Notes from underground

يارب يسوع المسيح ابن اللّه الحيّ إرحمني أنا الخاطئ

Archive for the tag “mission”

New SAMS Web page

Since August 2007 the Southern African Missiological Society has had a new web site at

Please go there to see the latest news and information about SAMS. The material on the old site at will be retained to preserve links and search engine listings, but, with the exception of the AIC pages and material, it will no longer be updated.

In future I may use the old site to post more material specifically on African Independent Churches (AICs).

the next SAMS congress will be held on the campus of the North West University in Potchefstroom/Tlokwe from 23-25 January 2008. Since the Edinburgh 2010 organising committee has asked SAMS to take responsibility for the commission called “The development of Christian communities in contemporary contexts”, the SAMS business meeting agreed to focus in the following two congresses on gathering and analysing stories of vibrant and sustainable Christian communities in Southern Africa. The theme for the 2008 SAMS was fixed as “Mission in humilty and hope: Stories of hope-giving Christian communites in Southern Africa.” It was also agreed that hope-giving has alot to do with healing and reconciliation, so that a concerted effort will be made to gather stories of healing and reconciling communities.

Health and healing – private profit from public misery

Pickled Bushman reviews Michael Moore’s latest documentary: Sicko (or American refugees in Cuba) showing the ravages wrought by the privatisation mania on the American health-care system, which has slipped from being among the best in the world to 32nd place, just above Slovenia.

The same thing has struck South Africa, since neoliberalism took off in the Reagan/Thatcher years.

Actually the problem is not so much privatisation as commercialisation. One of the things that caused a huge slide in South African health-care services was the nationalisation of all church hospitals in the “homelands” in 1973. This has been documented by Dr Darryl Hackland, who had been Medical Superintendent of Bethesda Hospital (Methodist) in Zululand, and after it was nationalised became a senior official in the KwaZulu Department of Health. The church hospitals were run by “private enterprise”, but the difference was that they were not run for profit.

In the 1980s there was a reprivatisation of health services, but this did not take place in the poorer areas of the country, but in the rich ones. The government at the time (under PW Botha) followed the Reagan/Thatcher ideology, and encouraged the formation of commercial clinics, in which doctors owned shares. It was privatisation for profit.

Medical Aid schemes have been infected as well. They were formerly socialist bodies, owned and run by their members, as a form of mutual aid. Now many of them are owned by outside shareholders. They no longer speak of members, but “customers”. They no longer provide health care, but “products”. They advertise, and refer to themselves as “financial services providers”. Beware of any “financial services provider” that tries to sell you a “product”. Whenever anyone uses the term “product” for a service, financial or otherwise, it is a pretty sure indication that they are simply out to rip you off. They offer “rewards”, like club memberships, and cards that give you discounts in stores — but be sure of one thing, you are paying for these things, even if you don’t use them, and what these frivolities mean is that you get less health care for your money, because your money is being wasted on advertising and promotion and putting money into the pockets of shareholders.

The ANC when it came to power in 1994 has basically continued the policies of the National Party under PW Botha. There have been ritual pronouncements to placate their alliance partners, like Cosatu, but basically nothing has changed.

One thing they could do, for a start, would be to set up a tax structure so that not-for-profit mutual Medical Aid schemes are not taxed, and that commercial ones, making profits for outside shareholders, and ones that run superfluous “incentive” schemes not related to their core business are also taxed. (The same should be done for mutual building societies and life assurance providers.)

Also, “faith-based” and other non-profit private health service providers should be encouraged in a similar way.

I can’t speak for other faiths, but from a Christian point of view, Jesus sent out his disciples to preach and to heal, and said “Freely ye have received, freely give.” Before 1973, when the provincial governments subsidised church hopspitals, they got a better service for their money than they did when the central government nationalised the services, and then later devolved them to the “homeland” governments. Why? Because Christian doctors and nurses went to work in those hospitals, not for the sake of financial gain, but because of a desire to obey the command of Jesus to “heal the sick”. When the government took them over, they found it difficult to get staff willing to work in the mainly rural areas where the church hospitals were to be found, and resorted to using army conscript medical students. Secular doctors were out for money, and only wanted to work in the big cities, where they could specialise in the diseases of the rich.

Doctors in private practice did, of course, have to charge fees in order to make a living. Even healers have to eat. But when they worked on their own, or in small partnerships, they could treat the poor and needy for reduced fees, or even, in hard cases, waive the fees altogether. Where, however, they work for clinics run as for-profit companies, this is much more difficult when the fees are paid to the company, and every reduction of fees for poor patient means a reduced profit for the shareholders.

The Orthodox Church has several saints who were medical doctors, and known as “anargyri” (silverless ones), usually translated into English as “unmercentary doctors”. Among them are three pairs of brothers called Cosmas and Damian, perhaps because the later ones consciously followed the example of the earlier ones.

Until now the ANC government has done little more than try to force mercenary doctors, clinics and medical aid scemes to serve the poor. But it might do better to encourage the unmercenary ones, for example by differential taxes, as suggested above.

