Avoiding Indigenous Backlash

When I was a much younger man, I taught primary and secondary school at what was then called Twin Wells Indian School, a resident-campus-program in northern Arizona, a handful of miles off the Navajo Indian Reservation. Much of how TWIS went about their business could have been ripped from a Catholic Jesuit School playbook 500 years before. Children were not allowed to speak their native language (since the staff, with its high turn-over rate, never learned Navajo), history curriculuae were from the viewpoint of the White settlers, not one building had elements of Navajo architecture, even the food was mostly non-Navajo, etc., etc.

Fourteen years later I was visiting there with a work team to do some repairs on the campus. I was asked to address the staff on whatever subject I desired, during the weekly devotional time. What I chose to do was deliver a missiological paper on what happens when you position yourself to be viewed as the enemy of a culture. (Which is how the school was viewed on the Reservation, and attendance had plummeted to almost non-existence.) As Christians, with a doctrine of Creation and Creator, we ought to be the protectors of everything good, noble and praiseworthy in Navajo culture, I said. (Lots of Pauline material for this). When we aren’t, we not only become viewed as an outsider attack on the peoples’ own culture, but we sow the seeds for a second or third generation re-fascination with the original, indigenous religion, and a backlash against Christianity.

Have you noticed this? Christianization, currently, often comes simultaneously with a degradation of the natural environment and a tearing of the social fabric due to the overnight incursion of international civilization and connection to world markets. (Christianity doesn’t cause this, but it’s all happening at the same time these days). When Christians do not become the protectors of everything good, noble and true in a culture, you can bet that in a couple generations there will be a movement calling people back to their ancestors’ ways. Part of this is reaction to the decimation of traditional culture brought on by hooking up to the world money machine, and part of it is noticing the ills of civilization and their affects on the population. When this happens, all sorts of traditional – and important – knowledge starts getting lost, (‘What plant did grandma use for headaches? How did they make bows? How did they track and hunt boar? How did boys know they had become young men…?’), and people start talking nostalgically about their great-grandparents’ ways. That nostalgia becomes a powerful force, and creates backlash against the modern world AND Christian faith, as an outsider invasive species. This happens a lot in pre-modern societies these days, ones that were thrown into contact with the modern world quickly.

Have you observed some of this happening? What would this mean for your work? How could you and your organization be the protector of everything good, noble and praiseworthy in the local culture and religion? How would that change some things you do and say?

Muslims and Christians About God and Jesus

Most Christians where I live don’t know very much about Islam. In fact, they are often surprised when they learn how many things we agree upon.

Here are things both Muslims and Christians agree about, concerning God:

God created the world, and the entire universe.

God is merciful and forgives those who come to Him in repentance.

God revealed Himself to Abraham, the Patriarchs, Moses, David, the Prophets and Jesus.

God wants widows and orphans and the poor looked after.

God is all-powerful, holy, and good.

God is our Maker, and deserves our complete fidelity, love, awe and obedience.

God does not love aggressive violence.

God wants humans to exhibit integrity, truthfulness, a just society, and mercy.

God will hold humans accountable for how they have lived.

 Here are things both  Muslims and Christians agree about, concerning  Jesus:

Jesus was sent from God.

Jesus performed miracles, and was sinless.

Jesus was miraculously born of the Virgin Mary.

Jesus was “sign for all nations.”

Jesus is the Messiah, the Word of God, the Truth of God, the Spirit from God.

Jesus was taken to heaven and is alive now.

Jesus is returning to judge and rule the world as its king, doing away with all evil.

I think the agreements within these two lists provide a strong foundation for Christians and Muslims to be friends and dialogue partners. There have been many close friendships between Muslims and Christians down through the centuries, including in Muhammad’s generation.

Jesus once said: “Blessed be the peacemakers”

5 Things About Islam

There are five really common mis-understandings Americans have about Islam.

