How do you define Culture Today?

Culture in the postmodern context is seen not as ‘static, homogenous, closed, ordered and territorial’ but ‘ever-changing, fragmented, porous, chaotic, and translocal.’[1] Culture in postmodernity is:

…a pattern of meanings encased in a network of symbols, myths, narratives and rituals, created by individuals and subdivisions, as they struggle to respond to the competitive pressures of power and limited resources in a rapidly globalizing and fragmented world, and instructing its adherents about what is considered to be the correct way to feel, think and behave.[2]

Do you agree with the above?


[1] Arbuckle, G.A. (2010) Culture, Inculturation, and Theologians: A Postmodern Critique (Liturgical Press), xxi, 4-5.

[2] Ibid., 1-16, 17; ritual – the ‘stylized or repetitive symbolic use of bodily movement and gesture within a social context, to express and articulate meaning’, Arbuckle, G.A. (1990) Earthing the Gospel: An Inculturation Handbook for the Pastoral Worker (London: Geofrey Chapman), 96, citing Bocock, R. (1974) Ritual in Industrial Society: A Sociological Analysis of Ritualism in Modern England (London: George Allen & Unwin), 35-59.

Could the Increase of Interest in Spirituality erode the Church?

I wrote about the challenge of the church in the postmodern age. One of the key changes in the postmodern age is the increase of interest in spirituality and the reluctance to be limited by organised religion.

Other reports have confirmed this:

Over one-third of churchgoers attend services in more than one church. One in four attends services in different faiths, according to another Pew survey. More than one in five Christians believe in astrology, reincarnation, and spiritual energy in trees and nature. Seventeen percent believe in in the “evil eye” (casting curses on others). Over the last twenty years, rising numbers of Americans say they have felt like they were in touch with someone who was dead, according to Gallup data discussed in the Pew report. A rising number also say that they have seen or been in the presence of a ghost.

From: U.S. Churches: Where will our eclectic tastes carry us?

By referring the phenomena above as the Americans’ eclectic taste for spirituality, it is asked if ‘rising eclecticism’ could ‘erode the religious foundation of the church’. This is especially pressing considering the context of the U.S., where there is a ‘mix of peoples and beliefs’. The bottom line, is whether organized religion able to ‘co-exist with the mix-and-match tendencies of the American people.’

I believe the reason people are going to more than one churches is due to their consumerist habit. They are used to exercise their right to choose. Their move is also often utilitarian in nature, picking whatever that suits their needs at various places. They downside of this is the lack of commitment and discipleship. The quality of fellowship and sense of belonging in a community will then be eroded. So to a certain extent, the assembly – the gathering or the church – is eroded.

Of course the church, as an organisation, needs to take a hard look at herself. Again I believe the church, especially the evangelical churches are still largely too ‘modern’, hence losing touch with the postmodern people of today.

So further questions remain – ‘how can the church reach out to those who are eclectic?’ In what way can we engage with them? Can we still expect them to find their answers in the ‘modern’ church? We may think that our churches do have the answers but can we expect them to be responsive to the ‘modern’ way of doing church or ‘teaching’? How would the church deal with a member who believes in astrology? Do we attend to her needs, form a genuine relationship and dialogue with her or do we just teach her and command her to stop? There is no clear answer as each case is unique, but the question remains – as the church, how do we surf and soar in this wave of increased interest of spirituality?

Malaysian English – A Case of Inculturation

This clip is not only hilarious it should also serve as good material for studies of inculturation. ‘Get down’ of a car is a proper Chinese expression (下车), as in Chinese one does not get ‘out’ of a car but get ‘down’ from it. In fact the word ‘car’ means a whole range of vehicles – from the ancient chariot (马车, which literally means horse-car) to the automobile (汽车). So naturally, when a Malaysian Chinese thinks of getting out of the car, his Chinese mind directs him to the literal meaning in Chinese, which translates ‘get down’.

Of course this contextualised English is not to be considered as proper or standard English. However, it makes sense to Malaysian Chinese. In this case they hijack the language, break it down and ‘re-arrange’ it to express a meaning proper to the syntax of their mother tongue. In other words, the foreign language is modified to express the local concept, which produces the phrase ‘getting down from a car’.

