Friday, October 9, 2015

Trouble at Gospel for Asia

This week news broke that the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability has terminated the membership of Gospel for Asia. The EFCA is a very important body in the USA that scrutinises the finances of member organizations to ensure they meet their strict code of practice, It is rare that an organization loses its membership. Gospel for Asia is an organization that raises very substantial amounts of funds, in the States especially, to support 'native missionaries' in Asia. The organization was founded by K. P. Yohannan from India and that is where most of the finances seem to be channelled. I have previously commented on Yohannan's philosophy here and hereRead more on the story here. I want to add a few more comments on the organization and its approach.

GFA is not all bad. There are organizations that are quite simply rotten apples. Their leaders are charlatans, they lie through their teeth and cheat many generous donors out of their hard-earned cash. One such is K. A. Paul, also of India, who visited Nepal when I was there. He styled himself as Dr. K. A. Paul (USA) - he was based in America and clearly thought that was somehow relevant to his 'ministry' in the subcontinent; I have yet to discover from where he received his doctorate. I will spare you the details but it is a public fact that he made a wretched nuisance of himself in Kathmandu. Privately, members of the organizing committee confided some truly jaw-dropping allegations against him after he was literally chased out of the country by self-respecting Nepalis who wanted his blood.

GFA is not like that. But there is nevertheless an integrity issue. Some questions might help to focus the issue: 

  1. How is it that it 'only takes $30 a month to help enable a national missionary to serve full-time to reach an unreached village' when they work in different countries, under different regimes, in different economies, and have variously sized families and needs? Do they each get $30 or is it adjusted? If so, why is this not stated on the web site? Perhaps it does take £30 a month but it would be good to see how this figure is arrived at.
  2. Why is there nothing about 'Believers' Church' on the web site? I was told by the UK director six years back that all the churches that are planted constitute this denomination and that the metropolitan (archbishop if you like) is K. P. Yohannan. Should this not be public - something like 'your donations go to building up the Believers' Church denomination'? I think a lot of donors would like to know that.
  3. How independent are those churches allowed to be? I was told that if the church wanted to dismiss its pastor they would not be free to do that but that it could only happen on the order of the bishop. I am not saying an episcopalian form of church government is wrong (though I don't favour it myself) but rather that donors might like to know about that.
  4. Since the metropolitan lives in Dallas isn't this denomination under foreign control - something that the indigenous church movement (especially in India of all places) fought so hard against in colonial times?
  5. Doesn't this event worsen the scandal of the evangelical dollar in Asia? It is hardly surprising, is it, that several states in India have enacted anti-conversion laws if money is coming from the US with the intention, it is thought, of 'converting people to a foreign religion'? Now this is a nuanced debate and sadly most people involved in it don't realize that. But there was a time when most Indian mission organizations eschewed foreign funds for this reason. It is a fact that many Asian people would rather die than give up what they consider their heritage. They regard the use of outside funds to pursue what they see as wholesale cultural and religious transmogrification in the image of the donor as reprehensible. And that means that for every person presented with the gospel a dozen may be inoculated against it. It is not the scandal of the cross.
My prayer for GFA, like other similar organizations, is that they put their house in order, come clean about their shortcomings and pursue the ministry of the gospel in Asia in ways that will not put any stumbling block in anyone's path except that of the crucified lord of history.



Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Reformed Cross-Cultural Naïveté

I have recently been thinking about a serious problem in the reformed movement and conservative evangelicalism more broadly. It is actually not a new problem but an old one. The novelty factor, it seems to me, is that it is affecting some reformed ministries quite spectacularly. It is not just an American problem. We in Britain can be just as guilty. The problem is this: we have become negligent of our duty to be cross-culturally aware. We think we can do cross-cultural ministry without a single hour of training in intercultural communication. We send our pastors off to Ouagadougou to do pastor training without giving them any lessons in contextualization. We fund the translation of our finest books into Telugu without first seeking to understand how the Telugu mind works. And we set up seminaries in Burma without the slightest crumb of knowledge of how Karen or Kachin tribes people best learn. Shame on us.