Untouchables – Dalits and Hindutva – Synchroblog

Over the last few years I have edited a number of abstracts of articles in missiological journals and a surprisingly high proportion of them deal with Dalits and Hindutva.

Consider the following extracts from a missiological article “Post Modern Challenges to Christian Mission in India” by V. Devasahayam (Bishop in Madras, CSI)

Though there has been a variety of approaches among missionaries, this wholly negative picturisation of mission history is neither factual or true to the experience of people in India, particularly the oppressed. JW Pickett says that Christianity has contributed to the economic development of converts, through education, health services, housing, personality reconstruction, reduction of wasteful expenditure etc. Missionaries protected the untouchable converts from violence and harassment, pleaded with government for their rights and represented them in public forums and courts. Their efforts to draw public attention the untouchables question stimulated Indian efforts on their behalf. “The fear of the Christian missionary is the beginning of social wisdom in India” remarked K. Natarajan

Mrs. Mohini Das attests to this fact:

“Stop for a moment and see what is happening. In both mission schools and government schools and hospitals the daughters of so called ‘Depressed classes’ now Christians, are teaching and tending the children of ‘Brahmins’. Untouchables? What has happened? They are untouchables no longer, for Jesus has touched them”.

To say that, however, affirms only the positive side, but there was a negative side as well, because a bit further on in the same article the author writes:

The caste Christians have not recognised Christian Dalits as equals and Dalits’ claim to equality is resented. Syrian Christians protested when all students were seated together in the CMS Teacher Training Institute in 1905. They complained to the Bishop: “We shall be glad to be informed why you have made this innovation in the seating arrangements without paying due attention to our feelings and opinions”. Fortunately the petition was dismissed both on theological ground and on the principle of equality. When Dalits demanded admission in school for their children, it was resisted by caste people including caste Christians. A prominent journalist wrote: To admit together the caste that had been cultivating intelligence for generations and those castes who had been cultivating land tannamount to tying a horse and a buffalo to plough under the same yoke. There are stories of caste Christians jumping out of the church through the windows when some Dalits were taken into the church for baptism. Christian Dalits are discriminated against by caste Christians both in the religious and secular spheres.

I have quoted just one article but one can read much the same in many articles in many different journals. One can summarise it by saying that Christian mission helped to improve the social position of the Dalits in India, but that many caste Christians were scandalised by this. And in recent years there has been growing resistance among Brahmins, leading to a growth in Hindutva — Hindu nationalism.

Again, in the same article the author describes Hindutva without “Hindu tolerance”: From the time of Gandhi, Hinduism was known for its tolerance of other religions, but that time is rapidly passing, and Hindutva seems to be gearing up for the Clash of Civilizations.

The controversial supreme court Judgement on Dec.11, 1995 has given Hindutva a legal approval: “ordinarily, Hindutva is understood as a way of life or a state of mind, and it is not to be equated with or understood as, religious Hindu fundamentalism”. The Hindu nationalist parties fought the elections in the name of Hindutva with the legal sanction for the first time. The architect of Hindutva ideology Savarkar’s said, “the crying need of our times is not men of letters but soldiers. …. you should abandon your pens in favour of guns.” The major items of Hidutva agenda are the consolidation of the Hindu community, the defence of its religion, the Hinduisation of politics, the militarisation of Hindudom, the establishment of Hindu rashtra and the reconversion of former Hindus.

Read the full article here:

For other synchrbogs on the theme of “untouchables”, see:

The image of Christianity in films

I’m approaching this topic from a personal point of view, commenting on the influence that some films have had on me, bearing some relation to the Christian faith.

Perhaps I should begin by saying that until the age of 11 I was a heathen. My parents were atheist/agnostic and we never went to church as a family. The first time I went to church was with a friend who took me to the local Anglican church on Christmas day. The next year I went to a Methodist school, but the maths teacher, who was also responsible for teaching us “scripture” did not believe much either, and fulfilled his responsibility by getting us to read the Bible aloud in turns, starting with Genesis 1:1.

By the end of the year I’d developed a taste for it, and surprised my mother by asking for a Bible for my birthday, and read it through in about 16 months, and started again with a new edition that had the Apocrypha. We also got some new teachers, ardent evangelicals, who organised voluntary Bible study groups and placed what I’d read in an evangelical framework, and convinced me of the need to make a conscious personal commitment to Christ as Lord and Saviour, which I did at the age of 13.

Soon after that I went with my mother to see a film called Lease of life. She wanted to see it because Robert Donat was in it. I had never heard of Robert Donat, but went along anyway because I had nothing better to do. It was about a school chaplain, and when it began I prepared to be bored. I was at a school that had a chaplain, and didn’t find any of them inspiring or interesting. I’ve forgotten most of the film now, but this chaplain bloke had some kind of incurable disease, and knowing that his time was short inspired him to preach more interesting sermons to the kids. That bit stuck with me, and I could say influenced my choice of career, a choice that horrified me every time I thought of it, and then images from the film would pop up in my mind, and I’d calm down.