Language is part of culture. When it is introduced to a community, it may come across lacking in expressing the meaning of what it intends in the ears of the locals. When the locals finally understood the meaning of a foreign word, the process of adopting and changing the way the language is used begins. So in this case once the local Malaysian got to understand what it means by ‘get’ and ‘down’, they naturally mapped it to their local language’s syntax and modify the English usage for their own use.

When the missionary arrives at a foreign land he will also face the same problem. What does it mean by ‘sacrifice’, ‘sin’, ‘atonement’, ‘kingdom’, etc? But once the locals grab hold of the meanings of these they will start using their own language or local expression to describe them. If they adopt the language which the missionary brought, they may substitute some of the words or their usage with their own expressions.

Recently one of my friends wrote about the ritual of kissing the communion table – of which is certainly strange to any Chinese Christians. This is because Chinese has no ‘kissing culture’. Furthermore if by ‘Christian’ here we mean the evangelicals, the issue of transubstantiation will certainly be raised. So how would an evangelical Chinese Christian to express his or her passion and love for Christ which is on par of the intimacy shown by those ‘high church’ brothers who kiss the communion table? Which body language can they use to substitute this act without losing the meaning of it?

So the case of the Malaysian English is similar to that of the inculturated practices of worship. Missionaries come with their cultural practices, of which the truth and the gospel are intertwined, but their practices may not make sense to the locals. Once the locals understand the message of the gospel, they will in turn develop their own ways of expressing those truths, and often this is done by modifying the practices brought in by the missionaries. Thus the ‘standard language’ is then replaced by a ‘local language’ of worship or ministry.

Inculturation Explained

The standard explanation for the meaning of inculturation is from the REDEMPTORIS MISSIO:

Incarnating the Gospel in Peoples’ Culture

52. As she carries out missionary activity among the nations, the Church encounters different cultures and becomes involved in the process of inculturation. The need for such involvement has marked the Church’s pilgrimage throughout her history, but today it is particularly urgent.

The process of the Church’s insertion into peoples’ cultures is a lengthy one. It is not a matter of purely external adaptation, for inculturation “means the intimate transformation of authentic cultural values through their integration in Christianity and the insertion of Christianity in the various human cultures.”85 The process is thus a profound and all-embracing one, which involves the Christian message and also the Church’s reflection and practice. But at the same time it is a difficult process, for it must in no way compromise the distinctiveness and integrity of the Christian faith.

Through inculturation the Church makes the Gospel incarnate in different cultures and at the same time introduces peoples, together with their cultures, into her own community.86 She transmits to them her own values, at the same time taking the good elements that already exist in them and renewing them from within.87 Through inculturation the Church, for her part, becomes a more intelligible sign of what she is, and a more effective instrument of mission.

Thanks to this action within the local churches, the universal Church herself is enriched with forms of expression and values in the various sectors of Christian life, such as evangelization, worship, theology and charitable works. She comes to know and to express better the mystery of Christ, all the while being motivated to continual renewal. During my pastoral visits to the young churches I have repeatedly dealt with these themes, which are present in the Council and the subsequent Magisterium.88

Inculturation is a slow journey which accompanies the whole of missionary life. It involves those working in the Church’s mission ad gentes, the Christian communities as they develop, and the bishops, who have the task of providing discernment and encouragement for its implementation.89

53. Missionaries, who come from other churches and countries, must immerse themselves in the cultural milieu of those to whom they are sent, moving beyond their own cultural limitations. Hence they must learn the language of the place in which they work, become familiar with the most important expressions of the local culture, and discover its values through direct experience. Only if they have this kind of awareness will they be able to bring to people the knowledge of the hidden mystery (cf. Rom 16:25-27; Eph 3:5) in a credible and fruitful way. It is not of course a matter of missionaries renouncing their own cultural identity, but of understanding, appreciating, fostering and evangelizing the culture of the environment in which they are working, and therefore of equipping themselves to communicate effectively with it, adopting a manner of living which is a sign of gospel witness and of solidarity with the people.