How did we get this way? Here are six possible reasons:

1.      We think it is enough to emphasize human universals: we are all made in God’s image; we are all sinners; Jesus is the only hope for all people. Those are all true. But it is not enough. The commission of the Lord Jesus was to make disciples of all nations (Matt 28:19). Put that way, he meant that discreet nations rather than the general mass of humanity, have significance. It does an injustice to the Lord to neglect that by only emphasizing the universals and ignoring the particulars.

2.      We have not mined the riches of our theological heritage. So we have an undeveloped theology of human creativity. The biblical doctrine of creation tells us that humans were given a mandate to fill the earth and subdue it (Gen 1:27-28), creating culture from the stuff of creation. That includes language and customs, art, music, architecture. So the rich diversity of the manifold peoples of the earth is something God designed. Reformed people should know this. It has been a significant element in a robust Reformed theology since Calvin. We should recognize that diversity. But we don’t. Or won’t. I am not sure which.

3.      We assume that, because truth is one there is only one biblically permissible worldview. This is false because worldview is, in fact, formed out of an interplay between one’s heart commitments and the environment in which one works out one’s salvation (Phil 2:12). So the world’s peoples look at the world differently from each other. They perceive time differently. They perceive space differently. They are more or less field-dependent, more or less collective, communicate in more or less indirect ways. Which means that the straightforward declaration of the truth is not as straightforward as we may like to imagine.

4.      We assume that to teach the Bible all you need is to study the Bible. This is false because the communication of a message involves both a source and a receptor. In order for communication to be effective there has to be attention to the receptor as well as the message and the source. So we mustn’t take a sermon that we preached in Birmingham and preach it the same way in Bangalore. But you say there is only one Bible. Indeed, but when you take that Bible and you create a message you enculturate that message in your culture. That means it is no longer just the Bible. It is the Bible in your cultural idiom.

5.      Personal confidence is confused for godly conviction. It is good to have strong doctrinal convictions. The problem is, though, we often confuse a strong doctrinal commitment for godly conviction rather that what it really is, ungodly self-confidence. We are naïve about ourselves. Whereas those we disagree with must be foolish and self-deceived we are not. We are triumphalistic, not humble. We assume we must be right on all our finer points of doctrine because we are right about the basics. Or because so and so celebrity pastor says it is. Where is the godly self doubt that should lead us to question ourselves? We have fallen into the Corinthian pit of self-deception (1 Cor 3:18).

6.      We forget we are in a spiritual battle and that the enemy of our souls has a vested interest in the failure of our ministry. That failure can be accomplished in many ways. One way is by fooling us that we don’t need to pay attention to local matters, that what is good for Manchester is also good for Maputo. Another way is by lulling us into a false sense of our own effectiveness leading us to think we can do this with professional ease. So we don’t pray like we should.


So how should be fix this problem? We need to remind ourselves that we might not be right about everything after all. We need to get down on our knees and examine our hearts and repent of the pride that leads us to such hubris. We need to get a biblical view of the particular, take the trouble to give heed to it, and be more modest about the expectations we have of anything we do cross-culturally, especially if we don’t make the in-depth, long-term investment in language and cultural acquisition that is every bit as serious as our biblical and theological learning. I fear the reformed triumphalism of recent years is every bit as ugly as the charismatic triumphalism of a generation ago. May God have mercy on us.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Should Raj Accept Kija Puja?

“Brother John, what should I do? All my life I have received Kija Puja (‘brother offering’) from my sisters on this special day. If I stop now I will offend my sisters and may even be ostracized by my whole family.” Raj had come to John for advice and was in quite an agitated state. Today was Kija Puja, one of the great feast days of the year for the people of Nepal. It was the high point of the festival of Swanti (called Tihar or Diwali among other communities of South Asia). On previous days, successive animals and deities had been worshipped in the homes and courtyards across the Valley: the crow, the dog, the cow, and then one’s own self. Now it was the day for sisters to give an offering to their brothers. Involvement in the rituals of the previous days was to some extent optional, but on this day everyone was expected to be involved.

