Category Archives: Evangelism

The Evolutionary Gospel

If you are hoping or thinking that this post has to do with science and religion, then you best look elsewhere. This is a continuation of my previous post on what the Christian tradition in particular has to offer the world in terms of development work. The first post discussed the fact that Christianity has always been in translation across languages and cultures.

This brings up a second, related idea. As a tradition that inherently crosses borders and boundaries, it is one that is constantly changing and evolving based on the time and context. Some would like to think that the Bible itself is simply a static document that we can rely on because it is unchanging and constant. However, I think it’s clear that even within the boundaries of the biblical text the faith that begins with Abraham evolves and changes. Continue reading

What’s Wrong With the Red Cross?

Nothing, really. They do a lot of good. Just like a lot of secular NGOs all over the world. BUT they are not the church.

I recently taught a class at WHRI on missiology and development in which we explored (among many other issues) the tension between the needs present in the world and the fact that Christian mission has to be more than simply another development organization. Continue reading

The New World Religion

When considering a metaphor for describing a reality that is inherently difficult to grasp, it can be easy to lose your grip on the thing to which the metaphor points. The authors’ of Affluenza follow their metaphor closely and it works for the most part. The best part of their metaphor is that it makes the book more fun to read, gives it a hook and is actually helpful in understanding the reality of what the metaphor describes. I think the metaphor of consumerism as a disease remains helpful and describes an aspect of the reality that we might lose if we dismissed it completely.

As a theologian (aren’t we all), however, I am also interested in the idea that consumerism is a religious enterprise (that’s a simile, not a metaphor). William Cavanaugh has pointed out how notoriously difficult it is to define religion. He criticizes the work of many scholars of religion, pointing out that they often don’t abide by their own definitions. They are usually too broad or too narrow to be helpful either excluding examples most people consider religions like Buddhism or including things that most people would not consider religions like football (either American or soccer, both would fit).

The way I am thinking about religion is more on the broad side. Nevertheless, I feel the danger of being too broad and it becoming useless both as a definition and as a metaphor. There are difficulties here because there are other words used to describe similar phenomena. Ideology, culture and worldview attempt to describe some network of underlying beliefs or assumptions that animate, motivate or dictate someone or a community’s way of responding to the world. Ideology is similar to religious belief in that in its mature form it is something freely chosen and adopted as one’s own. Culture can also be similar to religious belief in that it arises in a social or communal context and involves the influence of the community. Some aspect of both are at play in consumerism. Worldview is perhaps the most similar, but attempts to encompass aspects outside of religion like culture that are at work in the way we perceive, interpret and respond to the world. Tomes have been written with various theories about all these words and what they mean.

In considering whether religion is an appropriate way of talking about consumerism, I am primarily concerned with the way that religion functions, particularly religions that claim a universal mission, such as Christianity, Islam or Mormonism. I could easily write a book in the vein of Affluenza, naming the high priests, describing the rites and rituals, basically making a comparison between something called religion and something else called consumerism. What I am more interested in is in what ways consumerism actually is a kind of religion. This is a more ambitious and difficult task, which is probably why I have only thrown out references to the idea without exploring it in depth yet.

It would be helpful first to unpack what exactly I am trying to understand in religious terms. Consumerism, or the consumer economy, are related to globalization, global economy, growth economy and perhaps also the idea of development. Almost all of these terms are somewhat vague. Therefore they will need some clarification in their definitions and relationships to each other. Globalization is the overarching concept that seems to encompass the others. It is the corollary to Christianity or Islam. Consumerism is the vehicle that spreads this religion, while the consumer or growth economy (and maybe even the idea of development) are the message, or gospel, that consumerism intends to spread in order to support this overarching project of globalization.

I hope to explore this more in depth in the future, but for now here are the features that I see these aspects of globalization sharing in common with religions, primarily the Abrahamic traditions of Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

  • Belief/Faith- As much as economists want their field to be a science it remains a field that relies on untested assumptions about how human beings behave and what is best for them and the world.
  • Universal Message- The message is for all people. Obviously not everyone agrees with the tenets of globalization and consumerism, but the belief is that everyone should.
  • Universal Mission- Because there are people who resist the message, or adhere to contradictory beliefs from other religions, there must be a mission, universal in scope, to convert people to the truth of these beliefs.
  • Evangelism- This grows out of the other three aspects, but it is important to recognize that those who believe in and practice this religion reveal it through their actions. Advertising executives, CEOs, government officials and even NGOs make statements and actions that reveal their assumptions and beliefs.