Developing ecclesial communities, inspired by the Gospel, will gradually be able to express their Christian experience in original ways and forms that are consonant with their own cultural traditions, provided that those traditions are in harmony with the objective requirements of the faith itself. To this end, especially in the more delicate areas of inculturation, particular churches of the same region should work in communion with each other90 and with the whole Church, convinced that only through attention both to the universal Church and to the particular churches will they be capable of translating the treasure of faith into a legitimate variety of expressions.91 Groups which have been evangelized will thus provide the elements for a “translation” of the gospel message,92 keeping in mind the positive elements acquired down the centuries from Christianity’s contact with different cultures and not forgetting the dangers of alterations which have sometimes occurred.93

54. In this regard, certain guidelines remain basic. Properly applied, inculturation must be guided by two principles: “compatibility with the gospel and communion with the universal Church.”94 Bishops, as guardians of the “deposit of faith,” will take care to ensure fidelity and, in particular, to provide discernment,95 for which a deeply balanced approach is required. In fact there is a risk of passing uncritically from a form of alienation from culture to an overestimation of culture. Since culture is a human creation and is therefore marked by sin, it too needs to be “healed, ennobled and perfected.”96

This kind of process needs to take place gradually, in such a way that it really is an expression of the community’s Christian experience. As Pope Paul VI said in Kampala: “It will require an incubation of the Christian ‘mystery’ in the genius of your people in order that its native voice, more clearly and frankly, may then be raised harmoniously in the chorus of other voices in the universal Church.”97 In effect, inculturation must involve the whole people of God, and not just a few experts, since the people reflect the authentic sensus fidei which must never be lost sight of Inculturation needs to be guided and encouraged, but not forced, lest it give rise to negative reactions among Christians. It must be an expression of the community’s life, one which must mature within the community itself, and not be exclusively the result of erudite research. The safeguarding of traditional values is the work of a mature faith.

Evangelical’s Definition of Inculturation

Statements from the Edinburgh 2010, in general representing worldwide Evangelical voices, also refers to the above definition, while including other Protestant and Evangelical Conferences’ reports. This is summarised in the section titled ‘Contextualization, inculturation and dialogue of worldviews‘ under the Transversal Topics of the Conference.

My own observation informs me that the main difference between the Roman Catholic and Protestant’s understanding of inculturation is in the belief of St. Justin Martyr’s theory of spermatic Logos and the Paschal Mystery. Spermatic Logos means that Christ’s presence is with human cultures since creation, and Paschal Mystery means that Christ’s presence is with human cultures after His resurrection through the Holy Spirit. These are the areas where most Protestants disagree with. Apart from that latest Protestant and Evangelical scholarship in general recognises the importance of inculturation.

Is ‘Allah’ a Translation?

I have finally come to understand why some Muslim in Malaysia are so against the use of ‘Allah’ by other religions, especially the Christians. One of the reasons, of course, has to do with theology. The Islamic faith has no notion of incarnation and hence, no idea of contextualisation or inculturation. The expansion of the Islamic faith is a socio-political-cultural expansion, and has always been geographical. Wherever it spreads to it brings along a set of cultural practices which is more or less fixed – the way of life, worship and rituals. On the other hand, the Christian faith has always been expanding via an interaction between faith and culture, allowing a spectrum of cultural expressions according to the local context. Instead of using a single ‘sacred’ language, the Christian faith has seen the translation of the Bible into all major languages. The Christian faith has spread via translation. For instance, one of the major contextualisation exercise in history is the Reformation, which saw the Bible ended up in various languages contextualised to the needs and suitability for various people groups.

So it is not surprising to see the comment, ‘Allah is the name of god not a translation’ (See Comments area of the linked webpage), as Muslim, with their theology has ended up regarding ‘Allah’ a proper noun. Dr. Ng Kam Weng has an article here, refuting this from the grammatical perspective. I would like to point out though, that this issue is more than a dispute about a proper noun.

