Saturday, January 30, 2010

Cultural Faith

My train travel companion for nearly 34 hours was a Wing Commander in the Indian Air Force.  From Chennai to New Delhi the WC talked almost non-stop.  Thank goodness he did rest long enough to let us get some sleep in the night.  Interesting fellow, nevertheless, and I found him a very likeable person.

As usual, when people ask me what I do for a living the discussion turns toward philosophy and religion.  As a teacher in intercultural studies it’s impossible not to touch on faith as it is a part of worldview, values and a whole host of other issues.  And, like most people,  WC wanted to tell me more about his views on these matters than listen to mine.  I find such encounters interesting and see them as learning moments of culture and people.  What I learned from the WC was that he is basically an agonistic, has always grown up with wealth and privilege, enjoys his family (2 kids, one wife), has no real financial worries now or in the future, likes to drink, smoke and play golf.  He is a “clean shaven” Sikh, married to a Hindu and will go to the temple or Gurdwara  only if he has to.  The WC is the classic case of cultural faith.

Sometime back I met an American who who had visited India.  As we talked he said he just couldn’t understand how reasonable, intelligent people can worship idols.  I reminded him that every faith looks and feels weird to non-believers.  Jesus certainly seems like a strange myth to Hindu’s. He confessed that he, too, had problems with the Lord’s death and resurrection.  After my train ride I thought that of that conversation with the American and that he is probably not any different than the WC – a product of cultural faith.

Yesterday I was reading a blog of someone I know in the U.S. who is now living with a man though not yet divorced.  Her comment was that she knows that she is living in sin, but she is so happy.  The assumption is if you’re happy God doesn’t care, but why would she admit she was living in sin?  Is the faith of a Christian so anemic that we can by-pass morality, or has cultural religious relativism so permeated our thinking that it’s not really what God thinks that is important but how I think He should think about my faith, no matter how I behave?

And what about my own faith?  Do I truly believe that this Jesus I proclaim is so necessary for all humanity it’s worth being away from my family half of each year?  Or am I just a religious coolie peddling my wares for a monthly income?  Am I, also, such a product of my culture that I only see God’s hand when it suits my taste, or is He a part of the process of my life trying to break through my cultural bias and assumptions?  The greater question, am I (or you) a product and part of a Divine intervention that through time and space is a great narrative for all eternity to observe?  Or like so many, am I, we, just a result of cultural faith, blissfully ignorant of eternal reality, hoping for the best?

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Missionary Training

I received a note from a mission’s leader doing a survey on missionary training.  This was his question:

“If you were sitting in a room with five missionary trainers, what would you ask them?”

No way am I going to ask ONE question.  How about one question for each trainer. 

First - How practical is your missionary training?  Is it just a syllabus or does it actually help missionaries in their spiritual growth, planting the church or communicating the Gospel to non-believers?  Okay, I understand the need to know how to fill out a financial report to the office or how to write a letter to donors, but is that really what they need on the field? Most “training” in mission organizations today is a two-week orientation on how to work within the system.  What does your training do to help people make a difference in another culture? 

Second - How do you measure training effectiveness?  Of course one must also ask, is the training affective or effective?  What is the goal?  Church planting…how many churches planted?  Reaching the unreached…how many home meetings have been established?  Most training is “affective,” i.e. the emotional needs of people (their own spiritual growth, interpersonal relationships, family and marriage seminars).  All good stuff and needed, but is that the only thing that is taught in training?  Effective training is the operational, the task of what we are suppose to be doing on the field (reaching Muslims, Hindu’s, people who live in urban centers, working among tribal’s).  Does your training actually help people know what to do or say when they are working among the unreached?

Third - How truly contextual is the training?  Is your model of church planting, leadership development, appropriate technology, your BAM (business as mission) program relevant to the host culture?  Or, is it just another good idea that worked in one part of the world but doesn’t have relevance anywhere else?  People don’t need “principles” that work everywhere, because, frankly, they don’t.  Muslims in Senegal are not the same as in Turkey.  Training needs to be culturally/contextually specific.

Fourth - What success do you have in convincing people they need training?  People are taught/trained in every professional field in the marketplace, or at least they should be.  How does one convince people going cross-culturally that what they will do is so important they DARE NOT go without preparation?