Of course this preliminary post only sets the stage and raises lots of questions. Here are some of my initial questions which come to mind:

  • Is there a distinction between those who are believers in this religion and those who participate unwittingly, a sort of cultural consumer (like cultural Christians, etc.)?
  • What are the origin stories/creation myths of globalization/consumerism?
  • What are the rites and rituals of this supposed religion? How do they function and relate to what we normally consider religions?
  • Is Global Consumer-anity in direct competition with the other religions? Is it functionally exclusive to other belief systems?
  • In what ways do we adhere to multiple belief systems simultaneously? Are there Christian, Islamic, Latin American, Russian, or indigenous versions of Global Consumer-anity? Do they compete with each other or on the level of Global Consumer-anity do they basically get along?

It’s clear that the same issues that are present in studying other religions arise when trying to understand the phenomenon of consumerism and globalization in these terms. How does this “religion” relate to other religions and across cultures? What are the different sects, denominations or cults within the religion? What are the orthodox teachings or doctrines? I hope I get to write this book someday. But if someone else beats me to it, I will just keep growing my own food and trying to need as little as possible.

Poop, Preaching and Pestilence

I love alliteration, and the above trio of words really does the trick. What could I possibly be talking about? And why on earth would they all start with the same letter? Some things may remain a mystery, but I will try and unmask this one.

As I read The Humanure Handbook, planned and built my own composting toilet system, I was struck by many of the connections the author made between composting your own excrement and spiritual matters. One of the biggest hurdles to humanure composting is that our own dung has a history of causing problems. It’s not really our scat that’s the problem, but how we choose to deal with the inevitable end product of eating and digestion. It turns out that Christianity has often been a part of perpetuating this sanitation problem.

Nearly twenty centuries since the rise of Christianity, and down to a period within living memory, at the appearance of any pestilence the Church authorities, instead of devising sanitary measures, have very generally preached the necessity of immediate atonement for offenses against the Almighty. In the principal towns of Europe, as well as in the country at large, down to a recent period, the most ordinary sanitary precautions were neglected and pestilences continued to be attributed to the wrath of God or the malice of Satan. (Andrew D. White, cofounder of Cornell University quoted in The Humanure Handbook 77)

Many will scoff at the silliness of our predecessors and shrug their shoulders. What else were they to do with their limited understanding of diseases at the time? Perhaps. But it seems to be an unfortunate tendency of our faith (and perhaps faith in general, or even more the human condition) to find convenient scapegoats for the problems that plague us. The best scapegoats are the ones beyond our control. It’s much harder to think critically about the world around us and try to solve problems together with others. Furthermore, Jenkins points out the hypocrisy of this blame game,

The pestilences at that time in the Protestant colonies in America were also attributed to divine wrath or satanic malice, but when the diseases afflicted the Native Americans, they were considered beneficial. ‘The pestilence among the Indians, before the arrival of the Plymouth Colony, was attributed in a notable work of that period to the Divine purpose of clearing New England for the heralds of the gospel.’ (79)

Yes, it is the tell tale sign that we are just making stuff up when we flip an argument on its head when it serves our purpose and then do some impressive mental gymnastics in order to make sense of our own schizophrenic attitudes. The problem here is basic sanitation and how to deal with our own droppings, but we easily muddy the waters with our beliefs by making it about religious nonsense. Lest we think that this is simply a mentality of a bygone era the author has an interesting interview with himself in the final chapter which includes this exchange,

Myself: To give you an example of how clueless Americans are about composting humanure, let me tell you about some missionaries in Central America.

Me: Missionaries?

MS: That’s right. A group of missionaries was visiting an indigenous group in El Salvador and they were appalled by the lack of sanitation. There were no flush toilets anywhere. The available toilet facilities were crude, smelly, fly-infested pit latrines… But they didn’t know what to do. So, they shipped a dozen portable toilets down there at great expense…Well, the village in El Salavador got the portable toilets and the people there set them up. They even used them – until they filled up. The following year, the missionaries visited the village again to see how their new toilets were working.

M: And?

MS: And nothing. The toilets had filled up and the villagers stopped using them. They went back to their pit latrines. [The portable toilets were] filled to the brim with urine and crap, stinking to high heaven, and a fly heaven at that. The missionaries hadn’t thought about what to do with the toilets when they were full. In the U.S., they’re pumped out and the contents taken to a sewage plant. In El Salvador, they were simply abandoned.

M: So what’s your point?

