move into being a minority now. We need to be open to the challenge to our traditional ideas — that have up until now been standard in the church — the challenges that are brought to these traditional ideas from new perspectives. We need to prioritize the voices of those who are now at the centre and submit to their leadership, realizing that even as God may have placed us in a place a priority in the past we are moving out of that.
If indeed God is the one who oversees the shifting centre of the church, then that means the things that are happening today in the world are of God. We need to honour that. What will you do to honour your changing role in the church today? How will you give way to those who have previously been minorities as they take up the mantle of leadership in the church today?
I want to hear your voice on this issue. That’s why feedback is always welcome.
Cross-cultural interactions are a part of my everyday life. Is there a theology of cross-cultural interaction? There have been many. Unfortunately they don’t always have good results. Take for example the whole residential school debacle in Canada that started from faulty theology codified in the doctrine of discovery but stemming from long-seated ideas of cultural superiority.
Churches quite often have deep seated assumptions about “the world” that aren’t in fact true. Case in point. When I was in Grade 5 our class received a Gideons New Testament (is that still a thing). Afterward we were all talking in the boot room about the NT and I said to one of my classmates, “What are you going to do? Rip it up?” He looked at me like I was crazy. What possessed me to say that? I had been told my whole life in Sunday school that the world was opposed to Christians. Guess what? That wasn’t true after all. It seems that I as a Christian had assumptions that were untested.
So how can we move away from assumptions towards actual empirical data about the world around us? Last week I wrote about how the church can partner with the world in things like this. Some commented that the post was short on the “How” so I thought that I might give a more concrete example. We need to develop ways to better understand the world to make sure that we are asking and answering the right questions – to make sure that the message we exegete from the Bible is presented in a relevant way to those who are not yet followers of Jesus Christ. Anthropology can help us understand that.
The following comes from planning some conversations I had with Filipino men about their masculinity and religiosity. I had heard that men are less religious than women but wanted to find out for myself if that was true. I decided to plan some research that tried to discover what is called the insider viewpoint.
Because many religious systems in the Philippines are from external sources, and because male participation in those systems is universally identified as being lesser than that of women, it is important to discover how Filipino males have constructed their understandings of pagbabalik-loob, pagkalalaki, and maka-Diyos. This calls for an emic approach to the problem rather than an etic one. Oxford defines emic as “studying or describing a particular language or culture in terms of its internal elements and their functioning rather than in terms of any existing external scheme.” Etic is defined as “studying or describing a particular language or culture in a way that is general, non-structural, and objective in its perspective.” Thus, an etic approach looks at the problem from outside, while the emic approach looks at the problem from inside.
Origins of the Emic/Etic concept.Pike (1967) defined the terms etic and emic as “etic viewpoint studies behavior as from outside of a particular system,” while the “emic viewpoint results from studying behavior as from inside the system” (p.37). Pike wanted to move from etics to emics.
There is a debate about the validity of using an emic approach in seeking to understand a culture on its own terms. In fact, this debate is behind the development of ethnoscience worldwide. What is often missed in the debate is the reality that all forms of science are emic in that whatever frameworks or structures are developed are developed from the emic perspectives of a specific culture. They merely become etic once applied to another culture.
Bennagen (1980) discusses the “Asianization” of anthropology “to help strengthen Asia’s rightful claim to its heritage as well as to its visions of man, society and culture” (p. 1; see also Mendoza, 2016).
Geertz (Geertz 1973b) championed what some have called an “actor-centered view is central to Geertz’s work, however, it was never developed into an actual theory or model” (Hudson et al, 2009).
Harris (1976) adapted Pike’s terms. For him, emic was the focus on a single culture while etic was the “comparison of two or more cultures as a means of identifying common characteristics” (Olive, 2014). Harris saw emics and etics as equally valid – there was no advantage to be gained from an etic approach and thus no need to try to discover the emic.
He has an example the difference between an emic and an etic understanding of male to female cattle ratios in India. Approaching the issue from an emic perspective, Harris says that locals identify the causes of higher mortality of male calves is due to a variety of naturally-occurring causes. Approaching the issue from an etic perspective, however, causes Harris to ascertain that higher male calf mortality is due to the locals’ manipulation of naturally-occurring events that are economically determined. Harris’ conclusion is that by relying solely on an emic approach, the researcher misses the etic realities of what he calls “bovicide.”