  1. Muslims have always been at war with Jews. Not true. The Qur’an makes clear Jews are People of the Book, following the same God as Muslims (Sura 2: 62,3: 84, 5: 47, 42:13, 29:46 and many more). Muhammad was allied with Jewish tribes in Arabia. In Spain, Muslims, Jews and Christians flourished together for 700 years in a Muslim empire, a brilliant, scientific civilization where Jewish people rose to the highest ranks of society. When El Cid re-took Spain in 1492 and pushed the Muslim kingdoms out, the Jews fled with the Muslims. Jews in Spain called Islam “a merciful act of God” and were far safer in most Muslim countries than in most Christian countries. The “tax” Christians and Jews were expected to pay in some countries was a small amount compared to what Muslims were expected to voluntarily give to the poor. We have many records of close friendships between Jews, Christians and Muslims of that era.
  1. The Qur’an says to kill Christians and Jews. In fact, it says nothing of the kind. Jews and Christians are described throughout the Qur’an as people of the Book, people God revealed Himself to, people who should follow the Torah and the Gospel. The oft-quoted verse about “fight them everywhere” refers to idol-worshipping pagan tribes who were attacking the Muslims. Context, people. (Sura 2: 190-193).
  1. All Islam is the same. Don’t be absurd. There are as many groups and denominations in Islam as there are in Christianity, with huge diversity. Looking at the actions of one group and saying it represents all Muslims is completely ludicrous. My sons have Muslim friends who have no interest in violence at all.
  1. Islam is a religion of the sword. If we look at history, we could conclude the exact same thing about Christianity. Here’s the fact: governments do what governments do. Rulers attack other nations. They use their nation’s religion to baptize and justify their wars. World War One was fought exclusively by Christian nations. How about the Rwandan genocide? It was the most Christian evangelized nation in Africa. Vigorous empires within the Muslim world expanded, as empires do. It isn’t an issue with Islam. The Qur’an forbids forcing Islam onto someone (Sura 2: 256).
  1. Islam is inherently violent. Then why have hundreds of millions of Muslims led peaceful lives? In fact, Muhammad forbade fighting except in self-defense (Sura 2: 191). Islam, in many parts of the world, is struggling within itself. It may even be undergoing its Reformation – Christianity’s Reformation was full of bloodshed and war over theology as well. Among the things we should pray is that peaceful Muslims will prevail. They want to raise their children in peace, just like us. But many of them do not feel that Western foreign policy is on their side.

Postmodern Considerations on Original Sin PART FOUR: non-Western theology

Our discussion of Original Sin, Creationism, and literal interpretations of Adam and Eve’s “Fall” took a turn toward how different theology will look when written outside the cultural matrix of Greco-Roman thought, so common in Eastern Orthodox and Western Christian theology.

My friend:   I’ll give you that doctrine has changed or evolved through time, there are some pretty universally held truths that have been in play since shortly after the canon was established. Namely, trinitarian doctrine, incarnational doctrine and the doctrine of sin and salvation. Btw, I wouldn’t claim that the doctrine of creation, the fall, and original sin is merely a motif. They are doctrines that have historically been taught by the church.

Me:  I want to say that doctrines need to be enunciated/interpreted in ways that mean something understandable here and now. Original Sin and its ramifications look a lot different before – and East of – Augustine than after. And all those doctrines have been shaped primarily in the context of Greco-Roman culture and its fallout. So now, when Asian and African, and Native American cultures start wrestling with Christian theology, I want to be as aware of their right to work through doctrine within the context of their cultures as has already happened in “our” Greco-Roman culture. I don’t expect their theology to look nearly as Greco-Roman as ours. And I don’t think that makes it any less Christian. To do so would be to be stupendously emic and fail to apply any etic sense to our own situation.

My friend: Is that syncretism?

Me:   We’d be less than honest if we didn’t think our baptism in the early centuries with Greek Philosophy wasn’t a kind of syncretism. So, if you interpret the Bible through the matrix of non-Greco-Roman cultures, and you use their matrixes like we used Greco-Roman, some people would certainly yell syncretism, but I don’t think it is. If Christianity had moved predominately East into India instead of West into Greece/Rome in the early centuries, and if the creeds had been formed in India or Vietnam, we’d sure have nothing that sounds like the Nicene!  So, I think it takes some serious calm sitting back and watching and listening and waiting to hear a generation of non-Western scholars argue each other out before people like us start saying “syncretism.” Listen to what Clement of Alexandria (lived c. 150-215 AD) said about Greek philosophy. If a former Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist said this about their former religion, would we accuse them of syncretism?