The next one that made an impression was Dracula. This was a straightforward horror flick, and I’d read the book first, and enjoyed it. I’ve seen the film a couple of times since then, and read the book 4-5 times. One scene from the film and the book always returns to me whenever a certain theological point comes up. As C.S. Lewis points out, when considering the devil, there are two opposite errors to be avoided. One is to believe that he does not exist, and the other is to be excessively concerned about and afraid of demons and the devil. The devil has power over us only if we let him. Since the death and resurrection of Christ the final result of the conflict between good and evil has not been in doubt. The devil is an oxymoron, a powerless force. And whenever I discuss this point the image of Lucy Westenra in the house at Whitby comes to mind. Dracula is powerless to enter the house unless one of the inmates invites him, and Lucy Westenra does, partly because of the overprotectiveness of her friends and family.

I’ll now jump ahead, from my teenage years to middle age, when I was teaching missiology (the study of Christian mission) at the University of South Africa. There were two films that I recommended by students to see, both about Christian mission in South America. One was The mission, about Jesuit missions in the 17th century. The second was At play in the fields of the Lord, about Protestant missions in the 20th century. Between them these two films raised about half the issues that students were expected to deal with in the course, and write assignments on — mission and colonialism, mission and culture, inculturation. Ideally I would like to have had the students at a camp in the bush for a weekend (in South Africa we call that a “bosberaad” — bush council), show them both films and then get them to discuss them, then watch the films again and discuss them some more.

The Jesuit method, shown in The mission, was to create utopian Christian communities for their converts, where they were protected from the wicked world of both their pagan compatriots and those of the missionaries, the colonial capitalist exploiters. It was in some ways a magnificent vision, but also a misguided one. The new Christians lived a communal (and communist) life in an environment in which Christian virtues could be nourished — until the outside world, in the form of the colonialist exploiters, intruded. The power of secular businessmen got the Jesuits suppressed, and it was the Jesuits who resisted the genocide of the local people. But when the Jesuits were suppressed, the flower of Christianity they nurtured wilted and died. And the reason is not far to seek. They failed absolutely to raise up local leadership. Everything was under the absolute control of the Jesuit missionaries. When the missionaries left, the vision could not be sustained. They had failed to pass on the vision. They had failed to do what St Paul recommends in II Timothy 2:2 – find reliable men they could teach who could in turn teach others.

Their ideal Christian communities were ruled by an authoritarian paternalism. And the name of these communities has come down to us in the 21st century with more ominous connotations. The name reducciones has been translated as “protected villages“, but another name for them is “concentration camps”. They were used by the British in the Anglo-Boer War. They were used by the Portuguese in the Mocambique liberation war, and have been used by various 20th-century dictators to control their opposition.

At play in the fields of the Lord is based on a novel by Peter Matthiesen, but I only managed to find a copy of the novel to read long after I had seen the film. Two American Protestant missionaries are trying to evangelise indigenous people of the Equatorial jungle. One is more culturally sensitive than the other, which leads to tensions between them. Civilisation, in the form of the government, is encroaching, and wants to dispossess the indigenous people so they can exploit the land, and the missionaries, who understand a great deal less than the Jesuits, are torn between having to please the government officials, whom they depend on for permission to stay there, and loyalty to their home mission society and the people they are sent to, all of whom have conflicting interests. Into the equation comes a charter pilot, who had been involved in various activities of dubious legality. He is descended from North American Indians, and finds himself called to what he sees as his cultural roots by the South American Indians.

An interesting difference between these two films is the way Christianity is presented. The mission presents Christianity in a very positive light, as the protector of the indigenous people against the cruel capitalist exploiters. The negative aspects are played down.

At play in the fields of the Lord tends to accentuate the negative aspects, and the Christian missionaries are shown as largely ineffectual, unable to comprehend what is going on. They are a bit more savvy in the book than in the film, but that, if anything, makes it worse. But I must say I have met missionaries like that, and the ones shown in the film were quite true to life. The only thing is that they are not all like that.

So there you have it. Four different films, of different eras, each saying something about the Christian faith, yet quite different from each other in many ways.

See what the other synchrobloggershave to say on Christianity and film:

And a couple of late entry honorary synchrobloggers:

Brian McLaren: a generous Orthodoxy

A few weeks ago I wrote Notes from underground: Brian McLaren to speak in Pretoria and asked people who knew about him and his writings to tell me whether it would be worth paying to go an hear him speak.

There were various answers, some positive, some negative.

Now I’ve just got back from hearing him speak, and I can say unequivocally that yes, it was worth hearing him, and my wife and I are both glad that we went. It was very interesting, and it clarified a lot of things for me about the “emerging church” movement. Yes, I know he is just one bloke, and others are saying different things, but it resolved a lot of confusion for me.

In many ways there was nothing very special or startling about what he said. At one level it was New Testament 101: Introduction to the gospels. It was very Orthodox, and at some points he used Orthodox ikons to illustrate it. It was the basics of the gospel, the good news of the kingdom of God. When Jesus came proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, what did it mean in the contemporary setting, and what does it mean today? For me it was familiar ground, biblically, theologically and culturally. There was nothing new, nothing I hadn’t heard before.