In common with many communities across South Asia, all married Newar daughters visit the home they grew up in, and where their parents and brothers still live, for this important ritual. Three mandala designs are drawn on the floor in a prepared space in the room, symbolic of the gods Ganesh (the elephant headed god of good luck), Janmaraj (the god of birth), and Yamaraj (the god of death) and a short puja (ritual offering) is given to the deities. The brothers sit on mats along the wall of the room and the sisters draw another mandala in front of each of them, symbolic of the brother himself. The sisters then offer the brothers flowers and fruits as well as bright red vermilion paste (sinha) applied to the forehead as a way of bringing the blessing of the gods to them. The ritual is an elaborate plea to the god Yamaraja to prolong the lives of their brothers. The brothers then give gifts to their sisters in return, usually in the form of new saris and money. When the ritual is complete the whole family sits down and enjoys a feast. The festival is overwhelmingly a family event. In the days that follow Kija Puja the family calls its married-out daughters and nieces and their children to another more elaborate feast.

Raj and his wife Sharmila had been meeting with John for nearly two years and a few months earlier had declared that they were now devotees of Jesus. John had been careful to introduce them to Jesus in the Bible without imposing on them foreign expectations of what discipleship to Christ might look like. As much as possible he wanted Raj and Sharmila to remain in their community so that they would be able to witness to Christ among them.

John was puzzled, however, by this apparent conundrum: to what extent may believers in Christ, living within their community participate in the festivals? Involvement in a festival can take place in different ways. Often a person will participate in the rituals in a merely perfunctory way because he is not religiously minded. Others, however, may take the ritual more seriously. Whatever their motivations and attitudes the important thing was to do the rituals.

John knew that other Christ-followers in the Valley separated themselves from their family during festival times so as not to compromise their new faith. The men never returned to their parents’ home during Kija Puja to honour their sisters. To the sisters it felt as if they did not have a brother anymore, and it caused much grief to the family. Consequently, apart from the many church members who had migrated into the Valley from the countryside, the churches were made up of individual local believers who had broken their family ties.

“Raj, you know the first commandment, not to have any other gods before the Lord,” said John. “Yes, Johnji,” replied Raj (using the suffix ‘ji’ to show honour to his teacher), “but I also want to obey the fifth commandment, to honour my father and mother. Surely I would dishonour my parents and my sisters if I do not participate in the festival!” As they discussed Raj’s options they went over the various rituals that were involved. The puja ritual was not required of the brother but of the sister so he would not have to worship idols, but if he accepted the offering from his sisters was he not condoning their false worship and thereby leading them further into sin? John also knew that other followers of Christ would doubt Raj’s credentials as a disciple if he went along. He might even be disciplined by his church. But the church was made up largely of outsiders who had migrated to the Valley and had no idea about the local festivals and the sort of struggles that believers like Raj went through. Was there anything actually wrong in just participating fully in the whole ritual? It was the heart that was important wasn’t it?

“What if I departed from tradition,” asked Raj, “and rather than receive sinha that had first been offered to the deities, request that a separate sinha paste be made and offered to me as a token of love rather than as an offering of worship? After all, people offer sinha to others on many special occasions, not just at times of worship.”  “But wouldn’t your sisters just think you’ve taken leave of your senses?” replied John. “The Bible says that we must keep ourselves from idols,” he added, quoting from 1 John 5:21. “I won’t be worshipping idols, Johnji,” responded Raj. Then John had another thought. “What about the risk of being afflicted by demons, brother,” he said. “Paul tells us that ‘the sacrifices of pagans are offered to demons,’” he added, quoting 1 Corinthians 10:20. “Yes, but he also said that ‘an idol is nothing’” (1 Cor 8:4), Raj replied. “Oh, what should I do, Johnji? It is giving me such a headache.”