According to the various comments made, it is clear that Muslim scholars know about the various name of God used in the history of the Christian faith – YHWH, elohim, etc. They are also well aware of the fact that the Arabic (and others) Christians were using ‘Allah’ to refer to God prior to the existence of Islam. However, according to their arguments, once Islam came to the scene the word ‘Allah’ became a proper noun specifically referring to the god of the Muslim. It is ‘his name’. So if Christians want to use a Malay word to refer to their god, they are asked to use a ‘translation’ (i.e., ‘Tuhan’), instead of the proper noun or the name of the personal god of the Muslim.

Hence, any talk about who used this word for how many years since when will not work (with this group of people). This word, ‘Allah’, has been assimilated as part of the cultural heritage of the Islamic faith among Muslim in Malaysia – a part of that great socio-political-cultural-geographical expansion. If you like, a part of the ‘spoil’. This is understandably a typical Malaysia situation as in the context of Malaysia, there exists a need for certain cultural group to find its identity.

Therefore, I am also not sure if in the context of Malaysia any talk about ‘rights’ would help. Of course constitutional rights is to be upheld, but whether it is the best link for dialogue or basis for debate is questionable. Perhaps national unity and other concepts are more appropriate?

As for Sabah and Sarawak,it is the same story, albeit the other way round.1  The natives here have adopted the word ‘Allah’ just like the Muslim when they first ‘discovered’ him and they will not like to let go of the ‘name’ of their God. So the Sabahans and Sarawakians will likely fight for the right to keep using the word.

So where does this bring us? I see the heart of the matter is the clash between two parties – between those who advocate Islamic rule (technically called ‘rule of law’ – the Islamic way) and those who insist on constitutional rule. Obviously non-Muslims belong to the second group. The question now is, how many percentage of Muslims in Malaysia stands with them?

1 Sabah and Sarawak are two states at Borneo which form the Federation of Malaysia with the rest of the states in the Peninsular Malaysia. The Borneo natives have been using ‘Allah’ in their Malay Bible for decades.

Why is Modern Church in the Postmodern World Declining

      

Excerpt from my MA dissertation:

[Today,] the culture has changed so much that while the world in general has abandoned or reacted toward over-rationalised ways of thinking and lifestyle, the highly rationalised church, which Drane considers an example of being successfully contextualised to the previously dominant rationalised worldview, is left behind and finds it hard to follow the change.1 The following paragraphs will serve to depict the severely ‘modernised’ church.

By applying the concept of ‘McDonaldization’ on the church, Drane laments the over-rationalisation of the church which makes the church no more than just another modern system that adhere to the industrial standards of efficiency, calculability, predictability and control.2 The sense of community, mission, ministry and theology suffer great loss in the midst of this uncritical adaptation, or rather, unconscious assimilation, of rational system,3 resulting in decline in church attendance.