So what was it worth going to hear him?

I think it was his presentation, the way he drew things together, the way he got the message across.

Someone asked at one point how one does evangelism with this view of the gospel, but I think in many ways it was evangelism; he presented the basics of the gospel in a clear, succinct and ordered way, and that is evangelism.

So it answered some questions for me. Over the past few months I have got the feeling that a lot of what “emerging church” people are looking for is to be found in Orthodox Christianity, and has been in the Orthodox Church all along. Many of these things disappeared in Western Christianity with the onset of modernity, and in a sense Western Christianity and modernity are almost synonymous. And Brian McLaren’s lecture tended to confirm this. I was unable to get hold of his book A generous orthodoxy to read beforehand, and I wondered how “orthodox” he was, and what I can say now that what I heard him say tonight was very Orthodox, many Orthodox speakers I have heard have said similar things. Any differences were mostly in style, not substance.

There is more I could say, but now I’m tired and want to go to bed. Maybe I’ll pick up some particular themes from what he said in later posts.

Orthodox mission in the 21st century

This post is from the concluding chapter of my thesis on “Orthodox mission methods”, submitted in 1998. I have posted it mainly as a follow-up to the previous post and comments, especially the comments by Phil Johnson, on monasticism and utilitarianism

In the history of Orthodox mission, we have seen two kinds of approach to the world. There is one where the world is evaluated positively, and another where it is evaluated negatively. In the first view, the world is seen primarily as God’s world, part of his good creation. In the second view, it is seen primarily as the fallen world, the world that lies in the power of the evil one.

These two approaches extend to cover the ecumene, the humanly inhabited world. They are found in relation to culture, to church and state, to the relation of the Church to human society. If Christians are in the world but not of it, then some have emphasised the importance of being in the world, and others have emphasised the importance of not being of this world. I have pointed out that I believe that both these approaches are authentic parts of the Orthodox tradition, and that both are in fact essential to the maintenance of that tradition.

How does this affect Orthodox mission as we approach the twenty-first century? In the First World, the predominant culture is post-Christian. Modernity has affected Christian thinking, and postmodernism has affected some of those who have abandoned the Christian faith altogether. In the Second World, several decades of communist rule have effectively secularised society, leading to a modern post-Enlightenment outlook, though it has sometimes taken a different form to that of the First World. In the Third World, Christianity has been expanding tremendously in Africa, and has been shifting from a Roman Catholic to a Protestant emphasis in Latin America, while remaining a minority religion in most of Asia. There is a sense in which postmodern culture is spreading throughout the world, though taking different forms in different places.

How do Orthodox Christians evaluate these cultural changes in relation to mission? In the negative, or pessimistic view, often expressed by Fr Seraphim Rose, these cultural changes exemplify the spread of nihilism (Rose 1994:12). They are inimical to the gospel, and most Orthodox churches will lapse into apostasy as the world is prepared for the coming of the Antichrist. Mission, then, becomes the gathering of the faithful remnant out of the world, and out of those Orthodox churches that are seen as apostate. In its extreme form, this view is expressed in sectarianism and schism, over such questions as the calendar, or, in the Second World, over such questions as Sergianism – those who were said to be too subservient to the communist state. The emphasis is on maintaining the distinction between the Church and the world.

St Nicholas, Equal-to-the-Apostles and Enlightener of Japan

In the positive, more optimistic view, the world’s culture is not seen so negatively. The Orthodox Christian faith can be incarnated in any culture. The positive approach of St Nicholas of Japan or St Innocent of Alaska to the local cultures in the countries where they were missionaries can also be used with the cultures of modernity and postmodernity. In its extreme form, however, the effect of such accommodation can be to do away with the need for mission at all, such as when a prominent bishop was reported as saying that Mohammed was a prophet of God. Orthodox Christianity then becomes nothing more than a way of “being religious” for people of a certain ethnic or national cultural background.

One of the things that keeps these two tendencies from falling apart completely is that they both look to the same missionary saints: Nicholas of Japan, Herman of Alaska, and Innocent of Moscow as examples, even though there may be different emphases in their interpretations of their life and ministry.

It is probably too soon to try to define the characteristics of postmodernism or postmodernity. It is sufficient to note that in many areas of culture the influence of the Enlightenment, or modernity, has begun to wane, or at least to be modified by new approaches that are in some ways incompatible with modernity. The secular science of the Enlightenment, with its emphasis on empirical verification, also gave rise to scepticism about what could not be verified empirically. In the postmodern world, however, such scepticism is often found side by side with credulity. It is said that G.K. Chesterton once remarked that when people stop believing in God, they do not believe in nothing, but they will believe in anything (though this is frequently attributed to Chesterton, and is the kind of thing he might have said, I have not been able to find a source for it in his writings) . So we find, for example, that people who are sceptical about the resurrection, or even the existence of Jesus Christ, are sometimes quite willing to believe the most amazing stories about flying saucers and the like.