John thought very carefully, and then gave his suggestion...

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

God-centred, Integrative and Expansive: Book Review of Tim Chester's Mission Matters: Love Says Go

Tim Chester's new book is an excellent introduction to mission. Tim has the gift of writing theology that is both thoroughly biblical and winsomely engaging.

God-centred

Mission Matters is God-centred because it is biblical and theological. Tim draws his missiology from the Bible by expounding the Bible's grand storyline and showing how mission is first and foremost God's project. "The starting point is this," he writes: "God the Father loves his Son" (p. 17). Mission, then, is at the heart of who God is, in the relationships of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It is not first of all what we are to do but what God already does. And because the Son sends us (John 20:21) we share in his mission. Few mission books are as carefully theological but this one is so without being obtuse in its language. It is a great example of writing that is thoroughly Bible-centred and readable.

Integrative

Tim has written before on the important topic of the relationship of evangelism and social action (Good News for the Poor). He follows the same track here arguing for a broad definition of mission while giving gospel proclamation a central position in that paradigm. Tim's later work (e.g. Total Church) comes through too with an emphasis on the role of the gospel community in mission: "Sustainable Christian evangelism or discipleship or development or social action all require sustainable Christian communities. Without a local church, whatever you do will end when you go" (p. 90). Amen to that.

Expansive 

There is a major problem with a lot of mission writing these days. With the collapse of Christendom there has been a much-needed rethinking about mission resulting in a renewed appreciation that the West is also a mission-field. So mission is from everywhere to everywhere. Churches in the West, then, need to be mission-minded in their posture to the ambient society. In short, they need to be 'missional'. All well and good. But some writers have been so taken with this new paradigm that they have all but abandoned the needs of vast numbers of people who inhabit far less spiritually salubrious locations than, say, the UK. After all, we have neighbours who need the gospel. Indeed, but that is only part of the ongoing story. Tim doesn't fall into this pitfall and argues that mission must be 'Everywhere with the unreached as the priority' (chapter 8). I would have liked to see a bit more on what this means on the ground but the task is clearly stated nonetheless.

Two small criticisms:

  1. it is odd that the publishers chose to use a title that was already used recently by Kieran Beville (see my review here);
  2. the frequent references to stories of missionaries who have been associated with the Keswick Convention got a bit tiresome to me, but then the book was written as part of a series for the Keswick movement so what would one expect?

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Yoga Body: Guest Book Review by H. L. Richard

Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice


by Mark Singleton
Oxford University Press, 2010, pp. 262 + x

reviewed by H. L. Richard

This book defines the current academic understanding of the origins of modern yoga. It has not (yet?) made much impact on popular understanding, which continues to reflect propagandistic appeals from various quarters (particularly romantic pro-Hindus and knee-jerk anti-Hindus), but even this review is an attempt in the direction of changing that.

The thesis of the book is simply stated; modern postural yoga does not have ancient roots in India; it is a modern creation and the postures are borrowed from nineteenth century European exercises. This rather incredible thesis is meticulously documented, yet the documentation tells a fascinating story that does not get lost in the academic paraphernalia.

In Singelton’s words, it is best


to consider the term yoga as it refers to modern postural practice as a homonym, and not a synonym, of the “yoga” associated with the philosophical system of Patanjali, or the “yoga” that forms an integral component of the Saiva Tantras, or the “yoga” of the Bhagavad Gita, and so on. In other words, although the word “yoga” as it is used popularly today is identical in spelling and pronunciation in each of these instances, it has quite different meanings and origins. It is, in short, a homonym, and it should therefore not be assumed that it refers to the same body of beliefs and practices as these other, homonymous terms. If this is admitted as the basis for further discussion, we are free to consider postural modern yoga on its own terms instead of in negative comparison to other traditions called “yoga.” (15)

This history of both the study of yoga and of yoga itself show that yoga was esoteric and eccentric, never a mainstream practice in Hindu traditions. Swami Vivekananda, one of the great modernizers of Hindu traditions, taught on yoga with a positive slant but was not interested in yoga postures. Yet Vivekananda was influential in the concern to develop physical strength, and it was this interest in physical culture that led to the development of modern postural yoga.