Clement of Alexandria said this: “Before the Lord’s coming, philosophy was an essential guide to righteousness for the Greeks. At the present time, it is a useful guide toward reverence for God. It is a kind of preliminary education for those who are trying to gather faith through demonstration. ‘Your foot will not stumble,’ says Scripture, if you attribute good things, whether Greek or Christian, to Providence. God is responsible for all good things: of some directly, like the blessings of the Old and New Covenants, of others indirectly, like the riches of philosophy. Perhaps philosophy too was a direct gift of God to the Greeks before the Lord extended his appeal to the Greeks. For philosophy was to the Greek world what the Law was to the Hebrews, a tutor escorting them to Christ. So philosophy is a preparatory process; it opens the road for the person whom Christ brings to his final goal.” (STROMATEIS 1.5.28.I-3)

If Clement can say this about Greek Philosophy (and certainly Christian theology written for centuries bore the express stamp of Greek philosophy in its wording and cultural matrix), then can’t we say the same thing about Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism and indigenous religions?  Constructing Christian theology within the matrixes of these worldviews is no different than what Western theology in the Christian tradition did with Greco-Roman philosophy. If it is syncretism, then western theology is entirely syncretistic. I won’t call it that. I think the more apt phrase is ‘culturally incarnational.’ And, we shouldn’t expect that all of them will be infatuated with Augustine’s version of ‘original sin.’

Etic not just Emic

Etic and emic are words that come to us from cultural anthropology. Emic views of a situation are from within, from inside the worldview of a particular culture, an intimate view. Etic views are those from outside, attempting to understand through comparison across many cultures. A big picture view.  

Most of us automatically think in emic categories – from within the culture or subgroup we belong to. Like all humans, I of course view things emic-ly, but you can also develop the habit of taking the etic view as well. So, for instance, when my college-age son once asked me “What do you think of tongues?”[1] Although I responded with all kinds of emic insider observations, my first reaction was etic: “Well, ecstatic mystical experiences show up in all the world religions. It’s something humans do. A certain portion of people find that to be a central component of their spiritual experience, others don’t seem wired that way.”  Or another, more nerdy, example: when asked recently to list ten things about myself, my first response was as etic as I could draw: “I am a biological creature, created by God, living in the Sol System of the Milky Way galaxy.” I probably should have said something about carbon-based or oxygen.

Viewing things from an etic perspective can help bring a wider perspective and break us out of narrow paradigms which are parochial and don’t take the big picture reality into account. We often emic-ly assume something has a theological raison d’etre when worldwide studies show it to have more of a cultural one. The fact that two of my graduate degrees had healthy doses of cultural anthropology  certainly helps me be aware of etic realities.  Cross-disciplinary reading is also very valuable in this arena. If you only read within one realm (say, Christian theology, or even a substrata of that), you often get caught drawing emic conclusions which are woefully lacking in awareness of etic realities staring you in the face. Some of the completely ignorant, and laughable if it weren’t so egregious, comments made by Christians regarding Islam are a common example these days. Understanding some of the practices in the Old Testament over three thousand years ago are another. Reading across the social sciences, hard sciences, and history, help protect us from embarrassing emic limitations.


[1] “Tongues” is an emic Christian word referring to the experience of glossalia. There are a variety of opinions on the subject from within Christianity.

Speaking Up for Muslims

Most Americans don’t seem to know much about Islam. The pithy T shirt “I learned everything I need  to know about Islam on 9/11” is the same as saying “I learned everything I need to know about Christianity from the Crusades”.

Large numbers of Muslims are ordinary, peace-loving people who simply want their families to have a decent future. Many of these people understand the Qur’an’s declaration that Christians are Peoples of the Book, and spiritual cousins to Muslims. When a Muslim family enrolled their child into our church’s preschool and my wife said “now, we are an explicitly Christian preschool with Christian prayers, bible stories and songs” (which she says to every person enrolling their child),  the Muslim family replied “Of course! That is why we chose you!”  When another Muslim family came to our church’s children’s Easter program, they said to us “We are very excited, this is our child’s first Easter.” An African (Liberian, if I recall) Christian who grew up with a Muslim father  once said to me “My father’s people would never have dreamed of this kind of violence. He married my Christian mother and nobody ever thought twice about it. He sent me to Catholic school because it was the best school around.”