Drane believes the church has lost its members not only to secularity, but also other new spiritualities.4 So the loss is not due to a lack of faith or spiritual interest by the general population but due to the postmoderns’ rejection of dogmatism and rationalisation.5 The modern church’s tendency of teaching and conveying faith through the abstract and rational propositions has become a hindrance to proper communication in the postmodern era, which advocates a holistic approach.6 Dialogue/point of contact can become increasingly hard because of differences in communication mode – rational vs. holistic.7 In other words, a typical modernist evangelism may not work as well as evangelisation where word is supported by witness and worship. (I argue, elsewhere in my paper that ‘evangelisation’ as understood by the Roman Catholics in general emphasises word, witness and worship, while ‘evangelism’ – a popular term used primarily within the Protestant circle emphasises only ‘proclamation’ of the gospel, i.e., only ‘word’) The ‘objective, analytic, and reductionist virus’, according to McLaren, has reduced the Bible either to superstition or mere doctrinal propositions.8 Thus serious spiritual searchers find that the ways in which the church worships and witness fall short of their ideal of holistic understanding of life and in addressing their deep spiritual needs.9 Furthermore, the very meaning of or reason for attending church has become redundant. Since other parts of their life are also rationalised and mechanical, there is no reason to allow this to be repeated in church, where one is asked to perform a limited number of tasks repeatedly, with their humanness abandoned.10 This, when combined with the ‘secular and scientific viruses’ which focus more on facts than value, causes the church to be seen as lacking in values, purpose, meaning, mission, passion, wisdom, faith and spirit.11 As such, the ‘witness’ and ‘worship’ are thus left out. Furthermore, the church’s focus on efficiency in manufacturing spiritual products to serve the need of the consumerist believers12 implies that faith can be objectified and packaged into various pedagogical units in fast-food manner. Thus spiritual growth is often portrayed as how much ‘spiritual knowledge’ one consumes. As a result spiritual growth can be rationally controlled and predicted, ‘manufactured’ by the church – the ‘purveyor of religious goods and services’.13 So eventually, this results in churning out selfish followers with little emphasis on ethics, albeit having ‘consumed’ much knowledge and facts.14 So the modern, rationalised church has lost its witness and quality. All these distance the church from the postmoderns as it is perceived that the church is so closely associated with the modern enterprise that when people are increasingly sceptical towards modernism, they find it necessary to reject, at the same time, the ‘modernist’ church.15 This presents the church with two problems. On the one hand the church has failed to engage the postmoderns, and on the other hand, people who are becoming more sympathetic towards postmodernity will gradually leave the church; hence the need to look into inculturating the modern church with postmodern culture.

p.s. You may find a short article here helpful for an understanding of mission in a postmodern North America here.


1 Drane 2008, 5-7.
2 Drane 2000a, 28ff, referring to Ritzer, G (1993) The McDonaldization of Society (Thousands Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press).
3 Drane 2000a, 18-33.
4 Gibbs & Coffey 2001, 171, 173.
5 Drane 2008, 5; McLaren 2006, 174, 179-180; Newbigin 1989, 213.
6 Drane 2000, 113-114.
7 McLaren 2006, 166ff, 177ff; on the church becomes unintelligible since modernity see Hunter 1992, 21-35.
8 McLaren 2006, 201-202.
9 Drane 2000, 12.
10 Drane 2000a, 31-32; McLaren & Campolo 2003, 118.
11 McLaren 2006, 202-203.
12 The Consumerist Virus – citing Guder, D.L. (1998) (ed.) The Missional Church: The People of God Sent on a Mission (Grand Rapids: Eedrmans), McLaren 2006, 204; McLaren & Campolo 2003, 11-12; Gibbs & Bolger 2006, 92.
13 McLaren 2006, 204.
14 Ibid., 202-203.
15 Ibid., 27-29.

Drane, J.W. (2000) Cultural Change and Biblical Faith: The Future of the Church – Biblical and Missiological Essays for the New Century (Carlisle: Paternoster Press).
Cultural Change & Biblical Faith

Drane, J.W. (2000a) The McDonaldization of the Church (Darton,Longman & Todd Ltd).
The McDonaldization of the Church: Consumer Culture and the Church’s Future

Drane, J.W. (2008) After McDonaldization: Mission, Ministry, and Christian discipleship in an age of uncertainty (Darton,Longman & Todd Ltd).
After McDonaldization: Mission, Ministry, and Christian Discipleship in an Age of Uncertainty

Gibbs, E. and I. Coffey(2001) Church Next: Quantum Changes in Christian Ministry (Leicester: IVP).
ChurchNext: Quantum Changes in How We Do Ministry

Gibbs, E. and R. Bolger (2006) Emerging Churches (London: SPCK).

