September 2, 2009

Thought for 9.01.09

I was reading an interesting essay by Michael Poon today, and it led me to think about what happens when we mistake our own particular cultural models for the gospel. It seems to me that one of the singular tragedies of the missionary endeavors of the 16th through the 19th century was their "marriage" of Christianity with European Culture. For Native Americans, Africans, and South Sea Islanders to become "Christian" seems to have had less to do with Christ and more with conformity to a European dress code. Not only did European missionaries destroy much in the way of local culture and art, but they mistook starched collars and trousers, corsets and long skirts for the Gospel. The long-range effects of such cultural bondage had a deleterious effect on the real Mission of the Gospel. Clothing became an idol for the missionaries, who equated nudity with sin. (Nudity no doubt raising specific temptations in Victorian minds — but what was the locus of the sin? Who was the sinner, the unselfconscious bare-breasted islander, or the scandalized missionary?)

I suppose the question has to be, "What is today's church's idol?" What cultural artifact or folkway is being insisted upon as vital to the Christian life, to the detriment of the church's mission? Where are lines being drawn? When we place any symbol -- however venerable -- on the throne that belongs to God alone, we transform it into an idol, and that is when we become idolaters.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG


Erika Baker said...

What a fascinating question! But the answers you will get will depend on the person who responds – there is no way of escaping our cultural reality!

And so some will say that being liberal in any way, shape or form, being pro-gay or, heaven forbid, even relaxed about sexuality and sexual morals per se etc. that all this marks you out as having sold out to your surrounding culture.
Whereas others would say that being what is now called orthodox, but which is in fact quite radical in its ecclesiology and quite predictably counter-cultural (and therefore dependent on its culture) in its Puritanism, is the way to avoid being idolatry. I cannot count the number of times I have desisted from writing a comment accusing people of being individualistic/idolatrous etc. only to realise they would use the same arguments against my own views.

Ultimately, we are who we are, children of our own culture, and we can only go with it to some extent, or rebel against it to another, and fit our theology around it. And pray, and hope for the best, and pray again.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks, Erika. It was intended as an open question. It is important for us to remember that those who opposed Jesus did so because they thought he was fomenting sin. "Lord, protect me from my secret fault" means to a great extent, "deliver me from doing wrong when I think I'm doing right!" Being self-critical, and practicing the Socratic art of "gnosei seauton" only goes so far, as self-knowledge is sometimes self-deception. As you say, prayer is the answer, and self-satisfaction the trap.

June Butler said...

What I try to do is to keep at the center of my thinking the Two Great Commandments, to love God and love one another, and the word in Micah to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly before God. Any cultural artifact that would not meet the test of these two touchstones, I'd view with suspicion as possibly an idol. I like to keep things as simple as possible.

Marshall Scott said...

What essay and where? I don't often agree with Michael Poon, but he's always worth reading.

(The verification is "blerring;" which calls to mind how much blurring is a part of erring.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks, Mimi. Those are the touchstones or rules of thumb I normally fall back on. I think taking Jesus seriously is not a bad idea. The answer to WWJD? is often, Do what he said!

Marshall, it is an essay in Philip Groves compendium, The Anglican Communion and Homosexuality: A resource to enable listening and dialogue. He goes off on a bit of a wild rant towards the end concerning human rights vs. the gospel. I do understand that "rights" language is problematical -- where human dignity and justice would be better and more biblical. Anyway, an interesting read.

Bob G+ said...

I remember hearing an old Assembly of God missionary talk about his family's work among a remote African tribe. The world director of missionary efforts for the AG decided to have a look to see how the missionaries in Africa were doing. He arrived by plane and getting off the plane held his hand above his eyes. The missionary asked him why he was doing so, and he said something like, "Why have you not taught these people to put on cloths?" The missionary responded, "Because as soon as I demand that they put on pants, I have reduced the Gospel to wearing pants." That Sunday, many of the male tribesmen were neck ties, but nothing else.

Even when we try to make little cultural imposition for the sake of the Gospel, it still can creep in in unusual ways.

I've always loved that story.

Tim said...

Bob G+, what a wonderful irony given "who told you that you were naked?"...!

On a different tack, I see a possible idol for the church being The Model. Specifically, such models as that of individual-only salvation, through substitutionary atonement, with attendant language of "Jesus came into the world" or "God sent Jesus". Another model is seen in the film _The Magdalene Sisters_ where the girls are arguing the consequences of suicide, as meaning "you'll go straight to hell!": again, only in the model they've been taught. Or a third example model, take pre-millenial dispensationalism, with its end-times eschatological event-framework all laid out cleanly on a calendar with God free only to set the "unknown time" but everything from then onwards already prescribed (allegedly). With a little thought, the phenomenon of the "Toronto Blessing" that did the rounds in the 1990s was gloss on top of a model framework centred around the terms "filling" or "filled with" and the Holy Spirit.

All these are mere models. You can nuke the lot of them and still have a reasonable Christianity, IME. I'd happily go as far as to question whether one can have a life free to be a Christian *with* such constraining models in place.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks, Bob G and Tim. That is a great story, and I suppose the answer to "Who tole you you were naked?" might be, "The Church Missionary Society"!

Tim, I'm not sure we can ever escape models, in the sense that language itself is a form of modeling (one thing standing for another). This is where things even like "plain reading" become "models" that deceive with their simplicity and obviousness. I'm so weary of the oft-repeated Big Lie that "a plain reading of Scripture condemns homosexuality" when a "plain reading" does no such thing! In fact, to reach that conclusion requires any number of suppositional steps and unpersuasive linkages, in addition to a general tendency to read description as prescription (that's another "model" -- and it runs from creationism through "natural law" -- that "what is" is "what ought to be.")

I think the best approach is to be clear about the model one is using, and realize its limitations as well as enjoying the insights it brings. This is, ultimately, my reason for preferring a heterogenous church for a monolithic one. And since it is "what is" maybe it IS "what God wants"!