I suggest that another factor may be at play here. Harris’ emic reasons for the ratio include “that males ate less than the females…. because they were not permitted to stay at the other’s teats for more than a few seconds” (p. 33). I find the words “not permitted” to be telling because here we have the locals themselves giving the reasons for why the male calves die. It seems that Harris didn’t follow up on this clue to discover what else the locals might want to tell him about this process.
An indigenous approach here might be helpful. Enriquez (1994) discusses pakikipagkapwa, or Filipino interpersonal relations, as divided into two categories — Ibang-Tao [“outsider”] and Hindi-Ibang-Tao [“literally “not-‘other’-person” and therefore an insider”] each in turn divided into several other stages (see also Pe-Pua et al, 2000; Lapiz, 2010, refers to these as Tagalabas [“From the outside”] and Tagaloob [“From the inside”], respectively). Information passed from one person to another varies based upon the relationship between the two parties. If the two parties are in the Ibang-Tao category the informant will seek to pass on information that they perceive to be what the researcher wants to hear. If the two parties are Hindi-Ibang-Tao, then the information passed on more accurately reflects the reality. Pe-Pua et al recommend that “the first level under Hindi-Ibang-Tao, which is pakikipagpalalgayan-loob (level of mutual trust, understanding, rapport) should be reached, at the minimum, in order to be assured of good quality data” (Pe-Pua et al, 2000, p. 59).
Another hallmark of Filipino communication is pahiwatig [“hint”], or indirect communication. According to Maggay (2002) “ang pahiwatig marahil ang pinakalaganap at maaaring masabing pinakabuod ng ating kulturang pangkomunikasyon” [“the hint is perhaps the most widespread and possibly the best summary of our culture of communication”] (p. 24). It is also defined as “hindi tuwirang pagpapahayag sa isang bagay, idea, o saloobin” [“a thing, idea, or thought is not revealed in a direct manner”] (UPDF) or as “di tuwirang pagpapaabot ng mga mensahe” [“messages are not delivered in a straight way”] (Maggay, 2002, p. 24). Information is revealed over a period of time and is not given all at once. The pahiwatig is an invitation for the researcher to dig deeper to find out the truth that is not yet fully revealed. Jocano (1999) speaks of a multilevel process of communication starting with pahiwatig [“hinted at”], moving through pabatid [“informed about”], and finally into pahayag [“revealed”]. Thus discovering truth in the Philippine context is an extended affair as layer after layer of truth is slowly revealed as the relationship between the researcher and the researched draw ever closer together.
Now granted, Harris’ example is from India that may have different cultural norms from the Philippines, but that doesn’t belie the fact that there was “truth” in the emic investigation that Harris perhaps didn’t explore fully. Harris’ own example shows that the locals did reveal the cause of the ratio (i.e. “males …. not permitted” to eat) but there is no evidence that Harris pursued the conversation to it’s fullest extent.
Thus in Harris’ example above, the farmers themselves are revealing the reality behind the ratio differences in an indirect way and inviting him to discover more through further communication.
I argue that an indigenous approach to the issue would have led to Harris’ realization that the locals were in-fact telling him the reasons for cattle ratios but that his framework was unable to adequately aid him in this discovery. Thus his use of an etic framework allowed him to see a disconnect between the ideology (killing cattle is prohibited) and economy (cows are more economically advantageous than bulls) of his subjects in India. Imagine the study Harris could have had in discovering in partnership with the locals their strategies for dealing with the needs of both their ideological system and their economic system!
The emic approach and Philippine studies of masculinity. The emic approach is common in Philippine studies.
Pingol (2001), in her study of Ilocano men, states that she want to focus “more on emic rather than etic – the men’s understanding of themselves, how they construct themselves, how they remain men in their own eyes, or as viewed by their relatives and their community” (p. 16).
Zialcita (2005) also takes an emic approach because it “looks at the data from the point of view of the actor; it seeks to understand in their own terms the reasons advanced by the actor for his thinking and acting” (Kindle location 1924).
Mojares (2006), in his discussion of trying to recreate the way early Filipinos thought, struggled with the pull of emic and etic. He talked of trying to find a middle ground between “a facile universalizing and the exoticizing of difference; between the location out of which we are speaking and that ‘nation’ we are moving towards; between the need for political constructions and the awareness of their fictive character; between the claim to moral ascendancy and the practical requirements of power; and between the importance of the ‘native’s point of view’ and the dangers of turning it into a fetish” (p. 7)
Moving into our present study, Houtman offers insights into understanding religiosity without using the frameworks developed by organized religions.