In some ways the postmodern world looks very similar to the world in which the Christian faith first appeared. There is, for example, a similar religious pluralism. The rapid growth of communications has made it possible for religions that were previously confined to one area to be found all over the globe. As a result of missionary activities and the diaspora of members of different religions, people living in places where, a couple of centuries ago, they would have had little chance of meeting members of more than one or two religions in the normal course of their daily lives, can now encounter dozens of different religious views and outlooks. Interreligious dialogue, which previously was regarded as the province of specialists, and involved meetings to which people travelled from all over the world at great expense, now also takes place electronically. Ordinary lay Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Wiccans, neopagans, Mormons, Baha’i and many others from different parts of the world meet and discuss their religious beliefs and practices on electronic networks. There are also numerous new religious movements, and they too spread rapidly and widely. In the nineteenth century, St Nicholas of Japan took Orthodox Christianity from Russia to Japan. In the twentieth century, a new religious movement, the Aum Shinrikyo sect, has more adherents in Russia than in Japan where it originated.

Many of the new religious movements are extremely eclectic. The neopagan religions of the First World are usually conscious attempts to revive the pre-Christian religions of northern Europe, especially the Celtic and Teutonic ones. But in North America (and sometimes elsewhere) they are often combined with elements of North American native religion. Wicca, which, like some of the others, also claims to be a revival of a pre-Christian religion of Northern Europe, is in fact nothing of the kind. It has reinterpreted and combined elements from many different religions, ancient and modern, including Christianity, and some of the elements were made up by twentieth-century novelists. Many Wiccans are solitary, and consciously practise a kind of “mix and match” religion. There is also the New Age movement, which is even more eclectic. Many Christians characterise the neopagan religions as “New Age cults”, though most neopagans themselves do not see themselves as “New Age”, and make a distinction.
These movements, however, even where they do claim premodern roots, have a radically different attitude. They cannot be regarded simply as a revival of premodern religions; they are primarily a reaction against modernism. And they are therefore profoundly influenced by modernism. Tinker (1993:121) observes:

The withering of white Christian spirituality has so disillusioned people that many have engaged in a relatively intense search for something to fill the spiritual void, from Buddhism, Sufi mysticism, or Hindu meditation to Lynn Andrews hucksterism or the so-called “men’s council” movement, with channeling, astrology, and witchcraft falling somewhere in between. In this time of spiritual crisis, Indian [i.e. native American] spirituality, which just a short while ago was the anathema of heathenism, has now become an appealing alternative to many of the seekers.
The main difficulty is that Indian spiritual traditions are still rooted in cultural contexts that are quite foreign to white Euroamericans, yet Euroamerican cultural structures are the only devices Euroamericans have for any deep structure understanding of native spiritual traditions. Hence, those native traditions can only be understood by analogy with white experience…

Both well-meaning New Age liberals and hopeful Indian spiritual traditionalists can easily be swept up into a modern process of imposed cultural change, without recognizing deep structure cultural imposition even when in their midst. The first Indian casualty today in any such New Age spiritual-cultural encounter is most often the deep structure cultural value of community and group cohesion that is important to virtually every indigenous people. As adherents of Western cultures, Europeans and Euroamericans live habitual responses to the world that are culturally rooted in an individualist deep structure rather than communitarian. In this “meeting” of cultures, the communal cultural value of Indian people is transformed by those who do not even begin to see the cultural imposition that has occurred, however unintended. Hence dancing in a ceremony in order “that the people might live” gives way to the New Age Euroamerican quest for individual spiritual power. What other reason would a New Yorker have for rushing out to South Dakota to spend eight days participating in a Sun Dance ceremony? Yet well-meaning New Agers drive in from New York and Chicago, or fly in from Austria and Denmark, to participate in annual ceremonies originally intended to secure the well-being of the local, spatially-configured community. These visitors see little or nothing at all of the reservation community, pay little attention to the poverty and suffering of the people there, and finally leave having achieved only a personal, individual spiritual high. “That the people might live” survives merely as an abstract ideal at best.

According to Tinker then, modernity can be not merely imposed from without, by aggressive culturally-insensitive Western missionaries, but also from within, by religious sympathisers who are ostensibly seeking to learn. In Alaska and East Africa, however, the native people who had become Orthodox regarded Orthodoxy as part of their culture within a very short time, as I have shown in Chapter 7. I believe this might well be because the Orthodox missionaries were themselves rooted in a communitarian deep structure rather than an individualist one. In addition, as I have tried to show in chapter 2, Orthodox soteriology has tended to regard human nature and human institutions in a somewhat more positive light than much Western theology; as distorted and blemished by human sinfulness rather than “totally depraved”.

The modern revival of the ancient European cults of Odin, Thor and Lugh among people living in the First World involves the same kind of reinterpretation of premodern beliefs as that described by Tinker, but at least it does no harm to living community practitioners of those cults. In part the phenomenon that Tinker describes is the difference between tribal and urban cultures. It is also the difference between what McLuhan (1967:84) describes as literate and preliterate, or manuscript and print, cultures. The cohesive kinship community structure of the tribal polity makes way for the anonymous individualism of the urban one – a process that began in the modern age in north-western Europe with scholasticism and the Renaissance (McLuhan 1967:100).