Fifth - What organization has the best training and why?  The best organization I knew mandated training, focused on the real needs of missionary preparation and made it cost effective for them to get that training.  They’ve lost their way and now it cost more to go to their training than to a seminary for the same course.  Missionaries resist training, primarily, because of two things:  Time and money.  Solve the time/money problem; make the training practical and meaningful, and PERHAPS more people will be willing to be equipped for cross-cultural work (though it will still be a hard sell).

Those are my questions for missionary trainers.  What’s yours?

Sunday, January 17, 2010

When God Pulled The Curtain

As I walked to lunch, about 1 pm, I noticed that it was much cooler than when I went to teach my class an hour before.  The sun was shining, but it was not bright with very few clouds in the sky.  Strange.  It wasn’t until I was returning to my room that I learned that India was experiencing an annular eclipse, the longest solar eclipse of the millennium.  I turned on a local TV channel and heard the reports of the eclipse from cities in the north and south.  In Haridwar, near the Ganges River, 1 million people gathered to take a “holy dip” after the eclipse, while in Bangalore, school children were out of the classroom looking through any dark negative they could find to gaze at the “ring of fire,” as it wasn’t a total eclipse.

India is a country that is ripe with myth, folklore and superstition.  Astrologers do a brisk business every day, but Friday they surely did well as they interpreted the occasion of this solar phenomenon.  Here are some of the myths from Friday’s episode.

• It’s believed that god (they didn’t say which one and there are 300 million of them) pulled the curtain on the world to collaborate with other deities, leaving the earth in darkness.

• If you have made food that day it was no longer fit to eat and poisoned.  To take out the poison one should put grass in it, or better yet, throw it out.  No one should eat during the time of the eclipse. 

• If a woman is pregnant she should certainly stay inside until after the eclipse as the baby will surely have a birth defect if out in the open at this time.

• The devout should pray to their gods, saying as many mantras as they can think of, during an eclipse.

• Taking a dip in the Ganges after the eclipse is believed to remove sin from the dipee. 

The eclipse took place when, here in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, the people were celebrating Pongal, the harvest festival.  Since the eclipse took place during this sacred time some astrologers have determined that this will be an inauspicious year, not the best year for weddings or business.

Of course not all Indians are bound by these myths.  In the IT capital of Bangalore not only did young people not refrain from eating, while gazing at the sun they had tea and snacks and the ice cream vendor did zesty business.



Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Filtered Comments

A few days back I received a comment from “anonymous.”  I filter comments as some people use other people’s blog sites to advertise or promote something that has nothing to do with anything I have written.  I am not looking for comments that only agree with my point of view and, though “anonymous” had some valid points, the way it was written was inflammatory.  Using words to describe other religions as satanic or evil is not something I do, so I passed on letting others read what this nameless person had to say on my blog.

I realize that many people do not approach other religions the same way I do.  My approach is to respect other people views, which some consider compromise, at best, universalism at worse.  Probably 99.9% of the people who read my blog are believers of a particular religion in which they were born.  I realize my evangelical and fundamentalist friends will make a distinction, and rightly so, that being a follower of Jesus is a matter of choice (through faith) and not a religion one is born into. But the reality is that of the 99.9% of those who read this blog are not converts from another religion.  Most of you have never been ostracized for embracing another faith, faced the loss of inheritance, had your life threatened or caused shame to their parents.  We are all CULTURALLY BOUND, and where we are born does make a difference on whether we are Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist or Christian.  I respect people of different faiths, not because of their beliefs, but because they hold something dear to them that is a part of who they are as a people.  As I would like people of a different faith to respect my beliefs and not say ugly things about my Savior, I want to extend that same courtesy to others. 

That is not to say that I believe other religions are on par with Christianity.  Christ Jesus is unique and I believe He is the only way to salvation.  Jesus is more than a prophet and not just one of many gods.  I believe that unless one accepts Jesus for who He is they have no hope for eternal life.  However, as I reject the offense comments of some Muslims who call us “infidels,” I do not want to call every Muslim a jihadists nor every Hindu wicked idol worshipers.  Why?  Because in presenting the Gospel to unbelievers we must understand that they believe what they believe because they (1) were born into that faith without real consideration of their belief and, (2) they really don’t understand the message of Chris and His salvation.  Our role as believers is to build bridges for the Gospel, not destroy communication with fiery rhetoric. 

I welcome your comments.  You can be as kind or ugly to me as you wish and you will get a fair hearing.  If you want to use this blog to flay away at others who do not yet know Him, then I suggest you create your own blog site and please, do it openly, not anonymously.