But What Stays the Same?

(Continued from Monday.)

When I consider the forces that have influenced and continue to affect world Christianity, I am reminded that such developments need not always be negative.  While the dangers of illegitimate religious types-of-theology1combination (i.e. so much mixing or religious syncretism that Christianity adopts practices, outlooks, or beliefs which at heart contradict key aspects of the faith) are real, this is not the only narrative at work.  For inasmuch as Christianity can be derailed from its broadly held orthodoxy it can also be powerfully impacted by cultures, customs, and ideas without losing its path.

Translation is the name of the game here.  As the Church is adapted into other languages, styles, places, and people groups, it by necessity is translated into those contexts in myriad ways.  As Christ is apprehended in such places, He is understood as unchanging Truth by means of new language.  Missionaries have engaged in such work for centuries.  They continue to this day.  Sometimes such work can, far from “polluting” the faith, actually illumine some powerful realities others have forgotten.

And yet: the translation inherent in cross-cultural work brings with it a unique set of challenges.  For while such a process can help newcomers understand what Christianity is all about, the very process of translation almost by necessity changes things.  No two languages or cultures are alike, and different languages have words and nuance that are not replicated in others.  Translation is therefore a “best guess” or approximation of meaning.  Because it is inexact, it leaves, adds, and alters meaning.static1.squarespace.com

Can we accept this?  Well, I submit that we have to.  After all, I’m a beneficiary of such translation (language and culture) as I live out my own Christianity.  I, like you, read the Bible in a language and in a culture drastically different from the world from which it derives.  I’ve studied some Greek and Hebrew, certainly.  But I am far from an expert.  Even then, I do not understand it as a native speaker would in that time and place.  As I read the Bible, my context necessarily alters some of its meaning.  While I trust the divergence is so great that I’m at risk of departing from orthodox Christianity, I would be a fool to deny that my language and culture does not affect my faith.

While most believers’ (myself included) day-to-day interactions with Christianity can be discernibly orthodox, there is always the danger that things could diverge too far.  One of the reasons we need Bible scholars, teachers, and preachers is to help us understand more about the teachings of Scripture–both as connected to the language and culture in which they were written and with regard to their present-day implications.  But even they cannot perform this work perfectly without flaw or limitation.

HolyTrinityWhat I’m talking about here goes beyond culture and language.  I believe that humanity itself–regardless of learning–is simply unable to understand certain divine realities as they actually are.  We are limited and God is infinite.  We are bounded and God is transcendent.

Consider the Trinity–a complex doctrine if there ever was one.  Trying to explain it feels a bit silly at times, always careening between denying distinction in the Godhead, asserting some kind of created Jesus/Holy Spirit, and/or developing a doctrine of three gods.  Because we know from Scripture that God is three in some way while still one, we have developed the idea of the Trinity to explain it.  Does our theology describe exactly how God works?  Almost certainly not.  It is our “best guess”.  I think it is a fair one, but even so is limited.

Translation in language and culture–or at a more basic level from the divine to human–is a part of the tension at work in a faith that is both particular (i.e. Jesus) and universal (evangelistically open to all) at the same time. Such translation can pollute, forcing us to ask real questions about whether or not our perceived faith is close to the heart of God.  Even so, an endless and obsessive search for some Platonic form of Christianity to the detriment of the good and faithful ways it is practiced and embodied the world over is, I think, unfortunate.  Many of these ways are–like our articulation of the Trinity–limited and imperfect, but they are nevertheless representative of our “faith seeking understanding”.  As they remain grounded in Scripture and orthodox tradition and aware of the movement of the Spirit of God in our world, they can be powerful aspects of our shared faith.  light_clouds

Difference can mean heresy, but it need not always.  Sometimes it is just difference.

In the end, Church history helps me by aware of the diversity with Christianity, both in terms of its dangers and potential.  It also reminds me that, from Day One, Christianity has been about translation.  This means I need to be comfortable with it, at least at a certain level.  As missiologist Andrew Walls has written, “God chose translation as his mode of action for the salvation of humanity.  Christian faith rests on a divine act of translation…”

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Catching Fire Meets God

the-hunger-games-catching-fire-poster-header**Please note that this post contains SPOILERS for both the book and upcoming film Catching Fire.**

Today’s entry in the Catching Fire discussion reflects on what the book “has to do with God.”  We’re going to think about it theologically, in other words.  While this may seem a strange undertaking for a piece of popular young adult fiction, I think it is worthwhile.  For as much as the trilogy is a shiny piece of pop culture replete with teenage angst and not a little violence, it is also one which is rarely short on ideas.  Though I suspect it was not written with theology in mind, the themes upon which it does reflect have theological implications all the same (see, for instance, my previous thoughts on The Hunger Games).

