Friday, May 10, 2013

Don't Pooh-Pooh Anthropology

I watched a video some time back of a lecturer in a well-known seminary pooh-poohing the validity of anthropology in the curriculum for training people for missions. While I respect the lecturer and the institution and can understand the rationale for their position I think they are wrong. 

The suspicion lies in the Enlightenment roots of the discipline. Indeed many of the early anthropologists (though they relied heavily on data sent back by missionaries) were driven by an atheistic agenda. So it is understandable that many would want to keep well away from it. I would argue, however, that it is vital that those training for cross-cultural missions be given the opportunity to grow in wisdom by being exposed to the insights that the discipline can bring.

Anthropology, like history, is an interpretive discipline that must be handled critically. Lack of critical reflection on anthropological perspectives leads to one of two unhelpful results: uncritical acceptance of anthropological perspectives that are based on unbiblical ideas or unthinking rejection of valid anthropological insights, and often both at the same time. Thankfully, anthropology as a discipline is a lot humbler than it used to be and though there are still those who seek to undermine truth there are a lot who are seeking to reflect on the phenomena of people and their cultures self-critically. We can learn from them just as we can from historians.

As theologians around the world grapple with the cross-cultural transmission of the faith in their own setting they have something to contribute to the global church. The inter-cultural sharing of theological insights must inevitably involve translation, demanding much patience and inter-cultural wisdom. The church will grow as we listen to the insights of those in various settings across the world today as well as those in various settings across the centuries, i.e. as they engage in both synchronic and diachronic studies. Let's not pooh-pooh the discipline of anthropology but listen to people who, though fallen, have contributed valid insights into how other people live.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Ortiz on Mission to the City

In past blog posts I have reviewed Conn and Ortiz's major work on ministry to the city, Urban Mission. The first half of the book was largely, it would seem, the work of Harvie Conn before he died. The second half of the book, parts 4-6, seem, however, to have been written by Manuel Ortiz. His writing style is quite different and though he brings to the study a different and welcome perspective these chapters don't rise to the heights of the previous ones. Nevertheless there are plenty of useful insights that I would like to share with you.

In part 4 'Developing Urban Church Growth Eyes' Ortiz tackles the Social Sciences, ethnographic and demographic studies and their usefulness for mission in the city. Social science is the application of scientific methods to human behaviour. It is the opinion of the author, and I would agree, that social sciences can make mission more effective. It is good stewardship to learn about a community before engaging it with the gospel. But sometimes missiologists have used social sciences simplistically and uncritically. Ortiz gives an example of this in Vergil Gerber’s God’s Way to Keep a Church Going and Growing: A Manual for Evangelism/Church Growth (Glendale, Calif.: Regal, 1973), which he nevertheless describes as otherwise helpful (260). 

In part 5, 'Promoting Kingdom Signs in the City', Ortiz tackles 'reachable people groups', shalom & transformation, and spiritual warfare, all from the urban perspective.

The authors discuss the difficulties with defining people groups especially in the present urban context. Two common uses of the term 'people group' are explored: 
  1. McGavran's technical definition: “a tribe, a caste, or any homogeneous unit where marriage and intimate life take place only with the society” (1970:296). 
  2. Schreck and Barrett's ‘particularistic’ definition: “a significantly large sociological grouping of individuals who perceive themselves to have common affinity for one another. From the viewpoint of evangelization this is the largest possible group within which the gospel can spread without encountering barriers of understanding or acceptance’ (1987:7)” (314).
I would argue that the first approach, though helpful as far as it can go, suffers from a fundamental problem. It relies far too heavily on a scientific positivist approach. Clearly according to the first approach everyone has to be part of one or another group exclusively. But this does not reflect the situation as it is on the ground. Ethnic and linguistic groups, social groups and societal groups do not often have cut and dried boundaries. They are fuzzy and may even be arranged on a spectrum. The particularistic approach seeks to overcome this problem by introducing the crucial subjective element, resulting in a single individual often being a member of multiple groups. This approach has been criticised for making it difficult to enumerate people groups because of the problem of overlapping. Ortiz’s response is that this is only one way of viewing peoples and that the two approaches should be seen as complementary (316). I think more needs to be done by way of critique of people group sociology and its application to mission. 

Chapter 19, 'Spiritual Warfare in the City', leaves much to be desired. Ortiz cites numerous authors from across the evangelical spectrum but fails to engage with them critically. There is so much nonsense written on this subject that critical engagement is vital if we are to understand spiritual warfare. Instead, after quoting Linthicum, Wagner, and Peretti he suggests that “it is for the reader to search out any difficulties in matters of exegesis and interpretation” (370-71)! Indeed but it is vital that authors like Ortiz get their hands dirty too.

The final part of the book is on Leadership and Discipleship for the Urban Church in which Ortiz writes helpfully, on mentoring and theological education.