Emic, Etic and our Problem. Houtman (2014) suggests that the study of religion can benefit from an emic approach. Rather than focusing on general definitions researchers should instead “let those under study decide whether and how religion is ‘real’ or ‘unreal’. It is they who can tell researchers in what sense they consider themselves ‘religious’ and/or ‘spiritual’, what exactly this means for them, and whether and how all this drives their behavior beyond the strictly private realm” (p. 20).
There are in existence in the Philippines a variety of sets of preconceived notions of what it means to be a man or to even be a godly man. These have been formulated in the various world religions that have taken hold in the Philippines, especially Christianity and Islam. Christianity can be further subdivided into two sometimes-opposing conceptualizations that need to be understood on their own. A look at the intersections between maka-Diyos, and pagkalalaki would benefit from an emic approach. However, this study’s desire for an emic approach to the issue of Filipino male spirituality is not so much a desire to ignore external structures and definitions and to favor indigenous structures and systems. Rather it is based on a desire to discover what, in fact, these indigenous emic structures and systems are. To date there has been very little work done to develop a philosophy or a theology connected with Filipino male spirituality.
Criticisms of Emic-Etic approaches.There are no pure cultures and thus no pure emic-etic divide. All cultures use their own frameworks to evaluate the things they experience and sometimes these frameworks are in an etic form and sometimes in an emic form.
As Guillermo (2003) said, having too much focus on the emic removes any reason for interpretation to begin with. “The complete unification of the consciousness of the social scientist with an increasingly transparent object of analysis would be none other than the end of hermeneutics itself.” Which raises the question of for whom is the interpretation? It implies a cross-cultural facet that is essential to the process. Certainly someone within the culture is in no need of a hermeneutical framework but also someone who is completely outside of a culture can use no other framework than the one she brings with her. Of course, this is beside the point that no culture is pure or unsullied from outside influences. The key is finding a balance between the two that allows each side to see the other’s perspective and perhaps gain some understanding on their own. Thus, there must be a dialogic aspect to research.
But the fact that there is cultural relativity (ala Franz Boas) implies that some level of hermeneutics is needed in understanding what one sees. For example, the sight of two men walking down the street hand-in-hand has different meanings in different parts of the world. Growing up in Canada two males holding hands was undeniable evidence that the two were in a homosexual relationship. However in the Philippines best friends not only hold hands but walk unashamedly down the street with their arms around one another shoulders. It is only through dialogue between etic and emic actors that one can determine the hermeneutical key. The goal of balancing the emic with the etic guides this research into a specific series of frameworks.
I propose that seeking the insider view is a key part of church ministry. Only by having conversations with others can we discover our own blind spots and find ways to connect in meaningful ways with others.
1. The history of term Filipino is long and storied and beyond the scope of this paper. Coupled with this is the terms’ grammatical gender: Filipino refers to males and Filipina refers to females. Thus the term “Filipino male spirituality” is technically redundant. However since this redundancy is not necessarily seen nor understood outside of the Philippine context, for clarity this paper will use the term Filipino to denote people from the Philippines, regardless of their gender.
Houtman, D. (2014, September). Pure religion and real sacrality: Authenticating Religionbeyond Institutions and Traditions. Paper prepared for the summer seminar: Religion and Culture in a Globalized World, Questioning our Research Frames, University Centre Saint Ignatius Antwerp (UCSIA) University of Antwerp.
Pe‐Pua, R., & Protacio‐Marcelino, E. A. (2000). Sikolohiyang Pilipino (Filipino psychology): A legacy of Virgilio G. Enriquez. Asian Journal of Social Psychology, 3(1), 49-71. doi: 10.1111/1467-839X.00054
Pike, K. L. (1967). Etic and emic standpoints for the description of behavior. In K. L. Pike, (Ed.), Language in Relation to a Unified Theory of the Structure of Human Nature. The Hague: Mouton de Gruyter, 37-72. doi: 10.1515/9783111657158.37
Pingol, A. T. (2001). Remaking masculinities: identity, power, and gender dynamics in familieswith migrant wives and househusbands. Quezon City: UP Center for Women’s Studies.
Zialcita, F. N. (2005). Authentic Though Not Exotic: Essays on Filipino Identity. Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University. Kindle version.
Arceno says, “It should be noted that there is a misconception that ‘virtual reality’ is not ‘real’. This terminology is misleading. For example, we can have “real meetings” with “real people” in ‘real-time’ — and just because the medium is Google Meet in cyberspace — does not make the meeting, people, or experience any less ‘real’ than one conducted in a physical room. It is a real meeting. This analogy can be applied to ‘Virtual Church’, ‘Virtual Baptism’, and ‘Virtual Communion’.”