One reason for the rapid growth of African Independent Churches could be their successful retribalisation of the Enlightenment-style Christianity preached by most Western Protestant missionaries. In effect, they have reinterpreted the Christianity of modernity in premodern terms, and have rejected the “cult of civilisation” in which it was packaged. And it is precisely among such groups that Orthodox Christianity is growing in Africa today.

Postmodernism is primarily a First-World phenomenon, though because of the ease of communication, it is influencing other parts of the world as well. Within the First World, many Christians who have been brought up in “Enlightenment” denominations are discovering Orthodox Christianity, and Orthodox apologists are seeking to help these “Enlightenment” Christians to understand Orthodoxy. The religious pluralism of our time has brought these Christians into closer contact with each other. Orthodox Christians from Eastern Europe and the Near East have migrated to America, those from Cyprus have gone as migrant workers to Western Europe, and stayed. Refugees from the Bolshevik Russia have settled in other parts of the world. In the past, the differences between them and Western Christians were explained ethnically. It was the difference between the Greek and German, the Cypriot and British, the Arab and American, the Russian and English, way of seeing things. The new Orthodox apologetic literature takes a different approach, comparing the paradigms or worldviews, rather than national characteristics.

One example of such literature is Bajis (1989) Common ground: an introduction to Eastern Christianity for the American Christian. The book begins with a section called “Western and Eastern outlooks compared”, which starts at the levels of paradigms or worldviews or frames of reference. Bajis (1989:6-8) notes that:

  1. Eastern Christianity is communal
  2. Eastern Christianity is intuitive
  3. Eastern Christianity is holistic
  4. Eastern Christianity sees the Church as a living organism of which Christ himself is a member
  5. Eastern Christianity sees the Christian faith as relational, personal and experiential
  6. Eastern Christianity sees the grasp of truth as dependant [sic] upon one’s moral and spiritual sensitivity.

In many ways, these are characteristics of premodern thinking as opposed to modern thinking. Bajis seems to be inviting his readers to suspend their modern worldview, and try to see things through premodern eyes. As I have tried to show in earlier chapters, Eastern and Western Christianity have been influenced by modernity in different ways, and this accounts for most of the differences listed above. Daneel and others have observed similar differences between African Independent Churches and the Western missions in Africa. In parts of rural Greece, as described by Stewart (1991), Hart (1991) and others, the same could be said.

Modernity tends to be analytic rather than synthetic. It seeks to understand things by breaking them down rather than by building them up. It relegates “religion” to the “private” sphere. It is individualist rather than communal. Modernity is not holistic: its analytical approach seeks to reduce wholes to their components, to disassemble and dissect, and to see the whole as purely the sum of its parts. The holistic view of Orthodoxy (and many premodern societies) is quite alien to this approach.

In the modern world – that is, the world of modernity – Orthodoxy finds itself misunderstood. Modernity has faced ideological battles between individualism and collectivism, which to the Orthodox appear to be two sides of the same modernist coin. But to collectivists, such as the Bolsheviks, Orthodoxy, with the value it gives to the human person, seems to be yet another manifestation of bourgeois individualism. To individualists, Orthodox communalism seems to be another manifestation of totalitarian collectivism, and many Western observers of Russia have seen a continuity between the Orthodox vision of “Holy Russia” and the political messianism of the Bolshevik regime, while to the Orthodox the Bolshevik regime was the logical conclusion of the ideas of the Western Enlightenment, imported and imposed by Peter the Great. In this way Western professional “Russia-watchers” still give a picture of the Russian Orthodox Church in which many Orthodox Christians find it difficult to recognise themselves.

Orthodox communalism, expressed in such terms as kinonia and sobornost, is hard to express in English. “Fellowship” has become trite, “conciliarity” is too abstract, “community” is too vague. But at its root, it means something similar to the Zulu saying, “umuntu ungumuntu ngabantu” – a person is a person because of people; or as the English poet John Donne put it, “No man is an island”.

In the light of this, one might expect Orthodox mission to be more effective in premodern societies, and as I have tried to show in the preceding chapters, this does appear to be the case. In Alaska and East Africa, for example, Orthodoxy could become part of the culture of people. Even where it changed and influenced the culture of the people, it did so in an organic and internal way, so that baptism replaced initiation ceremonies such as female circumcision, even where Orthodoxy had been accepted in a protest movement against a missionary ban on female circumcision. In the diaspora among people from Eastern Europe or the Near East who emigrated to North America, Australia, and other places, Orthodox mission has been less effective, however.

In itself, however, the greater effectiveness of Orthodox mission among premodern people, particularly in hunting, gathering and pastoral societies, is not necessarily unique. Western mission has also tended to be more successful among such peoples in Africa and South America, while spreading more slowly among people who follow the “great religions” such as Hinduism, Buddhism or Islam. But Orthodoxy does seem to have been more easily “contextualised” in premodern cultures, and to become part of the culture of such people.