Having re-read Catching Fire in preparation for classroom discussion and this week’s premiere, my biggest takeaway was a broad theological concept that manifests itself a number of different ways.  To put it briefly, the book made me think about sin.  Not the popular idea of “angering God,” but the notion of sin as degradation/depravity/fallenness.  Its effects upon individuals and societies make ours a broken world.  Katniss’s is no different.  As such, many of the reflections that follow revolve around this central theme.

  • In the first book, we see Katniss and other adolescents forced to fight for their lives.  They do so, I think, as a symbol and symptom of their broken world.  At the end of The Hunger Games, they have won.  That is, until we find out in Catching Fire that their fallen society is not done with them yet.  The twisted net of sin–one that all e06bb81dfe8fc93806caa232c3824809Hunger Games tributes are caught up in–will not let them go.  It keeps going.  It never ends.  Whether it be as popular entertainment or back in the arena, their sinful world is eating them alive.
  • Speaking of their broken world, one of the interesting things about Catching Fire is how we begin to see the layers of artifice in the society of Panem slowly start to be peeled back.  The first book presents us a society that works to maintain the outward appearance of at least political stability, even if it is predicated upon yearly violence.  As sick as it is, the Hunger Games system is just how it works.  Districts go along with it for the most part.  The Capitol is happy.  Things move on.  In this second book, though, the hidden and deeply broken elements of their monstrous society are laid bare more and more.  Rebellion brewing.  Violent repression.  Warnings from the President.  This was never a world in equilibrium and we always knew that; we’re just seeing that more clearly now.  Understood in light of the Scriptural message, is ours any different?
  • One of Christ’s appellations is the “Prince of Peace.”  Looking at the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount, not to mention the way in which His work was accomplished–not by the sword but through suffering and humility–many have looked to Christ’s model as one of nonviolence.  In some ways, I think that there is a sense that nonviolence is what Katniss hunger-games-catching-fire-pictures-38deeply desires in this trilogy. Sadly, though, this option is just not open to her.  In neither of the first two books is she a bloodthirsty killer, but all the same she is forced into violence in order to survive.  This presents an open question, theologically and philosophically: can violence ever be the ultimate solution to our problems?  Will it make things better or will it simply beget more violence?  Is this any way to solve things, or is this just the way our world tries to solve things?  The effects of using violence to achieved change and freedom in the society of Panem will be explored more in the book Mockingjay, but they are worth considering here.
  • As Catching Fire progresses, we the readers come to understand that Katniss Everdeen is becoming a powerful symbol of Panem’s resistance to its capital.  A symbol by which they will fight.  Her actions in standing up to the Capitol in The Hunger Games inspired many.  While her little trick with the berries was, I would submit, a kind of non-violence or passive resistance, the spirit of said resistance is being co-opted, even as she is, for something much more severe.  In the same way, there was always the danger that Christ’s mission–in his own lifetime and ours–might be co-opted towards much more nefarious purposes.  That the gospel (literally “good news”) of Katniss is being used in such a violent way is haunting indeed.catching-fire-character-poster-mags
  • One of the “holiest” moments in the first book was Katniss’s funeral for her fallen friend Rue.  Here, though, I would say that the two moments provided by an 80-year old participant in the arena serve this function.  The first is one we only hear about: on the day of the reaping, a younger woman is chosen to return to the Games.  On that day old Mags steps up to take her place.  Second, during the Games themselves there is a scene when the old lady is slowing down her companions and decreasing their chances for survival.  Rather than do so, she walks headlong into death to set them free.  Sacrifice, surely.
  • Lastly, a bit of a “reach.”  In my discussion of The Hunger Games, I posited Katniss as a type of Christ.  Fair enough.  Here, though, she is almost a kind of Mary, we might say.  Called to serve a cause greater than herself at a young age, she is the sign of a new state of affairs.  The metaphor breaks down, though: she unlike Mary is not particularly willing, and the stakes are not exactly the same.  She does, nevertheless, like the Virgin become an icon for devotion and fervor.

Another Adventure

tumblr_mh75iieTjY1rt93y0o1_500After over five months of radio silence, the forthcoming semester has drawn me forth once again.

Today is the first day of classes here at Northwest University.  Another year of teaching–and learning–await us all.  This will be my third year as a full-time professor at the school.  I’d like to say I have finally figured it all out and that the semester will be a “breeze,” but that’s not the case.  At least not this year.