This blending of the virtual and the real can be confusing at times and I do wonder if we resist virtual methods that are new. After all, it does seem to me that there are certain virtual activities that are considered real. I wonder if there was resistance to these activities when they first came on the scene.
Here is a list of normal activities that are also virtual activities (Some of these examples may show my vintage):
When you call on the telephone a girl to ask her on a date, that’s virtual. I remember talking for hours on our technologically-advanced phone — it had an extremely long curly cord that allowed me to find someplace private to talk. Likewise, when you talk for hours on the phone with your significant other, that’s virtual — but it’s also real.
When you read a book and get drawn into the story or into a conversation with the author, that’s virtual. When we read good books we experience the whole realm of emotions and we get drawn into the story. The story may be fictional but the emotions we experience as we read them are very real.
Love letters are virtual and have gone through changes over the years. Where it used to be a physical letter, written on paper, using special inks and scents, it can now be electronic — emails, FB messages, chat boxes, or texts. I spent many hours both writing and reading love letters while treeplanting in Northwestern Ontario and it was those letters that helped me maintain my relationship with my (future) wife. Of course I made some mistakes: Can you believe that I actually corrected her grammar using red ink? Good thing that she saw past that and agreed to marry me anyway.
Virtual has taken on new significance during the pandemic. Which brings me to a question asked by Arnold Cubos, one of my students at SEATS. He asked, “Is there a qualitative difference between the gospel presented online vs face-to-face?” I posted the question on Facebook and was intrigued by Mike’s and Robert’s responses
Robert Brown answered: “Only if you limit the work of the Holy Spirit or you limit the efficacy of God’s Word.”
Mike Swalm answered: “The qualitative difference in my mind is the relative inability to inhabit and embody the gospel online (truly embody). While i recognize and understand the hybridization of life (and rebel against it, truthfully), there is an embodied aspect to the gospel (think “bearing witness”) that I think cannot truly obtain online. I recognize various arguments insisting on the burgeoning online “space” as a place of true vulnerability, but without true embodiment, I see a lack. Can the gospel be “presented” online? Certainly. Can it truly be embodied? To a lesser degree, in my view.”
I think the answer lies in a combination of the two. Mike’s “embodiment” reminds me of the incarnation, which is the embodiment of the Word of God. John writes that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” But it’s the word “Word” that connected with me in this context. Is there a connection between the living Word and the written word and is that embodiment? Jesus was only physically present on earth for just over 30 years so today we don’t have any physical connection with him. We may have a spiritual connection with him. We may have an emotional connection with him. We may trust him as our saviour. We read his words and recorded by the Gospel writers but we only hear his words as read and expounded through others. I guess that’s what we mean when we say the church is Christ’s body.
But how is that embodiment governed today? Here is where Robert’s answer comes into play: The Holy Spirit is our guide today. The gospel is embodied in us through the guidance of the Holy Spirit. I guess I should admit here that for me as a Baptist, this dependence upon the Holy Spirit rather than a clearly thought out statement of faith or theological system is scary. But it appears to be what the Bible teaches.
So what does all this mean in today’s world of virtual church activities? Is embodiment possible through the binary code that runs the internet? Is there something to be learned about Jesus and the Holy Spirit through the networked nature of online? Can social media truly provide the social connections that we as humans crave? More importantly, how can Jesus be experienced through what we are doing today? How is Jesus present?
I guess a harder question to answer is was what we were doing before an effective way of embodying Jesus? Was Jesus present or did we merely present him then? How? In what ways? Or were we merely interested in informing people about Jesus? Does virtual + church help us or hinder us in this task?
What is your favourite real activity that just happens to be virtual?
Feedback is always welcome!
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Reflection is good for the soul because it causes us to look back on events that we normally view on default and look at them with new eyes. Canada Day is one of these things, especially in light of a recent push to reconcile history with the past. Even using the term “default” is actually problematic because what may be default thinking for me is different for someone else. The history that I read may be different from the history someone else reads. My understanding of the past is also almost certainly different from the actual past.
Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission identified the residential school system as a form of cultural genocide. What we are beginning to realise is that some form of physical genocide may also have been happening. Certainly the past was a lot more dangerous than the present, with diseases like TB and the influenza pandemic of 1918 taking many lives, but there are also documented cases of abuse and death at the very hands of those entrusted with the care of these young First Nations children. What makes things worse is that it doesn’t seem to be merely a government issue (and governments do tend to be animal-like), but also a church issue. This is because churches were an integral part of the Residential School system.