In the diaspora, Orthodox people, many of them coming from villages in the Balkans and the Near East with a premodern worldview, have emigrated to cultures where modernity is part of the culture. The cultural milieu has tended to be assimilative and hostile to tradition. Orthodox immigrants have often sought to identify with the host culture, and Orthodoxy has tended to become a relic of the past, or a mark of ethnic identity or nostalgia for one’s ethnic roots. In such societies, Orthodoxy found it difficult to “contextualise” the Christian faith – unlike Western Christianity, and Protestant Christianity in particular, which both helped to produce modernity, and was in turn a product of it.

Postmodernity has been bringing a change in this. It is less hostile to tradition, and has often led people to search for “traditional wisdom” outside modernity. The danger, as Tinker has pointed out above, is that the eclectic postmodern approach, while valuing tradition more than modernism does, can also destroy the traditions it seeks to adopt, by appropriating the superficial forms, but not the worldview they are based on. Thus it can sometimes come as a surprise to Orthodox Christians in the diaspora to find that attitudes in the surrounding society towards them are beginning to change. They may find that some people, at least, no longer regard them as irrelevant relics of the past, but as somehow “cool” and “countercultural”.

The West, after centuries of using terms such as “navel gazing” as a term of abuse, symbolic of all that is backward and out-of-date about the Orthodox Church, as suddenly begin to show an interest in such things. An age that has begun to look to gurus – Hindu holy men from India – for advice, is more open to the message of monastic spiritual elders from places like Mount Athos, whose long hair and beards have now become a symbol of ancient spiritual wisdom.

In Russia, one of the characteristics of the religious revival of the late Soviet era, particularly among the intelligentsia, was that it was driven by a search for the roots of Russian culture. Marxist materialism was somehow unsatisfying, and people began a spiritual search in traditional Russian culture. Though this was in many cases a religious search, it was not necessarily a Christian one. Russian culture, however, was profoundly shaped by the Orthodox Christian faith, and thus led many of these searchers to Orthodox Christianity.

One of the mission strategies being followed in the current religious revival in Russia, therefore, is the promotion and teaching of Russian Orthodox culture. As time passes, however, I believe that such an approach will prove to be inadequate. In the Soviet era, pre-Soviet Russian culture was sanitised and Bowdlerised to fit the Marxist ideology. Those who discovered the Christian faith by exploring Russian culture did so as a deliberate choice, which was an act of rebellion or non-conformism according to the values of the dominant culture.

The collapse of the Soviet system, however, has opened the floodgates to a much wider range of cultural choices. There are many more choices, and young people who have grown up without knowing anything of the restriction of life under the Soviet system might be less inclined to seek answers in the Russian culture of the past. Those who are most involved in the religious revival, in the 25-40 age group, never had the opportunities to encounter the variety of culture that the younger generation is now able to experience, and might therefore not be able to interpret the newer imported cultures as easily in Orthodox terms.

The generation of the under-25s, however, who have grown up without really knowing the communist system, might be more difficult to reach by such a method, or might, if they do adopt it, lapse into nationalism and xenophobia, covered with a very thin veneer of Orthodoxy. The collapse of communism has not yet led to its replacement by anything else. The glowing picture of the virtues of capitalism and the free-market system painted by Western propaganda has created a lot of unfulfilled expectations. What it has done, and what Western Christian missionaries to Russia have sometimes unconsciously reinforced, has been to implant Western values of individualism and greed, which find little outlet in Russia, except in a life of crime.

The tensions in Russian society are also to be found in the Russian Orthodox Church. There are groups within the Church that have adopted a xenophobic and nationalist attitude, and have rejected even Orthodox Christians from outside Russia. The leaders of the Church are under constant pressure from such groups to suppress foreign influences, to discipline clergy who are seen as “modernist” and so on.

As the Russian Orthodox Church is the largest Orthodox Church in the world, this is bound to affect Orthodox mission, not only in Russia, but elsewhere as well. It could easily cause a kind of paralysis, and a concentration on external and political considerations. Questions such as participation in the ecumenical movement, for example, could be decided on the grounds of political expediency, on whether it would promote or block the influence of this or that power bloc or pressure group. Such an attitude will not promote Orthodox mission.

If Orthodox mission is to be effective in future, then I believe tradition and traditionalism are very important. The Orthodox Church needs to avoid the error made by so many Western Christians in self-consciously seeking to make the church “relevant to modern man” by the wholesale adoption of modern culture, values and attitudes. It also needs to avoid the pseudotraditionalism of making certain selected traditions badges of identity, and therefore marks of self-righteousness. The self-righteous denunciations of others by many of the Old Calendrists, for example, have little to do with the genuine Orthodox tradition that promotes the virtues of modesty, humility, patience and love. Using traditions as badges of identity to denounce others is quite incompatible with this.

What is most urgently needed for mission is the renewal of the genuine tradition of Orthodox monasticism that promotes these virtues. In many places, this is happening. Monasteries, like mission, have been growing since the 1960s. If this genuine spiritual life in Orthodoxy grows, then mission will be the automatic consequence. If Orthodox leaders who participate in the ecumenical movement are filled with these virtues, then they will not be corrupted by their participation in it, as the xenophobes and nationalists fear, nor, should they withdraw from the ecumenical movement, would it be from considerations of political expediency.