Islam has as many splinter groups as Christianity, and many practices we assume are Islamic are simply cultural practices in a particular area, which have been woven into Islam locally. The fact that there is a tragically violent version of Islam raging in the world right now does not mean that this is how Islam has always been, nor is intrinsically. Many of the most radical versions of Islam today were virtually unheard of forty years ago. In fact, it is the vast amounts of money from the West purchasing oil from the Middle East which has funded the spread of some of the most violent Islam we see today.

Many Muslims have been inspired by their faith to accomplish great good in our world for humanity (say, for example, Nobel Peace Prize Winner Muhammad Yunus and Grameen Bank for the destitute poor).

Defending what history actually shows us about Islam down through the centuries is not to say there have never been evils committed by leaders or nations or troops who were Muslim. Of course there have been – all of the world’s religions have done that, including Christian nations. But ignorant, inaccurate portrayals of the past, present, or beliefs, of Muslims is to do what Martin Luther is credited with saying: “to mis-characterize my opponents’ theology is to fail to obey the commandment to love my neighbor.” There are about 5 really common lies about Islam that American Christians ignorantly and absurdly keep repeating publicly. It’s counter to our faith to repeat lies as if they are true. And Christian publishers and broadcasters have a responsibility to check their facts. These distortions have grown to ridiculous proportions. When we repeat these 5, we are simply propagating the violent version of Islam – doing the work of the radical mullahs for them. I discuss those 5 things here:  https://toddrisser.com/2015/03/17/5-things-about-islam/

How “narrow is the door” ?

“Narrow is the door.” The way this verse was often used when I was a kid was that you better get serious about church attendance or you’re toast. This makes this verse essentially into an old call for works righteousness –  get better at your discipleship or you’ll get Left Behind! Sort of an unspoken slogan “My yoke is hard and my burden is heavy!” Alternatively, some have used this verse to indicate that if someone is born at the wrong time in the wrong place, (say southern Africa,  2nd century AD), they are on their way to hell, outside the range of God’s grace. They use it as a proof that no Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim or animist will ever be saved. The New Calvinists like John MacArthur make it sound like if you don’t get all your doctrines straight (i.e., believe what they believe – their particular version of Calvinism) you’re lost. This of course means it turns out that your ability to get the answers right on a theology test is what saves you, not Jesus.

But look at the context. The chapter begins with Jesus talking about the impending doom of Jerusalem and his generation’s headlong rush into insurrection and war with the Romans.  Next he tells a story about a fig tree. In the OT, these kinds of parables are about Israel, not individuals. The assumption all around him is that as long as my birth certificate says “Jewish” I’m automatically in with God. Jesus, in challenging his generation’s assumptions about civil religion, nationalism, religious violence, and pedigree, is talking about genuine relationship with God rather than religio-ethnic superiority complexes. If N.T. Wright is correct, this whole chapter is about Israel and Jesus’ call for his generation to follow him down a different Way.

To make this into a restrictive idea that God’s grace is only for the super-achievers spiritually or some other narrow slice of humanity is to fly in the face the portrait of God and his Kingdom that Jesus offers us, not least Luke 13: 18-21 – the Kingdom is a mustard seed grown huge and a leaven working through the whole batch of dough –  the words immediately preceding the ‘narrow door’ comment! If God were interested in making it difficult (narrow) to earn your way into heaven, no need to send Jesus. We already had difficult.  

Somewhere in The Shack, Mack asks “does this mean all roads lead to you?” Jesus replies,
“not at all; most roads don’t lead anywhere. What it does mean is that I will travel any road to find you.”  In C.S. Lewis’ Narnia tale, a man who worshipped a false god Tash kneels before Aslan expecting death. But Aslan says to him “The oaths you kept to Tash I count kept to me…” These modern day parables are images of a God burgeoning with love, seeking people wherever they are. The ways the narrow door comment are often treated picture a God who lays out a tiny escape hatch in a maze for those who can find it. Which picture of God is true?

I’m afraid that the way these words of Jesus are typically used, we get simply one more old picture of a tribal god who only has love for his favorites or the super-accomplishers, not the God who loves all the world and sends His Son to save it. Would you want to love a favorites-only god?  Or would you only serve him out of dire necessity?