So what is the answer? I think it lies in the concepts of Truth, reconciliation, and repentance.
Truth. This is the debate between history and the past (that I have discussed elsewhere). In a nutshell, history is “texts” about the past from a certain perspective. Texts can include writing of course but can also include any aspect of society (citation) including statues, memorials, and events like Canada Day. The past is the actual events that have happened and are being interpreted when doing history. History changes all the time as new perspectives create new interpretations but the past remains the same.
Reconciliation, or restoring relationships, is supposed to be a major part of the church. After all, God has given the church the “ministry of reconciliation.” Relationships need to be restored people and God but relationships between people and other people also need restoration. The church has emphasised the first aspect throughout the years — and in many ways this emphasis may have led to the residential school disaster by ignoring God’s command to love our neighbour as we love ourselves — but hasn’t worked as hard on the restoration of interpersonal relationships. We haven’t been as good at this part as we could have been.
“What about forgiveness?” some may ask. Forgiveness does need to happen, as Matt Stovall, writing from a First Nations’ perspective, points out in his great FB post on this. However, forgiveness works best when it is coupled with repentance, which means the church, as the offending party, needs to repent and ask forgiveness.
So what needs to be reflected upon this Canada Day? Where does reconciliation need to happen? Where does truth need to be reevaluated? How can I ask forgiveness?
On Canada Day, let’s reflect on the church and repent of our sins. It’s quite simple. For church insiders there is a wide range of church types and theologies, that are unknown and even meaningless to church outsiders. The specific churches involved in the Residential School System cannot be separated in people’s minds from the idea of “church.” As I have said elsewhere, “even if we weren’t physically present during these atrocities, we are still complicit in them because people bearing Jesus’ name did these things. Don’t we also bear Jesus name?” So as churches we need to seek ways to ask forgiveness. We need to reflect on the theologies that we hold that led to the whole Residential School system. We need to find ways to connect with First Nations People. We need to reflect on what repentance looks like for you and me.
On Canada Day, let’s reflect on Truth and repent of the untruths and half-truths we have believed instead. I have written elsewhere on truth. Suffice it to say, none of us has a complete understanding of absolute truth. Don’t get me wrong— I do believe in absolute truth but at best I can say we are approaching absolute truth. That means that part of the way forward includes reflecting on the truths that I know and how those truths coincide with the truths that others know and changing our truths so the future is better than the past.
There are many examples of ministry from afar. The Bible itself reflects the reality that much of ministry is from afar because the entire scripture is written. We don’t have direct access to the Biblical writers other than through their writings. This means that it was intended to be read in a variety of locations and often without the presence of the human author.
Old Testament Prophets. There is a distinction in the Bible between the prophet and Prophet. “Prophet” refers to the book written by the “prophet” (VanGemeren, 2010). This means that while the people living at the same time as the prophet were able to hear directly from him or her, the majority of people can access the prophet’s voice through the written Prophet. It is also important to note that these prophets had oracles for many nations other than simply for Israel. How were these messages from God supposed to arrive in these various nations if not through a process of isolation and then presentation? These nations are somewhat isolated from the prophets’ messages, but they were able to access these messages through the Prophets once they were written down.
God’s 450 years of silence. There are also examples of when God is silent in the Bible. Ex 2:23-25. But God still hears when people call on him. The 450 years between the testaments. God is silent but eventually answers.
Jesus in the Grave. Jesus was isolated in the grave, but he still ministered to the souls in hell. That’s why we have a Sabado de Gloria to celebrate Jesus’ ministry to those who had been condemned.
Paul. We don’t know Paul personally. Rather, we know Paul via his writings. That is a form of distant communication. If Paul hadn’t been isolated, he wouldn’t have needed to write the various parts of the New Testament that he wrote, and we would have nothing today to base our faith upon.
Biblically, times of isolation are both normal and essential for the future of the church. Which leads us to this question: Will that also be the effect of the COVID-19 lockdowns that are continuing to happen around the world? Will these lockdowns provide opportunity for us to contribute to the future of the church through writing, recording, or posting online? Will the church continue? Will the church grow? All because of this quarantine? What are we doing to ensure the church lives on? During this time, we long for the return to our buildings, our return to mass gatherings, our return to the way things were. But these are not essential to our existence as Christians. What is essential is that the message of the Good News of Jesus Christ continues to be spread throughout our communities and throughout the world. And this will happen through the crisis and associated quarantine.