McLaren B.D. and Campolo, T. (2003) Adventures in Missing the Point: How the Culture-controlled Church Neutered the Gospel (Zondervan).
Adventures in Missing the Point: How the Culture-Controlled Church Neutered the Gospel

McLaren, B.D. (2006) Church on the Other Side (Grand Rapids: Zondervan).
The Church on the Other Side

China and the Christian Impact

China and the Christian Impact

Excerpt from ‘A Conflict of Cultures’, the Review of: China and the Christian Impact: A Conflict of Cultures
Jacques Gernet – Cambridge University Press, 1985, by J.S. Cummins:

Translating and closely analysing contemporary Chinese material, Gernet show that it was not merely clerical squabbles, doctrines, rituals or customs which separated missionary and potential convert. The twain were unable to meet because their respective world-pictures differed radically: the Chinese mind-set, for instance, rooted in concepts from the Sino-Tibetan family of languages, found literally inconceivable Christian ideas evolved from the Graeco-Roman- Judaic-Scholastic mental world. And vice versa. The literati, by and large untroubled by metaphysical anxieties, showed keen interest in Ricci’s technology, moral tracts and memory exercises (see History Today, December, 1985) but laid aside with contumely his religion and his Tridentine ‘Ptolemaic’ theology.

Would love to read this book. The above shows that there is an area which students of inculturation should look into – the definition of ‘mind-set’, its relation with language (and vice versa) and how these affect evangelism. If China is having a revival today – how are the barriers of ‘mind-set’ and language overcome? Perhaps inculturation doesn’t work at all if worldview (mind set and language included, philosophy) is to be separated from culture (behaviour)?

Traditionally people ‘blame this first ‘Failure in the Far East’ upon the Jesuits’ ‘narrow-minded’ co-workers, the friars, whose machinations, we read, misled nine successive popes into denouncing, and finally prohibiting the Jesuits’ ‘China Strategy’, thereby destroying the plan to convert Asia.’ But the review highlighted how the author of this book opined that the mistake was Ricci’s as he failed to notice that the key barrier is not cultural (hence Confucianism) but philosophical (Taoism). A more scholarly review from The Journal of Asian Studies summarises the author’s view succinctly: ‘He doubts that many of the early seventeenth-century literati-converts were “really” Christians, because they were so insistent on reconciling Christianity with Neo-Confucian notions; they were attracted to the Jesuits’ behavior and moral rigor, not to Christian doctrine.’ (China and the Christian Impact: A Conflict of Cultures. by Jacques Gernet; Janet Lloyd, Review by: Daniel H. Bays, The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 46, No. 1 (Feb., 1987), pp. 114-116)

I will try to find a copy of this book!

Christmas Traditions

I have always wondered how some of the Christmas traditions came into being. Hence I was pleasantly surprise to find a good piece of article in the in-flight magazine of AirAsia which explains the origin of some of the Christmas practices. The following is a selected list of answers I get from the article:

The Christmas Wreath:

Christmas or Advent wreath appeared only in the 16th century – being circular shape to represent God who has no beginning and no end, and the evergreen used to decorate signifies the everlasting life which Jesus brought to His believers.

 

The Nativity Scene:

Introduced by St Francis of Asisi nearly 800 years ago to combat commercialism of Christmas at his time.

 

The Christmas Tree:

Introduced by Martin Luther in 1510 as he decorated a tree with candles ‘to recapture the beautiful sparkling stars amidst the evergeens’. It would have remained a German tradition had it not because of the marriage between Queen Victoria and Prince Albert of Germany, which saw the tradition setting its foot in the British Isle. By then the Americans still consider decorating a fir tree to celebrate Christmas a pagan practice.

 

The Christmas Carols:

Songs written to celebrate the birth of Christ emerged in the 4th and 5th century in Latin. It was only in the 13th century that carolling became a common practice. In those days, in the context of feudal rules, the poor would sing to the wealthy for supper.

 

Santa Claus:

We can trace the origin of Santa to St. Nicolas, who was a kind monk who cared for the needy and poor.

 

My Observation:

I have not done any research on the above but I believe the article has got the facts right. If the above are true, it intrigues me in a number of ways. Firstly, if I imagine myself as 2th century Christian, not only that there is no wreath, no Santa, no carols, no Christmas tree, no Nativity Scene, there was actually not Christmas (Christmas day as the day to commemorate Christ’s birth came after 2th century)! Secondly, in the course of history, various cultural elements have been added into the celebration of Christmas, and it seems to me that this process has enriched the festival and in each case above, had a good Christian intention. However as times go by their meanings were lost and people tend to adopt the tradition without knowing the meaning behind it. More alarmingly, is that the Christians often find it unnecessary to unveil the true meaning of these traditions. Worse,some would shunned these practices and condemn them as pagan practices. As a Chinese believer I do not think that I need to follow some of the practices of the Western church. However, I would have no problem celebrating the joy of Christmas with the Westerners as they express their celebration via their own cultural elements – be it fir tree, wreath or carols. If possible I would also seek relevant expression from my culture which I could relate to the Christmas meaning, so I could also use them to celebrate Christmas meaningfully.