MS: The point is that we don’t have a clue about constructively recycling humanure. Most people in the U.S. have never even had to think about it, let alone do it. If the missionaries had known about composting , they may have been able to help the destitute people in Central America in a meaningful and sustainable way. But they had no idea that humanure is as recyclable as cow manure. (229-230)

While missionaries (which is an unfortunate and problematic term in itself) have adapted and changed in many ways, the Christianity that sends them forth into the world to spread the Gospel continues to be clueless about many things. Only nuts like Pat Robertson blame pestilence on God or Satan anymore, but we still haven’t grasped some basic concepts about the nature of God’s creation, such as nutrient cycles. What’s even more disturbing for me as a Christian is that it’s right there in our own Scripture.

Designate a place outside the camp where you can go to relieve yourself. As part of your equipment have something to dig with, and when you relieve yourself, dig a hole and cover up your excrement. (Deuteronomy 23:12-13)

Perhaps this is the first compost pile. The first practitioners of humanure composting may have been those wandering Israelites. While I don’t want to bring back stoning, this is one Old Testament law that we could benefit from keeping.

Is This Missions?

“What exactly will you be doing in Bolivia?” We’ve gotten that question often in the last couple months and still get it here in Bolivia. First, I’ll explain then wrestle with whether or not this is missions.

0.gifThe Job
We will be working with Low German Mennonites (LGM) in Bolivia on development issues and improving their agriculture. Low German is the language they speak and it actually predates German. It sounds nothing like German. They are Mennonites similar to the Amish, what we call Old Order Mennonites. They live in colonies throughout Bolivia, but mostly around the city of Santa Cruz. There are somewhere around 60 colonies and 45-50,000 LGM people.

I’m not an expert in their history and each colony has its own story. Generally though, they migrated from Europe, many from Russia during the Bolshevik uprising. Some migrated to Canada first and then made their way to Mexico, Belize, Paraguay and Bolivia. Others migrated directly to South America. So, they’ve been around a while.

When they first came to Bolivia, many of them were on the cutting edge of agriculture and were able to make land productive that Bolivians were not farming. Because they are very closed communities, over time they became stuck and now face many problems and are generally very poor. Their children are educated through 6th grade for girls and 7-8th grade for boys. Literacy is taught entirely in High German (what they speak in Germany) which they do not use except in worship using Luther’s translation of the Bible and their hymnbook. This means practically speaking they have a major literacy problem.

They have not kept up with soil conservation and erosion practices and often practice slash and burn agriculture. Because of droughts and some reluctance to use technologies like irrigation, they need alternatives that are not water intensive crops. There are theological reasons for why they shun technologies and do many of the things they do. The Amish Way is an excellent introduction to some of the Old Order practices and doctrines. I still have not met any of these people so much of my knowledge comes from others who know more than me or books.

So, my job will be something like getting to know these communities and helping them with their problems, improving agriculture, literacy, better marketing of their products, better relationships with Bolivians and the government. The question still lingers though, “Is this missions?” As always, I guess, it depends on your definition.

The Mission
For me, the mission of God, missio Dei, revealed in Scripture is a broad and inclusive thing that includes all nations, foreigners, eunuchs, marginalized and outsiders. It also includes more than just people (Ro 8:19-22; 2 Cor 5:19). God’s work in Christ was to redeem the whole world, including all of creation. Our job as Christians is to participate in the mission of God in the world. We have reduced that beautiful mission to winning converts to our team. The work of the Spirit transforming lives as they encounter the Risen Christ is part of this mission, but it is not the whole.

As Darell Guder has pointed out part of our mission is The Continuing Conversion of the Church. Let’s call this discipleship. Many of our problems (and the problems faced by the colonies) is a problem of discipleship. When we learn what it means to be followers of Jesus together in the Body and practice that in our lives, many of these other problems will go away.

I also believe that part of our participation in the mission of God is to practice the incarnational life that Jesus modeled for us. This means we should find ourselves crossing over to the Other, the one we don’t understand and don’t know, and try to understand them the way Jesus did by becoming human. This may be one of the most crucial elements lacking in our theology of mission. Once you acknowledge that we are called to be incarnational many of our clear cut doctrinal issues quickly become muddy. Incarnational living is a messy process.

So, to answer my question… YES, this is missions. Not because we traveled to another country. Not because we’re working with pagans and heathens. Not because we’re racking up converts for our team. This is missions, because we are helping our brothers and sisters care for the earth, learn to follow Jesus better and practice incarnational living with our Bolivian and LGM brothers and sisters. It is also missions because through the process of cross cultural living and communication we ourselves will be transformed by the Spirit more and more into the likeness of Christ.

Photo: Kennert Giesbrecht/Die Mennonitische Post via (found at Continental News)