Singleton analyzes the key figures in the development of the modern yoga movement and provides details on various of the famous yoga postures. Among the many interesting tangents in Singleton’s study is the development of photography and the significant role this played in the borrowing of postures from Europe and their adaptation into modern yoga. The postal service played a key role also:


As well as Yogananda and Gherwal, many of the other yoga writers and gurus considered here (like Sivananda, Iyer, Sundaram, Yogendra, and Ramacharaka) reached their public via the postal service. This marks a fascinating intermediate phase in transnational Anglophone yoga’s shift away from an exclusive guru-śiṣya model and toward the self-help model that dominates today. (137)

This study outlines a fascinating chapter in the interaction of “East” and “West.” It should put to death any lingering fears that modern yoga postures are in some way aligned to Hindu philosophy and gods. (Some yoga teachers are so aligned, but certainly not the postures.) This is highly recommended reading for anyone interested in yoga and should be held by libraries where interreligious studies are a concern.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Welsh Weather: Guest Post by Elizabeth Pickett

Beth, who turns 11 today, was unwell the other day and missed the school St David's Day poetry competition. I thought her poem was brilliant (of course) and deserves to be read by others.

Pitter-patter, pitter-patter, down goes the rain,
As it streaks across the glass window pane.
There are sheep to be fed;
There are words to be said.
There are seeds to be sown;
There are crops to be grown.
But still the rain falls on.

The snow white swan glides swiftly by,
Way up high in the sapphire sky.
Now there are sheets of rain,
On the smooth window pane.
The sea waves are so high,
Nearly reaching to the sky.
But still the swan soars on.

The Welsh cakes sizzle away in the pan,
Trying to get a golden brown tan.
But now there’s thunder outside,
And that sleek white swan is trying to hide.
The lightning slices though the sky so grey,
And onto a hill where a pine tree lay.
Yet the Welsh cakes still sizzle on.

Elizabeth Pickett

Friday, February 13, 2015

More Thoughts on 40 'Unreached' Places

Missions researcher Justin Long recently produced a list of the 40 global districts that are the most 'unreached'. I posted some thoughts on this list already. Here are some more.

4. Social Organization


Dense populations give rise to complex social organizations. This is so of necessity as so many people living in close proximity need to structure their relations tightly to make life liveable and enable society to function. The people in these 40 provinces, then, highly value the group as opposed to the individual. They are collectivist places, where few make a decision without looking sideways to see what their significant others think. Individuals are often not even in a position to make decisions for themselves anyway. A parent (even for an adult), a brother or a husband may be the decision-maker. There is no question of making up one's own mind for such people. Issues of ultimate allegiance can be perceived very strongly as constituting a threat to the very existence of the group, or even society as a whole, making the consideration of such a change a very serious thing indeed. Paul Hiebert and his daughter Eloise Hiebert Meneses consider social organization to be of such importance that they structured an entire book on church planting around social categories.

Serious study of social organization is absolutely essential to understanding the host communities among whom one is working. And it is important on a strategic level too. I have written an article ("Recasting Evangelization Ethnicity, Kinship, Religion and Territory: Identifying Communities in South Asia") which challenges the way the Joshua Project (and other such lists) handles the phenomenon of caste. The caste system (which is the social structure of South Asia and thereby of many of these provinces) is exceedingly complex and the sociological interpretation of caste highly contentious. Suffice it to say that in my article I argue that single castes groups such as Potters do not constitute a community and therefore should not be considered the strategically significant entity.