Institutional Church = Pagan Christianity?

Ben Witherington shared Howard Snyder’s review on Pagan Christianity?: Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices by Frank Viola here. I find Snyder’s review helpful . He pointed out that there are three approaches to church history: 1. the “traditional orthodox” approach, 2.the “secret history of the faithful remnant” theory and 3. the “renewal movement view.” Snyder mentioned John Wesley’s renewal attempt within the Anglican church as an example of the ‘renewal movement’, which he sees as the preferred solution compared to the ‘secret history of the faithful remnant’, which Viola prefers, where the institutional church is often regarded as corrupted and true Christianity is seen as carried in history by remnant groups. Of course the opposite of the ‘remnant’ theory is the ‘traditional orthodox’ view which sees the institutional church and its progressive development as a natural development of authentic Christianity and Constantinianism is viewed as a victory for the church.

I would like to respond to both the book and Snyder’s review from the perspective of mission, in particular from the inculturation point of view. I will make some quick attempts here to offer alternative views on the issues of ‘pagan’ practices within the church which Viola seems to suggest for the church today to do away with.

First, I am surprise that Augustine of Hippo and his ecclesiology, especially that was expressed in his confrontation with the Donatists, was not mentioned – neither by Snyder nor Viola! Augustine made some important points regarding the church when debating with the Dontists. Dualistic or Platonic as it may seem, Augustine argued (especially later in his ‘City of God’) for the validity, authenticity and authority of the institutional church, while acknowledging that the institutional church and its ministers are not perfect. Though the debate was much more complicated and involves a lot of theological technicalities, especially on the issue of sacraments, it serves as one of the earlier if not the earliest debate on the authenticity of the institutional church and its ministers.

Secondly, I agree with Snyder, who helpfully sees that the whole issue is about  ‘the nature and practice of the church’. Now there is still a difference between the ‘church’ and ‘Christianity’. The other term which one will think of, which is related but not equivalent would be the ‘Kingdom of God’. Again Augustine linked the kingdom with the church as a means to defend his high view of the institutional church. If we are talking about the church (ecclesiology) let the discussion be on the people or ‘group of people’  who are Christians.

Now that is where I think both the book and the reviewer fall short. None noticed that if we are talking about church – we are talking about the universal and the local church. In each case we are talking about people, and when people is involved culture is involved. It would be better to evaluate ‘Pagan Christianity’ with a larger view. From the mission point of view, the so-called ‘pagan practices’ mentioned in the book are just ‘pagan practices’ in the Western church. Constantinianism was a triumphant victory of Christianity successfully converting not just the individuals but the culture of the time. Since ‘Christianity’ has archived such victory, the ‘church’ or the people groups were then happily Christianising everything in their daily lives. These people were not living in a cultural vacuum. Now zoom out and consider the mission situation and we will see that when the Chinese or Indians converted to Christianity, they do not abandon all that is in their culture.

For instance, language is a a key element of culture. Do we abandon our language and adopt Hebrew and Greek so we could ‘fully’ appreciate  authentic Christianity? We all can imagine how a Chinese, an African and a Westerner would understand the word, ‘Lord” quite differently – each according to his or her cultural understanding. Feudal Lord for the Westerner? Does it exist in the history of China (the word ‘Lord’ is translated as ‘master’, not ‘lord’ in Chinese Bible) and Africa? The is no escape of having to face the trouble of cultural difference when one is in mission field. Hudson Taylor has to dress and speak like a Chinese to relate to the Chinese. Now when the Chinese converted, what do we expect them to change? The same happened when Constantine  and others ‘converted’ to Christianity – ‘what do I do with my clothes, my language, my habits, my hairstyle, my furniture, my pets, my buildings, my life?’ Stripe everything and live like John the Baptist? Even Jesus didn’t do that! Viola did his research in the book and one should rightly doubt Constantine’s conversion, but besides that, I wonder how much would the most powerful man in the Western world then be able to theologically reflect and take time to contextualise his faith?