Lots of challenges await, and I welcome them.  The challenges of teaching, reading, writing, learning, growing, knowing, and so much more.  Forgiving and being forgiven.  Humbling and being humbled.  Reflecting–sometimes quickly, sometimes deeply on the things that cross my path.

By means of an opening to this new season of reflection, let me relate a scene that played out in my front yard just this pastP1011375.JPG Saturday.  My wife and I were stacking some firewood in the garage, when all of a sudden a very well-dressed pair stopped by to chat with us about their church.  I figured they were members of an LDS (Mormon) congregation, but I wasn’t quite sure after a few minutes.  By the time they were on their way and had left me some of their material, I discovered that they were actually another somewhat heretical offshoot of Christianity: Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Putting aside for the moment the theological differences represented that morning, the episode mostly makes me think about evangelism and what it means to “share your faith.”  Though the Jehovah’s Witnesses and my own co-religionists differ in their beliefs, what they share is a desire to reach into the world and make disciples.

How we go about this task is important, though.

Flash back to the moment in my front yard when they walked over.  I was busy.  I was working.  This was the weekend.  I didn’t want to have this conversation.  My guard went up instantly, and I have at least some fascination with the historical and theological background of religions, cults, and sects.  Imagine how the rest of the neighborhood felt.  Was this really the best way to share their faith?

Though orthodox Christians have a life-changing gospel to offer, many of us don’t do much better.  We can mistake just telling people about Jesus–whether they want to hear it or not–as having best represented Him.  We take pride, at times, when people reject us.  EvangelistGoing door to door, passing out tracts, street preaching….these are time-honored approaches.  But do they make a difference?  They have had, for some, no doubt,  Very positive differences.  But on the whole are they helping?  Do they simply make us feel better about ourselves for having taken some fire and checked a box in the “Christian responsibilities” list or are  they actually what we are called to do?

If we’re just annoying people with our tactics, irrespective of our message, are we really sharing the full gospel?  Is the way we might go about such things antagonistic to those who hear or genuinely genuine?  Because if my guard went up when I saw those erstwhile missionaries that morning, wouldn’t others respond similarly if they saw me walking over with a Bible and a far-too-easy smile?

Understanding that our responsiblity as Christians is to share the love of God in all ways, I wonder what the best approach to doing so really is.  As we all continue to progress to the middle of the 21st century, we ought to take some time to consider this.

I welcome your responses.  Here’s to a new year of reflection!

By the Waters of Babylon

In my Church History I course, we’re currently focused on the first few centuries of Christian history–a time when the status and security of early believers was anything but secure.  Surrounded by a hostile Roman Empire that neither understood or appreciated them, Christians of the first century were the subject of disgust and disdain.  Rumors about them were spread impugning the Faith and Christians were sporadically persecuted and harassed.  Some even paid the ultimate price of martyrdom.

During the Church’s infancy, Christian believers had little trouble remembering some of what we have forgotten.  In words made immortal in the book of I Peter, we are told the following:

Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul.  Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us. (I Peter 2:11-12)

Exiles.  Foreigners.  Christians are, in other words, not about what the world around them is about.  There is a difference.  Yet it is a difference that many in the Church forgot when, less than a generation after the fiercest Roman persecution ended, the Emperor Constantine himself because a Christian.  The Empire–and the lives of the faithful–changed forever.  In the centuries following, at least in the West, the line between the ways of the world and the ways of God were much less clear.

Yet in many ways we in the modern West now understand the exilic perspective of Christianity better than any generation since Constantine.  Christian exclusivity garners disdain, just as it did during Roman times.  Religious syncretism in various forms is a pervasive tendency.  The Church is derided (sometimes rightly, often wrongly) for being ignorant, hateful, and vile.  Once again, we realize we are exiles…and maybe, just maybe, we’ve been exiles the whole time.

Consider: the continued  removal of the veneer of “Christianness” from our society might actually be a good thing.  After all, do we really want “In God We Trust” plastered on our money?  Is this even true?  Has it ever been?  Do we want our politicians saying “God bless America” if they don’t even mean it?  Do God and politics ever mix?  As old and faulty assumptions fade, the distinctions the Scripture has no problem drawing may become a little clearer for all of us.  In the process it just might help us to lives our lives a little more humbly.

Like the early believers, we might then spend less time trying to maintain society’s adherence to the outward trappings we often assume are necessary, and more time as Christian witnesses, apologists, and servants in a world that will never be our home.

There are a host of issues a perspective like this raises…but surely it is worth considering, no?