5. Cities


One might be forgiven for thinking that the great cities found in many of the 40 provinces, such as Delhi, Kolkata, Karachi, Dhaka and Beijing, are the product of recent modernization. But this would be far from the truth, although modernization and globalization have massively increased their size. These cities are the product of centuries of development that would not be possible were it not for the four phenomena I have outlined above. Cities are the cultural product of societies that have an excess of food to requirement, which can be traded and taxed and used to support large numbers of people who are not directly involved in food production. These are therefore free to innovate, organize others, create art, explore science, and develop systems of ideas, myths and rituals to make sense of it all.

Furthermore, the biggest migration in human history is going on right now in the massive move to the cities as the world's emerging economies like India and China increasingly become major players in the global market place. The cities in these provinces, then, have become places of enormous human suffering as well as amazing openness to the gospel. Sadly, however, missions have often been slow to adjust to this momentous shift. Today's gospel messengers must focus on the cities, and be serious to address the multiple needs of the urban poor who have flocked to form their great bastis and shanty towns. The quiet rural life, for most of this century's gospel messengers, is not an option.

6. Religion and Culture


These provinces are most significant, then, as the cradles of the great global systems we call the 'world religions'. Though Islam was birthed in the desert a very high percentage of the world's Muslims are found in these 40 places. Likewise for Hindus and Buddhists. These places, then, are the great bastions of the three great religious systems that have traditionally been perceived by Christian missions as massive obstacles for their message. Moreover, efforts to differentiate between culture and religion in these places, in the hope that one might accept the one while rejecting the other, prove exceedingly complex and ultimately unsatisfying as so often the one turns out to be the flip side of the other.

As in the need to learn the host community's history the importance of in-depth understanding of their religion and culture cannot be overstated. It is only as the religious and cultural context is understood that careful contextualization of the gospel can be possible. This will inevitably lead to conflict as many Christians are not interested in such knowledge, preferring what they call the 'simple gospel'. Although I rejoice that such people are serious about sharing the Good News of Christ, I cannot but be deeply concerned for the long term health of any movement to Christ that emerges from such ministry.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Some Thoughts on 40 'Unreached' Places

Missions researcher Justin Long recently produced a list of the 40 global districts with the most 'unreached' people. These 40 places - districts or provinces or states depending on what the relevant country calls them - have together 1.87 billion people among them who make no claim to being in Christ. Most of them are Hindu, Muslim or Buddhist. The proportion of those who identify with Christianity is under 5%, meaning that many of those people, probably the vast majority due to the social realities of communalism, have no personal interaction with followers of Christ.

Justin Long believes that 'engaging these places is incredibly important to the remaining task' of world evangelization. I agree and here are a few thoughts on this list for those who think strategically or are considering their role in bringing the Good News here.

1. Latitude


Nearly all of the places on the top 40 list are located within tropical or sub-tropical climate zones. Because they are in low latitudes more than one staple crop can be grown, enabling a relatively small area to support a large population, with major consequences for the rise of civilization (see below). These places are hot. Anyone seriously considering relocating to one of these places from more temperate climes must count the cost. Perhaps air-conditioning will be available if your budget can handle that. But how is the creation of artificial climates in our homes (with the doors and windows closed all the time) going to enable you to build relationships with you neighbours, especially those for whom such luxuries are unimaginable? Missionary lifestyle has always been a hot issue (excuse the pun): our rights as the Lord's servants are not to be held on to at all costs. Rather, we have the opportunity to give up our rights in order not to be a stumbling block to others.