The other problem which I sense when observing the church, especially the modern church, is the insufficiency in Theology of Creation. Viola traced the development of the church architecture, and highlighted how ‘pagan’ they are. However he failed to see how art was ‘redeemed’ for the worship of the creative God. Human beings are created to be creative by the creative God. Architecture, in particularly church architecture is a way people at different times, bound by their cultural circumstances, expressing their feelings towards God. If any house church today arrange their seating in a certain way or sing songs creatively we fall into the same category.

In conclusion, while Viola’s research and ‘Pagan Christianity’ has been helpful in many ways, it is clear that they suffer from what Snyder calls fallacious syllogism – ‘It holds that because much church practice is pagan in origin, therefore such practices should be jettisoned.’ Instead, as Snyder pointed out, the whole issue of Contextualisation needs to be taken into account. The very fact is that, we do not live in the New Testament times! The Western church is as such because it went through a process of interaction of faith and culture. It may need to further undergo more contextualisation for the postmodern world but lest we are able to consider the issue as a matter of culture we will never be able to progress.

From Religious Hostility to Religious Hospitality by Brian McLaren

I have read a number of Brian McLaren’s works in the past as I did my postgraduate dissertation which includes a research on how Emerging Churches implement the idea of inculturation (interaction between faith and culture).

Brian McLaren has been vocal on the need to find new ways for Christians to relate to people from other religions. He has been critical towards the way Christians behave and how the somewhat unnecessary ‘fusion’ of the cultural elements into Christianity has caused problems. By looking back, he sees Christians had been time and again, causing various tensions with others due to their lack of judgement – which in turn was due to an uncritical mix of political and social intentions and motives with a Christian outfit. In short, if anyone is to take the blame for religious hostility, Christians should have a hard look at themselves, especially as they claim to live for and according to Jesus.


In this video he highlights the need for Christians to begin thinking about conversing with others with a new attitude. Instead of finding or defining our identity via looking at the differences we have with others, he proposes for us to first be critical to ourselves. He begins, by referring to history, as mentioned earlier.

McLaren then refers to how various doctrines have been used as ‘weapons of hostility’ towards others. The Doctrine of Creation for example, is often used to attack others. The same applied to the Doctrine of Original Sin and the Doctrine of Election, which he sees is often used to show ‘who’s good guy and who is not’. McLaren wonders what if we use them differently – not to show that are we special, nor to exert supremacy?

Next, McLaren refers to the way which the West seems to side the Israelites over the Palestinians, and questions if Christians should be more hospitable. To illustrate, he mentions the plight of some of the non-Christians whom have Christian neighbours who never seems to enjoy them – the only interest they have is to convert them, making them feel like being persuaded to be the down-line of certain network marketing! He then turns to baptism. Again he sees the tendency of Christians making the ritual a way to alienate Christians from others, forgetting that John the Baptist actually performed this rite outside of the exclusive religious establishment – the temple.

After a brief mention of the Eucharist  McLaren proposes that Christians today must work closely with others to face the vast challenges which the whole of humanity is facing – environment, political and social problems, etc. He calls this the Missional Challenge. According to him, due to the magnitude of the challenge the only chance is for everyone to collaborate and work together, and this includes Christians working with others. McLaren believes that the Holy Spirit works through everyone  and every religion. So he has taken a more friendly stance towards the others, in particularly, he mentioned how he speaks kindly about the Muslims, so much so, a Muslim commended that he is ‘saving Muslim’s lives,’ and told him,  ‘you are a true Christian.’

Is Brian McLaren right? If time permits I will do a critical assessment on the points he made on this post. Meanwhile, let’s ponder upon his propositions.