The revival of interest in tradition that has come with postmodernity provides a mission opportunity for Orthodox Christians not only in the First World, but also in the Second and Third Worlds as well. The religious eclecticism of the New Age is not confined to the First World. It is universal. One of the students at the Orthodox theological seminary in Nairobi was from a country town in Cameroun. He had been baptised a Roman Catholic, and at the age of 16 had become a Rosicrucian, and had tried Ekankar, Wicca and several other Western religious movements before becoming a Hindu and travelling to India to spend some years studying under a guru. On his return to Cameroun he had a vision in which his spirit guides told him to worship the Triune God, and he travelled to Yaounde, the capital, to look for a trinitarian church. The first one he found was the Orthodox Cathedral, so he became an Orthodox Christian.

But postmodernity, as a reaction against modernity, can also impose the values of modernity. Traditions can become diluted by eclecticism, and the salt can lose its savour. The Orthodox vision and vocation is not to be overwhelmed by the world, but it is a vision of a world renewed and restored by the life of Christ. The traditions need to be strengthened so that they are not diluted and overwhelmed by eclecticism. This means that monasticism needs to be restored, as is happening in parts of Greece, Russia, Serbia and other places. It also needs to be returned to Africa, where it started.

The obstacles to this are great. Where, in the Orthodox disapora, Orthodox Christians have sought to accommodate to modernity, monasticism has not flourished. Some have tended to be embarrassed by it, and have at best regarded it as a quaint survival, or not quite in accordance with the image of a “modern” church. In the Second World, monasteries have to overcome the deliberate attempts to destroy them made by communist regimes. To extend the metaphor used by Sister Philotheia of the Monastery of St John the Forerunner in Karea, Athens, the wells are few, and so many are having to make do with bottled water. And sometimes the bottled water could come from contaminated wells.

As we look forward to the 21st century then, the Orthodox Church in its mission is faced by both opportunities and dangers. For the first time since the 6th century, more Orthodox Christians in more countries are free to engage in mission, unhindered by hostile and repressive governments. The Orthodox Church’s unique experience of modernity, and its stronger base in premodern culture, gives it more opportunities than Western Christians to make its message heard, both among those who are becoming somewhat disillusioned with modernity, and among those who have been, rather reluctantly, dragged into it.

Mission is a two-way street… or is it?

Mission is a two-way street.

So they’ve been telling us for the last 50 years or more, so much so that it’s almost become a cliche. It’s become one of the unquestioned axioms of Western missiology. Mission, we were told, is giving and receiving. We need to be partners in mission. As the Anglican Consultative Council meeting in Dublin once put it, “If we once acted as though there were only givers who had nothing to receive and receivers who had nothing to give, the oneness of the missionary task must now make us all both givers and receivers.”

The phrase “Partners in Mission” is also used very widely in Western mission; it is used by Anglicans, Baptists, Lutherans, Methodists, Roman Catholics and the Salvation Army, to name but a few. Among Anglicans, at least, it replaced a much more verbose and cumbersome phrase that meant something similar: Mutual responsibility and interdependence in the Body of Christ.

Nearly 50 years ago a friend of mine, John Davies, wrote, in a paper entitled Religion versus God

Missionary work is essentially two-way; Christ said, `Whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them’ (Matthew 7:12). If we took this seriously, we should probably have to pack in half the missionary work of the Church that we are used to, if it meant that blacks would start teaching whites , and doing good to them, and expecting them to be grateful. Our mission is not, in a one-way traffic, to extol the greatness of our religion: it is to hear and know the living God – and just as between God and man, so also between Christian and non-Christian, all real living is meeting. If this is not our way, we misrepresent the God who has sent us out, whose very nature as trinity is one of reciprocal relations.

And now that is beginning to happen, at least in the Anglican Communion. Blacks have begun teaching whites, and the whites don’t like it. I’ve noticed a growing number of Anglican bloggers in the West writing about “the African problem”.

But why is it “the African problem”? Why not “the American problem”?

Why do so many people in the West think it’s OK for Americans to spread their values, culture, fast food and cluster bombs all over the world, but when Iranians or North Koreans or Africans do any of these things they scream blue murder?

And doesn’t this talk of “the African problem” show that noble phrases like “partnership in mission” and mission being a two-way street are just empty rhetoric, and have been all along? Only a few benighted Africans were foolish enough to take it seriously.

Christianity and culture — inculturation or countercultural?

Mark van Steenwyk is writing a book on Christian resistance to the dominant culture, at least in North America, and has posted an outline in his blog (sorry, yet another dead link).

As an Orthodox Christian, I’ve looked at Frank Schaeffer’s attempts to do something similar, but havent found them very inspiring. Some of his books, and a paper I heard him read at an Orthodox mission conference 11 years ago, seemed to be the wrong approach — going out with a shotgun and blasting everything that moves. Linking things that seem to have little to do with each others, and then attacking them on the basis of criteria that are not stated, as if it is assumed that everyone will know what they are (I wrote more about that here).

So I’ll follow Mark’s project with interest, and see how it develops.

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