2. Rivers and mountains


Nearly all of the top 40 are dependent on the Asian monsoons, the annual rainy season, during which nearly all of the year's precipitation is dropped, and around which the agricultural cycle revolves. Furthermore, the majority are located on or near a major river system, such as the Ganges/Brahmaputra complex (Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, Dhaka, Haryana, Rajshahi, Delhi, Rangpur, Khulna, Uttarakhand), the Indus and its tributaries (Punjab - in both India and Pakistan, Sindh, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Chhattisgarh, Jammu and Kashmir), the Yellow (Shandong, Gansu), and the Yangtze (Sichuan, Hunan, Hubei). The mighty Himalayan mountain range stores up much of the precipitation in the form of snow to be released slowly over the course of the year as it melts. All the above rivers (and several others that are nearly as important, such as the Irrawaddy, Mekong, Salween) flow from the Tibetan Plateau.

The Himalayas themselves do not constitute a watershed so major tributaries of the Ganges, for instance, arise on the north side of the mountains, swing south and cut through the range creating the deepest gorges on Earth. The significance of this is that, given the monsoon climate, crops have to be irrigated. Without these rivers agricultural production would be much lower than it is. Historically, then, these regions could not have supported such a dense population and would not have developed the rich civilizations that they have. What effect will climate change have on these places? It seems incontrovertible to me that anthropogenic global warming is already having drastic effects on these provinces. Photos of the Himalayas taken decades apart dramatically demonstrate that the waters flooding down off the 'roof of the world' are not just fed by last year's snow. Mission in these provinces must be forward looking and consider how to respond to possible great upheaval.

3. The Eurasian continent


All the provinces in the top 40 list are located in the great Eurasian landmass. (Only one is not wholly in Asia - Istanbul which is mostly located on the European side of the Bosphorus waterway - but I don't think this is significant. Eurasia is not usually seen as a single continent because the Ancient Greeks decided that Europe should be delimited by the watershed divides of the Ural and Caucasus Mountains, the Ural River, the Caspian and Black Seas and the waterways connecting the Black and Aegean Seas, but in fact Europe is really the westernmost peninsula of Eurasia.) The great significance of this is that Eurasia is the only continent on the globe that enjoys a predominant east-west axis. That, as Jared Diamond points out in Guns, Germs and Steel: A Short History of Everybody for the Last 13,000 Years meant that innovations, such as the domestication of grains and livestock, could diffuse easily across the wide landmass, in spite of desert and mountains barriers. The people of Eurasia, then, were in the right place to develop complex civilizations.

I have been aghast on occasion at the wanton ignorance of some missionaries toward their host country's history. Anyone who seeks to engage the peoples of these top 40 provinces must place a high priority on learning the history of their host community. Only such people will deserve and receive a careful hearing as they share the message of Christ. I am reminded of the western missionary whom Narayan Vaman Tilak met on a train who was able to engage him deeply on his own turf and the tremendous impression it had on him. That ability doesn't come overnight but is the result of time-consuming and costly learning. Anything less than this is to short change our hosts. Not all are able to study in depth but those who can must make it a priority and all must do what they can. Ignorance does not adorn the gospel.

More thoughts here.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

J.S. Bach and the Imago Dei

My family gave me two CDs of Bach's keyboard music for Christmas. I am, right now, enjoying his Six Partitas (BWV 825-830), played by Vladimir Feltsman. In his introduction, Feltsman points out that all of Bach's Suites, Partitas, Sonatas and Concertos are set in groups of six. Somehow I never noticed it: six Partitas, six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello, six Brandenburg Concertos, six French Suites, six English Suites, and a group of three Sonatas and three Partitas for solo violin. Why is this? he asks. Could it be that since seven is the number of perfection Bach felt it would be immodest to go beyond six? Or is it that six is the number of Days of Creation?

Certainly Bach was conscious that his creative gift was from the Lord (which is why he signed his work 'S.D.G.' (To the Glory of God Alone). But I think there is more to it than modesty. Bach was conscious of that great doctrine of the imago Dei - man being made is the image of God. When God said 'Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over the creatures that move along the ground' (Gen 1:26) He was saying 'Go create'. In his creative act then, Bach was obeying the cultural mandate in a God-honouring, joy-filled conscious reflection of God's creation. And we get to share in that joy!